Friday, June 3, 2016

Justice Ginsburg: Everyone Agrees She's a Woman

Research suggests that male and female political candidates are covered differently by the media, but it appears those differences are diminishing. However, there is less research on what happens once women are in office, let alone on media representation of political women that never campaigned at all, like Supreme Court justices. Yet, there are some clues that could help predict how gender affects media coverage of Supreme Court justices. Namely, some gender stereotypes hold regardless of political party (Republican and Democrat women are both assumed to be more supportive of abortion). Additionally, political cartoonists have historically treated women as “weak and ineffectual.

With that in mind, I wanted to know if Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was depicted differently than her male peer, Justice Stephen Breyer. When considering the aforementioned research, I suspected Ginsburg would be portrayed as relatively weak. Additionally, I expected gender and political identity to be common themes in their depictions. Since there have been only four female justices in history, I predicted gender to particularly color the depictions of Ginsburg. Similarly, Ginsburg is considered more politically extreme than Breyer, so I expected her depictions to be more politicized.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Justice Stephen Breyer
After looking at roughly 100 media depictions of the justices, I decided to categorize my findings based on three types of portrayals: newspaper/website articles, political cartoons, and non-traditional depictions.

Before jumping into the findings, it seems worthwhile to show why I selected Ginsburg and Breyer. In short, they seemed the most similar male-female pair. They are both white, old (Ginsburg 83, Breyer 77), Jewish, liberal (they are in agreement 88% of cases), Ivy League attending justices (Harvard Law and Columbia Law) that were appointed by President Clinton in back-to-back years. Of course, there are differences besides their gender that could affect media portrayal. They have different personalities and they make different choices. Ginsburg is not afraid to ruffle feathers: she once said there would not be enough women on the Court until all nine justices were women; Breyer on the other hand is less controversial. Basically, Breyer is not simply a man version of Ginsburg, but they are similar enough to justify comparison.

Newspaper and Website Articles:
Most articles focused on facts, like Ginsburg/Breyer sided a certain way on a controversial case. I have instead focused on articles that gave physical or personality descriptions. Turns out that there is a whole spectrum of positive and negative things discussed about both judges - including some recurring themes.

Ginsburg was often described as physically frail. For example, her age, “halting and quiet speech”, and physical frame: “about five feet tall and a hundred pounds” are all regular themes. However, her personality is described as anything but frail. She is “venerable” and bold; her dissents are “ferocious,” “withering,” and “disemboweling.” Basically, she is described as physically weak but a strong woman nonetheless. This seems to run against my predictions: she is not framed as “weak and ineffectual.”

On a different note, there is also some emphasis on how she dresses: elegant with long gloves. I suspect that the clothing descriptions are a result of her being one of few women justices. I did not notice any physical descriptions of Breyer.

Instead, Breyer's descriptions focused on his personality. He was frequently referred to as an optimist, an intellectual, and a relatively agreeable justice. Conveniently, one description included all of these traits: Breyer is “the eternal optimist, ever hopeful that logic can bring together people of good will but divergent views.” Optimism and willingness to compromise seem to be a unique part of Breyer’s personality. However, it seems odd that he is frequently painted as an intellectual but fellow Ivy League attendee, Ginsburg, is not. This could be due to stereotypes of men as logical and women as emotional.

Finally, the most obvious difference in articles was that Breyer’s gender was never a theme and Ginsburg’s frequently was. Blogs hailed her as a feminist leader and articles highlighted that she was a woman and that being a woman justice is rare.

Political Cartoons:
Most political cartoon depictions put Ginsburg and Breyer together as part of the group of liberal judges vs. conservative judges. Depending on the political leanings of the artist, they are portrayed as villains or heroes.
However, there are some cartoons that focus on these individual justices (though there are many more of Ginsburg than Breyer). Counter to my prediction, Breyer is depicted as weak in both of the political cartoons where he is singled out but Ginsburg is often portrayed as strong (either as a protagonist or antagonist). It is difficult to know if this is due to gender or some other variable like personality. Since it is easier to find individual depictions of the most conservative justices (like Clarence Thomas) - I suspect that Ginsburg's extreme views explains at least some of this difference.
Ginsburg as Villainous Witch

Additionally, some of Ginsburg’s portrayals focus on her gender; that is not the case for Breyer. Sometimes they appear sexist and derogatory towards Ginsburg, though gendered depictions usually were used as a tool to depict conservative judges as sexist.This focus on gender is likely because it is still unusual for women to be Supreme Court justices, though Ginsburg’s role as a loud and proud feminist could also be a factor.

Sexist Depiction to Insult Ginsburg
Sexist Depiction to Insult Conservative Justices

Non-Traditional Media:

RBG T-Shirt
As I Googled Breyer and Ginsburg, I realized that there was a bit of a cult following for Ginsburg. The result is memes, t-shirts, nicknames (the Notorious R.B.G.), coloring books, an opera, and a praying mantis species dedicated to Ginsburg. There is even an announced Hollywood biopic that will star Natalie Portman as Ginsburg. There is simply nothing like this for Breyer. He appeared on the Colbert Report and Boy Scouts of America recognized him once … but that's about it.

I suspect that Ginsburg has this following largely because she is a female and a politically polarizing figure. She stands out. Breyer is more of a run-of-the-mill justice: an old white guy. However, since there is not a similar following for the other two female justices: Sotomayor and Kagan, gender is probably not the only motivating factor for non-traditional representation.
Page from the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Coloring Book

It seems Ginsburg and Breyer are treated differently by the media - often in predictable ways. Ginsburg’s more extreme political views and her gender influence the topics of her depictions and makes her descriptions more polarizing. These factors also influence political cartoonists and non-traditional media members to focus more attention on Ginsburg. These types of media are more prone to depicting a justice as a hero or a villain. So while disagreement abounds based on the political party of the media member, the repeated acknowledgments of her gender implies that at least we can agree that she is a woman.

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