Public Portrayals of Female Political Candidates
University of Colorado at Boulder
The presence of women in politics has been a contentious issue throughout American history. Women’s suffrage and the right to vote are only recent social phenomena, spanning back only as far as eighty years. Although women no longer have to fight for political recognition in terms of a vote, equal representation in the political arena is far from achieved. Today, the issue regarding women in politics has not to do with being seen and heard, but rather, how female political candidates are seen and heard. One needs only to think of the recent media frenzy Condoleeza Rice ignited when she wore a mini skirt to a NATO meeting in Europe, or the highly publicized incident in which Newt Gingrich’s mother called Hillary Clinton a “bitch” (Anderson, 2002, p.1), to know that the public portrayal of female political candidates is wrought with stereotypes and far from equal representations relative to their male counterparts.
Although female political candidates have been a “hot topic” for some time now, the pertinence of this issue seems to have reached its apex with the dawn of Hillary Rodham Clinton as a strong candidate for the presidency in 2008, as well as the continued presence of strong political female forces like Condoleeza Rice. In light of the current political situation in the U.S., the opportunities to portray female political candidates in the media have increased exponentially. As a result, this situation presents a very real and imminent communication dilemma, and lends itself to analysis through a number of relevant communication theories. Although many communication theories are plausible ways to examine the problem of the public portrayal of female political candidates, this paper will utilize the socio-cultural theory, with a particular emphasis on James Carey’s ritual view of communication.
Before it is possible to analyze this exigence from a socio-cultural perspective, an understanding of Carey’s ritual view is in order. In his article entitled “ A Cultural Approach to Communication,” Carey distinguishes between the two competing views of communication, the transmission view and the ritualistic view. The transmission view utilizes the metaphor of transportation, and involves transmitting signals or messages over distance for the purpose of control (Carey, 1989). The ritual view on the other hand, employs the metaphor of sacred ceremony that brings people together, to define communication. From this perspective, messages are not transmitted, but rather the focus is on the maintenance of society over time and the representation of shared beliefs (Carey, 1989). For Carey, both of these views have religious roots though fundamentally different in their nature. The transmission view finds its origins in the age of exploration and discovery, during which the missionaries of Europe actively pursued the dissemination of Christianity with respect to the Native American community. In the ritual view, however, religious observations of prayer, chant, and ceremony, all requiring group participation, are highlighted (Carey, 1989). In very salient terms, Carey seems to capture the difference between the transmission and ritual view when he says that for the ritual view the “…highest manifestation of communication is not in the transmission of intelligent information but in the construction and maintenance of an ordered, meaningful cultural world that can serve as a control and container for human action” (Carey, 1989, p. 4).
Carey further elucidates an understanding of the ritual view of communication when he describes the process of reading a newspaper. From the ritual perspective, when reading a newspaper nothing new is learned but rather, a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed. This portrayal is of the “…contending forces in the world…,” (Carey, 1989, p.5) and is one which grants “…life an overall form, order, and tone…,” (Carey, 1989, p. 5) through which a reader’s existence and time is structured. Borrowing from Durkheim, Carey maintains that in the ritual tradition the projection of community ideals is embodied in material forms like dance, plays, architecture, and news stories (Carey, 1989). These things help confirm the core order of things and perpetuate an ongoing social process. But perhaps the overarching message of Carey, lies in that it is our participation in culture, with community as the bottom line, that establishes meaning and allows communication to take place.
Carey’s ritual view of communication, itself a subdivision of socio-cultural theory, has many implications for the present communication problem of the public portrayal of female political candidates. Reiterating a concept from Carey’s ritual view, it is our participation in culture that establishes meaning, creating and recreating it, and if successful is accompanied by shared experience. This can be applied to the problem of the portrayal of female political candidates, in that it suggests that our collective participation in American culture is responsible for the creation and recreation of meaning surrounding female political candidates. This is a particularly useful way of viewing the problem, especially when examining specific examples of the disparate and stereotypical portrayals of female political candidates in relation to their male counterparts.
One example of this can be evidenced by a recent study commissioned by The White House Project, a non-partisan organization that aims to get more women elected to higher office, who found several differences in media representations of female political candidates when compared to men. This study found that although female and male candidates were equally represented in terms of coverage amount, the content of the coverage differed significantly. Journalists were more likely to focus on the personal qualities of female candidates than male candidates. Age, marital status, family, and especially children (traditionally feminine topics) were highlighted in female candidates more often than in males, and males received much more campaign-related coverage (“Spotlight,” 2006). They were quoted on issue positions, and backing up their claims with evidence much more than female candidates (“Spotlight,” 2006).
Publications such as those examined for the purpose of this study, confirm traditional thoughts and roles of women as inextricably bound to the home, their husbands, and their children. In purchasing and absorbing this literature, members of American culture reaffirm these conceptualizations. In the same way Carey maintains that nothing new is learned when reading a newspaper, nothing new is learned through reading these publications but rather, a particular view of women as fundamentally non-political beings is portrayed and confirmed. Although these publications may vary in their female political candidate of choice, they all substantiate the same view of female political candidates and represent only different versions of each other.
Another vivid example that can benefit from analysis by Carey’s ritual view, is the highly televised incident during which Newt Gingrich’s mother called Hillary Clinton a “bitch” for her “meddlesome” ways and tendency “to tell Congress what to do,” (Anderson, 2002, p.1) during an interview with Connie Chung. This is a significant incident, because it met strong, politically minded, female candidates like Hillary Clinton, with much resistance, openly punishing and ostracizing them for having a political opinion and voicing it. As a very prominent news story when the incident occurred, this event can be construed as a projection of community ideals embodied in the media. The ideals being projected in this situation were those of what not to be as a woman. Being highly opinionated and vocal in a political sense is clearly discouraged and reprimanded through the use of the word “bitch” in reference to such a woman (Hillary Clinton). As a news story, these ideals are offered to members of American culture through media forms like television and magazines; and in negating the qualities of strong political will and voice, traditional ideals of femininity are upheld.
These ideals are also upheld through seemingly mundane activities and daily interactions. Each time a fashion magazine is purchased, portraying women as sex objects or soccer moms; each time a news paper article about the marital status of a certain female political candidate, is read; and each time a woman resigns to doing the housework, because it is the way things are meant to be, people are participating in a culture of shared beliefs. Shared beliefs about women as non-political, domestic, and highly sexualized members of society, all of which work to provide “…the construction and maintenance of an ordered, meaningful cultural world…” (Carey, 1989, p. 4).
As is evident from the preceding section, Carey’s ritual view offers a rich approach to the investigation of the communication problem of the public portrayal of female political candidates. The utility of this view lies in its emphasis on culture and community participation. These aspects are central to this problem because it is a complex issue, deeply embedded in the social tapestry of American culture and involves many human influences. This is in stark opposition to a simple transfer of messages about women over distance, as the transmission view might conceive of the problem. Carey’s ritual perspective also offers a very human view of a very human problem. Whereas the transmission view labels individuals as senders and receivers, the ritual view labels individuals as participants and suggests agency, in that people are not being acted upon so much as they are acting together. This pertains to the problem at hand, because it helps to define the portrayals of female political candidates as a concerted effort on the part of society, which cannot be maintained without the participation of its members.
Inasmuch as Carey’s ritual view is useful it is also limited, and possesses some shortcomings. In Carey’s discussion of community for instance, he paints an overwhelmingly positive picture regarding participation and shared beliefs, failing to acknowledge that the maintenance of an ordered cultural world can also be negative. With regards to the communication problem at hand, the maintenance of shared beliefs about women as politically inferior, subordinate, and hyper-sexualized, is most certainly a negative effect of community. Meaning is definitely present, yet its establishment in no way guarantees a positive outcome, as one might assume through reading Carey. A more comprehensive explanation of the ritual view therefore, might contain both the positive and potentially negative effects of community and its maintenance of society over time and representation of shared beliefs.
Another deficiency in Carey’s ritual view of communication is his failure to address power relations. Particularly important to the public portrayal of female candidates, is the recognition that not everyone in the community has an equal impact on the meaning that is negotiated. Using Carey’s view, however, it would seem that everyone shares proportional pieces in the generation of shared beliefs surrounding this problem. To address these significant power relations, the use of a systems theory perspective would prove beneficial.
In sum, the communication problem of the public portrayal of female political candidates is both a salient and significant issue in society today. Riddled with intricacies and complex human relations, it is a dilemma that can be sufficiently analyzed using socio-cultural theory and Carey’s ritual view of communication. Using this view, the problem can be explained as a product of the cultural participation of its members in maintaining order and shared beliefs. Unaddressed by this view, however, are the negative effects of community and the role of power relations. These shortcomings do not seek to nullify Carey’s work but rather, should be used as a framework for improvements to his view of communication upon which other’s can be built, and a greater understanding of the communication problems that plague human life achieved.
Anderson, K. V. (2002). Hillary Rodham Clinton as “Madonna”: The role of metaphor and oxymoron in image. Women’s Studies in Communication, 25, 1-15.
Carey, J.W. (1989). A cultural approach to communication. In Communication as culture: Essays on media and society (pp. 13-23). Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman.
Rothenbuher, E., Mullen, L., DeLaurell, R., & Ryu, C. (1996). Communication, community, attachment, and involvement. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 73, 445-446.
The White House Project. (November 24, 2006). Style Over Substance: Spotlight on Elizabeth Dole. Retrieved November 24, 2006, from http://www.ThewhitehouseProject.org.