By Shani Asokan –
Women in politics in the modern age are under-represented in most countries worldwide, in contrast to men. Nevertheless, they are progressively being elected to be heads of state and government.
Currently, more than 20 countries in North and South America, Australia and, Africa have a woman holding office as head of government, and the global participation rate of women in politics is approximately 20%. Although it is becoming less so in the political sphere, patriarchy is still a strong theme in mainstream media.
Margaret Gallagher in “Feminist Issues in the Global Media System”[i] speaks of the ‘sticky floor’ effect for women in media jobs. She identifies women as working predominantly in the middle-level areas of the media industry. That is, they can be presenters or newscasters, but never producers.
Due to this kind of exclusion, men hold most top jobs in the media, which could be a reason for the rather lop-sided manner in which women; primarily women in politics, are portrayed in the media. For this reason and others, more women should attempt to go against this norm and aim for top-level jobs in the industry by making civil society more aware of this gender-based hierarchy that exists within the media today.
Recently, the decision of four female celebrities to run for political office in the upcoming provincial council elections in Sri Lanka caught the attention of the media and created a nation-wide buzz.
According to an article in The Republic Square[ii], it was the statement by the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) that was most notable. They lamented that two of the main political parties were neglecting experienced local politicians and filling their nomination lists with ‘sex symbols’. As Kusal Perera of the Colombo Telegraph[iii] pointed out, this in itself is symbolic of the problems women face today.
While women have begun to shatter glass ceilings in most professions in Sri Lanka, sexism is still rampant, especially in the political sphere. The CaFFE went on to comment on the lack of experienced and active females in Sri Lankan politics. This being said, they also stated that the nomination of female celebrities as candidates has ensured that the political arena in Sri Lanka will continue in its patriarchal state for the foreseeable future.
This paradoxical statement by the CaFFE seems to contain many embedded assumptions. For starters, they seem to say these women who have been nominated are not experienced and are incapable of holding political office, and that there is a pool of prospective local male politicians, who are more deserving.
Another major assumption is that these women are ‘sex symbols’. One can only wonder on what basis this allegation was made. Was it because of their professions? Or was it because of the way they dress?
Sexuality is something we all have, but for some reason, being called a ‘sex symbol’ is considered morally wrong. It is even more negative if you are female as being called a sex symbol is accepted as derogatory and insulting. The only way to get rid of this taboo, is for more women to stand up to this negativity and show civil society and the media that sometimes being a sex symbol can have it’s benefits- they have the ability to captivate the attention of many people (their fans), which provides a large, impressionable base to spread their campaign.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Hollywood star and former body builder, known internationally for his sex appeal, served two terms as 38th Governor of California from 2003 until 2011. The term ‘sex symbol’ has hardly any negativity when used on him. But then again, he is a male politician, and this negativity only seems to extend to women.
This misrepresentation of women in politics by the media can be seen internationally as well. Both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton were featured stereotypically as ‘sex objects’ in their campaign coverage, which negatively affected their 2008 campaigns for Vice President and President respectively.
Once stereotyped as ‘sex objects’ the women are seen as ‘overly feminine’ and less competent than men, which is a rather unfair assumption. Even in feminist circles, flaunting ones sexuality is considered ‘un-feminist’, which contradicts severely with the fundamentals of feminism itself. It is not a necessity to act like a man in order to be politically capable, and Palin is the perfect example for this.
Although often portrayed as an overly feminine sex object, some say that Palin was definitely politically savvy. However, the negativity that is tied to being a female sex object made the public believe that she was less suitable for political office than her male counterparts. The media even went as far as leaking pageant photographs of Palin when she was younger, which were used to create a distraction to draw attention away from her political beliefs and dismiss her as a serious candidate.
For Clinton, it was a little different. From her tone of voice and her style of dressing, her eyes welling up with tears, to her credentials as a Senator, the media coverage for her campaign was alight with pure ridicule; something that was not seen in the coverage of her male counterparts’ campaigns.
However, in Asia and Africa we seen many women politicians who have made it to the top, despite being a part of some of strongest patriarchal countries to date. For example, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh has presently served three terms of office, and has previously only been succeeded by Khaleda Zia, another woman. If this can happen in a country such as Bangladesh, that has its roots planted firmly in patriarchy, it can happen anywhere. They have received their share of sexist backlash[iv] in the media, but have done wonders to the administration and economy of their country.
A discussion titled “From Bella to Hillary: Women, Media and Politics”[v] was held at the Paley Center for Media that same year, (2008) where female activists, writers, journalists and others gathered to debate how the mainstream media coverage of female political candidates had changed from the 1960s to the present.
In response to the question, ‘How are women in politics represented in the media’, Writer Gloria Steinem said, “We’ve moved from ridicule and invisibility to serious opposition.” In the 1960’s when Bella Abzug, an American women’s rights activist ran for congress, she was opened to pure ridicule by the media. However by 2008 the ridicule turned into a fight to make female candidates seem unworthy of even being nominated to run for political office. It’s safe to say, that this has continued, if not become worse in the present context.
The media refuses to consider female politicians as regular human beings. They feel the need to emphasise and somewhat exaggerate their emotional, feminine side and downplay the intelligence, power, and responsibility. They tend to go into great detail about the personal lives of female candidates, which is very different to the way they portray men.
For example, in the Estonian elections in 2004, the press portrayed the female candidates as more emotional, unstable and sensitive than the male candidates. Furthermore, a Danish report (Moustgaard 2004)[vi] about media coverage on women in politics found a large repertoire of clichéd images of women in politics such as mother, teacher, blonde, old maid, seductress etc.
In order to be taken more seriously by the patriarchy driven media, women in politics need to start thinking more about the way they present themselves in the media. The speeches they make to the press, and the election campaigns they run, all speak volumes about their character, something the media tends to exploit when trying to run them down. For example, Park Geun-hye, the first President of South Korea is considered to be one of the most influential politicians the country has ever seen. She faced almost no sexism or negativity when being portrayed in the media, except for the weak attempt made by the North Korean government.[vii]
According to ‘Traits versus Issues: How Female Candidates Shape Coverage of Senate and Gubernatorial Races’.[viii] A study carried out by Johanna Dunaway, an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Mass Communication of Louisiana State University, there is a significant difference in media coverage when female candidates are running for office.
This study found that the gender of the contenders in an election influenced the newspaper articles about them. The majority of articles written about female candidates focused on their personality traits and character, whereas articles on male candidates generally focused on the political issues at hand.
Researchers claimed the reason for this, was that the female politicians personalities, clothing and appearances all disproportionately grab the interest of the media.
Proving this point further, in 2013, the New York Times and Washington Post had articles focusing on female Senators’ purses and a White House Counsel’s shoe collection respectively. This shows us the absurd difference in the representation of female politicians in the media, in comparison to male politicians, as you would not expect to see an article about a male Senator’s tie collection or the President Obama’s magnificent selection of suits.
Since the media likes to focus on a woman’s personality so much, it would be beneficial if female politicians started using this to their advantage. Just like Barack Obama built his campaign around his African-American heritage, women should plan special media campaigns that focus on the issues they would take up if given office, such as women’s rights, children’s rights, healthcare, education etc.
This misrepresentation of female politicians in the media could prove to be a setback in achieving further gender equality in the political sphere. Portraying them in the media as overly feminine, uninformed, sex objects not only undermines their confidence, but also depicts them as less powerful than their male counterparts, which is often untrue. This not only discourages women from running for political office, but also serves as a reason for the scarcity of female politicians around the world.
However, it is not just the media that needs to change its views. Civil society in general has become accustomed to putting more faith in the hands of a male leader. Hence it is up to women everywhere to start taking a stand for themselves. Society needs to see more strong, powerful, goal-driven women standing up for their rights, and the rights of others. When they see it happening, they’ll have no choice but to accept it. Like Gandhi once said, “You have to be the change you want to see in the world.”
*The ‘Reimagining’ series by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) is intended to be a forum to communicate diverse perspectives on development. CEPA is an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty related development issues and Shani Asokan writes as a guest contributor to the ongoing series. We encourage you to submit your comments and responses to the article on this column via email: email@example.com and to follow further conversations on related topics, please visit www.reimagining.cepa.lk