IUPUI scholar: ‘Divisive, sexist’ rhetoric still part of U.S. political culture

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

Kristina Horn Sheeler, professor in the Department of Communication Studies and interim associate dean of academic programs in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, has done extensive research on women in politics and the role of feminist and post-feminist culture in American elections. She is the co-author of the book “Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture” and the Presidential Studies Quarterly article “Texts (and Tweets) from Hillary: Meta-Meming and Postfeminist Political Culture.”

Sheeler responded to questions from Policy Briefings about the current climate for female candidates — a timely topic in advance of Tuesday’s New York primary election, which is considered a key contest for Hillary Clinton as she seeks the Democratic nomination for president.

Q: What are the main takeaways from your book “Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture,” and what was your impetus for writing it?

Kristina Horn Sheeler

Kristina Horn Sheeler

A: Our research on U.S. first ladies and women governors led to close examination of presidential spouses and women in positions of executive leadership. That led us back, repeatedly, to the question: What will it take for a woman to be elected as U.S. president?

Lots of books have attempted to answer that question, but the vast majority talk about what individual women candidates should do differently to make themselves more electable. We came to believe that the problem was a cultural one. We need a cultural transformation so that women who are as qualified, accomplished and ambitious as men can be seen as credible, desirable presidential candidates.

Much of our book focuses on the 2008 campaign, when Hillary Clinton was an early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination and Sarah Palin was the Republican nominee for vice president. Those developments prompted lots of people to say that 2008 was a good year for women in politics.

Our research found that both Clinton and Palin were subjected to explicitly sexist and misogynistic attacks, and not just from their political opponents. The attacks also showed up in mainstream journalistic coverage, satirical television programs and digital discourse.

We argue that the 2008 campaign is a case study in the pernicious backlash against women presidential candidates, one that is expressed in both political and popular culture.

Q: Countries including Thailand, Liberia, Costa Rica, Australia, Argentina and Germany, just to name a few, have or have had women in their highest leadership positions. Are there national political factors or gender attitudes that keep the U.S. from joining this list?

A: The important thing about the countries mentioned here is that all elect their legislative branch through some level of proportionality, as opposed to winner-take-all elections in the U.S. Proportional systems tend to have twice as many women in political office as majority systems.

For example, instead of having a winner-take-all system as in the U.S., with each member of Congress elected by popular vote and each winner filling one seat in the House or Senate, proportional systems fill the legislature based on percentage of votes earned by the party. So a party that earns 30 percent of the vote fills 30 percent of the seats.

In Germany, for example, Angela Merkel worked her way to party leadership. As party leader, she negotiated the coalition that would take office. As the party leader of the coalition, she became chancellor. While this is a simplistic explanation, the voting system is a key aspect of accounting for numbers of women in political office around the world. I wouldn’t say that gender attitudes in Germany, or many of these countries, are particularly progressive, so what accounts for the difference may have something to do with the voting system.

Q: How does the backlash against female candidates that you describe in your book manifest in elections? Are there any specific examples so far from the 2016 presidential election?

A: The backlash manifests itself in a simultaneously progressive and troubling mindset of “women can do what it takes to run a credible campaign and be elected president.” It’s progressive because it assumes “we’ve made it.” It’s troubling because it blinds us to other problems. We stop short of asking why women haven’t been elected to the highest office in the land and whether the answer could have something to do with sexist and misogynistic attitudes that are perpetuated in the media.

In 2016 we see the backlash manifest itself in a similar contradiction that is sometimes expressed by young women who choose not to vote for Hillary Clinton. I’m not suggesting that young women should vote for Clinton because she is a woman. But I am suggesting that they feel like “they don’t have to.” The contradiction has to do with a similar progressive attitude of “women can do what it takes to run a credible, successful campaign” along with the attitude of “Hillary is running a formidable campaign so she doesn’t need my support.” In other words, she is strong enough without me; I can vote for another candidate.

Q: Your book places emphasis on the 2008 election, in which Hillary Clinton did not win. Is the political climate today different enough to make a Clinton win more likely?

A: I wouldn’t say the political climate now is any more welcoming of women. The divisive, sexist and misogynistic rhetoric that we see from some of our candidates in the 2016 race is particularly troubling. Take, for example, Donald Trump’s comments about women in general or Carly Fiorina, Megan Kelly and Heidi Cruz specifically.

Moreover the way young women voters are portrayed in sexualized ways is also demoralizing. In 2012, Obama for America ran an ad titled “First Time” that featured Lena Dunham. Romantically pairing young women with older men is a common phenomenon in Hollywood, which might be one reason that Obama’s campaign strategists saw nothing troublesome about casting a 26-year-old woman, Dunham, to urge her peers to “do it with” the married, 51-year-old commander in chief. Problematically, the narrative of the ad depicts having sex with and voting for men as female rites of passage which usher in womanhood.

In 2014, “Say Yes to the Dress” was the College Republicans’ answer to “First Time,” with similar ads running in several states. On the surface it might appear that the young women in this ad are portrayed as making reasonable political decisions. Yet the young women are portrayed not only as consumers but as objects of affection of the political candidates as suitors, ultimately saying yes to the dress, the suitor and the candidate of their dreams.

I don’t think the climate is any more welcoming of women, but I do think that the list of candidates is different, making a Clinton nomination and win possible.

Clinton added “social media icon” to her resume in 2013 when the enormously popular Texts from Hillary Tumblr account began posting memes of Clinton texting with politicians and celebrities. Social media remains an integral campaigning tool. Do female candidates navigate social media strategies differently than their male counterparts?

In June 2014, Karrin Vasby Anderson and I published an article on this topic in Presidential Studies Quarterly. In that article we argue:

Although social media provide political figures like Clinton the opportunity to communicate directly with citizens outside of filtered news sites, it was not Twitter’s open conduit that made it a particularly useful communicative mode for Clinton in the summer of 2013. Instead, Twitter’s unique format allowed Clinton to revise and strategically deploy the favorable ‘Texts from Hillary’ meme, capitalizing on positive momentum created by the 2012 Tumblr sensation. Of particular importance was Clinton’s attempt to create a new meme using an existing one. Her tweet united the popular ‘Texts from Hillary’ photograph with the new ‘#tweetsfromhillary’ hash tag. Rather than addressing the concerns of her critics through a speech, press conference, or email message, Clinton side-stepped the criticism entirely, reminding her audience of what Talking Points Memo’s Benjy Sarlin called her ‘own brand of badass cool.’ Consequently, Clinton’s Twitter debut illustrates a new type of strategic image management: a political meme mash-up in which politicians attempt to capitalize on existing memes that originate from outside the sphere of information elites.

I don’t think that women have to navigate social media differently. To the contrary, social media gives all candidates a forum that is unfiltered by mainstream media and one that possesses opportunities to capitalize on virtual relationship-building with citizens and voters.

What kinds of conversations are the Clinton campaign having that the other campaigns aren’t, because of gender? In other words, what strategies or perception problems does the Clinton campaign have to grapple with based on gender?

Clinton still has to deal with the charge that her ambition is unnatural, whereas ambition in a male candidate is an asset. For example, Google “Clinton and ambition” and these headlines pop up: “unbridled ambition,” “too ambitious,” “pathologically ambitious” and “ruthless ambition.” Google Trump and ambition and you get “drive,” “success,” “strong ego drive” and “extraordinary candidacy.” In other words, ambition is a dirty word for a woman politician, and Hillary Clinton always has to keep that in mind.

In terms of conversations, the Clinton campaign is having a large number of campaigns related to gender and pay equity, human rights, women’s health and Planned Parenthood, and the like which we don’t hear to the same degree in the Sanders campaign and especially in the Republican campaigns.

Do voters treat gender differently in a primary versus a general election? Can we expect changes in gender attitudes as the election evolves?

Since a woman has never been at the top of the ticket during a general election, this question is difficult to answer. Two women have been in vice presidential roles during a general election, but that role, according to some researchers, is feminized. In other words, it’s a support role because everything you do is in support of the presidential candidates. The vice president isn’t his or her own person and cannot tout his or her accomplishments. It’s about the accomplishments of the person on the top of the ticket.

Can we expect changes in gender attitudes as the campaign evolves? I would like to think so, but the Republican primaries are so divisive, antagonistic and sexist that I don’t think so. We seem to be devolving rather than moving forward.

Sheeler is also available for comment on the 2016 election season. You can learn about her expertise and more at Decision 2016, a comprehensive online media guide for elections resources at IU.