Fighting Words

Don't Call New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand "Girlie"

 @JamesDiGioia
on July 12 2013 2:57 PM
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) will face a challenge from U.S. Rep. Bob Turner (D-NY), should he win the GOP nomination. Reuters

Name It, Change It, an organization dedicated to pointing out sexism in the media, recently criticized an NPR report about New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. In that report, Gillibrand was described as "petite, blond and perky" with a "soft, girlie voice." The story was eventually revised to remove those references.

NPR’s Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos responded to the criticism of the article, claiming that it wasn't appropriate in that case, but that there should not be any rules against using those descriptors and that doing so would be to deny reality. Name It, Change It's Rachel Larris closes her response with this great point:

Schumacher-Matos seemed concerned with the argument that “outlawing” all physical descriptions “is to ignore reality.” We’ve heard that strawman(-woman) argument before—as if political coverage that isn’t framed by the subject’s gender is akin to telling the media not to report when the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. The point isn’t whether there will be any mention of appearance ever—we’re pretty sure that will always exist—but that it is not a scrutiny given only to women—or even differently to women. That such scrutiny may happen to a handful of high-profile male politicians—one of whom happens to be the president, a unique role in American politics—should not necessarily give all media free reign to assume that the men are now being objectified in the same manner as women.

I've previously argued that words matter. Framing female leaders with excessive discussions of their physical appearance, and going so far as to call them "girlie," affects how they're perceived, and the media needs to be more conscious of not only how individual stories portray individual people but also how their coverage balances when dealing with both men and women.

I highly recommend the Name It, Change It piece; they go into a lot more depth about this stuff.

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