Asking the Wrong Questions: How the American Media Props Up the Political Glass Ceiling

Every so often, the Women in Politics Institute at American University releases a study confirming what we already know: there are a lack of women in Washington, DC.  Though 2012 saw more women elected to Congress than ever before, they still hold less than 20% of seats in the legislature, despite making up just over 50% of the population.  Women are currently absent from all four top cabinet positions, and in fact hold only 2 cabinet positions at the moment, and one of those is only an acting secretary.  There are a couple more women in cabinet-level positions, but not many.  Add to that a small number of female governors, and you’re starting to get a pattern.  On top of that, women are pushed out of fields like international security and policy-making in the government, academia, and think tanks.

(Tell me again that we don’t need feminism?)

There are a lot of things that make it difficult for women to succeed in politics.  One is in fact the current lack of women in politics, because the lack of role models indicates that the field remains unfriendly to women.  This is a problem not unlike the problems we see with STEM fields.  Another problem is the dual pressure to care for children and pursue a career, which can be a turn-off for women.

But one of the other barriers has to do with how we discuss female politicians.  It is an unfortunate phenomena, but it is worth pointing out that female politicians are discussed in particular gendered terms, and discussed in ways male politicians are not; this discourse helps to perpetuate the either gendered stereotypes that harm female candidates or makes them seem less serious than their male counterparts, and it’s the main problem I want to discuss today.

Let’s take it back to an interview that took place a little while back, shall we?

Interviewer: Okay. Which designers do you prefer?

Hillary Clinton: What designers of clothes?

Interviewer: Yes.

Hillary Clinton: Would you ever ask a man that question?

Interviewer: Probably not. Probably not.

I bring this up because I think it is fantastic that Hillary Clinton called this reporter on this problem.  Women who work in politics are asked about things that have nothing to do with their political aspirations, stances, or resume.  They are never just politicians-~-they are women, and as such, they are discussed in these highly feminized terms, and the media tends to focus excessively on appearance and whether or not they come across as sufficiently “feminine”.

This has been floating through the media and the internet because of a recent debate over the acceptability of commenting on female politicians’ appearances.  But now there seems to be a sub-debate over whether or not it is acceptable for the media to analyze female politicians’ hair and clothes, and the focus for the moment is on Hillary Clinton (which is probably why it caught my attention to begin with).

I actually think Amanda Hess deals with this fantastically in her article in Slate Magazine.  Hess points out the litany of ways in which reporters have fixated on how female politicians dress, do their hair, and handle their makeup, while missing real issues at play.  She focuses on Maureen Dowd’s writings on Clinton, as hers is the most recent addition to this, but highlights Dowd’s history of over-analyzing appearance and reducing female leaders and role models more generally to their gender and their looks.  She also rightfully points out that male politicians have a pretty uniform dress code-~-pants suit and tie-~-while women’s fashion has been and likely always will be somewhat more complicated to navigate.  Men’s business attire was established at a time when women weren’t a part of business, so that now even mundane decisions like wearing pants or wearing a color are seen as a statement.

While Hess does a good job of contextualizing the fashion debate, I think that the analysis needs to go a step further.  When Americans, directed by the American media, focus on things like clothes, they lose sight of more important things, like issues.  The media necessarily perpetuates a gendered discourse about female politicians while treating male politicians as gender-neutral.  The clothing debate just serves as a clear window into this problem, because men’s fashion is taken for granted, and treated as a non-subject, while women’s is not, but this actually extends to other problems.

When the media picked on Sarah Palin because her daughter was pregnant and tried to frame her as a bad mother, they presented her in gendered terms in an attempt to discredit her on the basis of something irrelevant to her political capabilities.  When the media attacked Hillary Clinton for staying with her husband despite his scandals, they projected a popularly conceived idea of acceptable behavior onto a woman’s individual choices.  We talk more about Michelle Obama’s closet and bangs than we do about her public health initiatives.  Nancy Pelosi is frequently discussed in gendered terms as well.  Across the board, female candidates’ families are more likely to be brought up than those of their male counterparts, and women are more likely to be attacked for things disconnected to the issues.

The result is a discourse that frames female candidates as less serious, less worthy of consideration, less legitimate as choices for public office.  Questions like “what are your favorite designers” shift the focus from pressing matters of national concern, and reporters analyzing Hillary Clinton’s hair could be evaluating her actual chances of winning the Democratic primary or what kinds of fundraising she’s engaging in, which are far better indicators of a decision regarding candidacy for president.

My point?  The way we talk about women in politics is keeping women out of politics, which means that if we want to answer the question “how do we get women into Washington”, we need to start asking REAL questions about women candidates, their stances on the issues, and what they want to achieve-~-not why they cut their hair.


~ by Randi Saunders on April 11, 2013.

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