RESEARCH

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Literary review for the project Gender, Politics and Media: Challenging Stereotypes, Promoting Diversity, Strengthening Equality
Mervi Pantti

  1. Introduction
    1. Society has changed: Women’s political representation
    2. Gender portrayal has changed - but not enough…
    3. The media has changed – and some are saying, for the worse…
    4. Politics have changed – new style is personal and masculine
  2. Gendered mediation of politicians
    1. Invisible women
    2. Health and education are suitable issues for women
    3. Always married with children
    4. Style over substance
    5. Gendered speech: Men say, women blast
    6. Negative gender distinctions, frames and metaphors
  3. References

1. INTRODUCTION

The purpose of this report is to look at what part gender plays in the representation of politicians in the media. It seeks to provide an overview of the current research on female and male politicians’ representation. This report addresses questions such as the following: Do female politician and male politicians get an equal treatment in the media? Are the media neutral in their portrayal of politicians regarding gender, or are they circulating gender stereotypes? How is the representation of politicians linked to the question of the quality of journalism? Initially, quality in the context of gendered representation may be defined as the aim to reflect diverse social reality in programme content (van Cuilenburg 1998, 41) and thus to contribute to a better world (Mulgan 1990: 28-29). The media, after all, are among the main – if not the most important – institutions that can change attitudes regarding gender and raise awareness about gender issues. Furthermore, the media, and television in particular, currently constitute the real public space through which citizens understand the “political” (e.g. Corner & Pels 2003). If the media articulate the political, then the ways in which women and men are portrayed, their access to media, and their visibility as political agents in the media certainly matter.

The media, however, represent not only a potential cure for gender inequality in society and politics but also a source of this gender “sickness”. The paucity of women in decision-making roles, for instance, is connected to the deficiencies in women’s, in particular female politicians’, representation in media content (Gallagher 2001). Therefore, in 1995 in the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing media were requested to develop strategies to increase women’s participation in decision-making through promoting a less stereotyped image of women and offering equal access to media. This was also the goal of the European Screening Gender project in 1997-2001 (see http://www.yle.fi/gender), organized by five European public broadcasters (NOS, NRK, SVT, YLE, ZDF) and supported by European Commission under its Fourth Community Action Programme on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men.

Media, and television in particular, constitute our major source of the information that people use to shape their conceptions of self, others and the world. On the other hand, media products, such as news, are cultural artefacts that are deeply embedded in cultural, social and economic structures. Journalists and other media professionals are not necessarily aware of using dominant gendered frames, that is, "persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual” (Gitlin 1979, 12). One of these familiar frames through which gender differences are produced and interpreted is the public-private divide which means that women are seen to belong to family life and men are seen as political agents in the social world (Sreberny & van Zoonen 2000, 17). Those who depart from such roles may be stigmatised, excluded, or their actions rendered invisible. To change this current gender-based division in relation to public and private is to change media definitions that place men at the center of political activity and marginalize women’s perspectives and agendas (Gallagher 2001, 83-85).

The challenge for the project Gender, Politics and Media: Challenging Stereotypes, Promoting Diversity, Strengthening Equality is to build awareness of the need for diversity in media content and to stimulate new approaches to media portrayal of women and men in public life by producing and disseminating an audio-visual training toolkit that can be included in journalism training throughout the EU-25.

1.1 Society has changed: Women’s political representation

The concept of “symbolic annihilation”, referring to the media’s condemnation, trivialisation and exclusion of women, was popularised by Gaye Tuchman (1978). According to Tuchman changes in society would eventually result also in more and better representation of women although a period of “cultural lag” would first need to be endured. Since Tuchman’s work, women’s political representation has significantly increased, at least in some Western European countries. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden have all reached the goal set by the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women (BWCW) of having at least 30% of parliamentary seats filled by women by the end of 2002.

However, there are still many countries where the representation of women in national parliaments is low, particularly in most of the South European countries and in the former communist states in Central and Eastern Europe which acceded to the European Union on 1 May 2004. Italy, however, is an example of a country where there are few female representatives at national level but at regional level there are as many female politicians as in Northern Europe (Italy 2004). In Central and Eastern European there was a dramatic drop in women’s representation after the collapse of communism, from approximately 30% to below 10% (Sloat 2005). It is only recently that the political landscape of Eastern Europe has begun to change. For instance, the Baltic countries have reached levels of female representation near the average for Western Europe.

The following table shows the proportions of male and female members in the national parliaments in the EU:

It is no longer extraordinary for women to seek, and occasionally to obtain, high office. However, only Finland, Ireland and Latvia currently have female presidents, and at the beginning of 2005 there were no female prime ministers in the EU countries. The number of ministers in national governments reflects the numbers of members of national parliaments: in the Nordic countries and in some Western countries (Austria, Germany, Netherlands, and Spain) women are fairly represented, whereas in Eastern and Central European countries, as well as in the South (not including Spain), women still remain underrepresented. In CEE countries the number of women ministers has slowly increased during the decade after the democratic transition (Sloat 2005).

Women and men in national governments are represented in the following table (March 2005):

Senior Minister
 
President
Prime
Minister
Women
(%)
Men
(%)
Women
(n)
Men
(n)
Austria
M
M
55
45
6
5
Sweden
M
52
48
11
10
Spain
M
50
50
7
7
Finland
W
M
47
53
8
9
Germany
M
M
46
54
6
7
Norway
M
44
56
8
10
Netherlands
M
33
67
5
10
Denmark
M
28
72
5
13
Iceland
M
M
27
73
3
8
United Kingdom
M
27
73
6
16
Bulgaria
M
M
25
75
5
15
Liechtenstein
M
25
75
1
3
Latvia
W
M
24
76
4
13
AVERAGE
23
77
France
M
M
18
82
3
14
Luxembourg
M
17
83
2
10
Portugal
M
M
17
83
3
15
Romania
M
M
17
83
3
15
Lithuania
M
M
15
85
2
11
Malta
M
M
15
85
2
11
Ireland
W
M
14
86
2
12
Czech Republic
M
M
12
88
2
15
Hungary
M
M
12
88
2
15
Italy
M
M
9
91
2
21
Estonia
M
M
8
92
1
12
Slovenia
M
M
7
93
1
14
Greece
M
M
6
94
1
16
Poland
M
M
6
94
1
15
Cyprus
M
0
100
0
11
Slovakia
M
M
0
100
0
15

Source: European Commission, Database on women and men in decision-making (EU 2005.)

In the European Commission there are seven female members and 17 male members including the male president of the Commission. In the European Parliament women have 222 posts (30%) and men 510 posts (70%). The president of the European Parliament is male. In the Committee of the Regions there are 50 female representatives (16%) compared to 257 male representatives (84%), including the male president. (EU 2005.)

Gender biases disseminated by the media are significant because they can have electoral consequences; at a time when politics is thoroughly mediatised, voters respond to candidates largely in accordance with information (and entertainment) received from mass media. As John Corner (2003, 75) suggests, the media have become the public sphere in which the identity of the politician as a “person of qualities” is constructed, and the strength of these media-performative criteria are often such as to disqualify certain candidates either from becoming public political figures at all or at least from competing for high office.

Several U.S. studies have shown that perceptions of female and male candidates are influenced by gender differences in media coverage, resulting in significant disadvantages for women candidates (Kahn 1994). This disadvantage may be linked to the fact that the candidate who finally attracts votes needs to be perceived by the individual (hence represented by the media) as having a good chance of winning the election (Hitchon, Chang & Harris 1997). Correspondingly, voters respond negatively to speculation on candidates’ difficulties in winning the election (Kahn & Goldenberg 1991; Kahn 1994). Therefore it is not without consequences that coverage of female candidates is more likely to focus on how they are doing in the polls and how their campaigns are being run (Kahn & Goldenberg 1991).

Research into the effects of news coverage suggests that voters respond most positively to candidates who, regardless of their gender, receive the type of coverage usually accorded to male candidates (Kahn 1992). This typically includes extensive coverage of their stands on “hard” or “masculine” issues, such as crime and defence. Moreover, traditionally “feminine” traits such as warmth and empathy are considered less important in political candidates than traditionally male traits such as aggression. (Kahn & Goldenberg 1991; Kahn 1994.)

1.2 Gender portrayal has changed - but not enough…

What if she is supposed to push the button to fire the missiles and can’t because she’s just done her nails?
(Denver Post’s columnist Woodrow Paige about U.S. vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, cit. in Aday & Devitt 2000)
Sweet and involved – but also a bit naïve (...) Henriette Kjær has the heart, there’s no doubt about it, but she fails to demonstrate the results in practice. A sweet smile from a minister in the very best broadcasting time will not help the outcasts and the redundant.
(Politiken about Danish Minister Henriette Kjær in 2003, cit. in Moustgaard 2004)

Has the media’s treatment of female politicians changed in response to the growing political role of women? Change in media representation of gender is not easy to verify because of a lack of longitudinal quantitative research in any country (Gallagher 2001, 5). Most of the studies reviewed in this report are indeed qualitative. Sometimes the findings are conflicting. Studies on the coverage of the 1990s U.S. elections (e.g. Smith 1997; Devitt 1999; Bystrom, Robertson & Banwart 2001) found no significant differences in the coverage in terms of quantity but showed that in terms of quality female candidates received less equitable coverage: women received less issue-related coverage and they were more likely to be discussed in terms of their roles as mothers and their marital status, which can affect their viability with voters. Other U.S. studies (Aday & Devitt 2001; Heldman, Carroll & Olson 2000) examining the newspaper coverage of presidential candidate Barbara Dole found that she received less equitable coverage both in terms of quality and - contrary to above mentioned studies - especially quantity compared with her male opponents (including also those who at the time were behind her in the polls).

It is clear that differences in coverage of men and women politicians still persist, even if journalists rarely employ simple crude gender stereotypes typical of earlier decades in covering female and male politicians (Norris 1997; Smith 1997). However, this does not mean that highly sexist images of women or men have become extinct either, such as the belittling depiction of the Danish minister Kjær quoted above (in Moustgaard 2004). Not all politicians have the same access to media, nor do they enjoy the same level and volume of media interest and support, and this has to do with factors such as gender, age (in particular when women are concerned), and ethnic origin. Despite the growing numbers of female politicians and other professionals, the sources journalists choose to include in their accounts are predominantly male (van Zoonen 1998).

A comparative European study of male and female participation in television programmes carried out in 1997-1998 in Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden showed clear signs of unequal and stereotypical gender representation. Firstly, men were better represented than women in all television genres. Secondly, the largest female participation was found in programmes dealing with “soft issues” such as human relations, family, social and health issues. Women were least represented in programmes dealing with “hard issues” such as crime, technology/science, and sport. Thirdly, women were more often seen in roles with low status: more as ordinary citizens (47%) and victims (37%) than as politicians (28%) or experts (20%). Even though in most of these countries women’s participation in public life has traditionally been high, men still comprised the majority of politicians (72%) and experts (80%). (Eie 1998.) This study shows that changes in the social world, including the increasing participation of women in public decision-making, are not reflected on television. As a member of the Screening Gender project writes, “By and large, media images still reflect stereotypical reflections of gender roles. A male politician is first and foremost perceived as a politician. A female politician however is first and foremost seen as a woman, a wife and a mother. Her profession is rarely separated from her gender. By approaching a female politician as a woman, a mother or a wife, her social status tends to be diminished.” (Van Dijck 2002).

Another European study The Role of the Mass Media in the (Re)Distribution of Power (2004) has been conducted in Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, and Italy - culturally and politically very different countries. These mainly qualitative studies confirm that gender still matters in the media display of men and women in politics. Firstly, the studies showed that the media and journalists are still actively circulating conventional stereotypes about women (e.g. that women were meant to be mothers and wives) instead of reflecting the varied role of women in politics. Secondly, in all of the studies researchers highlighted the fact that the media use female politicians to report on “soft” issues such as education and culture, while using male politicians to talk about “hard” issues such as economics, foreign politics, and topics such as EU and NATO. Thirdly, the studies also showed that there is a quantitative imbalance in the coverage given to male and female politicians. (Brikse 2004, 25.)

It is also important to note that female politicians themselves do not believe they are treated the same way by the media as their male colleagues (Norris 1997; Ross & Sreberny-Mohammadi 1997; Moustgaard 2004). For instance, 75 percent of the Danish female politicians interviewed believe that they are not treated equally with their male colleagues in the media. In addition, half of them believe that men and women talk for equal amount of time in the media, but they believe they talk about different topics. (Moustgaard 2004, 24.) As a result of interviews with female British Parliament members Ross and Sreberny-Mohammadi (1997) conclude that most women politicians believe that their appearance is the focus of considerably more media attention than is true for their male colleagues. The message coming from female politicians is that in the media female politicians are asked about different things, and more attention is paid to their appearance, family life, and especially motherhood. In addition women feel that they have to “prove” themselves more than men, have to work harder than their male counterparts to succeed, and have to make more effort in order to be acknowledged for their political work by the media.

1.3 The media has changed – and some are saying, for the worse…

The considerable increase in the presence of women in the public sphere and their entry into the area of political decision-making, as well as the changes in media-political dynamics, has happened together with the so called tabloidisation of the media. Tabloid media and tabloid journalism are generally considered to be synonymous with bad media and bad journalism. The tabloidisation process is usually debated in the context of journalism and the main concern has been that sensational entertainment is displacing serious journalism. Tabloidisation includes not only the commercial media but also the public service media, which must compete for audiences.

There are certainly diverse views about the characteristics, causes and effects of the tabloidisation. Media scholars, however, do agree on some characteristics of the tabloidisation process: Tabloid journalism thrives on sensation and scandal, personalises, simplifies, ignores the public issues in favour of private ones, and favours striking visuals over serious analysis. Different conceptions of tabloidisation are partly due to the fact that the changes occurring in journalism and in the media in general are different in different socio-cultural contexts. In examining tabloidisation it is therefore essential to take into consideration the characteristics of the national media culture, journalistic traditions, as well as the characteristics of the political, cultural, and social life of the country. For instance, in the German news media tabloidisation has not posed a serious threat to “serious” news and traditional news values (e.g. Esser, 1999; Schönbach 2000).

Likewise, there are different views about the effects of tabloidisation. As the mass media can be regarded a main factor in the social construction of political public opinion, and since a healthy democracy needs informed citizens, there is widespread concern about the threat tabloid journalism poses to rational debate and civic participation (e.g. Sparks 2000). For French media critics Bourdieu (1996) and Ramonet (2001) the problem of tabloid journalism is that it panders to the lowest common denominator of public taste and thus celebrates the “culture of ignorance”, i.e. dumbs down. Some scholars, on the other hand, suggest that tabloid journalism has given access to groups and issues that were previously excluded from the public sphere. Glynn (2000, 228; also Tomlinson 1997, 37), for instance, points out that tabloid journalism provides an alternative to the traditional journalism dominated by elite sources and hegemonic voices. Furthermore, it has been claimed that tabloid journalism has the ability to accelerate societal change by identifying new social currents and issues, and redefining previously neglected issues as being in need of debate. The often criticised appeal to emotions prevalent in tabloid journalism has also been perceived as stimulating political participation. Langer (1998), for instance, suggests that unlike the ”hard news” that is separated from the every day experiences of common people, the ”other news” can provide opportunities for identification and engagement.

The problem with many studies of tabloidisation (Americanisation, popularisation, marketisation, or commercialisation) is that they tend to see the phenomenon in terms of either negative or positive development. For such scholars quality journalism deals with public matters and employs rational-critical modes of speech whereas popular or “bad” journalism focuses on private and emotional matters. This interpretation of quality seems to be essentially linked to the boundary between the private, domestic, feminine world of emotion and the public, masculine, rational world of men (Macdonald 2000; Aldridge 2001; Meijer 2001). As Irene Costera Meijer (2001) has shown there is an alternative way of approaching the debate on quality in journalism. She suggests that journalists need to move away from the binary oppositions serious/popular, hard/soft, factual/personal, rational/emotional, and so on, and to use multiple approaches imaginatively in covering social life. This means that the human interest approach and the conventional “serious” approach do not need to be oppositional, but complementary. As Elizabeth Bird (2000) suggests, people may pay more attention to stories about public issues if these are presented to them engagingly.

What is important here, is that neither the human interest nor the personal approach to news and current affairs programmes necessarily means excluding social and political issues or substituting emotion for analysis (Macdonald, 2000; Sparks 2000, 26). For instance, television news can use personal stories to engage with serious issues and can enable understanding through their affective qualities (Macdonald 2000). The danger is, as Myra Macdonald (2000, 265) writes, that “personalization as a cheap and easy substitute for thorough, open and scrupulous investigation may be a temptation under-resourced program makers will find increasingly hard to resist”.

1.4 Politics have changed – new style is personal and masculine

One of the main issues in the contemporary mediatised politics is personalisation, which means that the performance and individual capacities of politicians are emphasised at the expense of ideas and debates about issues (van Zoonen 2005, 70). The symbiotic relationship between the media, in particular television, and politics has developed a new type of politician who uses the media as a stage for his/her image-building rather than for political content. A crucial question is, whether one type of performer is favoured over others?

According to Liesbet van Zoonen (2005, 75) “cultural model of politician is much closer to the ideas of masculinity than of femininity, which will make a successful performance more complicated for women”. Ross and Sreberny (2000, 93) conclude that this cultural model of the politician as male, and of politics as an essentially male pursuit, affects the ways in which politics is reported. What they are saying is that the image and language of mediated politics supports the status quo (male as norm) and regards women politicians as novelties, or as “others”. The political field has been represented as dominated by rational, aggressive, and individualistic behaviour that is in contrast to an emotionally involved, modest, cooperative (stereotypically feminine) ways of doing politics. Conventional news frames, for instance, construct politics on the whole in typically masculine terms: politics have been constructed as if it were battle or a sporting match. When the media use macho-metaphors women politicians may be disadvantaged: when a reporter for instance adopts the language of war, ice hockey or boxing to tell his story, it is not a surprise that he neglects to comment on the performance of the female participants. The use of stereotypically masculine imagery serves to reinforce the perception that women do not really belong in politics, or are not fit for it.

Masculine framing of news may serve to marginalize women who fail to behave as combatively as their male counterparts (Gidengil & Everitt 2003; Latvia 2004, 42). To counteract this tendency and show that they belong in the traditional masculine world of politics, women running for elected office have been attempted to emphasize stereotypically masculine traits by adopting strong stances on political issues and highlighting their toughness. Yet, when women attempt to project more masculine characteristics, research has suggested that they are no more likely to win an election than their female counterparts who have positioned themselves on the more traditional feminine characteristics (Hitchon, Chang & Harris 1997). What is at stake here is the infamous “double bind”, i.e. contradictory expectations, noted by many feminist media critics: aggressive female candidates appear unfeminine and therefore unacceptable, but feminine women are deemed ineffective. On the other hand, women have also played their gender cards differently by claiming that their role as mother provides them with the humanity and morality that is much needed in politics (Ross & Sreberny 2000). How complicated the gender issue still is in politics is highlighted in the comment of Henrik Qvortrup, the editor in chief on the weekly Danish magazine Se & Hor (cit. in Moustgaard 2004, 30): “I believe it frightens men when women almost appear as masculine lesbians. It’s as if maintaining your femininity will conciliate people’s attitude towards your power. I believe power combined with femininity is easier accepted.” Needless to say that power combined with masculinity has never been an issue in politics or for the media.

An important question regarding gender is how does tabloidisation affect the way in which mainstream media cover politics? Does tabloidisation, chasing the audience, mean that we are witnessing a breaking of the boundary between the public, rational world of men and the private, domestic, emotional world of women? With the crumpling of the private/public division and the media’s growing interest in human interest stories one may expect to see further changes in gender representation. Some scholars have indeed suggested that the recent growth of intimacy in news coverage including increased attention to human interest stories and personalisation may allow a growing visibility of women as political actors and a growing recognition of “feminine” issues in the public sphere (Sreberny & van Zoonen 2000; van Zoonen 2005). On the other hand, the label of outsider has apparently remained unchanged in the new celebrity politics too: female politicians cannot perform a political persona whose private and public life are integrated in a convincing totality (van Zoonen 2005).

One important part of the new personalised politics is the act of “being human” i.e. displaying emotions, disclosing one’s personal life. Emotionality is also one of the most important dimensions on which the gender differences have been constructed in politics and in society in general. Recently, scholars have been interested in the “feminisation” of masculine emotionality (e.g. Lupton 1998; Furedi 2004). Media representations of masculine emotionality, such as men of power fighting back tears in news programmes or talking about their intimate relationships in talk shows, seem to be more and more prevalent. Traditionally, in Western societies, it has been considered inappropriate for men to show emotions (excluding “powerful” emotions such as anger) in a public and especially in a professional context. However, as Maurizia Boscagli (1992/1993) states, appearing moved in public no longer stigmatizes men of power as weak and feminine, but instead proves that they are humane and sensitive. President Bill Clinton specialized in telling the world about his feelings and showing his inner vulnerability as an “abused” child. President George W. Bush demonstrated his humanity during the presidential campaign of 2000 by crying on the Oprah Winfrey show. The remaining fortresses of unemotional power seem to be crumbling: for instance, the German chancellor Gerhard Schroder has been recently showing more of his human side by speaking in a talk show about what it meant to him to have adopted a child from Russia. The media encourage politicians to reveal their personal selves, and politicians are rewarded for coming across as accessible and human by an electorate indifferent to traditional politics (Furedi 2004, 57).

Again, the question is whether this new way of mobilising popular support works similarly for men and women. Are crying female politicians also more human? Some writers have been cautious to conclude that the “feminization” of masculine emotionality results in more gender equality. On the contrary, masculine emotionality has been seen to universalize men’s humanity, while the emotionality of women and other subordinate groups is still easily stigmatized. As Maurizia Boscagli (1992/3: 75) writes: “While a man who cries is a human being, a woman who cries is a woman. By crying she loses her humanity only to become gendered and ‘particular’ again”. This means that the public disclosure of emotion by men and women does not necessarily carry the same symbolic value: while for men in power tears may be a sign of sensibility and strength, for women they still may be a sign of weakness. For instance, in coverage of the murder of Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh in Finnish newspapers male politicians (mainly prime minister Göran Persson) are always described as “moved”, “shocked” or “struggling to hold back tears”, but never crying. Women, on the contrary, cannot hold back. For example Nalin Pekgulin, the chair of the Women’s League of the Social Democratic Party, is described as “breaking into tears” while reminiscing how Lindh had been worried about her ability to cope after the birth of her first child (Pantti 2005).

>>> 2. Gendered mediation of politicians