The Demeaning Message Behind the Sexualization of Female Politicians

Everyone’s least favorite topic: politics. With the 2020 presidential election closing in, U.S. media has been dedicating an abundance of its time on the dozens of candidates, giving voters plenty of information to form their opinions on the politicians. But is the media putting female candidates at a disadvantage? For decades, women in politics have been criticized for their clothing, personality, and emotions at a greater rate than men. Some would say this scrutiny is simply part of the election process: voters are critical of candidates because they want to have a capable next president. But has this system of critique gone too far?

The media often focuses on female politicians’ outfits rather than the content of their work. Many see such attention as a compliment, but people’s obsession with female politicians’ clothing has a sexist meaning behind it. In November 2018, Eddie Scarry tweeted a picture of New York City Democratic Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with the caption: “that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” Afterward, he claimed he was “suggesting the incoming congresswoman looked well put together”, but it’s hard to imagine this comment being tweeted about a male politician. 

Ever since the first female member of Congress, Jeanette Rankin, took office over one hundred years ago, comments like this one that judge and criticize what female politicians wear are constantly being made. For example, Hillary Clinton was criticized for wearing a pantsuit. Project Runway’s Tim Gunn commented, “Why must she dress that way? I think she’s confused about her gender.” Sarah Palin was judged by the money she spent on clothes. Although the article noted that aides of Sarah Palin hid the cost from her, the article was still titled: “Sarah Palin’s Shopping Spree.” This doesn’t mean that men don’t receive backlash about their self-presentation. However, as the Vox article, “America’s sexist obsession with what women politicians wear, explained,” clearly states it, “these instances are the exception, not the rule.” The disparity between the backlash that female politicians receive versus male politicians shows that women are still seen as outsiders in the government.


Women politicians are also oversexualized and degraded by the media to a horrific degree. During Sarah Palin’s presidential campaign in 2008, the media incessantly objectified her. Photos of Palin’s rallies were shot between her legs, the media often spoke of her attractiveness, and numerous reporters said they would want to sleep with her.  Before one basketball game, one commentator remarked, “Let me tell you something about Sarah Palin…she’s good masturbation material.” The media’s focus on female candidates’ “sexiness” diminishes their authority and political ability. Many female candidates were also criticized for not being sexy enough. Savage Nation radio show once aired “you know that ugly hag, Madeline Albright? Remember her? A psycho…Remember her? Like a fat moron.”  On his radio show, Chris Baker once said, “Nancy Pelosi..hey, get another facelift, lady. Another reason why it’s very rare to find a woman worthy of serving in political office.” These remarks are pervasive in U.S. media and place a female politician’s worth simply on her appearance.

Another form of sexism female politicians face concerns their emotions. In one Fox News interview, the guest was asked: “You get a woman in the Oval Office, the most powerful person in the world. What’s the downside?” The guest responded: “You mean besides the PMS and the mood swings?” Female candidates are also criticized for being passionate and called “angry” instead. Dianne Feinstein, US Senator from California spoke about this sexism on the documentary Miss Representation, saying “the media will write in the same way, about a man and a woman, Senator X, who is a woman “complained that..” and in the same [article] Senator Y [who is a man] “stated that…” So the man will get “stated” and the woman will get the negative verb “complained.” In the same documentary, Dr. Erika Falk cited a study that found “women…[running for political office are] twice as likely to be described emotionally as… [men]. And by painting women as more emotional than men, we perpetuate the stereotype that women are emotional, therefore they’re irrational, therefore they can’t handle a crisis, therefore they should not be in leadership positions.”

These negative images of female politicians have been found to impact voters. According to a study conducted by the Washington Post, many 2020 Democratic primary voters are less likely to vote for female candidates due to sexist views. 602 Democrats were asked how much they agree with statements such as “most women fail to appreciate fully all that men do for them,” “most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist” and “women are too easily offended.” The voters were then divided up into four groups: most sexist, more sexist, less sexist, and least sexist. Among those categorized as least sexist, Senator Elizabeth Warren was the top candidate of approximately 30% of the voters, and Senator Kamala Harris was the top candidate of around 15%. When compared to the data from those categorized as most sexist, the differences were shocking: less than 10% chose Warren and less than 5% chose Harris. This stark difference shows how sexist views impact voters’ decisions. Media bias and cultural sexism both contribute to these views and American society must face this harsh reality.

By Amy Qiao and Amira Pierotti

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