Let's call it what it is: sexism in the media. No matter your political stripe, pundits are skewering Sarah Palin. Again. Back in the media spotlight for announcing her resignation as governor July 3, she's become easy fodder for misogynistic bashing.
During the presidential campaign, the press bombarded her with stereotypes that already plague us as a gender – airhead, stupid, not qualified. And no, the media weren't picking on her just because she was a former beauty contestant. If Governor Palin was crucified, Hillary Rodham Clinton was slaughtered. Here, a woman of substance, education, and strength was portrayed as weepy, dowdy, and shrewish.
In a commentary this past week on the Huffington Post, Peter Daou qualifies the reasons for such bashing: "Unlike Clinton, Palin didn't have time to develop the layers of thick skin required to handle the withering glare of the national celeb/politico spotlight, a glare that for some reason shines much more harshly on women like Palin and Clinton."
Some reason? Please. Read the word "women" above and know the truth of it. While it may be true that Palin wasn't "seasoned" enough to bear the spotlight, that "withering glare" shines on all women, no matter who they are. Even the venerable New York Times stooped to this superficial level when Condoleezza Rice was chosen by President Bush as national security adviser. A front-page story featured her clothing selection – that she preferred comfortable pumps and conservative jewelry.
My point is that women, no matter their political leanings, can't seem to get a fair – or balanced – shake from the press. It's the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario, especially for female politicians. This treatment of women in politics, however, is representative of a greater problem: the rampant sexist portrayal of women and girls in general. Whether it's the derisive terms and demeaning depictions in rap and hip-hop music and videos, or the barely dressed women adorning the stages of game shows, sexist ideas and imagery abound in the mass media.
In research for an article on "Gender and the media" that I wrote for Soroptimist's Best for Women magazine, I found that sexualization of women is an even bigger problem. Last year, a Dolce & Gabbana magazine ad portrayed a scantily clad woman pinned down by one man while four others looked on. After a global outcry, the ad was pulled. In films, The Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media based in California found that females are more than five times as likely as males to be shown in alluring apparel. The institute is concerned not only about how these messages affect women and young girls, but young males as well.
Some men complain they aren't represented fairly, either. They protest commercials or sitcoms that portray them as inept, bumbling, or overly-aggressive. True. In the overall scheme of media representation, however, women continue to bear the harsher wallop. In movies, magazine ads, and on television, we are valued first for our appearance and second for our inner character and intelligence.
The discussion about gender portrayal in the media is not new, yet little changes. Why is that? Numbers. We have more men than women calling the media shots. Today, women have little access to authority and ownership levels in the media, with women owning only 6 percent of commercial broadcast television stations and 6 percent of all full-power radio stations.
While we can complain about gender misrepresentation – or no representation at all – we have to shift our focus. We can write e-mails and letters voicing our concerns, but we also must ensure that more women move into decisionmaking positions in the media. We can foster media change by backing the initiatives of organizations that work to promote portrayals of both genders in film and TV as valid and important. We can also become better informed about how the media system operates and how public policy shapes the industry.
But it's up to us to make that happen. It's up to us to let the powers-that-be know that we want to be valued for our character and strengths and not our outfits or bodies. Until that day, we'll continue to witness media portrayals of women that are rooted in something much deeper than political partisanship. We'll continue to see Palin bashing. You may like her. Or dislike her. But calling her "wacky" or "caribou Barbie" is not called for. It's sexist.
Marielena Zuniga is a journalist from Bucks County, Pa., and a staff writer for Soroptimist International of the Americas, a Philadelphia-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of women around the world. She's a winner of the recent Jane Cunningham Croly Award for Excellence in Journalism Covering Issues of Concern to Women, and is featured on a creative writing blog, www.birthofanovel.wordpress.com .