Women in Politics Just Can't Catch a Break — Even in Made-For-TV Movies


NBC announced this past weekend it will launch a four-hour mini-series on Hillary Clinton starring Diane Lane (Unfaithful) in the lead role. Media coverage has centered primarily on whether or not a series focused on a potential 2016 presidential candidate runs afoul of campaign finance restrictions and "equal time" laws. Yet, predictably, there are those few articles that focus instead on the physical appearance of Hillary Clinton, and even one from Anna Brand at The Daily Beast that asks the insulting question of whether or not Diane Lane is "too sexy" to portray the former first lady. This sort of reporting is insulting to all involved.

To reduce Diane Lane to her physical appearance and not even discuss her potential to pull off the character, and further, for a mini-series about the career of (potentially) the first viable female candidate to lead a major party's president ticket to be made all about the accuracy of the sex-appeal factor, plays into a pervasive bias against women in politics. Women who run for office, no matter their party affiliation, face higher scrutiny of their physical and personality attributes than male counterparts. Journalists, commentators, and even elected officials are either unaware or insensitive when they voice their views on a woman's dress, demeanor, or "role" in society. 

The reality of campaigning as a woman is that women are treated differently. This point has been driven home time and again. The tired discussion of scrunchies and pantsuits, lipstick choices, and signature hairstyles can leave someone more interested in the scholarly aspects of campaigning exhausted and disheartened. Personality traits are also scrutinized — a candidate too hawkish or authoritative can be perceived as a "bitch" and a candidate more matronly might be seen as "too weak." What is worse is that attitude is seeping into the portrayal of our political figures by actors in films and mini-series.

We have not had a woman this close to being a viable candidate for president in the history of this country. Hillary Clinton has been first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, senator, and secretary of state — a respectable career that hardly any could argue with, even for those on the other side of the aisle. Yet this mini-series, presumably (and probably intentionally) timed with a presidential campaign in which she'll be the likely nominee, is still being discussed based on the physical appearance of the lead actress.

Media coverage about whether or not an actress is "too sexy" to portray a political figure isn't just an esoteric concern — it damages women's opportunities to run for office on an even playing field. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) pointed out, during a panel hosted by National Journal at their Women2020 Conference last month, that studies have shown women have to be asked seven times to run for office to a man's single ask. It is not hard to attribute that figure to increased media scrutiny of physical and personality traits. If we are to reach parity, we have to start with demanding better from our media — and not just political news coverage but all of our media.

There are more female politicians than ever before in the new Congress. We need better media coverage, better discussions surrounding the portrayal of our female political leaders, and a higher level of cognition surrounding the double standard of political campaigning as a woman instead of a man.