The Media’s Woman Problem In A Trump Age

It’s heartening that liberal publications around the country are now an emboldened vanguard against Donald Trump’s misogyny. But the sexism and inequality that allow misogyny to thrive run deep in these same news outlets—embedded in the lack of byline parity and the flagrant, physical descriptions of women.

Dave Crosby / Creative Commons

It’s also been a curious thing, since the election, to hear top-gun editors offer mea culpas about the fact that they’ve ignored the concerns of the disenfranchised, white, male voters who helped get Trump elected. The historic exclusion of women in news reporting and coverage—particularly minority women, and particularly from the front page—has never inspired the same laments.

Research from the Women’s Media Center shows that men report 65 percent of U.S. political stories in print, and are credited with 62 percent of news content overall—including print, television, internet and wire services. Glaring gender disparities exist in the country’s most widely circulated newspapers according to the center’s 2015 report. Women received just 32 percent of all bylines at the New York Times, 33 percent at USA Today, and roughly 40 percent at the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal in 2014. Major online news sites fared better, with women’s bylines totaling 42 percent.

Cable television news remains a constellation of male faces—both as far as anchors and guests peddling their influence or sharing expertise. On shows covering foreign policy, for instance, women made up just 22 percent of the guests. Looking at the cable news network coverage of both 2016 conventions combined, the organization GenderAvenger, in partnership with the Women’s Media Center and Rutgers University, found that women made up only 29 percent of commentators on MSNBC and 37 percent on CNN. The lack of parity ultimately deprived voters of critical perspectives.

Across the media spectrum, we rarely hear the voices of minority women. Black, Hispanic and Asian women made up under three percent of newsroom employees in 2014. On opinion pages and cable news shows, they’re all but invisible. And though they’re more prone to violence than whites, the disappearances, gun deaths, battery, assaults and other traumas of minority women are reported far less frequently.

Mainstream journalism’s more literary counterparts—heavyweights like The Atlantic and The New Yorker— don’t do much better, with some exceptions. A research group called VIDA studies gender parity at such publications and comes out with “the count” every year—a pesky fly in editors’ ears. Their 2015 count also includes the ethnicity, race and sexuality of writers surveyed. At the aforementioned magazines, women’s bylines hovered at just 30 percent. Not a single female writer self-reported as Hispanic, though nearly 20 percent of the country does in Census data.

That large swaths of our population are absent from the newsroom and the published page means we have distorted ideas about who we are as a country. This absence makes for a media universe that’s broken down and thrives on a corrupted reality. It also allows for the misrepresentation—a sort of fake news in itself—of those missing from its ranks.

The media’s historic fixation on women’s temperament, corporeality and race, for example, as a way to puncture their legitimacy in public life is fake news at its most pernicious. In this accepted tradition of distortion and caricature, we render women—how they move, what they wear, how old or young they look, if they smile warmly enough at us, who they really are—with titillation that morphs into contempt.

Michelle Obama’s arms jarred the country when she arrived on the national scene. Her musculature unnerved observers in the press who didn’t know what to make of the first female black spouse in the White House. Would she be an acceptable fashion icon? Would she follow spousal decorum? The coverage had obvious overtones about race. Initially, she was linked to stereotypes of black female militants. The preoccupation with her limbs was dubbed “armsgate” by the website, Jezebel. A 2009 New York Times political blog mused on the triceps coverage and what the First Lady’s arms might “signify.” Described as “rippled and gleaming” in a magazine cover the piece referenced, the writer said, “those arms have become Mrs. Obama’s most constant accessory.” Other journalists saw them as proof of independence and power (rather than just well-exercised arms). Whatever the interpretation, the media’s fix over Ms. Obama’s arms and notions that she possessed exaggerated physical strength drew on old, racial tropes.

When the First Lady decided to dedicate herself to the gender-acceptable issues of child obesity and healthy eating, the panic around her cooled a bit, and she became a beloved figure. But the arms gazing didn’t let up. A Washington Post food critic who happened to be at the same restaurant as the First Lady, eyed her instead of the entrée options on his menu. “She has amazing arms,” the critic wrote in a 2014 column. She wore a “sleek coif, sleeveless dress (turquoise) and model posture.” One of her amazing arms was “draped over a companion’s chair,” a flesh-and-blood ad for the First Lady’s choice of workout studio, the column said. The writer considered, then decided against, broadcasting his find on social media. “My first instinct was to tweet the sighting—#TheSheBearIsLoose.” To be sure, men have leered at women for all time. But to publish their boasts in a major newspaper does little to advance the credibility of mainstream journalism, now so widely under attack.

On the other hand, the gendered media coverage targeting Hillary Clinton has bordered on delusion. For decades, Clinton endured what the New Yorker, in its endorsement of her, called “that gantlet of derision” reserved for women seeking elected office. Her body, face, voice, hair, pantsuits, and headbands have played in the press as major news or fashion events. They are, it seems, omens of her judgement and character. Of a younger Clinton’s much-maligned headbands, a Los Angeles Times writer in 1992 wondered, “But is it worth it, if it makes the 44-year-old lawyer look like the world’s oldest debutante?” Her decision in the early 80s to change her image after Bill Clinton lost the governor’s race in Arkansas was summed up this way in 1992 in the same newspaper: “Clinton went from looking like a myopic springer spaniel to looking like an aging rush captain.”

As the years passed, Clinton’s marriage was laid bare, her experience as a public figure deepened, and she showed her age. Her observers in the press became unhinged. No label would stick to anyone’s satisfaction. Sometimes, the Democrat-leaning media seemed to take its cues from the right. On MSNBC in 2007, the conservative Tucker Carlson said that “there’s just something about her that feels castrating, overbearing and scary.” That same year, an opinion piece in The Oklahoman pointed out her “frequent wearing of dark pants suits to conceal her bottom-heavy figure,” and a Washington Post article warned that looking at Clinton’s cleavage was “like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!” On a 2008 CNN panel, NPR’s Ken Rudin noted Clinton’s perseverance in politics and compared her to the knife-wielding psychopath played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Rudin later said he regretted that remark.

In 2012, when she was Secretary of State, a photo of Clinton wearing little makeup went viral, unkindly. In the photo, Clinton’s hair is loose; she wears dark-rimmed glasses and red lipstick. She looks startlingly like herself. Clinton had to explain things on CNN: “I feel so relieved to be at the stage I’m at in my life right now. If I want to wear my glasses, I’m wearing my glasses. If I want to wear my hair back, I’m pulling my hair back.”

Donald Trump stepped into a public space that had long been curated for his brand of insult and profiteering. His brazen attacks on Carly Fiorina’s face and Clinton’s lack of “stamina,” (and unimpressive backside) drew visceral criticism in the press. So did allegations of his groping and worse. But the condemnations were a distressing irony. The most troubling thing about Trump’s behavior was how recognizable it was to women whose stories, concerns and experiences get little traction on the front page. When the writer Kelly Oxford decided to put out a call on Twitter for stories of assault, she got over a million responses. Women seemed to be tweeting from the heart of trauma itself. It was a reminder that we live in a country where sexual assault is still under-reported, overlooked and deeply assimilated into our culture.

According to Erika Falk, author of Women for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns, the eight women who ran for president before Hillary Clinton’s first presidential bid in 2007 endured ridicule that was consistent with the age, but, in some respects, not too different from today’s norms. In the coverage of these eight races, including Elizabeth Dole’s brief run in 1999, physical descriptions of the female candidate appeared in 41 percent of articles, compared to 14 percent for the men. By the time Clinton ran against President Obama for the Democratic Party nomination, the media was still scrutinizing women for their looks, though to a lesser degree. In the first month of the 2007 primary race, roughly 30 percent of articles included physical descriptions of Clinton, Salk’s research shows. At the same time, however, President Obama had to prevail over racist attitudes in the press. Forty percent of articles in that first month referred to his physical appearance, many of those to his skin color, according to Salk.

Some political scientists argue that men and women running for office are treated equally by the media and receive the same amount of attention to their appearance. In the book, Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era, the research of authors Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless also shows that references to appearance don’t affect voters’ attitudes or a woman’s electability.

It’s clear that party affiliation moors most voters to their candidate. So it’s no surprise, therefore, that participants in a study would report that physical descriptions in the coverage of a specific local race wouldn’t influence their choice of candidate. But this doesn’t exactly disprove media bias, particularly considering that gender stereotypes form part of a much broader, experiential framework. Their impact can’t be measured in simple equations. It’s also a fallacy to think that physical descriptions of men and women in public life, when they happen, are equally gendered. The mockery of Donald Trump’s hair is not especially disqualifying, but constant scrutiny of Hillary Clinton’s face, energy and health reminds us that few things are more disruptive in the public eye than the sight of a woman’s aging body.

The 2008 vice-presidential election is a case in point of obvious, gendered coverage. Several studies show disparities in the treatment of Sarah Palin (whatever one’s opinion of her abilities) and Joe Biden. The media seemed to exploit the impression that Sarah Palin was objectifying herself, so why not have at it. On a Newsweek cover, Palin, decked in tight-fitting gym clothes, appears with the headline: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sarah Palin? In other descriptions, she was America’s “Caribou Barbie.” In the journal Politics & Policy, research from the University of Wisconsin at Madison clearly shows that Palin was scrutinized more closely for her looks in major, national news outlets than Biden.

The more critical question to ask is whether explicit descriptions of a female candidate’s appearance do anything to advance a story or profile. I’m not talking here of imagery that breathes life into a piece, or the kind of evocative language that adds depth and helps readers glimpse someone’s humanity or distinctiveness. I’m also not referring to the sort of intelligent satire that helps us see through events and people. (It’s important to note, of course, that simply hiring women at entry-level reporting jobs without providing them with any support is not enough. Those women will likely be lone, sidelined voices if they challenge old storytelling practices. Or else their challenges will cue misogyny-fatigued groans and accusations of screedy political correctness.)

Journalists—men and women—are free, of course, to wax poetic on a public figure’s heels or hair. Certainly outside of politics, women can expect a no-holds-barred approach. A 2014 Politico profile of editor Tina Brown, written with avuncular fondness, has her as a smart if dreamy “salon mistress,” “forever in high heels”—a zeitgeist chaser who runs around in irrational abandon as her media ship sinks, and who coyly forgets to pick up the tab at breakfast. An infamous 1997 profile of Mira Sorvino in GQ titled “Mira Sorvino Titillates” relentlessly mocked the actress’ intellectual ambitions. (It turned out the writer had been snubbed by Sorvino in an encounter years prior to the article.)

But journalists should remember the social ramifications of their craft. It’s been well documented that gendered media portrayals of women influence how women, who consume media in greater numbers than men, perceive themselves. So, while traditional gender socialization and divisions of labor have an impact on a woman’s decision to seek elected office, the media (everything from commercials to news clips) reinforces ideas about women’s femininity, frailty and lack of capacity. This might contribute to a host of factors that determine whether or not women are predisposed to entering public life at the highest levels, and their attitudes about the feasibility of such a path. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 73 percent of women think men have an easier path to high political office, and about half feel female candidates are held to higher standards.

Ironically, the latest public figure to attract an equal share of wagging fingers and tongues is now a first child. The media’s diminishment of Ivanka Trump is achieved through playful sneers, often by women working in male-dominant environments where sexist platitudes have a long history.

In a rash of pre-election New Yorker articles, Ms. Trump is glittering fodder, condemned to a kind of mock-idolatry that feeds on the gendered cliches she seems to evoke.

In one piece of political commentary, she “flicked her fingers,” “drew back her eyebrows” and is “poised,” “polished,” and “smiling.” Ivanka,“glowing in a petal-pink dress, her hair a smooth sheen, swiveled to look directly into the camera, with a brilliant smile.” Ivanka “wears pink and gold,” and “she knows how to sell pretty things.” In another assessment, Ivanka Trump is “possessed of…self-discipline and social graces,” and can, apparently, “float along.” She also “wore a black satin top that left one pale shoulder bare.” She is “smiling brightly.” She is “elegant, beautiful Ivanka,” a creature—part human, part ethereal—borne of good breeding and grooming.

The end result is that Ms. Trump, who appears in these pieces campaigning on behalf of her father, is quaintly fetishized. We get enough fabric, floating, swiveling, polish and smiles to fill an opium trip in Victorian London. By the end of such depictions, we collude with the authors in ogling, coveting and resenting Ms. Trump for actually giving us the many things we demand of women: human pageantry, physiques that score well on the president-elect’s body chart, the subdued power of charm, transcendence, warmth, and constant, gleeful acknowledgement. This is what Hillary Clinton didn’t give us, and what the media reviled her for.

A March Vanity Fair article suggested that Melania Trump’s “general bombshell-ness” was a liability to the Trump campaign, dogged with accusations as it was about women. Ivanka Trump was tapped to be the “proxy wife.” The writer then devotes paragraphs questioning Ms. Trump’s decision to travel late in her pregnancy, and quotes medical experts saying this is ill-advised because a woman could go into labor mid-flight. Maybe we’re meant to see Donald Trump as an exploiter of his daughter’s body for votes, but we spend our time musing on Ms. Trump’s heavily pregnant figure and the implied neglect of her unborn baby.

We may object to Ivanka Trump’s warped feminism and her cynical self-branding on the political stage. We may be outraged at her devotion to our future president, despite his depravity towards women and minorities, despite being objectified by him herself, and despite, as a child, watching him swap her mother and stepmother for a younger woman. But every media story that tracks the human gaze moving up and down her body is just another refusal to accept another woman as a fully dimensional human being.

In the Class Day speech to Yale students in 2001, then-Senator Clinton joked with her young audience: “Your hair will send significant messages to those around you. What hopes and dreams you have for the world, but more, what hopes and dreams you have for your hair. Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.”

Her words call up an 1884 Boston Globe article Ms. Falk cites in her book. The article satirically imagines an administration under presidential candidate Belva Lockwood. In the piece, President Lockwood is late for a cabinet meeting because she is trying on her dress, and the women she appointed to overseas posts refuse to serve because damp climates mean that “your hair never stays in curl at all.” Last month, to cap off years of scrutiny over her presidential ambitions, the press blessed, scorned and generally deconstructed Hillary Clinton with headlines like this: “Clinton gets mixed reaction after going makeup-free for speech.”

In all its contemporary, protean forms, the media could be a powerful sphere of influence for women and minorities. But it remains shockingly unrepresentative. Now its most distinguished members are aghast at the normalization of Donald Trump and feel they’re hallucinating. That’s a good thing, if they’ve finally entered the world of funhouse mirrors they helped create. The new Trump era might be an invigorating time for journalism, which performs such a critical service, to stop undermining, objectifying or altogether excluding half of its own public. To do anything less would be at the country’s peril.


Tal Abbady is a freelance writer based in Florida. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, the LA Times, The BBC, Dame Magazine, and other outlets. Born and raised in Venezuela, she has also taught at the Universidad Pontificia de Comillas in Madrid.