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


Feminist textual analysis has long been concerned with how women are represented in the media. Tuchman’s “symbolic annihilation” refers to the media practice where women’s experiences are recurrently effaced, trivialized and marginalized. Aspects of this symbolic annihilation remain key issues for contemporary studies of women, media and politics. Feminist scholars have looked at the marginalisation and trivialisation of women both in terms of quantity and quality. Gidengil and Everitt (1999, 49) see three phases in the study of women, politics and media, beginning with the question of visibility/invisibility, then moving to examine the coverage of women politicians, and finally looking at “gendered mediation”. In this last phase the focus is shifted “to the more subtle, but arguably more insidious, form of bias that arises when conventional political frames are applied to female politicians”. In the third phase, researchers have widely adopted framing theory to examine how political women and men are covered.

There has been concern that the modern bias facing women in politics is that the media simply use traditional frames built around the dominance of men in coverage of women, which makes it difficult for women to be portrayed as anything other than outsiders. The new celebrity culture in politics does not seem to offer an alternative frame for women. Rather, as van Zoonen (2005, 95) suggests, the celebrity attention paid to female politicians functions “as a continuous reminder of their odd choices as women and their odd position in politics”. The only unproblematic position for women that the territory of politics allows for is one of support; support of the wife for the husband in politics or support of the female colleague for the male leader (van Zoonen 1998).

Some feminist scholars have pointed out a new trend regarding symbolic annihilation, namely the tendency for women themselves to contribute to trivialisation in the media (e.g. Aslama & Jääsaari 2004). Examining the New Zealand election of 2001 Susan Fountaine & Judy McGregor (2002) give examples of “self-trivialisation”:  in local elections a young female candidate stripped down and proclaimed herself “the naked politician” for her campaign postcards, causing an outbreak of media interest - and election to the city council (nothing new in Europe where former porn queen Ilona Staller, better known as “Cicciolina,” ran a successful campaign with bare breasts for the Italian national parliament in 1987). Another example concerns Prime Minister Jenny Shipley who deflected a question about the significance of gender, saying the only difference it made to her was that it is harder to step over television cables in high heels. The wider impact of women’s exploitation of gender, for instance female politicians playing bimbo, may hinder progress toward equality in media representations.

The remainder of this review looks at gendered mediation in more detail by focusing on the findings of recent research on gendered mediation of politicians. The first aspect to be looked at is visibility/invisibility (1): How much do female and male politicians appear in the media?  The next question is how political women and men are represented (2-6)? This question is approached through five different aspects of gendered mediation which come strongly out in research. There seems to be broad agreement that when women in general and female politicians in particular are represented in the media, they are presented in special ways, as stereotypes or through conventional frames. This can be done in various ways: by presenting women who achieve the same results as men as “unique”. For example when a woman becomes prime minister, she may be asked specific questions, rarely asked of male counterparts: for example how she combines the highly demanding work of prime minister with husband and children. Other gendered media practices include reporting male and female speech differently; gender stereotyping female politicians by using gendered descriptive terms (for instance age, physical appearance and marital status are much more likely to be seen as relevant than they will be for male politicians); and explicitly marking the gender when the news actor is female (“the female politician” as opposed to “the politician”).

2.1 Invisible women

Media images of politicians seem to reflect the images of men and women in the media in general. In 1995 the main research results of the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) showed that women were just 17 percent, and men 83 percent, of the news subjects on radio, television, and newspapers during one chosen day. Five years later, in 2000, the main results of GMMP had hardly changed: women in the world’s media in one day were found to be just 18 percent of the news subjects, and men 82 percent. As Margaret Gallagher (2001, 83) states, one of the battles in the struggle to tear down current gender-based divisions in relation to public and private is a battle to change media perceptions of the newsworthiness of female politicians.

  • Many studies by Kim Fridkin Kahn (e.g. 1991, 1992, 1994, Kahn & Goldenberg 1991) in the US examining newspaper coverage of female candidates running for election in the 1980s (U.S. senate and gubernatorial races between 1982-1988) show that the news media give women candidates less issue coverage than men running for office. In addition, Kahn found that the press not only stereotypes female candidates by highlighting their femininity and “feminine issues” but also questions their viability as candidates.
  • Norris (1997) in her study of international women leaders concludes that women world leaders were less visible in the news than male leaders, but that the difference in the amount of coverage was not great.
  • A Latvian report (Latvia 2004, 40, 45) on the representation of female politicians during the Parliamentary elections of 2002 concludes that in the Latvian press women did not usually feature as presenters of a party’s position: descriptions of female politicians were related more to their personal features than to their professional experience. Male politicians also dominated radio programmes and television programmes dealing with the elections. Some studies also show that women candidates are more often than male candidates – against the trend of “personal politics” - described by collective identity (party membership) rather than by their individual characteristics and personal beliefs (Estonia 2004, Italy 2004).
  • The Italian survey “Donne Lavoro e TV – La rappresentazione femminile nei programmi televisivi” (CNEL 2003, 226) on the representation of women in fiction and infotainment programmes of three Italian broadcasters (Rai, Mediaset and La7) during one sample week in 2001 (162 programmes; domestic programmes 22.8%, US 64.8%, other 12.3%) concludes that women were both underrepresented (quantitative analysis) and marginalized (qualitative analysis) compared with men in the category of “potenti”  [the powerful] that included e.g. politicians and political and spiritual leaders. In three other groups, “famous people,” “professionals” (excluding athletes) and “ordinary people”, the representation of women with respect to men was fair.
  • An Italian report investigating gender stereotypes in Italian infotainment talk shows during the campaign for European elections in 2004 concludes that female presence had primarily a representative value (for example, five or six men versus one woman in a talk show). (Italy 2004, 77)
  • A study of the media coverage (newspapers, magazines, and TV) preceding (1.7.2003-15.4.2004) the German elections in May 2004 shows that the Christian Democrat Union and Liberal Democrat Party candidate Horst Köhler received significantly more media attention (70%) than his female adversary Gesine Schwan (30%), the Social Democrat Party, Green and Socialist Democrat Party candidate. Köhler’s media depiction, however, was more negative than Schwan’s: Only 30 percent of stories about Köhler were positive while 20 percent were negative. On the other hand, 45 percent of stories about Schwan were positive, and only 3,5 percent negative. (Rettich 2004)
  • The representation of male and female politicians in two of Italy’s main broadcasters, RAI and Mediaset (six television channels altogether), shows significant disproportion. In 2002, the six television channels devoted some 79 hours (7,5%) to female politicians compared with 999 hours (92,5%) devoted to male politicians. There was no significant difference between public and commercial broadcasters. The most prominent Italian male politician in terms of screen time was Silvio Berlusconi, to whom Italian television devoted 10 331 minutes. This is more than twice as much as the time devoted to the ten most prominent female politicians together (4 751 minutes). The first female politician Letizia Moratti got 406 minutes screen time. Interestingly the study also shows that women were more visible in television programmes that were not primarily occupied with politics: women were least represented in the news programmes (1.5% of screen time) and most in entertainment programmes (18%). (Osservatorio di Pavia 2005)
  • A Dutch study on the television coverage (news and current affair programmes) of male and female politicians who were heading their parties’ list of candidates in the 2003 parliamentary elections shows that male politicians heading the list of candidates in a party received more than twice as much attention as female candidates in the same position (one reason for this, besides gender, might be that male politicians heading the list of candidates came from bigger parties). The most visible female politician heading the list of candidates in her party was Femke Halsema (9,5%), whereas male politicians Wouter Bos had 20 percent and Jan Peter Balkende and Gerrit Zalm both 15 percent of the screen time. (Wierstra, 2003)

2.2 Health and education are suitable issues for women

One of the most frequently discussed gender issues deals with topic selection in the news, i.e. the issues covered. The distinction is usually made between soft and hard news. Soft or “female” news includes social issues, consumer issues, health care, education, child care, and the environment. Hard or “male” news includes politics, business, military, technology, science, and crime news. Since the 1990s the tabloidisation or popularisation of news has implied a greater prioritisation of soft news (but also sport, accidents, and crime). If we look at headlines or news placement it is still evident that “male” news has more status than “female” news.  That “soft” issue are considered more suitable than “hard” issues for women (Spears & Seydegart 2000). Just as women tend to report on "soft" news, they are more visible as interviewees or subjects in stories on health (29%), education (29%) and arts and entertainment (35%). They are less visible in stories on international crises (11%), war (11%), politics and government (12%), sports (12%), economy and business (17%).

In explaining differences in the quality of coverage between women and men, Norris (1997) noted that the public believes men are better at handling “tough” issues such as the economy and foreign policy while it sees women as better at domestic issues requiring compassion, such as education and welfare. Similar views are reflected in media coverage, where reporters portray men as strong and women as sensitive.

  • Several studies examining newspaper coverage of female candidates running for election in the U.S. senate and gubernatorial races in 1980s and 1990s show that female candidates receive less issue-related coverage. Female candidates are less likely than are men to have their positions or records on public policy covered by the news media (Devitt 1999; Kahn 1994; Kahn 1996). This occurs despite the fact that female candidates are more likely than are male candidates to make issues a cornerstone of their campaign (Kahn 1994).When female candidates issue positions were covered the focus tended to be on issues like education rather than the economy or foreign policy.
  • Carroll and Schreiber (1997) identified a positive tone in coverage of women in the U.S. Congress, with little evidence of bias and trivialisation. Yet the authors noted that general press coverage gave the impression that women were only involved in legislation in areas like health and abortion, and failed to mention their contributions in other areas.
  • A comparative European study covering Denmark, Estonia, Italy and Latvia highlighted that the traditional division of subject matter between women and men is still manifested in the press and television. Women are assigned subjects such as human relations, family, health and social issues, while men are assigned such topics as politics, economics, etc (see Brikse 2004).  
  • When Hillary Clinton, running for the U.S. Senate, was performing traditionally supportive and “soft news” oriented roles – adjusting to “proper” female behaviour - she was rewarded with positive coverage. The stories in which Clinton was politically active and in which the focus was on the Senate race contained both a greater number of negative statements and a more negative tone (Scharrer 2002).
  • A quantitative study of the political television news in Italy (RAI and Mediaset) in 2002 shows that female politicians most often (31,1%) deal with education. Other political themes typical for or exclusive to female candidates were artificial fertilisation, child care, and women’s issues. Conversely, more “classical” political themes such as party dynamics, international crisis, or economy were seldom topics that female politicians were asked or interviewed about. (Osservatoria di Pavia 2005) 
  • A quantitative study of press coverage of the 2003 Swiss parliamentary election showed that women candidates were significantly overrepresented in the areas of education, culture, and gender issues and moderately overrepresented in the area of social policy. On the other hand Swiss female politicians were significantly underrepresented in the areas of EU and foreign policy and agriculture and moderately underrepresented in the area security policy. (Hardmeier & Klöti 2004)  

2.3 Always married with children

It was never right. If you were married, you were neglecting him. If you were widowed, you killed him. If you were divorced, you couldn’t keep him. And if you were single, you couldn’t get a husband anyway.
(U.S. senator Barbara Mikulski, cit. in Lawrence 2002)
Female politicians are asked about completely different things. … I have never seen Brian Mikkelsen on a front page explaining how he makes his everyday life function. And he’s the one in the Folketing with the most children.
(Female Danish politician, interviewed in Moustgaard 2004, 20)

The GMMP results confirm that the media tend to identify women in terms of their marital or family status, whereas men are more often identified by their occupation or position in society. In 2000 21% of women and 4% of men were identified in terms of marital or family status. In politics and government, 17% of women and 1% of men were identified by family status. Women were a majority in only one category, as homemakers/parents: women accounted for 81% of interviewees whose occupation was described as homemaker/parent. They were less visible when the occupation of the interviewee was politician (10%), scientist (12%), or athlete (9%). Women accounted for 44% of those with no stated occupation. (Spears & Seydegart 2000.)

That journalists tend to focus more on female politicians’ personal life is widely discussed. A preoccupation with the maternal and familial status of women politicians is consistent with the concepts of trivialisation and condemnation when equivalent criteria are not applied, or used to judge, their male colleagues (Fountaine & McGregor 2002). So, the attention paid by the media to women candidates’ marital status and children reflects the double standards still in place in society when evaluating their ability to balance professional and family roles (Bystrom, Robertson & Banwart 2001). This is, for instance, evident in many occasions when journalists are lamenting about female politicians’ “neglected children” (Brikse 2004, 26; van Zoonen 1998, 2005).

It is not unusual for politicians to campaign with reference to family values. It is not unusual either that this strategy backfires. During the Finnish Presidential elections of 2000 ex-prime minister and presidential candidate Esko Aho, married with four small children, was ridiculed in the Finnish media as a “mobile dad” because he celebrated conservative family values in his campaign but took care of his own paternal duties through the cell phone. His most serious challenger and ultimately the winner of the elections Tarja Halonen, however, was not attacked for being a single mother.

  • In some countries motherhood provides political women with the legitimacy to voice their opinions, since they have already “paid their traditional dues” to society. Lemish and Tidhar (1999) found, for example, that during the 1996 televised national election campaign in Israel, “women as mothers” was the dominant message across all parties: women appeared with babies in their arms and as mothers who talked about their children and about children in general. In this capacity women spoke about peace, education, equality, future, military service, poverty, religion.
  • The family frame in political coverage works differently for male and female politicians. In the celebrity press, the main topics for both male and female politicians are family life and love affairs. However, the celebrity press constructs the role of the family as problematic for female politicians: the families of female politicians suffer because of their ambitions. The families of male politicians see similarly little of them but their plight is constructed as heroic and in support of the man’s political career. For instance, the coverage of Dutch female politician and minister Neelie Smit-Kroes focused on her deviation from “normal” family life. When she left politics her 19-year-old son was interviewed in one of the celebrity magazines saying “Finally, I have my mother back”, showing that the age of the children sacrificed for a political career is not necessarily relevant (van Zoonen 2005).
  • In 2000 races for U.S. Governor and Senate female candidates were significantly more likely than were male candidates to have their gender, children and marital status mentioned across both their primary and general election coverage. Yet, the mentions of these items in association with male candidates, although minimal during the primary race coverage, decreased or disappeared in their general election coverage (Banwart et al. 2003).
  • An Estonian report (Estonia 2004) on the representation of female politicians in press states that media tend to represent the role of a mother and a political career as mutually exclusive spheres highlighting, for instance, cases of “abandoned” small children.
  • A female candidate for prime minister in Baden-Württemberg in 2004, Annette Schavan, received negative media coverage because she is unmarried. She was also said to be lesbian (which she denied). She lost to a male candidate. (Schwarzer 2005)
  • Gender differences in covering politicians apply also to “memorial coverage”. Murdered Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh was defined in the Finnish media primarily as a caring mother, who despite her brilliant career always put her children first (Pantti 2005).

2.4 Style over substance

She usually looks like a million dollars. When Gitte Seeberg glides through the corridors of Christiansborg in her light yellow coat and short skirt, high heels and the blonde ponytail, she lights up the room. This afternoon in the garden in Gl. Holte, however, the style is quite different. The high heels are exchanged for a pair of blue plastic thong sandals and the skirt and coat for shorts and a t-shirt

This is the introduction to an article portraying the conservative politician Gitte Seeberg in the Danish newspaper Aktuelt (July 22, 1999). And according to Ulrikke Moustgaard (2004, 31) it is not an exception. On the contrary, descriptions of female politicians’ appearance – clothes, gaze, hair etc - are used on a large scale in Danish newspaper articles that aim to tell the public something about the politician’s professional life. The research suggests the media are more inclined to focus on gender-based evaluations of the style and appearance of female politicians than of male politicians (e.g. Ross 2000). This, obviously, happens at the expense of reporting what they actually have to say: such preoccupations could lead to women and their achievements being trivialized. For instance, during Finnish President Tarja Halonen’s first state visit to Sweden the Swedish media were more fascinated with her plain looks and bad fashion sense, in particular her large handbag (that earned her the nickname “Muuminmamma” [Moomin-Mom]), than with the substance of her visit.

  • Karen Ross (2000) studied the experiences of women politicians in the UK, Australia and South Africa with journalists and found they believe that the most frequently reported aspect of their lives is their appearance, and that such a focus is more likely to apply to women than their male colleagues: “I don’t know whether it is deliberate or it’s so ingrained, but a woman’s appearance is always commented on, her age is always commented on, her style of dress is always commented on. That never happens to male politicians, ever, unless they have made a particular point about their style, but then they are presented as extreme, exceptions that prove the rule.” (MP in Ross’ study)
  • Examining the press coverage of U.S. Gubernatorial races in 1998 James Devitt (1999) found that female candidates were more often portrayed with personal frames than male candidates (for instance: “A grandmotherly redhead dressed in a sensible suit climbs out of the back seat and strolls to the hotel…If anyone in the lobby recognizes Gov. Jane Hull…they don’t let on” [Arizona Republic, November 1, 1998]). By contrast, the news media focus on the professional in covering men. This means highlighting their experience, accomplishments, and positions on the issues. As Devitt concludes, by describing a female candidate’s attire, the public may have less of an understanding of where she stands on public policy issues. Female candidates may be at a disadvantage because coverage of male candidates is more likely to include their qualifications for office and their views on the issues.

2.5 Gendered speech: Men say, women blast

Researchers have found discrepancies in how male and female candidates’ speech is reported and how they are quoted in the media. This is important because, just like focusing on dress and hair, non-neutral speech shifts the attention from “what was said” to “how it was said” and elicits negative affect, especially among female voters (Gidengil & Everett 2003)

  • Gidengil and Everitt (2000) concluded that television coverage of female Canadian leaders is more “filtered” in terms of how women are quoted, that is, journalists are more likely to paraphrase women’s statements than men’s.
  • Another finding is that female politicians’ speech is reported in more negatively charged, aggressive language than their male counterparts. In Canadian leaders’ television debates (1993, 1997, 2000) female leaders were portrayed as attacking more frequently than their male counterparts, and more frequently than their actual behaviour in the debates (Gidengil & Everett 2000, 2003; see also Ross & Sreberny 2000, 90).
  • In television coverage of the 1993 and 1997 Canadian elections the speech of the female leaders was less likely to be reported using neutral speech verbs (say, tell, talk about) than that of their male counterparts. Verbs that were only used to report women’s speech and never the men’s include blast, slam, attack, and accuse. (Gidengil & Everett 2003)
  • Female U.S. gubernatorial candidates in 1998 were less likely to have their quotations backed by evidence or reasoning than were their male counterparts. Newspaper reporters also quoted female candidates less substantively than male candidates, thereby diminishing a fundamental resource for reaching the electorate. Because male candidates were more likely than were female candidates to be quoted supporting their claims, they may have appeared more informed and qualified (Devitt 1999).
  • U.S. Presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole was quoted in the press differently than her Republican male rivals. Journalists directly quoted her public remarks less frequently than the other candidates and paraphrased her statements more frequently than the others. For instance Dole was quoted directly 44.5% of the time, compared to 56% for Bush, 63% for McCain and 67% for Forbes (Aday & Devitt 2001).

2.6 Negative gender distinctions, frames and metaphors

Studies on media coverage of politics show that women are more likely to be subject to negative gender distinctions than are men, a negative gender distinction being a reference to one’s gender that is described as a hindrance. Conversely, men are more likely than are women to be described in gender-neutral terms, in which a subject’s gender is irrelevant to how he or she is portrayed (e.g. Jamieson 1995). For instance, the gendered news frames identified by Pippa Norris (1997) show that is always women politicians’ gender which is the primary descriptor used to describe them. The media framed women leaders both as outsiders and as agents for change (who will clean up dirty politics). Many of the stories focused on the political breakthrough for women. They often highlighted what they regarded as a lack of conventional qualifications and prior political experience of the women. They also undervalued a woman leader’s capabilities and experiences and saw the appropriate qualifications in terms of the (masculine) characteristics of past leaders.

Stereotypically masculine imagery predominates metaphors of politics. For example, a New York Times column (March 31 1999, cit. Aday & Devitt 2001) questioned Elizabeth Dole’s ability to serve as commander-in-chief because she “likes to coordinate the color of her shoes with the color of the rug on stage". Gidengil and Everitt (1999) regard the application of conventional political frames, such as metaphors of warfare and sport, to women as a more subtle but insidious form of bias than preoccupation with “feminine” characteristics. They conclude in their analysis of the 1993 Canadian leaders’ debates that “what is perceived – positively - to be combative in a man may be judged – negatively - to be aggressive in a woman” (62). This is but one example of contradictory expectations, noted by many feminist media critics: aggressive female candidates appear unfeminine and therefore unacceptable, but feminine women are deemed ineffective.

To counteract this tendency and show that they belong in the traditional masculine world of politics, some women running for elected office have attempted to emphasize stereotypically masculine traits by adopting strong stances on political issues and highlighting their toughness. However, this strategy of “talking tough” can backfire if media coverage focuses disproportionately on their counter-sterotypical behaviour. If women conform to the dominant conflictual norms, media coverage will focus disproportionately on their confrontational (unfeminine) behaviour, but if they fail to conform with those norms, media attention will flag (Gidengil & Everitt 1999, 2000, 2003). It seems to be a lose-lose situation: Media coverage marginalizes women when they adopt a nonconfrontational style but overemphasises counterstereotypical behaviour when they behave combatively (Gidengil & Everitt 2000). When female politicians engage in confrontational behaviour, they are violating deeply held notions of how women should behave.

  • The depiction of female politicians relies on sex-based stereotypes: spinsters, superwomen, one of the boys, witches, Cinderellas (e.g. Norris 1997; Ross & Sreberny 2000,90)
  • The Italian survey “Donne Lavoro e TV – La rappresentazione femminile nei programmi televisivi” (CNEL 2003) on the representation of women in fiction and infotainment programmes in three Italian broadcasters (Rai, Mediaset and La7) during one sample week in 2001 showed there is a tendency to represent working women with less positive images than non-working women (the opposite occurs for men). In particular professional women in high positions are characterised negatively by using attributes such as selfishness, cynicism, unpleasantness, dishonesty.
  • Women candidates in the Estonian press were portrayed as more emotional, unstable and tender than men (Estonia 2004).
  • The traditional stereotypes are less likely to be used with respect to women who have spent a long time in politics and/or who have achieved a high political status (Brikse 2004, Latvia 2004).
  • Brikse (2004) suggests in the comparative report covering Denmark, Estonia, Italy and Latvia that female politicians are expected to be extraordinary, not “one of us” but “one of the best among us.” According to her, gender discourse can create a gap between female politicians and ordinary people, because critical questioning and evaluation of female politicians repeatedly demonstrate how excellent they are as people. Similarly, Norris (1997) states that there are dangers associated with sometimes saintly images of female politicians as such inflated expectations are likely to be disappointed.
  • A Danish report (Moustgaard 2004) on the newspaper coverage of female politicians found a large repertoire of archetypal or clichéd images of women (Mother, Blonde, Teacher, Iron Lady, Witch, Ice Queen, Seductress, Old Maid). External appearance seems to be a typical basis for stereotypes. Here is an example of the Teacher:  “She is dry as dust in her form of words. She knows the balance of payments, the cultural life, the environmental policies and the DAU-balance inside-out. She is the strict teacher that the flowerchildren’s children missed in school. But the world is a strange place; now they can vote for her. There is no reason to believe that Marianne Jelved is any smarter than the other leading politicians, but one gets the feeling that she is, when watching her on TV. Because a woman, who can reason in such an apparent dispassionately manner, has to be motivated by other things – and one is inclined to believe that this is her intellect.” (Portrait of Marianne Jelved in Berlingske Tidende, September 5, 2003)

>>> 3. References