We Have Her Back: The Objectification of Women in Politics—and Why it Matters

We Have Her Back: The Objectification of Women in Politics—and Why it Matters
Objectification is just one strategy used to devalue and undermine women in politics. However, psychology research teaches us that these tactics can be particularly insidious not only for women candidates, but for women in the electorate too. (Lorie Shaull / Flickr)

This post originally appeared on the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). It has been republished with permission.

In January 2019, right-wing news outlet The Daily Caller published fake revenge-porn photographs of freshman Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. The headline read “Here’s the Photo Some People Described As A Nude Selfie of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”

Earlier this month, Pennsylvania Congresswoman Madeleine Dean posted a tweet highlighting the abusive messages she received on social media after her questioning of Attorney General Bill Barr during a House Judiciary Committee Hearing. Dean firmly questioned Barr about the use of force against peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square after the murder of George Floyd. Many of the comments she received directly were gender-based attacks and several were sexually objectifying.

A lot of ink has been spilled discussing sexism against women in politics, particularly in the wake of the 2016 election. Analyses of this enduring issue in our politics were reignited after a record number of women ran in the presidential race—but none were able to secure the nomination.

It’s an oversight to discuss sexism in politics without talking about objectification. Objectification involves treating another person as a commodity or as an instrumental object.

Women are subject to objectification, and in particular, sexual objectification, at significantly higher rates than men. Women in politics are no exception; since women entered the arena of national politics, they have been subject to objectifying rhetoric and portrayals in a way that men have not.

Objectification is just one strategy used to devalue and undermine women in politics. However, psychology research teaches us that these tactics can be particularly insidious not only for women candidates, but for women in the electorate too.

Consequences for Women in the Electorate

Current and ongoing research problematizes the role of objectification in perceptions of women politicians and candidates.

But objectification doesn’t just have political consequences for elite women. The objectification of women’s bodies has been a hallmark of American society and culture.

Psychologists purport this constant exposure to objectifying rhetoric and imagery can lead to a phenomenon called self-objectification—which occurs when individuals internalize observers’ perspectives of their physical bodies. Women tend to self-objectify at higher rates than men.

Research has mainly focused on the negative mental health and cognitive correlates of self-objectification. However, more recent work has actually linked self-objectification to how women behave in the political sphere. 

Research by Rachel Calogero and colleagues finds self-objectification is related to the belief that beauty is a type of social “currency,” and that both this belief and self-objectification are negatively related to gender-based political activism.

Put simply, women who are high self-objectifiers are more likely to be content with the status quo in terms of gender relations and less likely to engage in efforts to improve the current status of women. This is because women who are high self-objectifiers have incorporated their physical beauty as a central part of their self-concept.

Often this entails the belief that physical attractiveness is an extremely important asset or “currency,” and is something that will benefit them more than other skills, talents, and other pursuits. This hyper-focus on appearance ideals and satisfaction with the status quo dampens any desire to participate in gender-based political activism.

Research I conducted finds that the political consequences of self-objectification can be even more far-reaching. In a survey study, I find that self-objectification is negatively correlated with political efficacy, interest, and information-seeking.

I posit that the mechanisms that connect self-objectification and political engagement fall into two categories:

  1. Motivational and Cognitive, and
  2. Affective and Psychological.

When women self-objectify, their cognitive and attention resources are diminished. Engaging and participating in politics is an effortful behavior that depends on the availability of cognitive resources.

Furthermore, self-objectification has also been associated with decreased self-efficacy and self-esteem. Greater self-esteem and self-confidence are other assets associated with higher levels of political interest, attention and efficacy. Consistent with this research, I find evidence that self-objectification is negatively correlated with political engagement, with effects clearest among women.

This may help to explain the well-known gender gap in political engagement. In this context, the “gender gap” refers to the fact that women tend to have lower levels of psychological engagement in politics and participate in many political acts—beyond voting—at lower rates than men. (To clarify, while data shows women participate voraciously in civic life and outnumber men at the polls, their representation in the halls of power continues to lag.)

This work supports the notion that self-objectification contributes to the undermining of women’s overall political engagement.

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The Political Consequences of Objectification

Psychologists have extensively outlined the consequences of living a culture in which the objectification of women is pervasive. For the most part, this research has not focused on any politically relevant outcomes with the exception of a few studies.

In 2009, researchers conducted a study in which participants were prompted to consider the appearance of then vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. They were motivated by the fact that a significant portion of media coverage of Palin in 2008 focused on her appearance and perceived attractiveness, with Time magazine calling her a “sex symbol.”

In an experiment, they found that focusing on Palin’s appearance reduced perceptions of her competence and humanness.

We Have Her Back: The Objectification of Women in Politics—and Why it Matters
A significant portion of media coverage of Sarah Palin in 2008 focused on her appearance and perceived attractiveness. (Michael Vadon / Flickr)

Furthermore, those exposed to appearance-focused coverage of Palin were less likely to express intentions to vote for the McCain/Palin ticket than those who were not exposed to it. 

Another study finds that objectifying commentary on social media can impact the evaluation of women candidates. More specifically, those who saw the objectifying commentary about a hypothetical woman candidate were less likely to perceive her as credible and suited for public office.

Discussing the appearance of female politicians is an evergreen tactic that has been used to delegitimize and diminish them.

But objectification does more than just delegitimize. In fact, objectification is a form of dehumanization. Dehumanization involves the denial of essential human traits and qualities. Essentially, to dehumanize someone is to strip them of their agency and personhood.

Social psychologists argue that there are two fundamental dimensions that people use to categorize others as fully human: warmth and competence. Warmth can be thought of as one’s capacity for friendliness, good intentions, and sincerity. Competence is one’s overall capability and agency.

In an ongoing research project, I propose that objectification of women candidates decreases perceptions of these two important humanizing qualities. I theorize that when women politicians or political candidates are objectified, perceptions of competence and other agentic qualities are decreased.

Furthermore, I posit objectification decreases perceptions of warmth and morality. These are all qualities that we know voters use to evaluate politicians. Objectification also has the potential to increase support for traditional gender role norms which would dictate that politics is not a place where women belong.

Via these mechanisms, I expect exposure to objectifying portrayals to decrease voters overall positive evaluation and support for women in the political sphere. These hypotheses remain to be tested, but previous research lends support for the notion that objectification can negatively impact perceptions of women candidates.

Disrupting the Objectification Loop

What do we do to combat objectification in our politics?

First, we need to recognize that increasing women’s presence in politics is only one part of the equation. We also need to interrogate the way that women in politics are treated and talked about in the media and in everyday discussions. Sexist scripts that objectify women, whether they are cruel or purported to be positive, need to be called out.

Fortunately, more and more women are feeling empowered to do just that. AOC herself has continuously called out the news coverage and social media commentary that centers around her appearance. In the previously mentioned tweet from Representative Dean, she explicitly stated “I won’t be bullied. I will not be silent in the face of injustice. See you on Monday.”

Upon Joe Biden’s nomination of Senator Kamala Harris as the Democratic nominee for vice president, a group of influential women from various political advocacy groups sent a letter to newsrooms around the country urging them to avoid “stereotypes and tropes,” particularly ones that are gendered and racialized, in their coverage of the VP nominee.

The letter lists past failures in the coverage of women politicians, such as covering a woman’s “looks, weight, tone of voice, attractiveness and hair.” In a statement from the #WeHaveHerBack initiative, they state “We will be watching you. We expect change.”

Disrupting the objectification loop involves acknowledging that this particular form of sexism against women politicians is anything but innocuous.


Claire Gothreau is a research associate at the Center for American Women and Politics. She works on data collection and analysis at CAWP. She received her B.A. in Political Science from Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA and her Ph.D. from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. At Temple, she was the assistant director of the Behavioral Foundations Lab where she specialized in the collection of physiological data. Her research interests are in American politics with a focus on gender and political psychology. Find her on Twitter at @claire_gothreau.