The Year in Political Media Sexism

Every year we like to evaluate the trends we’ve seen in political media coverage of women politicians and candidates. Sadly, in the year 2011 we found no limit to how demeaning or insulting some media outlets and personalities felt they needed to be towards women. No one says media pundits have to like the policies or actions of every female politician, but the Name It. Change It. project is about pointing out sheer misogyny disguised as mere criticism.

Throughout 2011 former Governor Sarah Palin flirted with the idea of running for president. She ultimately decided not to, making her no different than many other candidates, but some pundits and comedians, in expressing their hostility towards Palin, seem to project hostility towards women in general.

In January on the TNT program “Inside The NBA,” host Kenny Smith asked comedian Tracy Morgan, “Tina Fey or Sarah Palin?”

Of course the unspoken question was “Who would you have sex with;” one woman was Morgan’s boss and the other was a prominent national figure. The question was outrageous and demeaning to all women, but Morgan’s answer, “I think Sarah Palin is good masturbation material! The glasses and all of that … great masturbation material,” was also terrible.

As we said at the time: “When female politicians [or women in power] are constantly reduced to sexual objects, it strikes a blow against all women in positions of power and deters other women from seeking public office…. We’re not laughing.”

The sexualizing of women politicians is a not a new problem. In November men’s magazine Complex, compiled a list of the “50 Hottest Women in Politics.” Of course you’d expect a men’s magazine to provide tasteful descriptions of women they find attractive. Just kidding! Complex was looking for the “slutty,” “big-boobed,” and “uber babe” women in politics. And yes, Sarah Palin was on that list as “the most tappable veep candidate in history.” Charming.

Combining both sexualization and repugnance, in March Bill Maher felt it was perfectly fine to call Sarah Palin a “dumb twat” and said she and Michele Bachmann would split the “MILF” vote. Later in the year Maher essentially excused himself from charges of misogyny because he doesn’t think Palin is representing women, so anything he says about her as a woman isn’t sexist. Really, Bill? Because the more acceptable you make unacceptable terms, the more likely such terms will be used on other women politicianseven some of the ones you like.

You can criticize women politicians all you want (even make jokes at their expense!) but Name It. Change It. thinks it’s not too much to ask that it not be seeped it in misogyny.

Representative Michele Bachmann is another woman who is called all manner of sexist things in the name of “criticism.” The standout 2011 example of media sexism is Newsweek’s August cover of Bachmann, dubbed “crazy eyes.” Name It. Change It. sent a letter to Newsweek and pointed out that it was somewhat ironic the same issue featured Gloria Steinem. Perhaps Newsweek’s editorial staff should have educated themselves more with Steinem’s work before putting the issue to print.

To paraphrase Dana Loesch on this issue: When your criticism amounts to an unflattering photo, you just might be a chauvinist. Newsweek has a long tradition of putting people on the cover who elicit strong reactions, but drawing an “ugly picture” is something that sixth-graders do, not widely-read national publications.

This wasn’t the last time, however, the scorched-earth policy would apply to criticism of Bachmann. 

Just last month, when Rep. Bachmann appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, the house band, The Roots, apparently thought it was acceptable to play a song with the title “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.” There was a tittering frat boy quality to Fallon’s initial apology, and Name It. Change It., along with many others, was deeply offended by the idea that a major network thought it wasn’t a problem to call a woman a “bitch” on national television. It was good then, that NBC did finally apologize, something that might not have happened without a concerted effort to explain that sexism is wrong. Proof that calling out sexism has a positive effect!

Of course in 2011 not every instance of sexism was about name-calling. This year saw a stepped-up number of fashion coverage stories about women in politics. Yes, politics is often about image, but the fashion police’s lack of interest in what male politicians’ hair, nails, make-up, or clothing is fairly obviously. Only women politicians’ eye color and descriptions of their haircuts will be added to profiles about them.

No single outlet in 2011 has typified this type of sexism more than Huffington Post. Their style section has written about Michele Bachmann’s appearance after every single debate, also telling her that after “her numbers went down she should have brought down her neckline. Might have helped.”

After Name It. Change It. sent a letter to Huffington Post Style editors Anya Strzemien and Ellie Krupnick asking them to enact editorial guidelines that refrain from discussing female politicians’ appearance unless such similar style decisions would be considered equally note-worthy in male candidates.

Strzemien replied by saying, “The Huffington Post’s style section, which has existed since 2008, [has] always focused on the intersection of politics and style. And in so doing, we make every effort to evenly distribute our attention between men and women.” 

I think even causal readers of Huffington Post’s style section know that’s just not true. In just the past two months the sheer number of Huffington Post Style stories about Michele Bachmann’s appearance outnumbered all stories about all male politicians and candidates combined! Focusing on women’s appearance is sexism and we hope that in 2012 outlets like Huffington Post—which is women-run!—will realize that judging women politicians and candidates is limiting to all women everywhere. 


Published by Kate McCarthy on 12/23/2011

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