5 Guidelines that Can Prevent Sexist Reporting on Women in Politics

Women running for office have it hard during the long campaign slog. Not only are they grilled on their positions and their personalities, but entire articles are devoted to millimeters of their cleavage, their shoe and sartorial choices, and whether they're neglecting their family duties to pursue politics. While too many stories also spend ink on horse-race speculation and the personal attributes of male candidates, the extra burden of such a focus inevitably falls on women in the spotlight--a reflection of a larger burden women often face in all careers.

Indeed, the scope of the problem goes far beyond women whose names are on the ballot--it faces all women involved in political and social activism. Witness the recent article  in the New York Times magazine about one of the radical leaders of the Chilean student movement: "Camila Vallejo, The World's Most Glamorous Revolutionary." The otherwise well-reported, in-depth and fascinating story by Francisco Goldman concludes its very first paragraph with an admirer of Vallejo saying, "she's hot;" shortly thereafter Goldman describes her "Botticelli" looks and her nose ring. This narrative about Vallejo is everywhere: a Newsweek story dubbed her more fit for the catwalks than the barricades. 

Readers, far from reeled in by this description of Vallejo's glamor, were none too amused. As one of the very first comments on the Times story noted, "It is essentially degrading...All of her capacities, intelligence, bravery, human qualities are undercut by his starting this off with her looks. Very, very poor journalism."


commenter added, "I can hardly imagine a cover story about a male political figure with a lead paragraph that ends with 'He's hot,' and that comments so extensively on his physical attributes."

While there's no question that Vallejo's looks and charisma are part of her political appeal, there's more going on here--specifically, the contextual acknowledgment of the double-standard, the idea that such appeal can be reflected back in misogynistic ways. In fact, the obsessive focus on Vallejo's external beauty may, even subconsciously, assume some sort of inherent contradiction between her looks and her firebrand radicalism, an assumption many pundits made about the young Gloria Steinem.

The commenters on the Times story caught onto something the production staff missed: journalists should do unto women in politics exactly as they would do unto men. If you're not going to call a male politician a pinup, then refrain from diving into that kind of language when describing his female counterpart.

Contrast the story of Vallejo's media narrative with the viral media sensation of the day: "Texts from Hillary," a new Tumblr devoted to images of Hillary Clinton sending texts juxtaposed with pictures of other celebrities texting and superimposed with fake headlines that make the Secretary of State look tough, competent and frankly, quite the badass. Instead of focusing on her hair, her weight, her pantsuits, as so many stories about Clinton have over the years, these humorous images of strength show what many people want from their media coverage of powerful women.

With a major election about to dominate the media landscape for months, media activists at the Women's Media Center, who have been pointing out sexism in electoral coverage through their "Name It. Change It" campaign for several years, decided to be proactive and give journalists a map to avoid such pitfalls.

The WMC released its guide at the end of last month (PDF). Rachel Larris, who co-authored the guide, calls it an "educational tool to show everyone--because thanks to social media, everyone’s part of the discussion now--how to avoid injecting sexism into the discussion and how to recognize sexism in other peoples' coverage."

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.

2) Personal choices around parenting, marriage or lack thereof should likewise be handled with the utmost care. If you wouldn't ask whether a male candidate like Rick Santorum, who has many young children including a sick daughter, can afford to spend so much time on the campaign trail, don't ask the same question of Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann. Don't freak out about an unmarried female politico like Condoleeza Rice or Sonya Sotomayor unless you're also going to question the bachelorhood of a male senator, judge or cabinet official.

3) Beware of slightly gendered and slanted language like 'darling', 'glamorous' or even 'opinionated.' After all, would you ever call a male politician "opinionated," or would you simply assume that he is? And think calling Sarah Palin or Nancy Pelosi the "darling" of an ideological group isn't problematic? Would you say the same for Rick Santorum or Bernie Sanders or would you call them figureheads, or popular icons instead? I myself have been guilty of falling into the "darling" trap. Then there are worse sins like calling someone an ice queen, a mean girl, or using the term "catfight. There are word order choices introducing her as "so and so's wife" instead of saying "her husband is so and so." Even the most subtle shadings of language can be gendered, and lots of that shading can add up to make things considerably more difficult for women on the political scene.

4) Be careful of viewing female voters or citizens as a monolith, and avoid the temptation to say that politicians "court" or "woo" women. As Larris notes, "wooing women is a cute metaphor for headlines, but they never talk about male voters as a bloc. Men are always sliced into demographics.” Instead of grouping women together, stories should look more closely at different groups of women and their class, race, family and career backgrounds as influencers of their politics.

5) Push back against overt sexism, don't let it stand. Sometimes the temptation for bystanders or other members of the media is to ignore many kinds of language or sexist treatment in the desire not to buy into "frames" that start with sexism. But as Lake's polling demonstrates, fighting back pays off for women candidates. In the wake of the Sandra Fluke/Rush Limbaugh scandal, it's clear that most of the public is willing to hear sexism denounced, and understand at least the most egregious attacks as gendered in nature.

Those are the big rules--and as the examples above show, activists must be as vigilant parrying blows on behalf of those female politicians whose politics are abhorrent to progressives as we are with those politicians whom we wholeheartedly embrace. After the Rush Limbaugh backlash, the Fox News noise machine was eager to point out past instances during which left-leaning pundits were sexist (a fact that surprised exactly zero feminists) and complain of a double-standard. 
But groups like the WMC have been consistent in their creed that an attack on one woman--no matter who- is an attack on all. Larris notes that she hopes members of the press as well as media-watchers in the public will “look at the guide and enact editorial guidelines that review quality for gendered, biased coverage of women." They even have a pledge for reporters and editors to sign. I'm about to add my name.

Pundits and reporters, the ball's in your court.

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