Female Politicians Portrayed In The Media

Women have been mistreated by the media ever since news has been around, and politicians are no exception — the arm of the media reaches far. A huge amount of research has been conducted, concluding with the findings that female political candidates are put in a very disadvantageous position on election day, due to what the media feeds America. News reports are heavily based around masculine features, often turning a political race into a more personal battle of the sexes.

According to the article "Women Candidates in the News: An Examination of Gender Differences in US Senate Campaign Coverage," a content analysis was conducted from 1982 to 1986 to see if women candidates were treated differently in press coverage. The study found that females get less news coverage, and what coverage they receive focuses mostly on their viability and less on their actual position on important issues.

Only 16 women are serving in the US senate, with only six serving full terms. There are many theories as to why women are underrepresented in public office, for example, women rarely seek political office; women lack the necessary political resources; women run in hopeless races; or that women are victims of sex stereotyping by voters. An explanation that hasn't received much attention, however, is that of the news media having an effect on the outcome of a vote.

News has a profound effect on statewide races. The study focuses on differences in the coverage of women and men in senate races. It investigated gender differences in the quantity of press coverage, as well as gender differences in the substance of coverage, and found that women candidates are on the air for a much shorter time period than their male counterparts. Voters, in turn, have little idea of who to vote for with such limited political coverage in senatorial races.

In gubernatorial races, the situation is similar. The fact that the Americans turn almost entirely to the news media to glean information about political candidates means that the media has a huge influence on whom the population votes. According to Meghan Feehan, who wrote the article, "Gender Stereotypes in Media Coverage of Female Gubernatorial candidates," it is this perpetuation of the stereotype that has prevented a female president from taking office. Her argument is that it is not so much the quantity of media coverage that hinders women, as there is more and more coverage showing them on the news today. Rather, the author argues that it is the quality, or tone of the coverage that colors voters' opinions.

Even though there has been an increasing number of women participating in politics, with women surpassing men 54% to 46% in voter turnout, it remains to be seen exactly why more women candidates have not been running. Female candidates have historically had trouble raising money, and a study in 2000 discovered a positive relationship between the voters' perceived viability of a candidate, and the candidates' ability to fundraise. These days, however, statistics show that women are actually outspending their male counterparts, so it must be something else holding them back. The author mentions that stereotypes already exist in the minds of the voters, and it is up to the media whether to reinforce or disprove the viewers preconceived notions. Surveying voters in 2001, an experiment found that those surveyed believed the female candidate to be more compassionate, honest, and moral than a male candidate. The male candidate was believed to have more experience, leadership, and competence, all "masculine" traits that the test subjects believed to be more important in politics than the "feminine" characteristics mentioned above. Studies have shown that perhaps when information is omitted in news coverage, voters' will use stereotypes to "fill in the blanks."

The stereotypes can work to the female candidate's advantage or disadvantage, depending on the context of the race. If the female stereotype positively corresponds with the issues presented in the campaign, it will help her in the race, but if the general stereotype clashes with the campaign issues, it will hinder her. When electoral conditions favor it, women tend to highlight their femininity, but if the environment is not female-friendly, women try to highlight their individuality. I find this incredibly unfair — the race should have nothing to do with femininity, or masculinity, as this will not lead a country into a prosperous future.

A major stereotype the media attempts to perpetuate is that of the candidate's role of the wife or mother, the author argues. Whenever a female candidate is running, there is a strong emphasis on her role as belonging in the home and caring for her family, which, the author goes on to say, could project the false image that running for office means leaving behind the family at home. I don't completely understand this, as Barack Obama, for example, has time and again been portrayed as a very caring family man, and I see no connotations of gender stereotyping. Or at least, the media hasn't twisted Barack's story into some sort of gender deconstruct — because he is a man.

When Sarah Palin made her comment about being a "hockey mom," she unleashed a media frenzy. I believe this is what she wanted in a selfish bid to attain votes. The media itself, in its unabashed praise of Obama, pushed many voters into Palin's corner by trying to demonize her. They say that any press is good press, and that fits right into the American mindset of the underdog coming out on top. We love to see a good competition, and the media does too — it means more ratings for them. About a week after her hockey mom statement, a poll was conducted regarding McCain and Obama. There was absolutely no policy change, no new groundbreaking political campaign announcements — just a comment about a "tough hockey mom" that actually sent the McCain camp into the lead by 10 points, where Obama had been leading by 7 before. This is because the media had treated her so unfairly, had picked on every rumor about her personal life possible, so the public was disgusted and actually gave Palin more votes. I'm guessing this was a selfish, calculated attempt by Palin's camp to get more votes — I would hope a politician wouldn't actually take the time to think of such a sexist statement, and actually take themselves seriously.


Sarah promoting her role of caring, stay-at-home hockey mom only perpetuates the leading stereotype. It not only perpetuates the stereotype, but it also perpetuates an unfair spotlight on a candidates personal characteristics. Is being a hockey mom going to help Palin when American troops are in a warzone? The obvious answer, no, is what the liberal media pushed on America for months after Palin's announcement as a political candidate. Even if the answer is yes, the population and the media are missing the point — let's focus on pressing national and international issues, not whether she drives her kids to hockey every morning, or whether Barack plays basketball, or how great Michelle's arms are. This just goes to show how celebrity worship is absolutely engrained into the American psyche and way of life. People can't take the time to look past superficial things to the real issues — they see only the hockey mom, or the black man, or the arms, or the granddaughter. What on earth Bristol Palin's baby have to do with running the United States? It doesn't, but the media ate it up, and manufactured the story into a selling point for both sides of the debate. The media hinges and manipulates information to create an exciting political race, all the while completely demeaning women and making political races look like some kind of High School joke.

Michelle Obama is a great example of the kind of perfect, cookie-cutter stereotyping so typical of our news media. She is well educated, attractive, motherly, family oriented — all points that conservative America loves, but, strangely enough, an AP report showed that Michelle was twice as disliked as McCain's wife, and that "whites" have an unfavorable view of her. Michelle is a humble, successful black woman, but a Republican commented in the AP report that, "Cindy seems like she's laid back and not trying to run her husband." Hm. There it is, the stereotype of the successful black woman — they are aggressive and hard to get along with, they run the show. This is an image engraved in many American's minds and it will be awhile before people learn how to accept a strong black woman for who she really is. On the other hand, perhaps it is actually Michelle to blame for presenting herself as a domineering, aggressive person. Once again, it is hard to distinguish who is at fault — the people for accepting the stereotype, or the politicians perpetuating it with the help of the media. It is a vicious cycle that I don't see ending any time soon.

Michelle has also been praised for breaking stereotypes as well. The problem with this is that Michelle is one woman — there are still hundreds of thousands of black women living in the poorest conditions Americans live in, raising their children on minimum-wage pay. The education system needs to be fixed before we look at Michelle as a solution. She has even attained celebrity status with all the attention on her arms and how she dresses and not what she actually believes in.

Another interesting study I found from the Yale School of Management was that the "power-hungry" image may affect female politicians, but not males. Hillary Clinton was seen as a "coldly ambitious" woman, according to a 2007 LA Times article. The reason for this image affecting women and not men may be because "cultural stereotypes depict women in general as being communal — they are sensitive, warm, caring, and concerned about others. In contrast, men are seen as agentic — they are dominant, assertive, and competitive," the researchers said. They went on to argue, "Unlike male politicians, we [found] evidence that female politicians are expected to live up to a prescribed level of communality and that failure to meet those communal standards elicits backlash." Women who don't fit the stereotype "are often depicted as 'bitchy,' 'ice queens,' and 'battle-axes,' according to research.

It is time we stopped looking at male and female politicians as males and females, but rather accept politicians for their political bent, and their beliefs only. Men and women are losing and winning for the wrong reasons, and it's time for America to wake up.


• •""Power-hungry" Image May Hurt Female, but Not Male Politicians." World Science - Science News. Web. 03 Dec. 2010. <http://www.world-science.net/exclusives/100608_politicians.htm>.
• Nordicom. Web. 03 Dec. 2010. <http://www.nordicom.gu.se/common/publ_pdf/247_aalberg_jenssen>.
• "Gender, Media, and Politics." Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship - Centre Pour L’Étude De La Citoyenneté Démocratique. Web. 03 Dec. 2010. <http://csdc-cecd.mcgill.ca/gmp/pages/publications.htm>.
• "Gender Stereotypes Pose Challenges for Hillary Clinton's Bid for the Presidency | Newsroom | Washington University in St. Louis." Newsroom | Washington University in St. Louis. Web. 03 Dec. 2010. <http://news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/11287.aspx>
• "Palin’s New Book Invokes ‘bra-burning’ Stereotype « Media Myth Alert." Media Myth Alert. Web. 03 Dec. 2010. <http://mediamythalert.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/palins-new-book-invokes-bra-burning-stereotype/>.