When you think of Obama Girl, whom do you think of? The scantily-clad model with a crush on Obama? Or a successful, serious female politician?
The National Republican Senatorial Committee gave the world the impression that they thought the latter when they tweeted out a link to a conservative blog that had Photoshopped the body of Obama Girl with the face of Alison Grimes, Kentucky Secretary of State and the Democratic front-runner against U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The blog was arguing that Grimes is running to increase the Democrat’s majority in the Senate to pass gun control legislation and protect the Affordable Care Act. The blogger cited a speech from Michelle Obama at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as proof.
Grimes issued a statement condemning the blog and the Tweet: “The NRSC should stand for Notoriously Repeating Sexist Comments — they cannot relate or connect with the women of Kentucky or our country.”
The post elicited a firestorm of controversy, with the NRSC apologizing and calling the tweet “extremely offensive.” A spokeswoman blamed the tweet on a junior staffer and said disciplinary action has been taken.
And the original blogger said he voluntarily removed the “satirical photoshop image,” saying it “was intended to be a humorous punctuation mark to (Grimes) being an intended beneficiary of Michele (sic) Obama’s fundraising at a Washington DSCC event.”
But how humorous is such a post? And why would a national Senatorial committee condone it? She the People’s Judy Howard Ellis wrote that the incidence was “sexist politics” and a cheap and unnecessary shot, given the very real problems with the Affordable Care Act — and it could have consequences for McConnell’s campaign.
But she writes that “the larger story that’s most disturbing is that demeaning women remains fair game in far too many places.”
There’s a lot of talk about how women aren’t adequately represented in politics. But once women have made their way into the political circles, how do their male counterparts treat them?
In 2012’s Illinois race for U.S. Congress, Rep. Joe Walsh, a Republican, issued a press release about his opponent, Tammy Duckworth, and how she picked out a dress for the Democratic National Convention. “The only debate Ms. Duckworth is actually interested in having is which outfit she’ll be wearing for her big speech,” he wrote. Duckworth ended up winning the race.
In 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, “the hottest member” of Congress at an event that she was attending. According to reports, she blushed and there was a slight commotion in the audience — no doubt embarrassing for Gillibrand. This also came after Gillibrand’s Republican rival Bruce Blakeman was asked to come up with a nice word to say about her, and he chose “attractive.”
Also in 2010, Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Penn., was debating Rep. Michele Bachmann on a radio show. Bachmann was laying out her points when Specter tried to counter, but Bachmann kept talking. Specter said: “I’m going to treat you like a lady. Now act like one.”
When Hillary Clinton was campaigning for president in 2008, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn and an Obama supporter, said, regarding Clinton, that: “Glenn Close should have just stayed in the tub.” The reference was to the movie Fatal Attraction, where Glenn Close played the “other woman” who is crazy, and even becomes suicidal and homicidal.
Male politicians from both parties are guilty: they seemingly have no qualms referencing what female politicians are wearing or how they look. And there is still the persisting stereotype that women need to be ladylike and passive — and if they dare to be aggressive and persistent, then they are branded as crazy.
Still, the vast majority of academic research on the treatment of female politicians is focused on how the media views them when they are candidates. There are countless scholarly articles about how the press focuses on female candidates’ hair and clothes and emotions, more so than it does for men.
Of course, it is possible that the media influences sexist remarks from male politicians. After all, the instance where Rep. Cohen compared Hillary Clinton to Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction was preceded by both Chris Rock and NPR political editor Ken Rudin making the same comparison. And Reid called Gillibrand the “hottest” member of Congress after she made The Hill’s “Most Beautiful” list.
Stephanie Greco Larson wrote in a 2001 review essay, “American Women and Politics in the Media,” that extensive research has shown that female candidates receive less issue-based coverage but more negative comments on their viability for office (example: can Sarah Palin be vice president with a young, special needs son?). In open races, women are virtually ignored, but when they are facing male opponents, they receive more negative coverage, research has found.
Yet once female politicians are actually in office, the research suddenly slows. Larson wrote that it seems like academics lose interest in female candidates once they win their election, considering the lack of research on media coverage of female politicians.
There is also a lack of research on male politicians’ treatment of women politicians. It is true that politicians insult politicians, regardless of gender, and that discourse is now expected in today’s dirty politics. But often, male politicians’ barbs towards females are tinted with sexism and a sense of dismissal. There should be more academic literature exploring this phenomenon of sexism within the political ranks. The lack of research done on the topic is disturbing in itself — it sends the message that these sexist comments are almost expected, or not out of the ordinary. In order for American politics to be truly more diverse and inclusive of women, we must first examine why these internal barriers still exist.
Stephanie Greco Larson. “American Women and Politics in the Media: A Review Essay.” PS: Political Science and Politics , Vol. 34, No. 2 (Jun., 2001), pp. 227-230.
Judy Howard Ellis. “The GOP’s ‘Obama Girl’ tweets and the perils of political overreach.” “She The People,” The Washington Post. 2013 Nov. 20.
Glenn Thrush. “Specter tells Bachmann to ‘act like a lady.'” “On Congress: Reporting and Analysis of Capitol Hill,” Politico. 2010 Jan. 21.
Michael James. “Obama-Backing Congressman Compares Hillary Clinton to Glenn Close in ‘Fatal Attraction.'” ABC News. 2008 May 10.
Laura Bassett. “Joe Walsh: Tammy Duckworth will only debate ‘which outfit she’ll be wearing.'” Huffington Post. 2012 Sept. 06.
Maggie Haberman. “Reid calls Gillibrand the ‘hottest’ member at fundraiser.” “Maggie Haberman On New York,” Politico. 2010 Sept. 20.