Gender Bias as Global Phenomenon

The vast majority of the work that we have so far considered is focused on individual Western democracies, with the exception of a few panEuropean studies. Do similar patterns of stereotyping and marginalization occur in other political contexts? The answer, sadly, is yes, absolutely. In one of the few studies on Southeast Asia, Kaur and Shaari (2012) focused on the media's framing of women politicians during the general election in Malaysia in 2008. They found that across a sample of newspapers, irrespective of language (and thus presumed readership), women were often characterized as being “supported” by their husbands and family members or, if candidates were unencumbered by domestic responsibilities, their single status instead became the focus of attention. The same emphasis on bodily commodification and extensive comments on style, hair, dress, and so on were also routine features of news reports, as were discussions on the winning combination of beauty and brains. Few reports mentioned the policy positions or views of any of the women candidates, another way in which the West and the rest are remarkably similar despite stark differences in many other aspects of social, economic, and political life. The studies that suggest we are seeing a reduction in gender stereotyping are often focused on measuring elements which are easy to quantify, for example the number of column inches, the amount of airtime, the number of mentions, but what those studies cannot do is understand issues of tone, support/hostility and, potentially, bias. Nor can they consider, or seem to want to do so, the more subtle and therefore more pernicious elements of gendered media coverage that reinforce normative renditions of acceptable femininity whilst slyly critiquing signs of deviance which, de facto, must always characterize the womanpolitioian.

One of the many ways in which women are marginalized in election coverage is in the increasing focus by political parties to prioritize the party leaders, mimicking a presidential style which excludes almost everyone else, with the exception of a few front benchers who have significant portfolios. That such a focus marginalizes all other politicians and candidates as well is obviously true, but men's legitimacy to stand is already implicitly accepted simply by virtue of their sex, and men are all over the news anyway, making women's invisibility even more stark. In Britain over the last 20 years of general election coverage, the women who have been most frequently seen and discussed have been the leaders' wives. During the 1992 election campaign, Norma Major and Glenys Kinnock appeared more often in the national daily press than any politician, with the exception of the party leaders and Margaret Thatcher. Families are a crucial electoral asset, at least for men, and pushing the wives front and center is a canny move when their spouses are struggling for popularity (see a fuller discussion of this trend in Chapter 6). Looking at the British general election in 1997, Stephenson (1998) suggests that although political parties were very much aware of the need to win over women voters, the focus was on trivial issues such as which leader's haircut women voters preferred, or which leader's wife constituted the best role model. The women who featured most prominently in that election were the two leaders' wives, Cherie Blair and Norma Major. Although the 2010 election was dubbed the mumsnet1 campaign, this potential was quickly abandoned when the media became fixated on the novelty of the leaders' debates and the surprisingly good performance of the outsider, Nick Clegg, batting for the Liberal Democrats. Those debates were all (white) male affairs, not only in terms of the exclusively male line-up of party leaders, but also because the TV presenters were also exclusively male. An interesting development in the 2015 British election campaign was seeing seven party leaders on the podium for the first leaders' debate, three of whom were women, admittedly all leading minority parties but nonetheless being taken seriously enough to be included in that first (and indeed second) debate. One of them, Nicola Sturgeon (First Minister for Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party), was the surprise “winner” of that first debate, and throughout the remainder of the campaign she was headline news because of her potential as kingmaker for a Labour government. What was notable about Sturgeon's coverage (and different to that of Nick Clegg five years before) was that she was persistently sexualized by the rightleaning media in ways reminiscent of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton's treatment, with Photoshopped images of Sturgeon's face attached to a variety of scantily clad bodies. The left-leaning media, although far less prurient, nonetheless led with stories of her dramatic pre-election weight loss, her sartorial makeover, and her hair color. Women's success, even when framed as “against the odds,” is always measured against male norms so that their exceptionality is privileged and nurtured whilst ignoring both the structural inequalities that persist to constrain women's potential, and the possibilities for women to act differently to male counterparts and be successful in doing so. Even when women receive supportive media exposure, their sex is still the primary signifier and their “success” is in relation to the extent to which they measure up to male norms of political competence and maintain their “feminine” qualities. Not only do they have to be it all, they have to do it all as well.

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