How the Media Devalue Women

Misogyny has been all over the news recently, which happens once in a blue moon when some horrifying event overcomes our power of denial.  Surprisingly, the 24-hour news cycle itself has escaped the media circus of blame on what causes many men to objectify and hate women. However, media’s own prejudice is apparent when examining their devaluing portrayal of powerful women. News media are pervasive, inundating us in every form and viewpoint, from Breitbart online to Jon Stewart on television. How much is our perception of women skewed if the message we constantly hear and read is that even the most influential women are trivial typecasts?

2014 will be a big year in American politics.  There will be 36 state governorships and 33 federal senate seats up for grabs this fall, and that’s not even counting the primaries. Before you retweet a story about a candidate, here are a couple of facts to be aware of: 1. Media are our most important information sources and influencers of our interpretation of politics and politicians [1] and 2. Women do not receive the same kind of media coverage and media legitimacy as men [2] .

In 2013 two filibusters made headlines: Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Wendy Davis. Do you know what Rand Paul’s filibuster was for? What about Wendy Davis’ filibuster? Do you know what shoes Rand Paul wore during his filibuster? Wendy Davis’ filibustering shoes? Media coverage of influential women uses stereotypes, descriptions, and gender-specific questions that are not used in coverage of male peers [3] .

This bias in media coverage is apparent when juxtaposing two articles from the Washington Post’s Politics section written the day after each filibuster ended.

First paragraph of article on Paul’s filibuster:

First paragraph of article on Davis’ filibuster:

Nowhere in the 1,040-word piece on Pauls’ filibuster were his shoes or any other article of his clothing mentioned. Media’s discrimination in coverage between men and women might be the only bipartisan collusion in the United States. Sarah Palin was the 2008 vice presidential nominee of John McCain and, comparably, Paul Ryan was Mitt Romney’s 2012 nominee. In 2008 the more liberal media sites discredited Sarah Palin by focusing on her clothes, who designed them, and how much they cost. Consequently, Google Trends shows media’s impact on the public’s interest in Palin’s clothes compared to Ryan.

Figure 1: Google Trends for search words “sarah palin clothes” and “paul ryan clothes” during the respective election periods Palin and Ryan were running as vice-president.

It can be precariously argued that the coverage of Palin’s appearance is relevant due to her previous experience with beauty pageants. However, media’s attention to women’s appearance is not limited to those with previous careers as a model or celebrity. Hillary Clinton has never tried to represent herself as a style icon, yet there was a backlash against her in 2011-2012 for tying her hair back with scrunchies. News would become incredibly congested if media made the same fuss over male politicians’ accessories.

Worse than the distracting furor over these non-issues is the resulting reflection and devaluation of the woman’s pertinent experience and attributes. Media’s objectification of women leads us to discredit their impact, contributions, and viability as candidates. The devaluing effect is the same regardless of the tone. Experiments have shown that fictitious female candidates were considered as more viable candidates when they received the same media coverage as male candidates [3].

An excellent example of media’s influence on our opinion of prominent women is David Weigel’s Slate article “The Overrated Huma Abedin.” Much of the coverage on Abedin was in a positive light, but it was still coverage on her appearance and stereotypically feminine topics. With limits on word counts and airtime, the persistent highlighting of Abedin’s femininity in media profiles equates to a dearth of reporting on her skills and experience.

Objectification of Abedin reduces her to a caricature. As a political reporter himself, David Weigel is far better equipped than the average person to separate the wheat from the chaff of the relentless media noise. However, it is difficult to form a well-balanced estimation of a person’s expertise and knowledge when the prevailing information is irrelevant, trivial, and sexist.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could read an article about a woman’s achievements and the first sentence was about her actions and not her shoes?  How nice would it be if the media cared about gender equality every day instead of when something catastrophic happens?  The day the media start treating women as they would their male counterparts is when we can finally have a fair fight.  It’s time for both media consumers and creators to take off our rose-tinted glasses.

1. Aalberg, T. & Stromback, J. (2011). Media-driven Men and Media-critical Women? An Empirical Study of Gender and MPs’ Relationships with the Media in Norway and Sweden. International Political Science Review, 32, 167-187.

2. Kahn, K.F. (1994). The distorted mirror: Press coverage of women candidates for statewide office. Journal of Politics, 54, 154-173.

3. Braden, M. (1996). Women politicians and the media. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press.