On Tuesday, Kathleen Hall Jamieson–a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and author of several books on politics and the media (including Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment and unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation)–spoke at Fountain Street Church in downtown Grand Rapids on the topic of women and politics in the 2008 election. Jamieson spent the majority of her talk looking at the how the two most prominent female candidates–Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin–were portrayed in the media.
Two Candidates, Two Different Ways of Portraying a Laugh
In the beginning of her talk, Jamieson asked the audience to think of a front-running candidate in fall of 2007. A candidate who had raised substantial amounts of money. A candidate who was from New York. That candidate also had an eccentric laugh. The candidate had a tendency to laugh when asked a tough question.
Jamieson–who showed video clips to backup her claim–said that this description could have fit either Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Rudy Giuliani.
However, the media only made a story out of Hillary Clinton’s laugh, dubbing it a sign of “in authenticity” and a “cackle.”
Jamieson argued that this was a result of a gender stereotype and bias in the media. The reporting drew on a lexicon of dismissive language–i.e. a “cackle” that originates with female witches–that is used in a gendered way. She cites other examples such as “shrill,” “strident,” “harpee,” and “bitch”–all of which can be used to dismiss women.
Clinton Faced Pervasive Gender Stereotyping in 2008 Campaign
Kathleen Hall Jamieson argued that Hillary Clinton faced almost constant gender stereotyping in the 2008 campaign.
She shared several video examples with the audience, among them a clip in which a John McCain supporter asks McCain “How do we beat the bitch.” Jamieson explained that the referent is assumed and that there is an underlying assumption that this is appropriate. She asked the audience to consider why it was that nobody asked if it was appropriate to refer to a Senator this way and contrasted it the national discussion that followed other instances of inappropriate language use.
This was just one example of numerous sexist lenses used to cover the campaign. Jamieson said that Clinton was subject to a double-standard of evaluation. For example, MSNBC host Chris Matthews described a speech as “charming” and said that she was only a Senator because people felt bad for her. At other times, she was portrayed as a “nagging wife” and a “scolding mother.” Jamieson said that these portrayals all went back to a “residue of past discrimination” against women.
Jamieson said that gender stereotyping had a backlash before New Hampshire when after a week that including Clinton having an emotional moment on television, being confronted by protestors yelling “Iron my Shirt”, Obama saying that Clinton was “likeable enough”, and John Edwards saying Clinton wasn’t qualified–women changed their minds and voted for her.
Sarah Palin Faced Similar Treatment
When sexism and media coverage are discussed in terms of the 2008 election, much of the discussion tends to be dominated by progressives looking at the treatment of Hillary Clinton. However, Jamieson reminded the audience that Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin was subjected to similar treatment.
Like Clinton, Palin was sexualized by the media (particularly on the Internet) and made into an object of desire rather than a serious political candidate (examples would be Photoshopped images and popular references to her as a “VPILF”). Jamieson argued that this had the practical effect of removing them from the debate as candidates.
Palin was also subjected to a host of questions about whether or not she could be both a candidate and a mother, or a vice president and a mother. Obama was never asked such questions, despite the fact that he had two kids who he would be raising in the White House.