Let’s Talk About Sex(ism)

How the media handled gender during the campaign

It’s by now understood that sexism, in some form, lodged itself into the gears of this election cycle from the very start. We saw it with Hillary Clinton, who endured the press’s inane scrutiny of her demeanor and appearance, her “cackle” and her “cankles.” And we saw it again with Sarah Palin, whose looks prompted a different sort of “bodily lit-crit,” as one journalist described it—she was Alaska’s hot governor, and according to CNBC’s Donny Deutsch, totally beddable.

The resulting furor—unleashed largely by feminists of the old guard—prompted some in the political establishment to see a Fourth Wave of feminism powering up from the ashes of ’08. Bill Clinton, appearing on The View in late September, called sexism a “subconscious” and therefore almost “insidious” presence in the press. Howard Dean has called for a “national discussion” of sexism.

Do we need such a discussion? Maybe. But amid all the knuckle dragging, there was evidence of real progress. In an interview with Newsweek, Geraldine Ferraro, who in 1984 became the first woman to appear on a major party ticket, reminded us that when she was in the sexist crosshairs, she “couldn’t speak about it.” Her remarks lent credence to the idea that a diversity of criticism is always preferable to silence.

Liberal feminists like Gloria Steinem and Erica Jong wrote op-eds condemning the passing of the torch to an unworthy heir (Palin), but even they seemed taken aback by the rise of a second woman to the national political stage—one who fell short of Clinton on substance, but who more skillfully traded on her image. And while the label “hockey mom” wasn’t—to them, at least—a qualification for office, it showed how far we’ve come in the quest for self-representation. (Had Ferraro trumpeted her mothering skills, she would have been hooted off the stage as not serious enough.)

Also advancing the conversation was pushback from women writers who saw the feminist outrage as an overreaction. E. J. Graff, at Slate’s XX Factor, observed of Palin: “Madame Governor really shouldn’t be treated as a full-employment program for female pundits.” Katha Pollitt, writing for The Nation, questioned the impulse to fish for answers in a single person, with a deadpan reminder not to “forget that op-ed staple, What Does This Mean for Feminism?” Over-attention bred self-indulgence, they warned, and risked dumbing down the discourse itself.

Their warnings matched the attempts by mainstream newspapers to draw distinctions between journalism and punditry. After The Washington Post was criticized for writing about Clinton’s cleavage and The New York Times got knocked for parsing Clinton’s “cackle,” the Times’s Katharine Q. Seelye reported the news, with a headline that read in part: editors admit errors but nothing more. It was a guarded assessment of the criticisms leveled at the press, but valid in its qualification—that the egregious comments originated largely from pundits. More recently, Anne Kornblut in the Post warned the press about making knee-jerk recalibrations, instructing reporters covering Palin to instead contemplate “what is fair game now by comparing it with what was fair game” when Clinton made her political debut. Such responses may have been mild, but as digestible critiques, they opened the door to a conversation of what was equitable coverage and what wasn’t.

The best illustration of the interplay between where we are and where we think we should be in this debate over sexism, is another comment from Ferraro in the Newsweek interview: “I never thought we’d have the opportunity to see another woman go through it, this same election cycle, after the press had been put on notice.” Ferraro framed the campaign coverage as a series of opportunities that the press had flubbed. But even encased in a criticism, the word “opportunity” rings optimistic—one might even say that it takes a page from a discussion that is already in progress.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.