By Lauren S.
News media has never been kind to women in politics, especially women of color. From the campaign trail to their actions in office, political journalism has the power to shape public perception of female politicians in accordance to their own biases. This can ultimately influence the success of the female politician, whether she can attain office or have support for her political motives. With the social movements of #MeToo, Time’s Up, and Black Lives Matter retaking the narrative, news media is forced to check if their values and actions match this demand for recognition. In addition, this self-examination is necessary as a record number of underrepresented female voices now wield political power. It will be the mission of news media to change their discriminatory portrayal of these women, and present them with clarity and truth in 2021.
The new decade coincides with the arrival of the most women of color to hold political office in U.S. Congress. According to Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, 144 women hold a Congressional seat after the 2020 election, 52 of which are women of color. This includes 4 Black, 13 Latina, 9 Asian Pacific, 2 Native American, 1 Middle Eastern/North African, and 3 multi-racial women (“Woman in the US Congress 2021”). The recent political and social turmoil provides fertile territory for these female politicians to reclaim and break ground on enacting change. The very voices of those who protested and demanded change are now more politically represented. However, it is the duty of the media to ensure that these women are able to uphold their political agenda without antagonistic interference from the media.
Championing this female surge is Kamala Harris, the first woman and woman of color to hold the Vice Presidency. From her campaign, Harris was subjected to unfair media portrayals in an effort to discredit. As with many female politicians before her, Harris’ personal life choices were used against her in the media. However, this portrayal also infused stereotypes of black women in an attempt to portray Harris as unfit for office.
Upon the announcement of her Vice Presidential nomination, Kamala Harris was the subject of mass media coverage that prioritized her ancestral background and race over her qualifications. Time’s Up conducted an analytical report of the media coverage and found that when “women of color, run for office, they are subjected to a double standard that has nothing to do with their qualifications and everything to do with this country’s history of sexism and racism” (“Vice Presidential Announcement Media Analysis”, 2020). It found that a quarter of media coverage consisted of racist and sexist stereotypes such as the “birther” conspiracy and portraying her as an “Angry Black Woman”. 61% of coverage mentioned Harris’ race or gender, while in comparison, Governor Pence and Senator Kaine’s announcements in 2016 had 5%. This demonstrates the norm of white men holding office, in that there is no need to make a point of their race. President Trump also drove the rhetoric used to describe Harris as media broadcasted his comments, furthering their association with Harris. The most frequently associated words used to describe Harris were “nasty”, “phony”, “radical”, “mad”, “tough”, and “fearless”, while Kaine and Pence were more positively described as “safe” and “experienced” (Time’s Up, 2020). Hillary Clinton experienced similar media scrutiny during both of her election campaigns in their portrayal of her as a cold, unfeminine woman. To criticize Clinton for not being feminine enough, the words “calculating” “overly-ambitious” and “intimidating” were used most frequently by the media (Carlin and Winfrey, 2009). Frequent use of such language only drives the narrative composed by privileged white men, and takes advantage of strong female politicians. This narrative, if accepted by consumers of media, can sway voters’ opinions of their candidates, and therefore their vote itself.
Though major media outlets are trying to adapt to the changing social narrative, they struggle to keep up. Perhaps due to the fact that these media are long-standing and historical, it is hard to introduce and implement change to such traditional institutions. Vogue’s recent release of Kamala Harris’ February cover was met with controversy over social media. Though Vogue’s intentions were seemingly positive, many social media members expressed outrage for their photo choice. They found the photo to be “casual and ‘washed out’” and a disservice Harris’s political authority (Holland, 2021). Social media, the foreground for recent social movements, appear to be the checks and balances that holds major media accountable.
Though I do believe the surge of women with political power will provide a catalyst for change in the media’s portrayal, it will be slow moving at first. Perpetuated by history itself, there is an inherent longstanding belief of men being the ones to hold power. This limits the perception for the possibility of a woman to hold political power. Such an instilled belief requires time, education, and open understanding to undergo a change, and all of this can be actuated through the media. The very selection of many women into office demonstrates a shift in American society’s belief that women are competent to hold positions of power. As this is not a complete shift, there will be subtle discrimination in the media and backlash from consumers who still hold their beliefs. It took over a hundred years for these women to achieve their positions, therefore, it will take time for traditional media to adjust to the new social political environment.
With more women of color than ever holding political office, the next few years provide an opportunity for the media to change how they portray such powerful women. By focusing on qualifications, achievements, and political action without racist and sexist undertones, the media can evolve to create a more clear and truthful depiction. This in turn can eventually lead to the establishment of new norms where women, especially women of color, can unquestionably hold positions of power.
Carlin, DianaB., and KellyL. Winfrey. “Have You Come a Long Way, Baby? Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Sexism in 2008 Campaign Coverage.” Communication Studies, vol. 60, no. 4, Sept. 2009, pp. 326–343. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10510970903109904.
Holland, Oscar. “Kamala Harris' Casual Vogue Cover Causes Stir Online.” CNN, Cable News Network, 11 Jan. 2021, www.cnn.com/style/article/kamala-harris-vogue-cover/index.html.
Time's Up, 2020, U.S. Vice Presidential Candidate Announcements Comparative Media Analysis 2016 vs. 2020, timesupnow.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/TIMES-UP-Now-Vice-Presidential-Announcement-Comparison-September-2020.pdf.
“Vice Presidential Announcement Media Analysis.” TIME'S UP Now, 6 Oct. 2020, timesupnow.org/work/we-have-her-back/vice-presidential-announcement-media-analysis/?ms=whhb-vpreport&utm_source=whhb-vpreport&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=whhb.
“Women in the U.S. Congress 2021.” CAWP, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 5 Jan. 2021, cawp.rutgers.edu/women-us-congress-2021.