Election and the Portrayal of Female Politicians in the Media

This week, after our viewing of Election, we talked a lot about the way women in politics are portrayed in the media.  In the essay Have You Come a Long Way, Baby?, Diana Carlin and Kelly Winfrey explore the many ways Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton were featured in campaign coverage and how it negatively effected their 2008 campaigns for Vice President and President, respectively.  Carlin and Winfrey discuss the four ways professional women can be stereotyped: sex object, mother, pet and iron maiden (327).  Professional women are stereotyped as sex objects by scrutinizing their clothes, appearance and behavior.  Once stereotyped as sex objects, the women are seen as “overly feminine” and less competent then men.

In the 2008 presidential elections, Clinton and Palin were stereotyped in many ways in order to paint the picture of them as less suitable for political office than their male counterparts.  Palin, specifically, was often stereotyped as a sex object and overly feminized by her opposition.  Carlin and Winfrey cited a specific photo (below) that came out during her campaign that showed a young man/potential voter in between her legs from the calf down.  The photo displays only a part of Palin’s body, and in doing so objectifies her as a sexy, sexual object and not a powerful, smart and driven woman running for Vice President of the United States.

The article also refers to Palin’s pageant photos that leaked during the campaign.  The photos show a girlish, feminine Palin.  Leaking those photos created a distraction away from Palin’s political beliefs and intentions and instead caused the public to focus on her body and beauty instead of her career and campaign. Have You Come a Long Way, Baby? also said that Palin’s pageant past was “used to dismiss her as a serious candidate.” (330)

While reading these accounts of the way women are portrayed in politics, I couldn’t help but think about Tracy Flick in Election. Like Palin and Clinton, Tracy was a female running for a political office (albeit high school student government).  Although it was a much less significant office, Tracy still faced extreme competition.  What stood out to me, however, were her interactions with her teacher (and student government leader) Mr. McAllister.  Mr. McAllister pretty much hated Tracy, and it seems like some of these stereotypes existed in their relationship and were used to belittle Tracy in the film.

For example, Mr. M fantasizes about Tracy, even while he’s sleeping with his wife, and her face and voice appear in his fantasy saying, “fuck me, fuck me Mr. M.”  Although the intention of the filmmaker may have been instead to show Mr. M’s character flaws rather than objectify Tracy, I think that it still serves to sexualize her as a female character.  In fact, she’s sexualized from the very beginning of the film, when we find out that Mr. M’s colleague Dave is engaging in a sexual relationship with Tracy and says, “her pussy gets so wet.”  Before the viewers even have a chance to get to know Tracy, we know a piece of very explicit sexual information about her.

Although Election is very obviously a ridiculous comedy about a high school election, I think some interesting stereotypes and gender portrayals can still be gleaned from its underwritten commentary.  It seems that some of the same strategies used to undermine the campaigns of major political figures like Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin are possibly at work in this film, as well.

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One Response to Election and the Portrayal of Female Politicians in the Media

  1. athomps03 says:

    I think you bring up some excellent points about Tracy’s character and the sexualizing of female political candidates. I think it’s also interesting that Tracy isn’t even a very likeable character, even though she is being so sexualized by the male protagonist. In Mr. McAllister’s fantasy, she’s once again dismembered in a way – we only see a part of her body, like the Palin photo. Even her wording is base and doesn’t emphasize her intelligence at all. While Tracy is obviously a very intelligent and cunning young woman, that is severely undercut by the way that both Dave and Mr. McAllister see her as a sex object.

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