By Lindsay Vandivier

“What if she is supposed to push the button to fire the missiles and can’t because she’s just done her nails?”  – 1984

Although in 1984, when media coverage of women was often “crude” and less subtle this quote still represents the uphill battle women in politics must deal with when interacting with the media (Pantti).  Even though the sexism and stereotypes are less overt today, they still combine with media to create barriers for female political candidates.  Media exposure is often belittling and irrelevant because newspapers and television news casts focus on appearance and attire, rather than the candidate’s platform or attitudes about central issues.  All different forms of media are making the connection between female and politics much more difficult when they choose to feature style over substance.  Candidates are deemed “hot” or “not” (Rinehart).  Female candidates are quickly place in one of these categories and all important aspects are forgotten. Their values, beliefs, experiences are overlooked.  White, male, dominant are the features most people associate with politicians.  So where does this system place women?  Behind

Even in today’s politics, where there has been an increase in female representation throughout the country, women are still seen as candidates second.  They are first recognized by their gender (Rinehart).  Media coverage also exploits these women’s families, criticizing if they will be able to undertake the role of a politician and still be a good mother and raise a family.  In comparison male candidates are rarely, if ever, scrutinized for being fathers or questioned if they can balance politics and family (Rinehart).  In addition women are seen on the outskirts of “political machines” commonly seen in the Northeast states (Starr 44).  The so called “frat like political culture” pushes women away from the real politics, where important decisions are made behind closed doors; a place women are not permitted (Starr 44).  This “frat like political culture” makes it difficult for women to get involved.  Political practices like this and the negative, stereotypical messages of the media are creating barriers for female politicians to get to the top. Also, most of the production of media is in the control of men.  This is yet another barrier that makes it difficult for female politicians to receive equal treatment compared to male politicians.  Whether overt or covert, female candidates cannot avoid the chauvinistic attitudes affixed to their campaigns.   2008 was a “landmark” year for women candidates and yet was still not free from the sexism imposed on the candidates by all sources of the media (Carlin, Kelly, 327).  Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin faced different stereotypes, but both campaigns exhibited the prejudices that are entrenched in our media today.

Sarah Palin has been one of the most recent victims of media attacks against female politicians.  As soon as the John McCain campaign announced their surprise 2008 Vice –Presidential candidate, the media went on a whirlwind to dig up every detail of Palin’s background.  Palin was the Governor of Alaska, a woman few people knew about, but the media soon made her one of the most popular woman in America.  But do not be mistaken, the media was not researching her Governance of Alaska, defeats of big oil companies, or her view on important, controversial issues.  Instead they focused on her unconventional family, beauty, and her intelligence or according to some media outlets, her lack of intelligence.

Palin was casted as a sex objected and glorified over her participation in beauty pageants and cheerleading.  Immediately the media dismissed her as a respectful, serious candidate (Carlin, Kelly, 330).  Often times the press would ask her inappropriate questions about her breasts and wardrobe.  No news shows, newspaper, or journalist discussed anything but Palin’s appearance, her lack of seriousness, or her lack of experience.  All of those are negative views about Palin.  Rarely was there any positive media that would have supported the McCain/Palin campaign.  One spokesperson from CNBC stated, “Men want a sexy woman…Women want to be her; men want to mate with her” (Carlin, Kelly, 331).  With men on national news networks making such explicit, sexist comments how is Palin and other woman suppose to rid the discrimination that plagues the media coverage of their campaigns?

Palin’s appearance was not the only thing under the media microscope.  Her family and mothering role were also heavily scrutinized.  Can women juggle both roles as a mother and a professional?  This stereotypical question is not just labeled against women politicians, but any woman who has a full-time professional career.  Palin, a mother of five, one of which is special needs, was constantly questioned if she would be able to devote enough time to the vice-presidency.  If she was a devoted Vice-President then she would have been judged a bad mother.  Either way the double standard posed a problem for her campaign (Carlin, Kelly, 333).  Media coverage about Palin’s family grew even more widespread when the public learned of Palin’s pregnant seventeen year old daughter.  The teenage pregnancy attached another negative to Palin’s already unconventional family and raised many doubts about her credibility as a vice-presidential candidate.  Questions posed about the balance of family and a high powered career are never asked or brought to media attention referencing male candidates (Carlin, Kelly, 333).  Media exposure of male politicians is centered on substance of their campaign.  Palin was asked if she has ever had a breast augmentation or how she will have time to care for her Downs Syndrome infant, while Obama was asked about his foreign policy strategies and tax breaks.  Substance versus style reflects these two very different types’ questions making the advantage media gives men very clear.

Palin video

Hillary Clinton also a candidate in the 2008 election race was another female victim of the media’s ruthlessness.  Unlike Palin, Clinton has years of experience. She has been a governor, first lady, and a child’s advocate (Balz 1).  Even with such an impressive resume and strong qualities the media labeled her as old, worn down, and significantly less sex appeal than Palin.  Although a different form than Palin experienced, sexism was also an aspect of the media’s exposure towards Clinton.  While Palin dressed “pretty” Clinton dressed “powerful” often labeled manly in her pant suits and stout stature (Carlin, Kelly, 331).  Clinton’s lack of femininity was a political cartoonist’s dream.  Newspapers often drew man-like features or Clinton as an army general, poking fun at her powerful presence.  In one extreme case displayed on the YouTube Internet website a KFC bucket read, “Hillary meal deal: 2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts, and a bunch of left wings” (Carlin, Kelly, 332).  With such crude attacks on Clinton’s appearance and mannerisms, the public rarely saw any media coverage that was simply about her intelligence, experience or policies.

Clinton’s family and mothering skills were also brought to the forefront of discussion.  Of course her husband’s 1998 political sex scandal was easy material for the media banter.  The media and the American people questioned if her husband would have his hand Hilary’s policy decisions. Even ten years later, the sex scandal could not be forgotten.  Although, Clinton did not have young children, she was criticized for “exploiting” her daughter (Carlin, Kelly 334).  One CNN reported characterized her as a “scolding mother, talking down to a child” (Carlin, Kelly 334).  The mothering role portrayed both women negatively and diminished the credibility as serious presidential and vice-presidential candidates.  Yet again this proves that there are campaign double standards that are obstacles for women politicians in campaigns.

Clinton video

Female stereotypes plague women politicians’ campaigns.  One of the common media misrepresentations is that social issues or soft news are the only type of policies women are capable to handle.  Examples include: child care, education, environment/green practices and health care.  Male politicians receive more exposure toward hard news such as: military/war, business and technology (Pantti).  The hard news is credited with more media exposure, thus males are representing more in the news programs or newspapers.  Another stereotype women cannot avoid is the mother and family role.  Women are “identified by their marital or family status, whereas men are more often identified by their occupation or position in society” (Pantti). Media focuses are the women candidates’ personal life and appearance.  This puts women more and more behind men in the eyes of the media.   Another discrepancy in the way male and female politicians are displayed is related to their speech and how they get quoted.  More often the media focuses on “how” a woman said something, but are less concerned with “what” she said (Pantti).  Often times if a female politician speaks with force or gets frustrated with media questions, she is called screechy or short-tempered.   This is yet another way men are presented in a more positive light than females.

Gender stereotype video

As the media is becoming a more dominant or prominent role in politics, the masculinity of the “culture model for politicians” will continue to present challenges for female politicians.   This model causes burdens because it promotes personal image and character rather than focusing on political issues.  The character of a woman is much more under media attack then that of men candidates (Pantti).  This masculine image results in characterizing women politicians as different because men are viewed as the “status quo” (Pantti).  When voters do not recognize policy differences between a male and female candidate, women are put at a disadvantage simply because of the process and presentation of the media.  Men’s portraits focus on issues.  Women’s portraits are focused on appearance, family etc.  In the masculine appearance of the media, a double standard is present for women politicians.  If a woman attempts to represent herself as tough and powerful or take a strong stance on issues, she is deemed not lady- like or lacks femininity (Pantti). Being seen as nurturing to a family and being feminine in appearance are viewed as political weakness.  Acting more aggressively she is seen as a “bitch.”   How is a female candidate supposed to successfully run a campaign?

My conclusion

I believe that until our society and culture changes drastically, there will continue to be difficulties for female politicians to overcome.  The consequences of this negative media exposure will push young women away from pursuing politically driven professions.  Young women witness these sexist attacks and chose to stay away from such powerful careers.  Also, the consequences of this media exposure will continue to make it difficult for female candidates to earn respect from the public view.  Changes need to need to be made.  Women should be presented as serious candidates with more influence on their brain not their beauty, their opinions not their family, there experience with foreign policy, not “soft issues.”

Politicians are the most powerful and influential people in the world.  Until female politicians receive respect and equality from the media, women in other professions and other media coverage of women will continue to be negative and discriminatory.  Women have made great strides since the 1960 and 1970’s, but there are still improvements to be made.  Young women should not be discouraged from participating in local governments and politics.  Also, to change the manner of the media, women need to be more in control of their representation.  This means more women in leadership positions of newspapers, news shows, and magazine editors.  There are still uphill battles for female politicians, but I am positive for the future.  I do believe in my life time, there will be a female president!


Extra Information- Women in Politics

Statistics Websites


http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/ (click on each individual state for information)

http://www.nfrw.org/republicans/women/statistics.htm (great for statistics for executive office, congress, legislators, mayors. . . etc.)

 Websites on women in politics

National Women Politics Caucus – http://www.nwpc.org/

Emily’s List – http://emilyslist.org/splash/signup/splash01/

Fifty -One- http://www.interguru.com/fiftyplusone/

National Organization for Women – http://www.now.org/

League of Women Voters – http://www.lwv.org//AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home






EBSCOhost – She Brought Only a Skirt”: Print Media Coverage of Elizabeth Dole’s Bid for the Republican Presidential Nomination.

EBSCOhost – Vulnerable Woman, Raging Bull, or Mannish Maniac? Gender Differences in the Visualization of Political Scandals.

EBSCOhost- Reporters’ Coverage of Women Candidates Remains Problematic, Studies Say. (cover story)

Media/Women/ Politics References

Balz, Dan. “Clinton is a Politician Not Easily Defined.” TheWashington Post 30/May/2006, Print.

Carlin, Diana, and Kelly Winfrey. “Have You Come a Long Way, Baby? Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Sexism in 2008 Campaign Coverage.” Communication Studies 60.4 (2009): 326-343. Web. 12 Apr 2011.

Pantti, Mervi. “Gender, Politics and Media: Challenging Stereotypes, Promoting Diversity, Strengthening Equality.” Portryaing Politics (2006): n. pag. Web. 12 Apr 2011.

Rinehart, Nicholas. “Harvard College Women’s Center Sponsors Lecture on Women in Politics .” The Harvard Crimson. N.p., 10/11/2010. Web. 12 Apr 2011.

Starr, Alexandra. Bada Bing Club. 14th. McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.

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