What is it that influences how we think of male and female political candidates and officeholders? What types of information are reported and most easily accessible to help voters make educated decisions? Where is it that we get our information from? In one simple phrase, it is the media. We are constantly bombarded with newspaper articles, advertisements, and magazine interviews telling us what important facts we should be paying attention to when it comes to our representatives. However, the media reports largely different matters when comparing male and female office holders. To illustrate this point, I will use the example of New York Senator’s, Senator Chuck Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
When researching these two prominent political figures, I found a stark difference in what manner the two were represented and in what the focus of the information presented was. First off, when merely searching the images of both Senators Gillibrand and Schumer I found that the top image category results for Senator Schumer were: guns, hair plugs, and inauguration. The top three for Senator Gillibrand were: weight loss, hottest senator, and family. Now, while Senator Schumer does have one category that has to do with physical characteristics, all three of Senator Gillibrand’s have absolutely nothing to do with her political values or policies that she is for or against. Her weight loss back in 2012 was widely reported and many articles were run claiming they were spilling the secret of how Senator Gillibrand lost 40 pounds1. While health is important, at the time of her weight loss she was still involved in many important congressional decisions, but where were all the magazine articles covering that? Rather than report the substantive decisions she was involved in, the focus instead remained on her physical appearance.
Looking at the information provided in the top news links for each senator was very telling as well. On the first page of results, there were articles involving Senator Chuck Schumer that discussed how he believes the Senate will remain under Democratic majority after the elections2, interviews where he explained the negative repercussions that will be evident if indeed Democrats do lose the majority3, his endorsement of a New York State Senator4, and his fight for the elimination of tariffs on grape trade5. While Senator Schumer’s top results were primarily concerning a policy issue or the fate of Democrats in the upcoming election, the top results for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand took an entirely different emphasis.
The first article discussed how Senator Gillibrand spoke on a panel with other prominent female figures and talked about what women are tired of being questioned about and how they are not valued for the work the put in. Senator Gillibrand gave the example that when she was a young attorney, she worked overtime, canceled vacations, and made many arrangements in order to be able to present her best work on a specific case. At the end of case, her boss threw a party and instead of talking about her hard work in the case he remarked to everyone, “Don’t you just love her haircut?”6 The other top news articles involved photo shoots, discussion of her family and dating history, as well as an interview where sexist comments and personal experiences were the topic of conversation7.
At the time these articles were published, she was working on more substantive problems; such as, banning plastic microbeads, visiting Wind Farms, and endorsing other candidates before election time. However, to reach these substantive articles, you had to click through a few pages of results. This means that the articles that are reaching the most people are the ones presenting female representatives as personable people, but not necessarily as individuals with assertive political positions.
I believe these differences exist because the media is always at the ready to criticize individuals in the spotlight, whether politicians, celebrities, or prominent business people. As we read in the article for class that was by Hayes, Lawless, and Bettinger, it has been found that men and women receive comparable damaging consequences when the media reports fashion faux pas or anything negative about their appearance8. However, women are much more likely to be the focus of negative criticism because they have many various facets of their wardrobe and appearance to be criticized on than do their male counterparts.
In a study by Kathleen Dolan, she has found evidence that as our society has advanced over the years, there has been near equal coverage on both male and female candidates when looking at those running for congress and state governors9. Since 2000 there has been less coverage concerning women’s appearance than there has been in the past; however, women are still more likely than men to be subject to questions or comments about their appearance. This is clearly witnessed in my example between Senator Gillibrand and Senator Schumer, because while discussing women’s appearances may largely be a thing of the past, it has yet to fully change the media’s depiction of Kirsten Gillibrand. In Senator Gillibrand's interview with Juliann Marguiles she said in her first campaign her opponent said, "Oh she's just a pretty face," implying she could not be pretty and qualified10.
Yet one area where bias in the media still remains is at the presidency level. According to Dolan, women vying for the office of the president are more likely to be subject to media coverage that focuses on their appearance, sex, and their capability than men are. So while the media’s portrayal of female officeholders and candidates has improved on some levels, there are still others that need to be amended so that a woman’s sex and consequentially a focus on appearance, does not affect her candidacy.
The differences in how the media illustrates women and men may have decreased over time, however it still must be discussed because it still exists to some degree. It will cease to be a topic of research as soon as the ways that media outlets report their stories changes and stops focusing on the uniqueness of candidates merely because of their gender. As studies have looked at how female candidates present themselves through their websites and campaigns, it is clear they are making an effort to be gender neutral and not focus on only “women’s issues.” Similarly, once the media updates their perspective and reaches a point where there is not a gendered theme to their articles and stories, women, especially at the presidential candidacy level, will be treated as equal opponents to the male candidates.