Magazine feature

COVERING WOMEN IN POLITICS: The real problem with Christy Clark’s cleavage

On Oct. 5, 2011, B.C. premier Christy Clark stood in the House to answer questions about group home closures during question period. But no one remembers that.

No, what’s memorable about that day in the B.C. Legislature isn’t the issue that Clark was trying to address. Nor is it the way she addressed the issue, or the way the opposition members challenged her government’s practices.

What is memorable about that day is a tweet. One 85-character message that set off a media and social media storm.

Sent by former NDP MLA and current political pundit David Schreck, the tweet in question read: “Is Premier Clark’s cleavage revealing attire appropriate for the legislature? #bcpoli.”

What was likely a partisan move by Schreck stirred up a flurry of debate about the expectations – and the media coverage – of Canada’s female politicians.

Clark’s attire was hardly revealing, but her colleague felt the need to point it out and
make it an issue. According to Nancy Peckford, that is the bigger problem. Peckford is the executive director of a group called Equal Voice, which works to promote the election of more women in Canada.

“We (Equal Voice) were very disheartened to see that kind of coverage, because Christy Clark is a very competent leader and we don’t really need to go there,” Peckford explained. “It does suggest that in this day and age, we still have a long way to go. I think Canadians are still getting used to the fact that women can – and do – lead.”

Women are making strides towards better representation in the Canadian political landscape. In 2011 so far, Newfoundland and Labrador elected Kathy Dunderdale as Premier. Leadership races in B.C. and Alberta have resulted in Christy Clark and Alison Redford being named Premiers-designate in those provinces, respectively.

“More women have gotten involved over the years, but they’re still very significantly underrepresented. Less than 25 per cent of the Members of Parliament in the House of Commons are women,” said Joanna Everitt, political science professor at the University of New Brunswick in St. John.

Everitt is one of Canada’s foremost researchers on gender, media and politics. She said a major problem with Canadian media coverage of female politicians stems from the nature of media coverage itself, and the constant need for fresh and exciting stories.

For her part, former journalist and current Senator Pamela Wallin said the Canadian media needs to make some major changes to the way it operates. As a largely self-policed and self-regulated entity, she said the media needs to look twice at its standards.

“I think we’ve got a problem in general with the media, and this is what’s discouraging people from getting into politics. It isn’t gender. It is that every aspect of your personal life and every titillating story that comes along, whether you’re Herman Cain or Christy Clark or whoever, becomes huge. These stories are reported before facts are known. In the days that I was in journalism you would not have gone to air, or to print, without a double source on most stories. That is simply not required anymore apparently,” Wallin said.

“I find that a very troubling development. But it does seem to be the case and therefore, that’s what creates sensation. Because if you can say things without substantiating them, it allows you to say much more provocative things more often. I think we have to have a real fundamental re-look at what the journalistic standards are.”

But Everitt said journalists are not entirely to blame for the way they represent female politicians.

“I don’t think it’s a conscious endeavour of the media to present women in a way that’s different than the way they present men, or to downplay their strengths and reduce their credibility, but it’s the outcome of the way media stories often get presented,” Everitt explained.

Everitt’s research has shown that female politicians are subject to a different type of media coverage than their male counterparts. Women tend to face more scrutiny than men in public roles, for everything from what they wear to who they’re sleeping with.

Everitt concludes that this is because of societal framing. Society expects women to act a certain way, and it expects politicians to act a certain way. The trouble arises when the two sets of expectations simply do not line up.

“Women get framed in typically feminine frames,” Everitt said. “They have a lot of attention placed on their appearance, their clothes, their hair, their relationships and things like that. But at the same time, when they do things that break with the stereotypical expectations of women, they have that sort of behaviour emphasized and focused on more than necessary by the media.”

Assertive female political leaders tend to be represented as aggressive in the media – even if they’re no more aggressive than their male counterparts – because society does not expect women to be strong leaders.

“Quite frankly, we need more women in office, period. That will make a difference because women won’t be seen as so unique, or so outside of the norm. And the more women who are leading and who are elected, the less there will be of that phenomenon,” said Peckford.

In the case of Christy Clark, a great deal of media ink was spilled in October talking about her cleavage and her attire, and not her leadership of the province.

“Everywhere you turn, there’s a different standard for women than there is for men. Women in politics generally aren’t allowed to dress with the same amount of freedom that men are,” said Jessica Crichter, a contributor to the award-winning feminist blog Gender Focus.

“Male politicians don’t pick out their outfits and think, ‘Oh gee, is this going to make me look too sexy?’”

Crichter said the focus on women’s appearance and attire is representative of a double standard in the media’s expectations of women.

This strong media focus on a female politician’s appearance can deter women from entering politics.

“Women are very aware that they will be subjected to a lot of scrutiny, regardless, and not just for wardrobe choices but for their personal circumstances,” Peckford explained.

“I think women know that (politics is) a tough job and you really, really need to want to do it. You have to be committed to be able to endure that.”

Rathika Sistabaiesan is a current NDP Member of Parliament from Scarborough-Rouge River. She was recently the subject of some controversy on the Hill, after her official Parliamentary photo was doctored to remove any trace of her cleavage.

“I will continue to be true to myself and give the House the respect that it’s due and that’s where I draw my line. This historical House is owed a certain level of respect, and I will make sure that I do that. But I’m not going to formulate my wardrobe decisions based on the journalists’ or society’s expectations,” Sitsabaiesan said.

“I’ve spoken with many women who shy away or scare away from (politics) because of the negative attention that’s usually put on women and women politicians.”

Sitsabaiesan added that entering politics in Canada is entering “a man’s world”. Not only are the majority of politicians male, but the majority of political reporters are also men.

“The number of women reporting on the Parliamentary side is still a minority. And so it’s a cycle you have, in terms of who is covering women, and what they’re noticing and what they aren’t,” explained Peckford.

Of course, not all male journalists are inherently or even unconsciously sexist in their coverage. Lorne Gunter is a columnist and member of the editorial board at the National Post. On Oct. 7, he wrote a column blasting the NDP for their role in the Christy Clark incident.

“I think the key thing is, (Clark) handled it fairly well. She hasn’t made a big fuss about it; she hasn’t become prudish or more reserved. She wasn’t out of line that day, so she’s continuing to be Premier Clark, she’s continuing to be who she has been for years,” Gunter said.

“This whole notion that somehow women can’t be feminine and still be leaders politically is outdated, in my mind.”

Outdated as it may be, the notion clearly still exists. Some say the Canadian media needs to find a different way to cover politics.

“The mainstream media really tends to go to these ‘old boys’ types for comment. So the pundit that said it (the tweet about Clark) got all these interviews after the fact,” said Jarrah Hodge, editor and creator of Gender Focus, and former provincial NDP candidate in B.C.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s really a lot of outreach to younger people, and to women, and to people of colour to get commentary on these issues. There’s just this stock group of four or five, usually white, male pundits that the media go to for quotes about everything, so it makes it a lot harder to dismantle these types of issues.”

In order for women to be better represented as legitimate politicians in the media, there needs to be an attitude change within the wider Canadian society, which will filter down into the media. But in order for that attitude change to occur, more women need to enter politics.

“So it’s twofold. One is creating an environment that’s more conducive to women in politics, and then bringing more women in so that it becomes more the norm. And two, raising awareness among journalists and those in the media about the implications of the coverage that they give, and make them stop and think twice about it,” Everitt explained.

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