Criticism of female politicians focuses on gender almost as much as policy. From late night talk show comics to political commentators, female politicians are regularly evaluated on their looks, questioned on their ability to balance work with family, and judged if they step out of ladylike roles. Certainly, male politicians are mocked and criticized as well, but they’re not treated with the same condescension. Regardless of political party or stance, female candidates will most likely face attacks or sexual comments based solely on their possession of a vagina. These comments are an underhanded way to reinforce traditional roles of a woman’s place – and traditionally, a woman’s place is not in power. Sexist comments are a way to invalidate women and to shut us up if we dare to challenge the status quo.
Typically, those who lack the skills to intellectually and rationally argue tend to resort to ad hominem attacks: attacking a woman’s appearance (fat, ugly), sexuality (frigid, slut), femininity (butch, ball-breaker), or character (liberal, feminist). Even compliments can be used as a way to direct attention to a woman’s gender rather than her opinions. This subtle manipulation is done to throw her and the audience off topic. These tactics are commonly seen in forms of media that attract a less-intellectually minded, albeit vocal, crowd – Internet comment threads, letters to the editors of certain publications, ultra-conservative talk radio, and pundits on cable TV programs that try to pass off propaganda as “news” (some might even call it faux news).
Sexist comments are so commonplace that they generally go unchallenged. Also, we’re less likely to object when the candidate’s political ideology differs from our own. (Heard any good Sarah Palin jokes lately?) This isn’t any less offensive though. Why not stick to criticizing her political stances or even her lack of intelligence, but stay away from the comments that narrow her down to her being a chick? Is that too much to ask? There’s certainly public outrage when politicians or media personalities make racist slurs — as there should be. These people are reprimanded or even fired. They might even formally apologize for their ignorance and insensitivity. Where’s the outrage when Glenn Beck calls Senator Mary Landrieu a prostitute? Or when G. Gordon Liddy says that he hopes the “key conferences aren’t when [Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is] menstruating”? Or what about when Senator Arlen Specter tells Representative Michele Bachmann, “I’m going to treat you like a lady … now act like one”? (see more) Seriously, WTF?
Need more examples? Check out this short video from the Women’s Media Center that demonstrates just how common this crap really is:
This boy’s-club-locker-room-frat-brother mentality continues because there’s a lack of accountability. The anonymity of the Internet allows people to make offensive comments that they might otherwise withhold in public. And those who would say such things in public may not get much push-back anyway. Not enough people resist or speak up about sexism, and our silence allows it to go on. It’s particularly difficult to change these attitudes culturally when those who hold positions of privilege and power in society (both males and females) contribute to them.
Here’s the cost of our apathy. A recent study offered evidence about how sexist insults hurt female politicians (and I’m not just talking about their feelings). These comments are not mere annoyances. They have an actual impact on women’s ability to have respect, influence, and power in society.