Thursday, November 8, 2012

Gendered Media Coverage: The Differences in Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner's Political Coverage

            In comparing the media coverage between comparable male and female politicians, it is often easy to see that they are both equally criticized and applauded for decisions and political actions. However, there are often noticeable gender biases in political candidate’s coverage. As society tends to have certain gendered expectations for men and women, they also expect these to match the tendencies of their politicians. Therefore, they expect men to be aggressive and powerful while the women should be approachable and compassionate. This easily translates into the language and type of coverage surrounding male and female candidates.  Therefore, a close comparison of two comparable politicians and their respective media coverage can yield interesting results.

So is the case with Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner. Having both served as Majority Speaker of the House of Representatives, they have received fairly equal coverage in their political spheres. Neither politician was particularly popular, as they both receive a lot of criticism for their strong political opinions and actions. Speakers of the House tend to become the easy target for criticisms of either political party, and such has been true for both Pelosi and Boehner. And yet, there are noticeable differences in the way that the media has treated Pelosi and Boehner. Many more articles have been written on the fashion and appearance of Pelosi, specific, derogatory female terms have been used against her, and then the unique situation of her position as the first woman to serve as the Speaker of the House. All of these factors contributed to an unfair, gendered bias towards Pelosi in media coverage of her as a politician.

Erika Falk, the head of the master’s program at John Hopkins University, recently studied eight female candidates in 2008 and discovered each “received about ‘four physical descriptions for every one that described a man.’… about 29 percent of articles about Hillary Clinton contained a physical description” (Ferla 3). This research applies perfectly to Nancy Pelosi’s media coverage because there are many articles regarding her fashion and appearance. A quick Google search of either Boehner or Pelosi with the key word “fashion” proves the point. Only one relevant article appears for Boehner, while countless appear for Pelosi (see Bibliography for an extensive list of these articles).

Pelosi has particularly hit the spotlight in the category of fashion and appearance because she has been applauded for her fashion sense, which was ironically chosen by her husband (Alvarez 3). The Huffington Post releases mid-year style reports on her, and The New York Times Lizette Alvarez even went so far as to say, “Fashion authorities say Mrs. Pelosi should be applauded for her color choice… Women are already taking note of her style; orders of Tahitian pearls have skyrocketed” (Alvarez 1). While there is a legitimate place for a discussion on fashion and appearance and its effect on politics, it is clear that Pelosi has received unfair coverage on her fashion sense, while Boehner’s fashion is extremely ignored. This disparity in media coverage demonstrates that there was a large focus on her appearance, leaving a gap in coverage on the issues and her opinions. This also leads reporters and writers to draw conclusions on Pelosi’s leadership style based on her appearance, which clearly crosses a line into unfair and biased reporting.

The English language makes it difficult for commentators to find biting terms for male politicians, as many of the typical characteristics expected of politicians are masculine. However, it becomes easy to find specific, demeaning words for women in politics because they often are stepping outside of the traditionally expected bounds of femininity. Two such examples are ‘shrew’ and ‘harpy.’ These harsh terms have been liberally applied to Pelosi in her coverage, both by online commenters and actual reporters (Parkinson 5 and Kimball 1). But perhaps an even greater offense comes in phrases such as “the pink-painted halls of her private chambers” and “You’re the one who lives next to Phil,” she squeals, talking to a skinny blonde” (Grigoriadis 1). These particularly feminized criticisms of Pelosi come from Vanessa Grigoriadis in The New York Magazine. They point out her feminine traits in negative ways, illustrating her pink walls and squealing voice. These gendered terms cannot be seen in the descriptions of Boehner because hyper-masculinized traits can only be seen as positives rather than negatives in the political spectrum.

This final point is more of a side note, as it is a disparity in coverage simply because of Pelosi’s unique position as the first female Speaker of the House. Chris McGreal of The Guardian remarked, “Pelosi is being heralded as the most powerful woman in American history and the most powerful Speaker of the House of Representatives in a century” (McGreal 1). This pioneer position as the first woman and first Italian-American gives Pelosi a different amount of coverage and commentary in the media than Boehner. It is inherently gendered because it is a part of women’s history, but this is not necessarily a positive or negative difference. Rather, it is a simple gendered difference worth noting.

In short, men and women certainly experience differences in political coverage based off of inherent gendered biases. Pelosi and Boehner are no exception to the rule. Pelosi was differently covered based on fashion and appearance, gendered, disparaging terms, and her status as the first female Speaker of the House. These differences can be seen in the political coverage of all politicians, and critical readers should watch for them and be aware of the inherent cultural gendered biases in American politics.  

Alvarez, Lizette. "Speaking Chic to Power." The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Jan.
2007. Web. 09 Nov. 2012. 
Ferla, Ruth La. "The Fashion Conservatives." The New York Times. The New York Times, 21
Oct. 2010. Web. 09 Nov. 2012. 
Grigoriadis, Vanessa. "Why Is Nancy Pelosi Always Smiling?" Why Nancy Pelosi Remains
Upbeat Despite Dwindling Poll Numbers --. New York Magazine, 1 Nov. 2009. Web. 09 Nov. 2012. 
"John Boehner 8TH District of Ohio." John Boehner. U.S. House of Representatives, n.d. Web.
09 Nov. 2012.
Kimball, Chase. "Pat Bagley, Liberal." The Salt Lake Tribune. The Salt Lake Tribune, 21 Aug.
2012. Web. 8 Nov. 2012.
McGreal, Chris. "Nancy Pelosi: Is This the Most Powerful Woman in US History?" The
Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 26 Mar. 2010. Web. 09 Nov. 2012. 
Parkinson, John, and Arlette Saenz. "Pelosi Says GOP Plan on Student Loan Rate ‘Assault on
Women’s Health’." The Note. ABC News, 26 Apr. 2012. Web. 8 Nov. 2012
 “Representative Nancy Pelosi." Representative Nancy Pelosi. U.S. House of Representatives,
n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2012. 
Singer, Emily. "Nancy Pelosi's Midyear Style Report." The Huffington Post., 21 July 2011. Web. 09 Nov 2012. 

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