GRSJ224/Representation of Female Politicians in the Media

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Women in Politics

As of 2019 women currently make up 24.3% of all national parliaments.[1] There are 11 women who are serving as Head of State, and 12 are serving as Head of Government.[1] Women still account for less than 10% of parliaments in 27[1] states and there are no women represented in the parliaments of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.[2]

Female Politicians in the United Sates

In the United States women make up 23.6% of the House of Representatives and 25% of the Senate.[2] The United States has never had a female president or vice president. In 1872, Victoria Woodhull became the first women to run for presidency, and in 2016 Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential candidate to be nominated by a major party, to participate in a presidential debate and to win the popular vote.[4] However, the 2020 United States presidential election is the first in history to have 6 female candidates seeking a single party’s presidential nomination, in this case they are all seeking the Democratic Party nomination.[5] The 2018 midterm elections have already been a historic win for women in US politics with more women being elected to Congress than ever before.[6] It appears the US political scene is changing and that, depending on the Democratic Party nomination, the US in 2020 may have their first female president, or vice president.

Media Sexism in Politics

Media sexism is defined as the production, or reproduction, of societal sexism through under- and misrepresentation of women in the media.[7] This leads to a false portrayal of gender roles within society and portrays a society that is more gender-segregated than it is in reality. Researchers at Purdue University have identified five characteristics of media sexism in the US: women candidates tend to receive less attentions than their male counterparts, stories on political women focus more on physical appearance, lifestyle and family instead of prominent campaign issues, women receive more negative coverage concerning their experience and ability to be a leader, when issue positions are discussed they concern topics such as abortions and childcare which are considered “woman’s issues” rather than “men’s issues” such as the economy and national security, and lastly questions are raised about the influence this candidate would have if she is elected.[8]

Objectification of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in the US Media

Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin are two female politicians that have received significant media coverage during their runs for presidency or vice-presidency. Analysis of this media coverage shows that both campaigns were represented through gender stereotypes and gendered language which influenced the way both women were viewed.[9] The media coverage of Clinton and Palin was different, but what this coverage shows is that both women were portrayed through a use of language that ignored all qualifications they had to be elected into office.  

Sarah Palin

Media coverage of Palin focused on her physical appearance, she was described as a “head turner” and a “young, trophy running mate”. [9]Palin’s past of competing in beauty pageants was used to discredit her as being a viable candidate. She was dubbed “Caribou Barbie” and “Valentino Barbie” by an article in the New York Times which referenced Palin’s close association to the National Rifle Association and her expensive wardrobe.[10] Palin’s appearance was objectified by many news outlets and her portrayal became very sexualized. An image published by Reuters showed nothing more than Palin’s leg with a young male framed between them.[11] This photo exemplifies the ways in which the media objectified Palin during her campaign.  

Hillary Clinton

Sexist slogan being held at Hillary Cliton's campaign event in Salem.

Clinton’s preference of wearing pantsuits over skirts or dresses led to Clinton being characterized as unattractive and as the “anti-seductress” in the media.[9] This portrayal of Clinton was reminiscent of the affair gone bad and led to the media focusing on her personal life as well as her appearance. Chris Matthews, a political commentator, commented that ‘‘The reason she’s a U.S. senator, the reason she’s a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around’.[9] This statement attributed all of Clinton’s accomplishments to the idea that because of her husband’s affair the public pitied her and voted for her. The media’s focus on Clinton’s personal and family life led to sexist attacks throughout her campaign. At a rally a man was seen holding up a sign saying “Iron my shirt”[9], referencing the sexist idea that women do not belong in a professional work space but as home makers. 

Impact of Media Sexism in Politics

Sexist portrayals of women in the media affect the willingness of women to stand as political candidates. Research has shown that countries with higher levels of media sexism have lower shares of women candidates in politics.[7] As a result of media sexism, women do not want to seek elected offices as they know that their physical appearance and family life will be highly scrutinized by the media. When a single woman runs for election that candidate is perceived in a monolithic way, meaning that they are simply perceived as the potential of a women being elected into office.[5] The role media sexism plays in politics, widens the gender gap that is already present within politics making harder to achieve gender equality.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Facts and figures: Leadership and political participation". UN Women. June 2019. Retrieved 2019-11-30.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Women in National Parliaments". Inter-Parliamentary Union. Retrieved 2019-11-30.
  3. Sean, Sullivan; Stanley-Becker, Isaac (2016-07-28). "Hillary Clinton accepts Democratic presidential nomination". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2019-11-30.
  4. "List of Female United States Presidential and Vice-Presidential Candidates". Wikipedia. Retrieved 2019-11-30.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Chapell, Carmin (2019-02-12). "'There's not just one women's lane': A record number of female candidates running for president". CNBC. Retrieved 2019-11-30.
  6. Cooney, Samantha (2019-11-19). "Here Are Some of the Women Who Made History in the Midterm Elections". Time. Retrieved 2019-11-30.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Haraldsson, Amanda; Wängnerud, Lena (2018-05-10). "The effect of media sexism on women's political ambition: evidence from a worldwide study". Feminist Media Studies. 19: 523–539.
  8. Philo C., Wasburn; Wasburn, Mara H. (2011-10-03). "Media coverage of women in politics: The curious case of Sarah Palin". Media, Culture and Society. line feed character in |title= at position 24 (help)
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Carlin, Diana B; Winfrey, Kelly L. (2009-07-28). "Have You Come a Long Way, Baby? Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Sexism in 2008 Campaign Coverage". Communication Studies. 60.
  10. Dowd, Maureen (2008-10-26). "A Makeover With an Ugly gloss". The New York Times. Retrieved 2019-11-30.
  11. "Those Palin Photos..." Reuters. 2008-10-14. Retrieved 2019-11-30.