How to Write About Female Politicians Without Being a Sexist Shithead


Over the weekend, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan took the paper to task for its characterization of Wendy Davis on a recent Times magazine front cover. In case you missed it, the cover featured a close-up of Davis’s face with the captions: “CAN WENDY DAVIS HAVE IT ALL?” and “A Texas-Size Tale of Ambition, Motherhood, and Political Mythmaking.” It came on the heels of their bizarro Hillary Clinton cover just a few weeks before, which portrayed the former First Lady as a leering, fleshy Death Star dominating politics with her “gravitational pull.”

As Sullivan rightly points out:

Despite its well-intentioned efforts, this piece managed to trip over a double standard with its detailed examination of Ms. Davis’s biography, including her role in raising her two daughters.
For many women, this relentless second-guessing hits hard and cuts deep. We take it personally, for good reason: In our society, there may be no more damaging wound than being found wanting in the good-mother department — and no career achievement can salve it.
Beginning the reader’s experience with the outdated “Have It All” headline didn’t help, nor did the subheadline: “A Texas-Size Tale of Ambition, Motherhood and Political Mythmaking,” which comes close to suggesting that Ms. Davis is spinning a big lie. Together, they curdle the piece that follows. A description in the second paragraph of Ms. Davis’s “fitted black dress and high heels” and her omnipresent half smile does little to ease the reader’s suspicions.

So why do publications have such a hard time writing about female politicians? After all, it doesn’t seem THAT complicated. All you have to do is write about the stuff that the politician did without bringing their genitals and/or gender presentation into it. Here, I made a template (just fill in the blanks and your article is done!):

NEWS REPORT: [Female Politician] did [politics] today. [Describe politics.]

This isn’t even a foreign concept—barring sex scandals, the media does it effortlessly, pretty much 100% of the time, with male politicians. But, yes, I understand that language is complex and nuanced and there are some tricky pitfalls lurking out there—like quicksand, or Martha Washington’s vagina!*—waiting to trip young journalists up. So just to be safe, here’s a handy guide to the subtler DOs and DON’Ts of writing about our nation’s be-pantsuited lady-kings. (Rule #1: DON’T call them that.)

DON’T write entire articles about their haircuts, or mention their haircuts, or interview their hairstylists (unless you are specifically a famous politician hairstyling magazine!). If you find yourself itching to mention a female politician’s haircut, stop for a moment and ask: Would I mention a male politician’s haircut in this otherwise dry and journalistic context? Or a male astronaut’s haircut? Or a male doctor’s haircut? Or the haircut of any male professional about whose business-work I am reporting? Is this female politician implementing a new tax on sensible mid-length bobs? Is the pointless clump of dead strings growing out of her head relevant in any way other than to remind your audience, essentially, “Look at woman with job! It thinks it’s people!” No? Then DON’T.

DON’T speculate about female politicians’ diets, as though their dress size has any bearing on their political acumen, or that maintaining thinness is part of a woman’s job and therefore her diet is part of the public domain, or that running for office is some sort of vanity project that women undertake in order to show off their tight bunz. If a female politician mentions her weight loss goals publicly, DON’T fixate on it as though it has genuine political significance, don’t treat it like an admission of weakness (either noble or worthy of scorn), and don’t pretend like it bears any relevance to her job performance. (DON’T do that to male politicians, either, while you’re at it. Everyone gets to have a body.)

DON’T make shitty, undermining comments about the higher-pitched voices of female politicians, as though people’s purported preference for male voices is based in hard biology and not in the successful culturally-imposed campaign to brand women as shrill and incompetent.

DON’T make a point of fixating on the female politician’s shoes to the exclusion of all else. If you must mention her shoes, because something notable happened to her involving a shoe, or you have some sort of trenchant shoe-based analysis, please don’t give it more than one news cycle. It’s just not that important. I have literally never read an article about a male politician’s shoe.

DON’T illustrate your article about a female politician with a photograph of a gigantic high-heeled foot crushing a tiny businessman. It is dehumanizing and misleading. Women are not monsters, men are not victims of women’s success, and female politicians have not achieved an even remotely threatening level of parity in our government or governments nationwide. Also, QUIT PERPETUATING THE IDEA THAT WOMEN AND THEIR SHOES ARE INEXTRICABLY BONDED LIKE A MAGICIAN AND HIS DAEMON FAMILIAR. WE HAVE BEEN OVER THIS.

DON’T use cute, diminutive, feminizing adjectives that do nothing but remind readers of your subject’s gender, such as “petite” and “ladylike.”

DON’T say period. Don’t you fucking dare.

DON’T comment on how successfully or unsuccessfully they appear to be “having it all,” “balancing work and family,” or “getting home in time for dinner.”

DON’T drop in language that implies a female politician is a lesbian if she doesn’t conform to “traditional” modes of femininity such as motherhood and long, shiny hair.

DON’T compare her to men in a surprised tone, as though you can’t believe a woman could be as “tough” or “strong” or “commanding” as a man. As though “feminine” is the opposite of “effective.”

DON’T play into that shitty double-standard where identical behavior codes men as bold and women as bitches. Is [female politician] “nice”? UGH, WHO FUCKING CARES. UR MOM’S NICE, BOZO.

DON’T comment on female politicians’ clothing and purses. We get it. We know they’re women. Women are weird. They aren’t “regular” people, like men. We are following you. And the more you do this, the less convinced we are that your inclusion of these details is innocuous. Here’s Rachel Larris in Slate:

For our study, we had probable voters read gender-neutral descriptions of a hypothetical male and female candidate and then asked them how likely they would be to vote for one over the other. At the beginning they liked each candidate about equally. Then four separate groups of study participants each heard a slightly different version of a news story about both hypothetical candidates. One group’s news story didn’t mention the female candidate’s clothing or appearance at all, and of that group, half said they would vote for the male candidate, half for the female candidate. But the three groups of study participants who heard a news story that mentioned the woman’s appearance suddenly changed their minds and started ranking the female candidate as less experienced, confident, effective, and qualified than her male opponent. Whether her clothing and appearance were discussed in a positive or negative fashion, just the addition of this information made the participants less likely to vote for her. This happened even when the mention of her clothing was a neutral detail, such as the fact she wore a “brown blouse, black skirt, and modest pumps with a short heel,” at a press conference; the study participants rated the female candidate differently than those who heard the same story without those details.

That doesn’t mean that no one can ever mention a shoe (thought police!!!!!!), it just means hey, write shit that’s relevant. What we’re asking for is nothing more than an honest and faithful representation of everyone‘s skills—regardless of gender. Women are not beguiling trickster-gods with poison in our rings. We’re just people who do jobs. Like men.

Because wouldn’t it be better if, instead of passively perpetuating that patently damaging double standard, everyone joined the fight to dismantle it? We know it’s possible, because ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS REPORT ON WOMEN THE WAY YOU REPORT ON MEN. You have literally lifetimes of examples to draw from. You don’t even have to be proactive—you just have to be neutral.

You can do it. I believe in you, little warriors.


Image via Getty.

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