Sex and the single candidate
It’s past time for the media to treat male and female candidates, officials, and politicians the same.
Consider: Janet Yellen is the first female chair of the Federal Reserve. Her credentials are impeccable. She was vice chair for four years. She has degrees from Brown and Yale. She was head of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
So what gets reported about her by male columnists? She wore the same outfit twice in one month.
Wrote Warren Rojas of Roll Call: “Whether Janet Yellen, President Barack Obama’s latest pick to head the Federal Reserve, proves to be the financial genius our sputtering economy so desperately needs, remains to be seen. At least we know her mind won’t be preoccupied with haute couture.”
To Rojas’ credit, when he got some pushback from media groups, he said he had learned his lesson. He posted: “Message received, America. Perhaps I should leave all the fashion policing to the Joan Rivers and Tim Gunns of the world.”
Damn straight he should. Too bad so many others still need to learn the lesson. When Yellen was nominated last October, the conservative website Daily Caller posted this: “Who’s hotter? Janet Yellen or Miley Cyrus?” Sure, let’s equate the accomplishments of one of the most qualified people to ever hold the office of Federal Reserve chair with a former child star now famous for twerking.
A national bipartisan organization called “Name It. Change It.” tracks coverage of how women in public life are treated in the media. And the group doesn’t like what it sees.
“Widespread sexism in the media is one of the top problems facing women,” says an intro on the group’s home page. “A highly toxic media environment persists for women candidates, often negatively affecting their campaigns. The ever-changing media landscape creates an unmonitored echo chamber, often allowing damaging comments to exist without accountability.”
The group was co-founded by Gloria Steinem, but both Republican and Democratic candidates have suffered the effects of sexism in coverage. Consider:
* When Sarah Palin was chosen as John McCain’s running mate in 2008, one of the first questions the media brought up was “How can she be vice president with a special needs child?” (Her then-infant son has Down’s syndrome.) Gee, I wonder how many male politicians have special needs children? They seem to do quite well without being home all the time.
* A Boston Herald reporter, covering a female Green Party candidate running for governor in 2010, wrote a story quoting stylists on how the candidate should improve her looks. The headline: “She’s a great candidate … for a makeover!” Her hair was “a Brillo pad that’s seen better days.” Her clothes are “earthy crunchy.” Not a word about her policy positions.
* During a 2012 televised debate in New York for two female candidates running for the Senate, the moderator asked both candidates if they had read the sexually graphic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Would that moderator ask a male candidate if he reads Playboy?
* Wendy Davis is running for governor of Texas and got a lot of publicity in the summer of 2013 when she led a successful filibuster against an anti-abortion bill in the state Legislature. But what got the most coverage? Her pink tennis shoes. More recently, a story about her in a Texas newspaper that questioned some discrepancies in her biography focused on her role as a single mother, how she spent time away from her children, and how her ex-husband was the one who really made everything possible by paying for law school. As if a male candidate never had to spend time away from his children, or if that candidate’s parents didn’t pay for his schooling.
* A Today Show interview with Samantha Powers, U.S. ambassador to the UN, touched on her views on Syria, but the label across the bottom of the screen read “UN AMBASSADOR ON BALANCING DIPLOMATS AND DIAPERS.” Guess the media just couldn’t resist the meme of “How does the working mom do it all?”
The examples are endless. Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits and changing hairstyles. What Michelle Bachmann wore to Republican debates (“When her numbers went down, she should have brought down her neckline. Might have helped,” wrote one columnist). Referring to many female candidates over the age of 50 as “granny.” Terms describing women candidates like “ice queen,” “mean girl,” and “cougar,” or even worse, “slut” and “prostitute.” One candidate was even asked for her measurements — in the middle of a stump speech.
So what should female candidates do when they face this kind of sexist coverage? “Name It. Change It.” advises candidates to jump on the coverage immediately and say, “We need to be talking about issues, not calling people names.”
Only 2% of the 13,000 people who have served in Congress have been women. Only 31 women have ever been governor of a state, compared with more than 2,300 men. The U.S. actually has a worse record than other Western countries when it comes to female office holders. And media coverage of female candidates has played a big part.
As the “Name It. Change It.” campaign puts it: Don’t say she’s had facial surgery unless you say he dyes his hair or has hair plugs.