NPR’s Ombudsman Asks for Guidelines How to Describe Women Politicians
But another way to examine such frequent mentions of a female senator’s “beauty” and “femininity” is to examine whether that perception of her overwhelms or takes greater precedent over other perceptions of her. My guess would be that no ambitious politician, male or female, wants to be thought of as “beautiful” first and a “strong leader” second. Men and women—yes, even politicians—probably do like to be thought of as attractive, but not at the expense of voters assuming they aren’t competent or intelligent.
While perceptions of attractiveness aren’t limited to one gender, the conception of “femininity” is a female-related term. “Feminine” is not a negative word, but is not usually a trait considered alongside “leadership.” In some ways, this recalls a recent study that asked a group of students (and it is somewhat of a stretch to assume college students’ reactions would be a fair representation of the views of everyone, and of every age group) to describe the traits they associate with women, including female politicians.
In this survey, only 39 percent of participants described female politicians using the term “leader,” but 92 percent described a male politician with that term. Chang felt that she heard people describe Gillibrand as “feminine” and beautiful and saw that as a contrast with the work Gillibrand was doing to fix the issue of sexual assault in the armed forces. That seems to be the problem that women senators face. They are leaders, but they aren’t always perceived as the version of what a leader is. This would seem to be a cultural perception—which can be reinforced by media portrayals, both fiction and nonfiction. The fault is not with the people to whom Chang spoke—both they and she operate in the same cultural sphere in which the contrast seems to exist based on the preconceived notions of what makes someone a leader. This is why Name It. Change It.—and the Women’s Media Center and She Should Run, the organizations behind the project—spends a lot of time talking about how these cultural perceptions of women as politicians have an impact. This is why we suggest in our Media Guide that reporters step back and examine if the stories (or the words) they use to talk about female politicians would be something they would write about men. Reporters should try to examine their own implicit cultural biases—not just about women politicians, but about all subjects.