Media To Women Candidates: Be Nice!

Last week Senate candidates across the country engaged in their first debates:  In Missouri, Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill debated Todd Akin; in Wisconsin Democratic nominee Tammy Baldwin took on Tommy Thompson; and in Massachusetts Republican incumbent Scott Brown met with his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren. 

With the exception of the relatively high-profile Massachusetts event, the debates were rather low-key.  Candidates followed the traditional format and spoke mostly of issues important to their respective states.  Baldwin and McCaskill discussed the agricultural policies of their breadbasket states while Warren stuck to the economic reform policies central to her campaign.

But if you hadn’t seen any of the debates and relied only on the sampling of media recaps below, then you would learn very little about the content of the debates.  You would, however, have had sound schooling on one simple “fact”: All of these women candidates need to be nicer. 

Let’s begin with The Daily Caller, Alexis Levinson’s piece on the McCaskill/Akin debate is one of the worst offenders (and FYI, we’ve had beef with Levinson before).  Levinson’s take on the debate:

Throughout the debate, Akin seemed tentative and almost hesitant to attack McCaskill directly. His tone remained even, and his style was more explanatory than aggressive. McCaskill, by contrast, went after him at every opportunity – claws bared, voice raised.

So to recap: Akin was calm, collected and explanatory; McCaskill was, like a wild animal, out of control. Levinson’s description plays into a series of unfortunate stereotypes about women that they’re catty, hysterical and unable to engage in rational discussion. Since this is The Daily Caller we’re not asking they approve of McCaskill’s performance, only that they refrain from sexist language.

But Levinson was by no means alone in trading on lazy, sexist stereotypes to describe the debates.  Over at the Lowell Sun, columnist Peter Lucas offers Elizabeth Warren some helpful advice, namely: Be as “camera-friendly” as Scott Brown. Also, like Brown, be “more sensible,” less “pedantic,” and stop offering “dissertations.” So, in short—be better looking, nicer, and stop talking. 

Though Lucas is no stranger to Name It. Change It., he wasn’t alone in offering unsolicited debate advice to Warren.  The Washington Post chimed in and provided this savvy observation of the Massachusetts debate:

Brown sought to maintain his nice-guy image and Warren to tamp down hers as a scold.

So in case Warren didn’t get it the first time from the largely conservative media,(“strident”, “shrieking”) now that the Post has joined in the sexist framing it’s mainstream!

While the cases of McCaskill and Warren offered obvious examples of sexist language – Tammy Baldwin’s coverage was, perhaps, a bit more coded.  Take as a prime example Christian Schneider’s column for the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel which attempts to soften its sexism under the familiar guise of what media critic Jay Rosen describes as the “savvy journalist” or a journalist who is familiar with the reality of politics and sees the truth for what it is.  What Schneider sees is Baldwin’s two-faced nature – once a representative that was “eminently likeable,” Baldwin is now “using her campaign to convince people she’s a steel, ruthless campaign cyborg.” Central to Schneider’s post-debate narrative is that Baldwin needs to be nice rather than engage in issue-oriented criticism of her opponent.  Instead of running an (ostensibly) successful campaign, Baldwin should lay-off and return to her “preternatural niceness.” 

What’s striking about all of these articles is precisely what disturbs—how unchanged the sexist language remained regardless of the variety of media outlets, state boundaries, or the diversity of issues or voter interests.  In a political age of unrest and deep disagreement, the media can surprisingly find consensus on one issue: women candidates should just be nicer.


Published by Kate McCarthy on 09/25/2012

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