Although women hold 18.5% of all congressional seats – more than ever before – there is still a large gender disparity in who holds government jobs. There are many factors that contribute to this disparity, including stereotypes about women and a lack of women in office for young girls to look up to. However, the media is also to blame because female politicians are covered differently than male politicians. This coverage gives voters a biased perception of the different candidates before they have a chance to form their own opinions.
The most obvious example of gendered coverage comes when the gender of a female candidate is blatantly mentioned, which would seem redundant for a male candidate. For example, in a 2008 New Yorker profile on the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign, the word female was used five times in reference to Palin, while McCain’s gender was mentioned zero times. The media also emphasizes how female politicians look. Whereas most people expect our politicians to look professional and polished, female politicians have to conform to society’s standards of beauty for women with their clothing, hair, and makeup choices. For example, Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit has become legendary because it has been mentioned so much in the press. Nonetheless, Clinton seems to have taken it in stride, as she has made many jokes about her pantsuits too.
However, since the 2008 election when both Clinton and Palin were the victims of sexist media coverage, it seems that women in politics can fit into two stereotypes: that of a domineering woman who must beat men in order to gain power and that of a beautiful ditz; there is no middle ground. An article from Kean University examined these differences over the course of the campaign. For example, Clinton faced criticism for trying to take on roles that traditionally belonged to men and was confronted with slogans like “Stop running for president and make me a sandwich.” Others suggested she was not suited to the role and was only in her current position because it was public knowledge that her husband had cheated on her. On the other hand, the media emphasized Palin’s past as a beauty queen, which allowed commentators to dismiss her as a Barbie, instead of attacking any of her actual viewpoints. This coverage is continuing as we prepare for the next election cycle as well. A January 27, 2014 cover of TIME magazine portrayed Hillary in her pantsuit and heels, stepping on an unknown man with the subtitle, “How to scare off your rivals without actually running (yet).” This is yet another example of Clinton being portrayed as a threat to men.
Another example of gendered coverage is how women are labeled as mothers first and politicians second. When they fail to accept that socially constructed role, they are depicted as bad mothers, like Wendy Davis in her campaign for governor of Texas. A February 16, 2014 New York Times Magazine cover proclaimed, “Can Wendy Davis have it all?” with a caption discussing the usual tradeoff between her political ambitions and her role as a mother. A Dallas Morning News article painted Davis as a bad mother because she supposedly chose to go to school, which her ex-husband helped her pay for, while he took care of their children. For a male candidate in Davis’ position, this wouldn’t be seen as a trade-off, and the wife of this male version of Davis would have been depicted as a supportive wife helping her husband achieve his dreams. Palin was also accused of being a bad mother during the 2008 campaign. The Kean University article showed how political pundits constantly questioned how she could give enough attention to her son with special needs if she was also Vice President. Just like with Davis, the role of Palin’s husband is dismissed and the traditional responsibilities of a mother are emphasized as the top priority.
This type of coverage has tangible effects on how female candidates run their campaigns and puts them at a disadvantage Dr. Stephanie Bor, an Assistant Professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, said, “This coverage harms female candidates and makes it so they don’t play on the same battlefield as male candidates. They have to go through extra steps to demonstrate their experience, which takes time and resources away from doing what male candidates are doing.”
If women have to spend time countering coverage about their looks and motherhood, they do not have as much time to get their actual campaign platforms across. This can lead to female candidates being reduced to certain “women’s issues,” or the only issues that women are supposedly qualified to have opinions on, such as health care, domestic abuse, and education. According to a 2013 study from Xavier University that analyzed the most read newspapers in the country, women are only asked for their opinions on women’s issues, so, naturally, that is what they seem knowledgeable about. Because they are not asked as frequently about the economy and foreign policy, voters assume that they cannot effectively deal with those issues. For their views to receive substantial coverage, women must already be in a position where they deal with those issues every day. For example, because Clinton was Secretary of State, her views on foreign policy are more widely discussed than those of other women.
Though the media and those who control it are ultimately the ones who spread this negative coverage, they would not do it if it were not popular. By covering the fashion choices of politicians and other dramatic subjects that are not traditionally considered to be news, news organizations continue to sell more papers and attract additional viewers. “The media tailors stories to be attractive to audiences; political issues are less attractive,” said Dr. Bor. “However, social media now allows for a greater number of voices, who can share their opinions and demand more transparency and honesty.”
There is hope that when voters realize the harm that gendered media coverage causes, they are less likely to support it. A study conducted by Name It. Change It., which was created by the non-profits Women’s Media Center and The Women’s Campaign Fund, showed that any mention, negative or positive, of a female candidate’s appearance hurts her electoral chances, especially in the eyes of independent voters, who were swayed the most by this superficial coverage. Voters want serious candidates, and if women are covered like celebrities, it lessens their credibility. On the other hand, the respondents in the survey increased their support for the candidate if she spoke out against sexist media coverage. Not only did the candidate poll better, but the voters also gained awareness about the media’s tactics. If people start to become cognizant of the biased coverage, it is less likely to have an overwhelming influence on their opinions. Audiences can then demand better, more responsible media coverage through mediums such as social media, which is currently one of the most accessible ways to get our voices heard. Campaigns, such as the Representation Project, use Twitter and Facebook to call out sexist advertisements, and similar methods can be used to point out sexist news coverage.
The media is the one of the most valuable institutions we have because it connects us directly to our government. Thus, the media has a responsibility to provide fair coverage of all candidates so that voters can make their own informed decisions. If fewer women are elected because of gendered coverage, the vicious cycle will continue because there will be fewer women in the public eye who can call out the media. Young women may also be discouraged from pursuing political positions out of fear of objectified in the same way and may not even consider it possible because of the low number of female politicians in general. It is important that people become aware of the harmful effects of this coverage and use their voices through mediums like social media to demand that female candidates deserve a fair chance too.