It’s only been a mere handful of weeks since the U.S. Women’s World Cup team ignited jubilant passion among a large population of girls who looked up to the players as role models. In fact my daughter got to revel in that passion by attending a Women’s Professional Soccer game, where she got to see the likes of World Cup stars Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe play as crowds of female and male soccer fans clamored for their autographs. I especially loved seeing a young teenage boy wearing a Hope Solo jersey.
I was thrilled not just for my daughter, but for my sons to see such displays of athleticism and power.
Then along came sexist garbage spewing from the national media again, trampling all over those positive, you-go-girl vibes: The debasement of presidential candidate Michele Bachmann with an intentionally unflattering Newsweek cover and a sexually exploitative photo of Bachmann eating a corndog . . . the latest in gender-based commentary directed at the only female in the presidential race. (Photos of Texas Governor/GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry eating a corndog have now surfaced, but only after the hullaballoo regarding the Bachmann image.) Throw in the new academic study which found that women are wildly and disproportionately sexually commodified in pop culture media and all those positive feelings about women’s success created by the U.S. Women’s Soccer team went down the tubes. How damned depressing.
Didn’t we already deal with this kind of retro baloney after what Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin went through in 2008 when they were on the receiving end of all manner of harsh critiques based on their gender? University of Kansas researchers who analyzed the tone of the 2008 presidential race found that both Clinton and Palin were often subjected to sexist commentary, frequently focusing on their bodies: “Palin’s attractiveness resulted in frequent and varied references to her ‘sexiness,’ whereas Clinton was viewed as not feminine enough in pantsuits that covered her ‘cankles.’” They provide example after example of hideous media behavior. (Clinton, now the U.S. Secretary of State, was recently maligned by a famous fashion designer who said, “I think she’s confused about her gender . . . all these big, baggy menswear tailored pantsuits.” It never ends.)
This kind of media behavior does actual damage to women’s political success, as well as dissuades other women from wanting to run for office. Last fall, a study conducted by the Women’s Media Center, the WCF Foundation and Political Parity found that demeaning female political candidates with sexist language and images “undercuts her political standing,” USA Today reported. The Democratic pollster who ran the survey told the newspaper, “I was stunned at the magnitude of the effect of even mild sexism.” What kind of effect? The survey found that in a hypothetical campaign between a male and a female and the female was criticized or depicted in a sexist way: “The female candidate lost twice as much support when even the mild sexist language was added to the attack” and “the sexist language undermined favorable perceptions of the female candidate, leading voters to view her as less empathetic, trustworthy and effective,” USA Today said.
The advocacy groups co-founded a new organization called “Name It. Change It” in the wake of their findings, hoping that the group would identify and publicize sexism on the campaign trail when they see it to change the way it affects women in politics. This same group saw the Newsweek cover of Bachmann – which labeled her the “Queen of Rage” and used a terribly unfavorable photo of her (she’d already been asked if she was a “flake” earlier this year by one TV talk show host) – and sent a letter to the magazine in protest, saying: “Choosing an unflattering picture of Congresswoman Bachmann and representing her as ‘The Queen of Rage’ is precisely the type of subversive sexism that depresses female involvement and deprives our nation of a much-needed balance in perspective. Our research shows that this type of mild sexism can be just as electorally damaging to female candidates as out-and-out misogyny.”
And then there was the recent University of Buffalo study where researchers studied 1,046 covers of Rolling Stone magazines published between 1967 and 2009 and found that women are “increasingly likely to be ‘hypersexualized,’ while men are not.” When they examined Rolling Stones covers published in the 2000s, they found 12 covers which had “nonsexualized images of women, 15 sexualized images and 42 hypersexualized images” (including nude images and ones suggesting sex acts). “By contrast, there were 136 nonsexualized images of men, 24 sexualized images, and only 4 hypersexualized images of men in the 2000s.”
“These findings are important because research has shown that sexualized images may legitimize or exacerbate violence against women and girls, sexual harassment and anti-women attitudes among men,” the researchers added.
And the girls and teens who see these covers think that by acting and dressing in a hypersexualized way is “cool” and the boys will think it’s okay to perceive females as sex objects . . . which leads to female pols being called MILFs, as possessing (or not possessing) “sexual charisma,” and being likened to a “high-class prostitute” or “the hottest member” of an elected body. After all, what’s the difference between a woman singing behind a microphone on the cover of Rolling Stone, or speaking behind one at a political event, particularly if they’re both wearing heels?
Back on the sports fields, while my daughter and thousands like her found pride in the success of the U.S. Women’s Soccer team, a national female sports writer who co-authored an article for ESPN The Magazine about allegations of sign stealing against the Toronto Blue Jays was the target of nasty attacks based on her gender on Twitter where commenters savaged her looks, suggested she got her job through sexual means, said she had no business writing about sports, gave her death threats and told her to go back to the kitchen. The male co-author writer, it should be noted, wasn’t subjected to nearly the level of vitriol, nor sexual attacks.
So what am I going to do with all this dispiriting information as the mom of three impressionable kids? Keep calling out sexist treatment of women politicians and the disproportionate sexualization of women in pop culture (as compared to men), and continue watching the Women’s Professional Soccer playoffs with my kids – my daughter and my sons – and cross my fingers that things will be different when they’re adults.