At the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on April 25, “Saturday Night Live” comedian Cecily Strong – the first woman to host the event in 20 years – created a memorable moment when she asked all members of the media in the ballroom to raise their hands and vow: “I solemnly swear not to talk about Hillary’s appearance, because that is not journalism.”
According to Chris Cillizza, writing for the April 27 Washington Post, Strong’s reference to the media coverage of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton “divided the room more than anything else uttered that night” with wild cheering from some sections of the room and silence in others. Although agreeing with Strong – to a point – that Clinton has been subjected to “more scrutiny (and analysis) over how she looks than any male politician” during the past two decades of her public life, Cillizza disagreed with the comedian’s broader premise that a candidate’s looks shouldn’t matter at all when it comes to her (or his) media coverage. “We know how a candidate looks and sounds is part of the overall equation for how voters decide whether to vote for him and her,” he wrote. “Given that, the right thing to do is to properly contextualize coverage of any candidate’s appearance. It should neither be 90 percent of the coverage nor zero percent.”
Aside from the perspectives of journalists and comedians, the media coverage of female versus male political candidates has been the subject of research for some 25 years. Early studies examining the newspaper coverage of women candidates running for election in the 1980s found that this medium not only stereotyped female candidates by emphasizing feminine traits and issues, but also accorded them less coverage that often questioned their viability as candidates. However, studies of the media coverage of female and male candidates running for mayor, governor and the U.S. Congress in the late 1990s through the 2014 election in newspapers and on television have found more equitable treatment.
Notably, the increasingly equitable media environment for female candidates does not seem to extend to those running for president or vice president – which gives some credence to Strong’s call out to journalists at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Numerous studies of Clinton’s bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president and Sarah Palin’s campaign as vice president on the Republican ticket found that both women were covered by the media in a negative, stereotypical and often sexist way. For example, Palin was often portrayed as a sex object while Clinton was attacked for her lack of femininity in print, television and social media coverage.
The often blatantly sexist media coverage of Clinton’s appearance and personality during her 18-month campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president was well-documented by such websites as Media Matters for America as well as in post-election commentary by some members of the media. In case you don’t remember, Clinton received extensive media coverage criticizing her show of cleavage in an outfit she wore while speaking on the Senate floor as well as negative commentary on her “calculating” laugh, dubbed by several journalists as the “Clinton cackle.” She was referred to as a “white bitch” on MSNBC and CNN; a blood-sucking “vampire” on Fox; the “wicked witch of the west” on CNN; and “everyone’s first wife standing outside of probate court,” a “she devil” and the castrating Lorena Bobbitt, all on MSNBC.
So, those of us who study the media coverage of female political candidates – as well as those supporting and campaigning for the recently announced Clinton for the Democratic nomination and the likely-to-announce Carly Fiorina in the Republican race – have some cause for concerns as the 2016 presidential race gets underway. Some supporters of Clinton – known as the HRC Super Volunteers – have already launched a campaign aimed at journalists to prevent the use of sexist language when covering her. They have warned journalists that they will be watching, reading, listening and protesting “coded sexism” in the media this time around, adding that they consider such words and phrases as “ambitious,” “tired,” “entitled,” “worn out” and “will do anything to win” to describe Clinton “sexist.”
The warnings from the HRC Super Volunteers may have the same effect as Strong’s effort at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner to pledge journalists not to cover Clinton’s appearance in the 2016 presidential campaign – cheered by some and ignored, or even jeered, by others. I don’t expect to see the blatantly sexist comments to describe Clinton, or Fiorina if she enters the race, as we saw in 2008. I don’t expect to hear any woman candidate described as a “white bitch” or “she devil” in the 2016 campaign – at least not in the mainstream media. We will see more subtle sexism in framing women presidential candidates this time around. And we are likely to see more coverage of the appearance of male presidential candidates in the media’s attempt to provide more equitable coverage.
Dr. Dianne Bystrom is the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. She has extensive personal and professional experience in covering, working in, and studying political campaigns. She is a frequent commentator about political and women’s issues for state, national and international media. Dr. Bystrom is a contributor, co-author or co-editor of 19 books—including alieNATION: The Divide and Conquer Election of 2012 (2014); Gender and Elections (2014, 2009 and 2006); Media Disparity: A Gender Battleground (2013); Women & Executive Office: Pathways and Performance (2013); Communication in the 2008 U.S. Election: Digital Natives Elect a President (2011); Cracking the Highest Glass Ceiling: A Global Comparison of Women’s Campaigns for Executive Office (2010); Legislative Women: Getting Elected, Getting Ahead (2008); Communicating Politics (2005); Gender and Candidate Communication (2004); Anticipating Madam President (2003); and Women Transforming Congress (2002) – and has written journal articles on women and politics, youth voters and the Iowa caucus. Dr. Bystrom’s current research interests focus on (1) the styles and strategies used by women and men political candidates in their television advertising, websites and speeches and (2) the coverage of women candidates and political leaders by the media. She earned a B.A. in Journalism in 1975 from Kearney (NE) State College and an M.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication in 1982 and a Ph.D. in Communication in 1995 from the University of Oklahoma.