Piling on Palin, Hating on Hillary

The treatment the Alaskan governor got during the election was an embarrassment for the media.

11.30.08 2:51 PM ET

Now that Hillary Clinton is on the brink of being appointed Secretary of State, the same media figures that trashed her in the primaries are at it again with the same old sexist themes. Earlier this month, Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball, held forth, “Do you think she's willing to be a subordinate?”

Talk of hemlines and hairstyles, child rearing and cookie recipes has dominated media coverage of women in politics since the supposedly post-feminist 1990s. But the sexism directed at Sarah Palin hit a new low. As a feminist, I abhor her politics. As a political scientist who researches sexism in the media, I have studied her pornification and ditzification.

Hillary was framed as a ‘bitch’ and ‘ball buster’ for playing the big boys’ game using their rules. Palin was openly scorned for ‘playing too female.’

Sen. Hillary Clinton and Gov. Sarah Palin debuted in presidential politics at a time when four in ten men believe that men are “naturally better suited” for the presidency, according to a recent Daily Beast poll [link to Daily Beast poll:]. Even male candidates are routinely “feminized” as a negative tactic—John Edwards and his hair; John Kerry and his “Frenchness”. Women have to perform a dance of being tough enough without defying conventional ideals of femininity. Palin presented herself as hyper-masculine (a hunter and snow mobiler) and primly feminine (wearing “soft” glasses and womanly suits). “Pit-bull in lipstick” epitomizes the delicate balance.

Partisan identification and political ideology had little to do with coverage of Hillary Clinton; it was about being a woman. Prominent reporters and pundits frequently called her a “bitch.” They made derisive issues of her laugh, ran magazine cover stories speculating she was mentally ill, routinely compared her to nagging and ex-wives, and claimed, of course, that, unlike men running for office, she was overly ambitious.

Enter Palin. The Daily Beast poll found that 48 percent of women think Clinton’s press treatment was fair, while only 29 percent believe Palin was treated fairly. Both Clinton and Palin received similar amounts of negative press, but the attacks were of a different nature. Clinton was disparaged mostly for trying to adopt the mantle of masculinity. She was framed as a “bitch” and “ball buster” for playing the big boys’ game using their rules. Palin, on the other hand, was ridiculed for not playing by those rules. She was openly scorned for playing “too female.”

Reporters made a paramount issue out of who would care for Palin’s children if she won. A popular liberal blog speculated that her infant son was instead her grandson. Cable news was captivated day-after-day by the $150,000 spent on Palin’s wardrobe, never asking about the expense of dressing Obama, Biden, or McCain, or noting the double-standard at play (for example, that Palin would be criticized if she wore the same suit twice).

On Saturday Night Live, Alec Baldwin crooned, “You are way hotter in person.” The Huffington Post featuring a video of the swimsuit competition from a beauty contest from the 1980s. Then Joe Biden commented, “There's a gigantic difference between John McCain and Barack Obama and between me and I suspect my vice presidential opponent. ... She's good looking." AOL featured a blog with a picture of a naked painting of Palin hanging over a bar in Chicago. CNBC host Donny Deutsch drawled, “Women want to be her and men want to mate with her.” Rush Limbaugh entertained his “Dittoheads” with his view of her “great legs.” Palin is the first vice presidential candidate to have had (fake) nude pictures of her posted on the Internet, the first to have a pornographic film featuring her likeness, and the first to have a sex doll made in her image. Ed Shultz, a liberal talk radio host, blasted “Bimbo Alert” before his commentaries on Palin.

Why did Palin receive such treatment? Was it because she was a unique ditz? There are two alternative reasons. First, we’ve entered a new media era. Cable networks, news parodies and bloggers are rivaling and even eclipsing broadcast news and newspapers. The loss of editorial filters has especially disadvantaged female candidates because the bias and bile of (mostly male) talking heads and pundits seeking attention and ratings has normalized locker-room nastiness. The “democratization” of news creation and dissemination, made possible by YouTube and blogs, also gives an amplified voice to open degradation of women. See for yourself—click on any of the nearly 2,000 “Sarah Palin hot” videos on YouTube.

Secondly, Palin was uniquely disparaged for playing “too female” in a masculine arena. While Clinton was pummeled in the press for being too ambitious, Palin was trounced for being ambitious at all. Shouldn’t she be at home with those children?

Yet another explanation for Palin’s coverage is that she is an attractive woman and could not transcend her natural appeal. She tried by wearing glasses, putting her hair up and making sure her cleavage and legs were covered. Clearly, Palin learned from Clinton. In July 2007, the Washington Post triggered a media firestorm under the screaming headline: “Hillary Clinton's Tentative Dip Into New Neckline Territory.” The paper reported breathlessly: “There was cleavage on display Wednesday afternoon on C-SPAN2. It belonged to Sen. Hillary Clinton. She was talking on the Senate floor about the burdensome cost of higher education. She was wearing a rose-colored blazer over a black top. The neckline sat low on her chest and had a subtle V-shape. The cleavage registered after only a quick glance. No scrunch-faced scrutiny was necessary. There wasn't an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable.”

If there is any question Palin toned down her sex appeal, just look at her now--hair down, sometimes without glasses, more sensual and relaxed than her campaign persona.

During the long campaign, few in the press corps dared to speak out against sexist coverage of Clinton and even fewer for Palin. Women in the media were noticeable in their silence and complicity. Only one major person acknowledged the reality. On June 11, after the primaries were over, Katie Couric said, "One of the great lessons of [Hillary Clinton's] campaign is the continued and accepted role of sexism in American life, particularly in the media. ... It isn't just Hillary Clinton who needs to learn a lesson from this primary season—it's all the people who crossed the line, and all the women and men who let them get away with it." She was immediately ridiculed by the same media figures that regularly expressed unprofessional bias during the primaries. Keith Olbermann went as far as to label Couric “the worst person in the world” for speaking up.

Caroline Heldman is a politics professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She specializes in the presidency, race, and gender, and her research appears in the top journals. Dr. Heldman co-edited Rethinking Madame President: Are We Ready for a Woman in the White House? (2007), and regularly appears on FOX News and Al-Jazeera English. Dr. Heldman is also active in New Orleans rebuilding efforts, and serves as director of the New Orleans Women's Shelter.