Gender bias in the media coverage of male and female politicians has been gradually recognized in recent years. But as the conversation has moved forward and as we enter a new presidential election cycle with a historic number of female candidates seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination, debates on how to fight sexist tropes are erupting.
When Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., announced her run for president last February, Politico published a story headlined “Warren battles the ghosts of Hillary” within 24 hours. It was then publicized with a tweet asking “How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?”
The tweet was widely criticized, and the news outlet faced instant backlash for making their first story covering Warren’s campaign about how her gender would most likely make her “unlikable” to some American voters.
However, I think that although the article was most certainly poorly addressed and atrociously timed, Politico was bringing up a topic that should be discussed — one that the media cannot shy away from.
Columnists at leading news publications such as Arwa Mahdawi of The Guardian argued that the media needs to stop talking about sexist tropes in politics because by incorporating them into the narrative, we reduce female candidates’ campaigns to their gender. This argument flows naturally: If you repeat something long enough, it tends to make an idea concrete — that powerful women are unlikeable and are unsuited for office.
But refusing to address sexism in political elections doesn’t make the issue any less pervasive, and more importantly, it doesn’t help to change any biased views that people might have on what a president should be like and what qualities are deemed “likeable” or not.
The fact that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, was asked at her first press conference after announcing her presidential campaign whether her being a “pretty likable, a nice person” would be a selling point for her going up against Trump proves that there is a bias entertained by the American media.
On the other hand, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., being asked by an audience member at a town hall in Iowa whether a male candidate is better-suited to challenging Trump than a woman proves that there is a bias entertained by the American people.
Only 52 percent of Americans would be “very comfortable” with a female president, according to a study published in late 2018 by Kantar Public. But voters rarely acknowledge this bias.
Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which supports women in politics, told The New York Times that “for 20 years, we’ve heard participants in our focus groups say they would vote for a woman, just not that woman.”
This goes to show that the ways in which voters identify candidates to be likeable or unlikeable are often unconscious. For instance, Harvard researchers found in 2010 that voters regarded “power-seeking” women with contempt and anger but saw “power-seeking” men as stronger and more competent.
It’s the media’s role to voice these misconceptions out loud so people will hopefully come to realize their bias and reconsider their views. If media outlets want to live up to their ambition of being fair and objective in their reporting, and thus in their treatment of presidential candidates, then they need to be realistic about the different challenges male and female candidates face with convincing voters to support them.
New York University press critic Jay Rosen was quoted in a Washington Post article in February as saying that the media’s denial of their obvious bias in reporting reminded him of political scientist Norman Ornstein’s critique: “A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.”
There is no perfect roadmap regarding how to achieve fair coverage of male and female candidates in a given political race, evaluating both the true nature of their personal successes and scandals and the unfair or advantageous gendered expectations.
However, a few pointers can be given on how to avoid the pitfalls of traditional gender-biased reporting.
When reporting on an incident where Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., berated a staff member for forgetting her fork, news outlets should also be reporting the fact that “Uncle Joe” Biden has a similar reputation of being a senator with a “short fuse.”
When mocking former Democratic candidate Gillibrand for trying too hard to be authentic and relatable through eating fried chicken, media outlets should be willing to directly compare that to the fact that Beto O’Rourke, D-Tex., obviously planned out the Instagram livestream of his casual dentist appointment.
This enables readers to be confronted with the reality of whether criticism of a candidate’s behavior is made on the assumption that they violated traditional political or behavioral norms, or that they violated traditional gender norms.
Megan Chourreau-Lyon PZ ’21 is from France and the U.K. She’s passionate about politics and law, Brexit being over and cheese.