On the media’s sexist portrayal of Wendy Davis and Hillary Clinton
By Casey Farrington, Communications Intern
Boiling people down to tropes and stereotypes makes for a good story–but most people aren’t so easily defined.
Take female politicians. Calling Wendy Davis a gold-digger or Hillary Clinton as a shrew can make for a good story, but it doesn’t make for good journalism.
It’s something many members of the media need to be reminded of.
Earlier this week, The Dallas Morning News published what is intended to be an expose on Davis’ past, but what reads like a know-it-all arguing semantics.
Wendy said she was a divorced single teen mom living in a trailer park. Really she was a separated single teen mom who only lived in a trailer park for, like, two months.
C’mon, Wendy. Get real.
But these are the finer quibbles. The broader framing of the story makes the Texas state representative seem like a black widow of sorts, using men to satisfy her ambition.
That she divorced the man who paid for her education gets special attention: “Jeff Davis paid for her final two years at TCU… When she was accepted to Harvard Law School, Jeff Davis cashed in his 401(k) account and eventually took out a loan to pay for her final year there.”
The supposed tragedy in it all is highlighted later, when Jeff is quoted, “It was ironic. I made the last payment, and it was the next day she left.”
Maybe I’m crazy, but I thought marriage was a partnership. You know, you’ve signed up with the government and maybe even God to file your taxes jointly and pick each other up from the airport. Part of that partnership might mean using family resources to advance one partner’s education.
But earning a Harvard Law degree isn’t Wendy’s only offense. In what appears to have been a family decision, Jeff got full custody of their youngest child following the divorce.
Can’t you see the scandal? When a woman doesn’t get the kids, she’s a bad mom. When a man doesn’t, it’s just another divorce.
Compounded with Wendy Davis’ good looks, the suggestion seems to be that this succubus of a woman has used her feminine wiles to beguile men into giving her money and power. It’s not really an original narrative, and it’s not really reflective of the complex person Davis is.
The conservative attacks on Davis’ story and character are so outrageous that one of Davis’ Republican colleagues, Becky Haskins, commiserates saying, “If this involved a man running for office, none of this would ever come up.”
Hillary Clinton received similar treatment, though visually, on her fifth cover of TIME this week. “Can anyone stop Hillary?” asks TIME, as a giant one-inch black heel peeking out of a navy blue pantsuit leg strides confidently, mindless of the tiny man hanging on for dear life. His 2014 campaign sign is forgotten behind him.
The cover is provocative, playing into stereotypes that have haunted Hillary throughout her public life. She has been slammed as mannish, shrewish, and emasculating. The blue pants-black heel pairing has been criticized as thoughtless fashion, as has her constant parade of pantsuits.
Though Clinton has been able to find humor in the portrayal, proclaiming herself a “pantsuit aficionado” (something I can only dream of being), it isn’t very flattering. Like the story about Davis, this cover plays into sexist tropes.
Many people might find these complaints to be little fish in a sea of real issues, but sexism in the media is a real issue. The under-representation of women in our government is a real issue. And the two issues are connected.
The Women’s Media Center released a study in 2012 that showed exactly how sexist attacks affect female candidates in the polls. Compared to other personal attacks, sexist attacks hurt her polling numbers more with every demographic.
Scandals also seem to affect women candidates more than the their male counterparts because women have a “virtue advantage”– societal attitudes about how women are supposed to be tend to drive a collective belief that female candidates are more empathetic, value-driven, and trustworthy. This initial bump can lead to tragic downfall when fairly commonplace missteps happen during the campaign because voters feel betrayed. It can hurt to be placed on a pedestal.
The deadly effect of scandal on women is why the smear campaign being launched against Wendy Davis over relatively un-riveting revelations could be particularly damaging. It relies on sexist attitudes about the proper roles of women to attack Davis’ character as though being ambitious and divorced is a crime, and it creates scandal where there is none.
A story is being written that isn’t true. The characters are recognizable, the themes are familiar, but Davis and Clinton are straying from the script society has written for them as women. The mud being slung at them for it will be difficult for either to wash off.
This kind of barrier to representation is certainly part of the reason less than 20 percent of our national representatives are women. This lack of representation has been dire for women’s interests. We need complicated, intrepid role models like Wendy Davis to both champion legislation important for women and, as President of NOW Terry O’Neill suggests, a living embodiment of why these rights are so important.
Sexist portrayals in the media have real consequences for how our government serves the 51 percent of the population that is female. If journalists really consider themselves integral in preserving democracy, then it’s time to stop relying on sexist attitudes and write the story for what it is.