Hillary Clinton. Angela Merkel. Dilma Rousseff. While women currently govern only five per cent of countriesworldwide, female representation in politics has increased in recent years, and female politicians are generally receiving equal treatment from their parties and voters. With Kamala Harris becoming the first female Asian and Afro-American Vice-President of the United States, it seems as if anything is possible for female politicians. Yet, female presence in political systems across the globe remains comparatively low, and media coverage is one reason for this global gender inequality.
Professor Erin Tolley is an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on the impact of socio-demographic diversity in Canadian politics and political institutions. Professor Tolley’s current projects include an analysis of candidate recruitment and selection by Canada’s political parties, an experimental study of the impact of race and gender on voter choice, and an examination of immigrants’ and refugees’ media coverage. Her work has been published in numerous journals, and she is also the co-editor of five books on immigration and multiculturalism in Canada. With her academic expertise, Professor Tolley held an online lecture on November 10, titled “Rhymes with Witch: Gendered News Coverage in Politics,” as part of UTM’s Experiential Education Unit’s “Lecture Me!” series. During this discourse, she examined how gender influences media and the different ways male and female politicians are portrayed in the news.
Media is simply a gatekeeping lens through which the public sees the world around them. Although the rise of the information age made citizens more skeptical of the increasingly saturated media, many view credible news sources as authoritative and objective. News coverage can influence the way we perceive and think about political candidates. The inevitable lens through which particular media outlets represent events affects how populations evaluate, analyze, and perceive politicians. “Media is a mirror, but the reflection sometimes is distorted,” says Professor Tolley.
When reporting, a journalist aims to simplify the world around us and tell a visually engaging story while also appealing to the public. That is why many modern journalists tend to use “frames” to apply a certain angle or storyline that people can understand and resonate with. Frames are used to simplify facts, stories, and personalities, with the journalist having an influence on which aspects to ignore and which to bring to light. As a result, media outlets can frame stories, which often rely on gender tropes and stereotypes.
Gendered realities can influence opinions and assumptions about who belongs in politics. In return, these assumptions condition media coverage. Men have historically dominated politics and built rules and norms in elected institutions. “This shapes how we see politics and public life, and this vision is a masculine one,” says Professor Tolley. In contrast, female positions tend to be portrayed in feminine ways.
Until the 1970s, female politicians received minimal news coverage, partly because they were largely absent in formal elected institutions. “We simply weren’t there,” says Professor Tolley. Now, with many female politicians running and being elected, coverage has increased. Women often receive greater media attention than their male counterparts, although sometimes not for the right reasons. “This isn’t really a story about how much coverage female politicians receive, but rather the coverage’s quality,” explains Professor Tolley. Research has concluded that female politicians are disadvantaged in the political arena, as they face sexist tropes and higher public scrutiny of their personal lives.
There is an intimate connection between masculinity and politics. Professor Tolley gives three examples to illustrate this point. First, when male politicians are covered in the media, their gender is rarely the topic of conversation. Male politicians’ gender is not seen as newsworthy as it is the default—the standard. On the other hand, female politicians are often positioned in the media as women first and politicians second. Media outlets emphasize female politicians’ gender, not their qualifications, policies, or experience.
Secondly, men are viewed as a political norm. “Even when very young children are asked to draw a picture of a president or a politician, the pictures they draw are stereotypically masculine,” says Professor Tolley. To overcome this reality, many female politicians start to conform to masculine political standards and adapt typical masculine traits in their personalities. This is a double-edged sword as by doing so, female politicians risk being framed as “witches,” “barren,” and “she-men” by the media. However, if they act stereotypically female, they are portrayed in a different frame, which often showcases them as weak and incompetent leaders.
Lastly, when women politicians appear on the news, it is often on issues that voters regard as less politically relevant, such as their appearance, communal orientation, and whether or not they smile too much or not enough. Moreover, female politicians are often asked to comment on healthcare, abortion, and education, which are often viewed as the “feminine” nuances of politics. “Politics’ coding is masculine and that coding rewards men who conform to stereotypical masculine standards. They are viewed as insiders who succeed not because of their gender, but because they have the characteristics that we deem to be central to political success,” states Professor Tolley.
Additionally, media outlets tend to sexualize female politicians. For example, when Sarah Palin was a U.S. Vice Presidential candidate in the 2008 election, a news outlet featured a picture of a close-up of her legs when reporting on one of the Republican rallies. Focus on female politicians’ bodies was also seen with Christy Clark when she was Premier of British Columbia. The media slandered her for showing too much cleavage and condoned her for dressing inappropriately. When the media is not actively sexualizing female politicians, the focus is still on appearance and not on their political agenda. Moreover, stories featuring women of color include layers of exotism. Many articles highlight how they “deviate” from white standards of beauty and womanhood’s cultural expectations.
A focus on family life is also a common frame in news story coverages. “Gendered media coverage isn’t just a choice that the media makes,” explains Professor Tolley. “It is sometimes influenced by the choices the candidates make when they decide how they want to represent themselves and which aspects of their lives they want to empathize with.” This can be seen to some degree in Kamala Harris’ run for the Democratic nomination. She has no children of her own but speaks on how her nieces and stepchildren call her “Momala.” Motherhood coverage can have positive effects on female politicians as it portrays nurturing and trustworthy qualities. However, research shows that this is another fine line to walk. In Sarah Palin’s case, news outlets often questioned her ability to be a good mother and have a successful political career.
The media makes choices on which angle to adopt, which frame to portray the story, and what visual component to include. “These choices affect all politicians, but a bulk of the research suggests that the choices that the media makes are different when gender, race, sexual orientation, and other markers of difference come into play,” says Professor Tolley. Female politicians’ careers are directly affected by the limited frames they are often placed in on media outlets, reducing their identity as public figures to their gender.
Media coverage matters and media coverage is gendered. It does not occur in a vacuum, instead it is largely shaped by our perceptions of masculinity and femininity. Media influences the way we perceive political candidates. “The solution does not lie only with the media,” Professor Tolley concludes. “It lies with all of us: as citizens, voters, or consumers of the news media, we help to shape political reality. We help to shape who comes forward in public life, how they are treated, and to whom they are accountable to.”