Most politicians often face the glare of news media, but for women in or seeking positions of political power, the scrutiny by the media can be quite contemptuous. This is a fact that has not changed much over the years, despite women constituting a powerful force in politics and at all levels of government. And yet somehow, there is a continuum of denial that exists in society that women’s work is inherently tied to their defined roles as ‘women’.
Any analysis of the media’s patterns of gendered reporting particularly of women in politics must begin by realizing that political discourse is, due to a history of gender discrimination, essentially biased against both the participation of women and gender narratives.
The mainstream hegemony is that men occupy the public sphere and women, the private, where patriarchal violence is hidden comfortably behind the doors of domesticity. Women are portrayed in stereotypical ways that sustain dominant ideologies and discourses of femininity, and while they may be applauded for challenging these, they risk violating traditional notions of womanhood.
What we fail to realize, though, is that by reinforcing these stereotypes and describing women with words that emphasize their traditional role, appearance and their frequent attachment to men in power, the media may ultimately have an impact in shaping judgments of politicians’ authenticity.
It therefore is no surprise that the reporting of women in politics is contaminated by hegemonic masculinity. Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s presidential campaign is indicative of the conventional narrative that frames stories in ways that undervalue women politician’s professional background and their individual accomplishments and extensive capacities. The commentary about her has brought to light the kind of sexist stereotypes and misogynistic undertones that decades of research has demonstrated – that the media ultimately serves to promote dominant patriarchal narratives.
In numerous headlines, Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s ambitions and commitment to her [political] work are very rarely recognized, even though her background indicates that she has more in common with her male contenders than with any other professional. She, amongst others, trained as a medical professional, served as minister in three portfolios and was a Chairperson of the African Union, yet she is consistently portrayed as inexperienced as her visible physical difference becomes the primary point of reference. Not only has she been labelled ‘Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife,’ but the assumption that President Zuma would have to hold her hand in policy decision-making and implementation processes should she become president, has gained momentum.
From this, it is evident that media representations often use stereotypes as cultural shorthand, and these sexist portrayals of Dr Dlamini-Zuma, what they mean for the larger society and for future women office seekers are best summarized by Judy LaMarsh: “where there are 25 men, the public’s interest is split; when there is one woman, she becomes a focus for criticism and for curiosity”.
The sexist backlash against Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy may not overthrow her, but neither is it likely to subside if she wins. If South Africa is to see a woman president, it is going to take the media as an institution, which essentially serves to shape public opinion, to do the work and stop reproducing representations in accordance with dominant gender stereotypes.