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5 Guidelines that Can Prevent Sexist Reporting on Women in Politics

A new guide reminds us that even when we don't mean to, we can judge and describe female candidates differently.

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After all, the 2008 and 2010 elections were marked by unusual levels of sexism directed towards female candidates--from Rush Limbaugh playing "ding, dong, the witch is dead" when Nancy Pelosi lost her House Speaker's seat on down to more subtle barbs. Already in the run-up to 2012, Michele Bachmann faced more scrutiny for her wardrobe and fashion choices than a male candidate ever would.

Lest these sexist incidences be dismissed as unimportant or small in the grand scheme of coverage, the report also shows, via poll data compiled by Celinda Lake, the actual damaging effects of sexist language ("mean girl" and "ice queen") on candidates' poll numbers--the evidence shows that this kind of framing really hurts them. But more surprisingly, when the sexism is called out and not ignored, the poll numbers for the female candidate go back up. The report notes, "female candidates for office ignore sexist attacks at their peril. While sexist coverage of female candidates puts a damper on voters’ likelihood to vote for them, a direct response makes up for lost ground."

That's why being able to to identify sexism--and explain it--is so crucial. Beyond the effect on female candidates, the gender binary set up by any kind of casual sexism in the media makes it difficult for potential candidates or political figures who defy gender norms---and for any candidate who wants to espouse compassion and empathy (which are treated as "effeminate" values, but are in fact just good ones). The more we hone in on candidates for their stances and their ability to connect with voters rather than focusing on trivial attributes and "playground" gender politics, the more we can make room for political leaders from the LGBT community--an incredibly important goal.

Larris says that Limbaugh-type agitators aside, "most of the political talking class doesn't want to be biased against women." The truth is, she says, "they probably haven’t really thought about it that much in terms of word choices and framing stories." Thus, the guide.

As the Times commenters noted, and as WMC co-founder Gloria Steinem  has said, there's a "rule of reversibility" at play here, and it underlies all the rules:

The most workable definition of equality for journalists is reversibility. Don’t mention her young children unless you would also mention his, or describe her clothes unless you would describe his, or say she’s shrill or attractive unless the same adjectives would be applied to a man. Don’t say she’s had facial surgery unless you say he dyes his hair or has hair plugs. Don’t say she’s just out of graduate school but he’s a rising star. Don’t say she has no professional training but he worked his way up. Don’t ask her if she’s running as a women’s candidate unless you ask him if he’s running as a men’s candidate. 

When it comes to the "rule of reversibility," we also ought to dwell far from hypotheticals. For instance, one shouldn't be able to justify writing about Sotomayor's single status on the idea that theoretically, one might write the same kind of thing about an unmarried male justice. A threshold for reversibility must be established based on past predictors and a realistic self-assessment.

Here are five do's and don'ts borrowed from the WMC guide and my own observations. But what they come down to is very simple: apply the rule of reversibility, from the broadest strokes to the tiniest linguistic choices.

1) Don't talk about her clothes or appearance if you wouldn't devote the exact same amount of time to his clothes and appearance. From Michele Bachmann's shoes to Kristen Gillibrand's weight to Hillary Clinton's hairstyles, to the obsession with Vallejo's looks, the appearances of women in politics are subject to an unending spotlight. Part of this must come from an innocent fascination with the fact that women politicians do manage to look acceptable in society's sexist eyes and also be competent, but without that context, just writing about a female politician's exterior appearance continues to set the bar higher. In addition, even admiring coverage of female politicians' appearance opens the door for negative coverage. Today's well-coiffed politico could be tomorrow's "frizzilla"--a term applied by Fox news anchors to DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, according to the WMC report.

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