The Trope of Gender Conformity: Finding a way out from between a rock and a hard place


Jill Radsken from the Boston Herald consulted a "panel of experts"—a fashion designer and a stylist—to identify what is truly problematic about Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein: her fashion sense. According to Radsken and her team, the only thing worth analyzing about this Green-Rainbow Party candidate is her style. The article picks apart Stein's physical appearance, claiming that the candidate's hair is "a Brillo pad that's seen better days" and "an unmitigated mop."

Why is it that, when it comes to covering women political candidates, the media is so quick to overlook the substantive issues of a campaign in order to highlight superficialities? Why are female political leaders consistently judged on their appearance and fashion while their male counterparts escape this critique? 

Criticisms on a woman candidate’s looks may seem trivial compared to the more extreme cases of sexism we have witnessed recently, but they too serve to reinforce a media environment in which women candidates are held to a different standard than men. Whether media outlets evaluate a female candidate on her  "unmitigated mop," applaud her "tight little butt," or label her as "irresistibly cute," they undercut her political standing and belittle her run for electoral office.  

In "She’s a great candidate…for a makeover!" the critique on Jill Stein appears to be about more than just fashion. As fashion designer Michael De Paulo implores the candidate to "embrace a bit of elegance," stylist Joseph Gordon Cleveland criticizes her for falling "into the female politician wardrobe" by "dressing a man’s part."

These comments hint at the complex trope of gender conformity that women face while vying for public office. Women candidates often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to gender: on the one hand they are criticized for not conforming to conventional femininity, and on the other hand their "feminine characteristics" are often measured against a male-dominated political environment. Whether they are critiqued in terms of their appearance or demeanor, women candidates and political leaders are depicted as either "too masculine" to appeal to an American public invested in prescribed gender roles or "too feminine" to survive in tough politics. In some instances, women experience both of these critiques simultaneously (think Hillary Clinton in 2008).  

There is no telling when women will fully break through the glass ceiling or be freed from between the rock and the hard place that the media too often pegs them in. We can, however, continually strive to build awareness of this issue and work to promote change. Our mission should be to create a more equitable political environment and a more balanced media landscape so that we can encourage women’s political participation rather than impede it. 

Again and again throughout this election cycle, I’ve found myself turning to Gloria Steinem’s rule of reversibility:

"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; ask both about the gender gap, the women’s vote. By extension, don’t say someone is a Muslim unless you also identify Christians and Jews, or identify only some people by race, ethnicity or sexuality and not others. However, this does NOT mean being even-handedly positive or negative when only one person or side has done something positive or negative. Equality allows accuracy."



Published by Kate McCarthy on 10/20/2010

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