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Competing against a rival who’s unlike any major presidential candidate in recent history, an incredulous Hillary Clinton wondered aloud recently, “’Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?’ you might ask.”
Before you start reciting the opposition’s talking points, about secretive emails and Benghazi, I implore you to consider carefully how much gender implicitly has played a substantial role in this campaign. Hawaii, more than any other state, almost certainly will vote for Clinton. So this is not an attempt to sway your opinion (and please refrain from off-topic comments).
I hope you instead think deeply about how mass-media representations of women, including Clinton – but also Hawaii politicians, newscasters and other public figures – affect the ways we view, nurture and support female leaders in our society.
Clinton – like Barack Obama before her – has been instrumental in exposing on a national level many of our country’s societal dysfunctions and prejudices. Even though women make up more than half of the U.S. population, less than 20 percent of Congress is female. Dozens of other countries, including Iraq, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Mexico and China, have a higher percentage of women in national government positions than we do. And, of course, zero of our presidents have been women.
For a thought exercise, try to imagine a female presidential candidate who had been divorced twice already, in part because she reportedly bragged about having numerous affairs; in addition, this person also talked about grabbing men by the genitals, objectified men regularly as sex objects, degraded others as fat or ugly and participated in pornographic film shoots. Oh, and her opponent had suffered the humiliation of having his ambitious, powerful spouse very publicly cheat on him. Poor guy!
Somehow, though, Clinton has been placed on equal moral footing with this sort of opponent.
That’s exactly the sort of double standard women consistently face today in politics, business, government, journalism and many other aspects of life.
After the recent vice-presidential debate, for example, former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin posted a clever observation. Why, she pondered, was her 2008 vice presidential debate the only one in the past 20 years that required the candidates to stand the entire time? Was it really just a chance for audience members to see her walk around in heels and twirl for the cameras?
Compare the discourse about Palin’s wardrobe selections, which included intense discussions about why the Republican National Committee spent $150,000 on new clothes and accessories for her and the incessant commentary on Clinton’s pantsuits and other apparel with all of the journalism about Donald Trump’s suits, which, The New York Times acknowledged recently, has slipped “under the radar.”
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii – as another example of sly sexism in journalism – gets portrayed in national media as a novelty, an emotional woman who surfs and has been a soldier. For another thought exercise, imagine the male equivalent of Gabbard, a U.S. congressman in Hawaii who served in the military and surfs; who would be covering that story nationally?
A couple of theoretical issues are at play here.
No. 1, mass media organizations have an agenda-setting role in society. For the most part, journalists don’t tell people what specifically to think about any particular issue. But they do frame what issues get attention through their coverage choices. Discussing Clinton’s pantsuits, for example, instead of the ramifications of her international interventionist tendencies, puts a focus on one aspect of her persona and disregards the other.
No. 2, mass media plays a powerful socializing and normalizing role in society. Journalists, including female writers, were more than complicit 20 years ago in body-shaming Alicia Machado. Journalists continue to put stories about women into familiar tropes that have one set of standards for the men and another for the “girls.”
Just look at the nightly newscasts on Oahu, where many older men are paired with younger women on KHON, KITV and Hawaii News Now. The women often wear tight-fitting clothes, fake fluttery eyelashes and are assigned to such important beats as the weather. (Here’s a scoop: tomorrow, Oahu probably will be sunny and between 75 and 85 most of the day, like it is most of the year.)
Comedian Samantha Bee recently skewered pundits for at first suggesting that Clinton needed to smile more during the debates. Then, they spent precious time and resources deconstructing her smile. Bee said, “Look, Hillary Clinton is never gonna smile naturally enough for you.” No one seems to be giving her opponent similar advice on tendering his facial expressions, because, you know, he’s a man, and he’s strong, and he can get things done, because that’s what men do, when given the chance; only women have never been allowed this sort of an opportunity in the U.S. before.
So we get to hear about pantsuits, philandering husbands and blood coming out of the “wherever” while our children, especially our daughters, listen carefully to the adults in the world and shape in their minds what their futures hold.
The lack of women leaders in the United States, at all levels of society, is a disgraceful commentary on our communal values. But a thoroughly disquieting moment of the documentary film “Miss Representation,” by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is when Caroline Heldman, an associate professor of politics at Occidental College, reveals what her research data shows about the presidential aspirations of kids. She said, “Little boys and little girls, in equal numbers, when they’re seven years old, want to be president of the United States when they grow up, but then you ask the same questions when they’re 15. And you see this massive gap emerging.”
Teenagers are spending more than nine hours a day consuming media. Our media sources often are showing them what society expects (and hopes) for their lives. A bright young girl, 15-year-old Brennan Leach, came to a recent Clinton rally and asked the presidential candidate about issues of body image in the media. By raising that question, in such a public way, I feel hope for the next generation of women. Maybe they will have a presidential role model soon. Maybe they will reshape media discourse away from these gendered stereotypes. That would be something to not-fake smile about.
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at email@example.com.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.