Clinton and the Gender Traps

Stereotypes in Media Coverage of Women Politicians

Marianne Lamérande


Hillary Clinton was nominated in the summer of 2016 by the Democratic National Convention as the first woman to run for the presidential elections in the United States. This historical decision, whether it was seen like it or not, would have tremendous impact on the political life in the United States. Some already saw what being the first woman to run for President would mean for the candidate, when some thought the media and the public would be partial despite the fact that she is a woman. We already know which one occurred: Hillary Clinton was the prey of numerous sexist jokes and articles in the media and the mere fact of her gender was enough to discredit her in multiple ways.

The aim of this essay is to study gender stereotypes in the media coverage on women politicians. Hillary Clinton’s media coverage during the 2016 Presidential election will be my case. 

During the 2016 Presidential Election, an example of the sexism Hillary Clinton had to overcome was the constant critiques about her presumed health condition. Everyone had their say on what she was going through and it almost always ended up with judgments that she would ultimately be unfit for the presidency. An illustration of this is that she is the subject of seasonal allergies, and trailing and delivering speeches had left her voice raw and led to frequent and harsh coughing fits. In an article that seemed to tackle a really important subject – Trump and Russia being associated – one journalist from Politico could not help but remark that Clinton’s press conference had to be stopped because of her coughing. Did anyone highlight that when her husband experienced the same issues during his own campaign in the 1990s? Of course not. “When a man shows signs of wear, it means he is presidential. When a woman shows signs of wear, it means something is wrong” (Stoher, 2016). 

My topic is all about understanding how media uses gender stereotypes when covering women politicians, especially women seeking power – high positions. How gendered can media coverage be? How sexist? And what mechanisms fuel this systemic sexism? To rigorously approach the subject, I will use the framing theory of mass communication and more precisely the gender conflict framing theory

Firstly, I will make a review of my toolbox, going through the framing theory and the notion of gender, to explain how they are relevant to my comments, and what ramifications do these concept bear. Secondly, I will use my case to describe the differences of treatment and coverage women receive from the media, and thus focus on Hillary Clinton’s campaign media coverage. We will see how stereotypes are crystallized. Finally, I will see how framing theory can be used to enlighten my case before making any conclusions or recommendations. 

Framing theory and gender

Framing theory and gender are going to be my main tools to study the case of Hillary Clinton’s media coverage in 2016.

The framing theory has been developed by Goffman in 1974. It’s a theory explaining that we use frameworks in our everyday lives to shape and define the meanings of objects, events and information surrounding us. It is the basis of our communication. In the field of media studies, framing theory explains that media focuses attention on certain events and then set these events in the field of meaning. Thus, framing has a huge influence on the way we perceive, give sense and meaning into things, and our environment in general.

The mechanism of framing theory is entirely based on what we call ‘the frame’, that is to say the way something is presented to a public – in our case, the audience – and then this way of presenting influences the choices the public makes and the meaning it gives to objects and concepts around it. Frames organize messages and their meanings, consciously or not. Media uses frames and shapes meaning all the time. This is the most common use of frame. The news fame the information they disclose; in that way, the news tells people what they should think of but also how they should think about it. We can argue that journalists are categorizing and reporting news according to gatekeeping processes (Tuchman, 1978): they decide what is important and what is not, because events happen all the time and it is impossible to report on everything. This is a first way of framing.

Gender became a legitimized tool for analysing when J.W. Scott (1986) defended the idea according to which differences of treatment supposedly based on sex or gender and the hierarchy created by these differences were seen as neutral in society. Before 1993, there was no empirical evidence of the effects of gender stereotypes on women politicians. It changed with Huddy and Terkildsen’s study which argued of positive correlations between gender stereotypes and voters’ perceptions of female and male candidates (Huddy & Terkildsen, 1993). There are different domains in which we expect women or men to be interested and skilled in politics. We think women are going to be more pushed towards health or education – because their usual role is to take care of the children or to be at home – and men will be more into economy and finance because they are the breadwinners of the household (Mansbridge, 1999). Huddy and Terkildsen’s 1993 study shows that men and women candidates were, in the end, judged based on traits that we usually correlate with one gender or the other. It has been proven by research based on the two authors’ theory than when women appear to be “power-seeking”, or to strive for high responsibility positions, they are disadvantaged and seen in a more negative light than when men are competing for the same positions. 

Given these pieces of knowledge, gender conflict framing theory will help us understand how the media contrast candidates in terms of their gender. This theory can be applied to elections – this is the case I am going to elaborate on later – and it draws a certain attention on the relevance of the gender factor in election contexts – meaning in contexts where women are seeking positions of power and responsibility. Gender stereotypes create representation of what women or men should be, but not only: it also creates a whole dimension of how men or women should behave. In that way, seeking power when one’s a woman is not a good thing because women are supposed to be caring and kind, not dominant. Their emotionality – in opposition to men’s rationality – is a burden because emotional people can’t take hard decisions. 

Yet, despite our raising awareness and knowledge about the gendered representation of politicians, women and men perpetuate themselves these stereotypes because the costs of a contrary behaviour could be too high. Women who don’t abide by gender stereotypes are often described as “bossy” because they are in dominant positions of power: “women are at their most newsworthy when they are doing something ‘unladylike’” (Braden, 1996, p.4). 

Media are usually the main source of political information, and America is not an exception to the rule: the American media frames the influence of the given information on individuals understanding and processing of it: “the way an issue is framed influences how audiences understand the issue” (Conroy, 2015). Knowing this, how was Hillary Clinton framed?

Five ways media hurt women politicians

We can talk about five ways the media hurt women politicians (Beaudoux, 2017). The gender traps are to (a) focus on women’s domestic life; (b) attach women to powerful men; (c) saying they can get emotional; (d) discussing their looks; (e) commenting on their voices. Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton has been hurt by all these means during her presidential campaign in 2016. The misogynistic comments and undertones prevailed. 

I will start by tackling the first ‘gender trap’: it appears that women’s domestic life is an unmistakable lens for the media. Evidence for a female candidate’s qualifications is often the place she occupies in the household. It is regularly that we read titles about women’s private life and they are as regularly penalized for their marital status (Braden, 1996). Hillary Clinton asked her daughter Chelsea to make some appearances on stage, to advocate for her mother, and to call out for celebrities to express their support for her. It has been harshly criticized – some said that she could sell her own daughter to win the election. In the same way, when Chelsea Clinton became herself a mother, newspaper titled “Grandmother-in-Chief” (CBS News) and wondered how it would impact Hillary’s campaign to come. No one raised the question of children and their influence on the Bush presidency for example, when the latter showed of his grandchildren for the press (Beaudoux, 2017). Women are pointed at if they guard their private life but they are also pointed at if they don’t and display it on the news.

What kind of behaviour could Clinton have adopted then? The media routinely questions the legitimacy of women leaders or their qualifications when they are moms – or grandmothers in our case. People still think they belong to the household with their families, so of course when children are put under the media’s scrutiny, voters doubt their abilities. Again, on Clinton’s private life: she had to go through a lot of turmoil because of her husband’s affairs, and yet people still think the blame is on her for not being attentive to her husband enough. 

The second gender trap is pretty clear here: a lot of journalists and people in America thought Hillary Clinton had to thank her husband for her successful political career, regardless of her own capabilities (Marr, 2019). Indeed, they considered that voters felt bad for the position she was in regarding her husband’s affairs. Marr makes a good point here: did anyone ask if Barack Obama succeeded because Michelle was a great woman? 

Clinton’s look were discussed a lot during the presidential election. The most obvious example is the CNN video talking about Clinton “upping up her pantsuit game” and criticizing her because these pantsuits made her look like a cold person. How is that relevant to any of her qualities as a legislator and politician? Talking about her orange pantsuit as a prisoner suit is certainly not going to help voters see her in a more positive light, but is it really what these journalists were after? Sexualizing – or not – women because of their looks, their appearance, is deeply sexist because we rarely see these comments on any men’s looks; seeing a women in a pantsuit, for example, will only trigger reactions of criticism on the fact that she appears too bossy or distant, when for a man, it will only make him more serious and business-like. Being already labelled as a cold woman no one could feel close too, the Daily Mail News did not help when Clinton’s smile was compared to a “creepy grandma grin”. Finally, commenting on women’s voices is something Hillary Clinton experienced the hard way during her campaign. The example brought by Stoher about the coughing is still relevant here. The Huffington Post described Clinton’s voice as “shrill”, “sharp” “lecturing”, “unappealing” in an article entitled “Here’s Why You Hate Hillary Clinton’s Voice”. 

Gender conflict framing theory can help us see how women are all discursively situated in the realm of home, family and intimacy (Trimble, 2018). In general, journalists ask women politicians questions they would never ask men. This is how their framing help perpetuating stereotypes of them being weak, indecisive or emotional. Men, as Braden (1996) outlines, also sometimes face these images problems; however, they have more latitude in how they are expected to dress or how they are expected to behave. Experience and history have conditioned people to see male leaders as being the norm, more than women leaders.

This frame of scepticism about women’s qualifications and abilities help people think that they don’t belong in high positions, such as it happened to Hillary Clinton. Media are reiterating stereotypical narratives about women, such as Clinton’s private life, Clinton’s looks, and doubts about her qualifications. Journalists are then the advocates of gender stereotypes. These doubts are created on factors and characteristics which relevance is only created by the gatekeeping processes of journalists (Marr, 2019). 


The aim of this essay was to understand how media and the news could use gender stereotypes in the coverage of women candidates in elections. My case was Hillary Clinton’s media coverage in the 2016 presidential elections. I first introduced the theories at use, i.e. the framing theory – and especially the gender conflict framing theory – the gatekeeping theory, and the notions of gender and gender stereotypes. These theories and concepts were relevant to understand the influence of the media in the representation of women politicians during elections – power-seeking competitions.

The study of Clinton’s case and the “Hillary-hate” of which she was a victim was pertinent to grasp the day-to-day sexism a women candidate has to go through when campaigning or performing any political function, sexism almost systematically applied by the media. “If words are repeated enough in the media, their cumulative effect is to diminish a woman’s stature as an effective legislator” (Braden, 1996). If the gendered stereotypical frame is used recurrently enough, there are actual consequences on careers and lives of women. Journalists are so accustomed to these stereotypes and myths they are using that it became barely conscious. The central conclusion is that as long as the media outlines gender as a more important than other qualifications, then they are sending a totally inaccurate message to the audience and in the end, to voters.

However, the media and journalists can’t be labelled as the sole culprits for the use of these gendered stereotypes. They are merely means to convey the idea of a culture in general. Journalists and the news can – and must – be part of the solution to reduce sexism and reduce gender stereotyping, but we must acknowledge that this problem is way more global and cultural.

Marianne Lamérand is a French student in Sciences Po Strasbourg, a school in charge of the formation of senior executives in the public and private sector. She studies political sciences, as well as law, economics, history and languages and is headed towards a Master in Law and Public Administration. Marianne started getting more and more interested in gender issues and especially feminism thanks to social networks. She has had numerous occasions to give public addresses, such as the European Prize of Eloquence 2018 in Strasbourg, and would like to use her skills to advocate of gender equality in the future.


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