National NOW Foundation Times  >> Spring 2008 >> Article

Ignorance and Venom: The Media's Deeply Ingrained Sexism

By Kim Gandy, NOW Foundation President

Activists from NOW and the National Women's Political Caucus braved a snowstorm to protest TV host Chris Matthews' extensive history of sexist comments.  That same night after the action outside the MSNBC studios in Washington, D.C., Matthews delivered an on-air apology of sorts.
Photo courtesy of Media Matters
Activists from NOW and the National Women's Political Caucus braved a snowstorm to protest TV host Chris Matthews' extensive history of sexist comments. That same night after the action outside the MSNBC studios in Washington, D.C., Matthews delivered an on-air apology of sorts.

For more than a year, NOW Foundation has been inundated with emails and calls from people incensed by the heightened sexism in the media these days. When Nancy Pelosi became the first woman Speaker of the House, she was subjected to gender-based jeers and endless comments about her clothes. No woman in the public eye, from Katie Couric to Michelle Obama, is exempt.

Currently, much of the media's misogynist venom is directed at one woman--Sen. Hillary Clinton. For the first time in our nation's history, the idea of a woman president is no longer limited to the fantasy world of TV or movies. Possibility could become reality this November, and some folks are having a hard time dealing with it. Sadly, many of those people have high-profile jobs at major news outlets.

The press have been brutal to Clinton--a fact few will deny. Whether consciously or not, too many reporters, commentators, pundits and the like appear unable to critique Clinton without dusting off their favorite sexist clichés, stereotypes and insults. Some of these remarks seem mild, while others are offensive and truly outrageous. Taken together, they create an environment of hostility toward all women, not just Clinton. Seemingly she has become a stand-in for every woman who has ever tried to get ahead and be taken seriously by the powers that be.

We've been down this road before. NOW Foundation called out the media's bad behavior several times last year, and thousands of women and men demonstrated their agreement by signing our petition demanding serious and fair election coverage. You can still sign the petition here. But it just keeps getting worse, and lately it's taken on a decidedly violent tone.

In a discussion about how Clinton should drop out of the Democratic race, Newsweek's Howard Fineman suggested that someone in the party needed to step in and "stop this thing," to which MSNBC's Keith Olbermann replied "Right. Somebody who can take her into a room and only he comes out." Olbermann apologized, as most offenders do--eventually.

About the potential for another Clinton-Obama debate, CNN's Jack Cafferty said: "[Clinton] says that she will debate him any place at any time, adding that it could even be done on the back of a flat-bed truck. He would probably prefer to run over her with a flat-bed truck at this point."

Let's look at four common themes in media coverage of Hillary Clinton's candidacy:

First, Clinton is criticized using a gender-based grading system. The media evaluate how she looks, dresses, talks, laughs and even claps. She is held to double standards familiar to working women. A man demonstrates toughness and strength; a woman who behaves similarly is called icy and rigid. His behavior shows compassion and warmth, but her similar behavior shows too much emotion and maybe weakness. He "knows how to work the system;" she is manipulative.

Second, our society still has not come to terms with ambition in women. It is suspect, and Clinton is frequently charged with doing or saying anything to win. Everything she does to win the election -- strategizing, organizing, confronting, comparing and contrasting -- is interpreted as calculating, fake or just plain evil. But when a man campaigns hard, refusing to cede an inch, they call it . . . running for office!

Third, Clinton is presumed to be where she is today because of her husband. The fact that Clinton has a famous former president for a husband is used to discredit her own achievements and to imply that maybe she couldn't have made it on her own. Who's to say that if Hillary had taken the fast-track first, instead of Bill, she wouldn't have risen to the top before him?

Finally, when all else fails, belittle the voters. Women voters are irrational and biased, and those voting for Hillary are really voting only on the basis of gender, the press theorize. A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post about women voters was actually headlined "We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?"

It's not just those in the public eye who are hurt when the media promote sex stereotypes. Daughters everywhere are hearing the message that a woman can't be as competent and effective a leader as a man. Or that all strong women are ball-busters--right up until they finally reveal themselves to be weepy wimps or big phonies.

Sign our media petition.