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Between the Lines: Fifty Shades of Sexism

A wrapup of election coverage shows that gender bias isn’t dead.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

After months and months of beating the lemon off Elizabeth Warren, Howie Carr must have felt crushed when she beat Scott Brown in the U.S. Senate race earlier this month.

Still, the prickly-penned Boston Herald columnist leaves the election with a consolation prize—and I don’t just mean the fact that he’ll now enjoy six years of beating up on Sen. Warren.

Carr has also been named “Most Sexist Columnist” by “Name It. Change It.”, a non-profit project that tracks sexist coverage of women in politics.

“Widespread sexism in the media is one of the top problems facing women,” the group notes. “A highly toxic media environment persists for women candidates, often negatively affecting their campaigns. The ever-changing media landscape creates an unmonitored echo chamber, often allowing damaging comments to exist without accountability.”

After tracking coverage throughout the campaign season, Name It. Change It. released a post-Election Day list of the worst offenders. The “winners” include Chicago Sun-Times reporters who asked Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a presumed 2014 gubernatorial candidate, “whether she could serve as governor and still raise her kids the way she wants to.” (Madigan’s response: “Wow. Does anybody ever ask that question? … I think more people should ask that of men running for office as well.”)

Also making the list: the debate moderator who asked New York senator Kristen Gillibrand and her opponent, Wendy Long, whether they’d read the soft-porn bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey. “If two men were running for the Senate, would she have asked if they had subscriptions to Playboy?” Name It. Change It. wondered. (For the record: both Gillibrand and Long denied having been sucked into the Fifty Shades phenomenon.)

And then there’s Carr, the Herald mainstay and talk radio host, who made the list for “filling up the Boston media market with sexist nicknames” in his coverage of Warren, whom he persistently referred to as “Granny.” (“There’s something about … Warren that reminds me of Granny Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies,” he explained in a column. “She’s younger, I know, and her face isn’t as emaciated. But she’s got the same hair and glasses.”)

The folks at Name It. Change It. took pains to make clear that they had no beef with Carr’s not liking Warren—“If we have said it once, we have said it 1,000 times, criticizing Warren for what she says or does is fine, healthy in fact,” they wrote—but rather for the things he chose to pick on: “[C]riticizing her for her hair, her glasses and her apparent resemblance to Granny Clampett is sexist. Not to mention irrelevant. Use some of that news hole for non-sexist arguments, why don’t you, Howie?”

The group also slammed Carr for calling Warren “Pocahontas” and for employing “plenty of offensive racial tropes, which included playing the ‘Tomahawk Chop’ anthem on his radio show.”

Warren, of course, gets the last laugh, having won her tight battle against Brown. Still, as the Name It. Change It. project makes clear, even in this so-called political “Year of the Woman,” Part II, female candidates still had to contend with an extra layer of, well, jerky coverage thanks to that second X chromosome.

And the offenders do not just reside on the political right; that lefty beacon, the Huffington Post, made the list for focusing on the fashion choices of female candidates and officials, with its coverage of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s hair accessories and Michele Bachman’s choice of suits. (“When [Bachmann’s] numbers went down, she should have brought down her neckline. Might have helped,” one HuffPost fashion pundit suggested.)

Indeed, it’s hard to know what to make of assertions that 2012 represented a giant leap forward for women in politics. Sure, come swearing-in day, Warren will be one of 20 women in the Senate—the largest female cohort ever. But progress does not mean equity: 20 women out of 100 senators, after all, amounts to just 20 percent of the body.

On the House side, meanwhile, women will account for about 18 percent of members. Lest we need reminding, women make up half of the U.S. population (in fact, 50.8 percent, according to the federal census).

A report released in September by the Inter-Parliamentary Union showed the U.S. tied for 80th on a list of nations ranked by the percentage of women in their national legislatures—behind Rwanda, Pakistan and China, among other countries. And while the chart was put together prior to this month’s elections, those results won’t exactly send the U.S. zooming up the charts with a bullet.•

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