On the Bias – June 5, 2015


In this issue of On the Bias, we highlight multiple sources of potential gender bias, moving beyond “mainstream” media to consider how other outlets and individuals, including the candidates themselves, contribute to the gender dynamics of the presidential race.

Bias or Business?

Hadas Gold’s May 25th story in Politico argues that many major women’s magazines have lined up behind Hillary Clinton, claiming, “several of the magazines’ past few months of coverage suggests that readers will be getting a heavy dose of liberal cheerleading this campaign season along with their skincare, makeup and fashion tips.” The story sparked a series of posts from conservative outlets about media bias in Clinton’s favor, calling the “swooning” women’s outlets “in the tank” for Clinton. This coverage highlights an important point about gender bias – that it can work for or against women candidates. But are women’s magazines really promoting Clinton? Or, as Jenny Kutner (Salon) pushed back, are they promoting the issues on which she stands – issues that matter most to their readers? Even more simply, are they celebrating the potential to make history in 2016 by electing the first female president, with Hillary Clinton the most likely lady to earn that honor?

The scrutiny of women’s magazines’ coverage of Clinton’s candidacy raises interesting questions about the importance and influence of identity politics for outlets that make their money on the assumption and evocation of gender affinity. Research by Kira Sanbonmatsu (2003) finds that women are more supportive than men of having more women in office, and a May 2015 YouGov poll finds women most hopeful for having a woman president in their lifetime. If increasing women’s representation and making history matters most to women, it may not be particularly surprising, or biased, that publications targeting women are ready to celebrate progress in women’s representation at the presidential level. While women’s magazines have no obligation to remain nonpartisan, it’s in their interest not to alienate readers who may disagree; at the same time, readers seeking objectivity might note – and celebrate – that the magazines are highlighting the historic nature of all women’s bids. Gold’s interviews with women’s magazine editors demonstrates this sensitivity among some, with Glamour Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive telling her: “We have 20 million print and online readers, and these are women whose political views are not monolithic. We keep that top of mind when it comes to our coverage of Washington and politics.”

Equal Opportunity Objectification

Last week, American Liberty PAC released an ad supporting presidential candidate Rand Paul in which the Senator was shown as a shirtless wrestler ready to “brawl” with the likes of President Obama, Ted Cruz, and Lindsay Graham. In addition to characterizing the presidential race as a battle royal where the manliest man wins, the ad’s muscular image of Paul objectifies the male candidate in a way we are more accustomed to seeing with reference to women. Paul is not the only male candidate being shown shirtless, however, as Susan J. Demas (MLive) reviews in her latest piece on the sexualized images of both men. Demas quips, “Maybe these beefcake photos should be considered progress. (Now powerful men can be creepily oversexualized, too!)” But her sarcasm is noted, and point taken: sexualizing any candidates, male or female, perpetuates the idea that meeting normative standards of sexuality is a criterion for holding office. Moreover, images of shirtless men are equally objectifying as images of women’s legs (see criticism of a recent editorial cartoon featuring Clinton’s legs and Palin’s reaction to photos of her legs in 2008), reducing candidates to what those body parts represent – brawn for men and beauty for women – instead of providing substantive insights to the candidate’s character or credentials.

As the presidential cycle continues, we’ll keep an eye on sexualized or objectifying imagery of all candidates, cognizant of their proliferation among internet memes and the ease with which gendered images seep into editorial cartoons, as Dr. Janis L. Edwards found in her 2007 article demonstrating masculinity as a topos (a theme or motif) in presidential campaign cartoons.

Candidate Comments on Sexuality

Candidates are not only masculinized by others, but also perform masculinity themselves. Earlier this week, video was posted of Republican candidate Mike Huckabee addressing the 2015 National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, telling the audience that he wished “someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE.” He added, “I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, ‘Coach, I think I’d rather shower with the girls today.’” Huckabee’s language is overtly derisive of transgender people, appealing to the socially conservative audience to which he spoke, but it also demonstrates the type of gender policing that is particularly acute when you are running for the most masculine office in American politics. In these comments, Huckabee brandishes his masculine credentials as a “typical” guy attracted to girls, boasting about how he would act on that attraction if given the opportunity.

Another male candidate for president – Democrat Bernie Sanders – was under some fire this week for his own sexually-charged comments. Mother Jones unearthed a 1972 essay Sanders penned for the Vermont Freeman in which he described a women fantasizing about gang rape. Sanders responded by explaining that the piece was “poorly written” and saying on Meet the Press, “It was dealing with gender stereotypes…why some men like to oppress women, why other women like to be submissive. You know, something like Fifty Shades of Grey.” It appears that most media and voters have either ignored the essay or accepted Sanders’ explanation, except some conservative outlets that have claimed a double standard in coverage. Whether or not a 1972 essay is relevant to the 2016 presidential race, the ease with which Sanders and some in the media discounted a “dumb attempt at dark satire” at least evidences the discomfort some have in dealing more critically with gender tropes, simplifying coverage to focus on the danger of rape rhetoric (a la Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock) in political campaigns instead of promoting any serious dialogue about the content of Sanders’ claims.

Beating Bias?

While Huckabee and Sanders faced some scrutiny for the gender insensitivity of their comments, comments made by Hillary Clinton last Wednesday demonstrated that she is highly aware of the gender dynamics that might shape her bid for office. In front of an audience in South Carolina, Clinton addressed age and appearance in a single joke that confronted sites for frequent gender bias head on. Noting the “graying” of previous presidents, Clinton said, “Now I may not be the youngest candidate in the race, but I have one big advantage: I’ve been coloring my hair for years,” adding, “Nooooooo…You’re not going to see me turning white in the White House.” Politico’s Annie Karni wrote that the comment proved that Hillary Clinton is “in on the joke,” aware of the scrutiny of both her appearance and her age, both of which differ in type and extent for women candidates.

Columnist Joe Battenfeld (Boston Herald) argues that “Hillary Clinton is immune from cracks about her age” because they will be assailed as ageist and sexist by her female supporters. (He writes, “Question her age and Clinton will get her fellow grandmothers to protest. Point out that she’s elderly by some legal standards and women voters might consider it an attack.”) Still, that has not stopped some from questioning her physical or mental health, and Battenfeld has a point that questions about Clinton’s age are not necessarily sexist if the same questions are asked, concerns raised, and images evoked of male candidates.

And, by the way, if you have any doubt that more attention is paid to women candidates’ appearance, see this interview in Politico with fashion designer Nina McLemore on the importance of “power dressing” for women in Washington, including commentary on Clinton’s pantsuits.