Vaishnavi Pallapothu takes a look at how women in politics at varying levels of leadership are portayed by the media.
There is no doubt that the media plays a huge role in both, constructing and reproducing gender perceptions. The media is also guilty of portraying leaders, politicians, and heads of state through a gendered lens. Due to the extensive press coverage of policy decisions, state visits, conferences, meetings, and even clothing choices, a statesperson is often under the scrutiny of the press.
Media representations of gender, leadership and political power are testimony to how the current international relations (IR) system perpetuates an unequal distribution of power because of perceived competence among world leaders, based on gender. These gender identities are also imbued with power, patriarchal power, which subordinates women and feminine gender identities to men and masculine gender identities. Consequently, socially constructed gender identities impact where women are in global politics. We can see this in play by exploring how politicians — both male and female — are portrayed under the lens of the media.
Possibly the most widespread and known sexist remark that women in leadership roles have to hear is the suggestion to “smile more” — a directive that is extremely sexist and plain ridiculous. Men telling women to smile is a glaring reminder that a woman’s smile is often taken as a sign of submission, docility, agreeableness, cooperation, and/ or a lack of female anger and other “problematic” emotions. As a result, smiling faces are read automatically as more feminine, while blank or aggressive faces are read as male. Women’s faces are thought of as more innately “smiley,” too. This is linked to judgement of a woman’s personality and allure, which will be touched upon in more detail later in this article.
Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is no stranger to fashion police dubbing her as appropriate and conservative. She is known for her palette of pantone jackets, black pants and neutral pantsuits. Her “masculine” style of dressing along with her short hair, has been criticized by feminist media for buying into the idea that women have to dress up like men to wield power in a historical man’s world. Media representations of Chancellor Merkel have been predominantly conveyed in masculine terms — with even fashion magazines such as Vogue portraying her as “short, matronly… wearing sensible walking shoes.” Associating her ‘bland’ appearance with power, she is also described as uncharismatic and as a textbook politician. Charisma and charm are often qualities women fail to associate themselves with because it is only favorable and available to men. A woman’s charm seems to be predominantly judged on the basis of looks and fashion sense.
Hilary Clinton, another career politician, with several similar attributes to Merkel (well educated, short hair, “pantsuit aficionado”) has been inspected heavily over her appearance. Over the months that preceded the 2016 general elections in the USA, Hilary Clinton was inspected in evermore detail for her emails, her body language, her eating habits, her gait, her mannerisms, her relationships in addition to her clothes.
It is interesting to look over the stark differences in how female politicians such as Hilary Clinton and Angela Merkel are portrayed, versus how male politicians such as Justin Trudeau are shown. Vogue magazine described Trudeau as “Strikingly young and wavy-haired, the new prime minister is dashing in his blue suit and jaunty brown shoes — a stylistic riposte to the old world of boringly black-shoed politicians”. Note how his fashion sense is commended — he is praised for modifying fashion (a feminine characteristic) and being stylish. These are the exact traits that women feel compelled to abandon in order to be taken seriously and in a credible manner. Although fashion diplomacy is typically associated with feminine constructs, Trudeau embraces such a practice. He is famous for wearing colourful themed socks and often flaunting the country’s traditional attire during diplomatic visits. Hence, it is no surprise that his leadership skills are spoken of in tandem with his personality and appearance. However, stateswomen in high-profile positions lack the ability to exercise fashion diplomacy without facing potential damaging effects to their public image and reputation. The media makes a point of reminding us that women in power are still women rather than politicians.
Another sexist double-standard the media is evident in how Trudeau is touted to be a family man. His charm and charisma are highly regarded in the international political sphere and in the media too — some outlets naming him “the internet’s boyfriend”. He is continuously lauded for being so close with his wife and kids whereas leaders such as Jacinda Ardern were questioned how they would balance “home and work life”, especially after she announced her pregnancy. Isn’t it inherently sexist to laud a man for the same thing a woman is condemned for? The double-standard set for women in any professional sphere is not only distasteful but also very unfair.
While it can be argued that Trudeau is able to challenge gender constructs because of his position of privilege as both a man and as a person in power, credit must be given to him in creating a publicly acknowledged discourse about fashion in politics. He has challenged hegemonic masculinity in many subtle ways — be it through his appearance, his dancing/showmanship or his acceptance of the feminist tag. When asked why it was important to have a gender-balanced cabinet shortly after being elected, Trudeau simply said “Because it’s 2015.” His response went viral and marked the beginning of people patting him on the back for his feminist credentials. Trudeau, unlike several women in politics, is never afraid to declare himself a feminist and insists on doing so until “it is met with a shrug.” His ownership of the term has been applauded, and as an avowed feminist, Trudeau can be key in breaking down the negative implications surrounding the term.
Despite the furore and chatter about women in positions of power not embracing the feminist label or dressing in a masculine manner, not everyone fits into that box. Theresa May and Michelle Obama come to mind as stark proponents of leaders who are changing the rules when it comes to politician’s physical persona. Both have been forthright and unabashed about their interest in fashion. At the Women in the World Summit, May was quoted as saying: “I’m a woman, I like clothes. One of the challenges for women in politics, in business, in all areas of working life, is to be ourselves, and to say you can be clever and like clothes.” Her statements were met with approving applause from the audience, solidifying the fact that caring about fashion and anything traditionally “feminine”, doesn’t mean it is irreconcilable with caring about or having knowledge on policy issues. Her words help set a precedent that allow women to express a facet of their persona without undermining any expectations about their skills.
Theresa May has never been a feminist favourite — but she has an indisputable record when it comes to women rights. Some examples of policies and decisions she pushed for, include but aren’t limited to, extending domestic violence protections, supporting shared parental leave and proposing obligatory reporting of female genital mutilation. On the other hand, research seems to indicate that women would face the majority of the burden of the government’s budget cuts to social security and tax changes by 2020. Politics aside, May’s tight grasp on her firm attitudes towards policy-making and embracement of her feminine side are refreshing to see. It only affirms the fact that limits placed on women in terms of what they can achieve and how they can be, are socially constructed.
Ultimately, the binary projection of gender encoded in media texts and presentation only bolsters the sexist codes that apply rigorously more to one group than others. Gendering politics and politicians is redundant and it is inefficient to judge a leader based on dogmatic gender stereotypes or expect them to adhere to the same.