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Is Media Coverage of Premier Clark Sexist?

Or is it fair comment? Reporters, politicians and academics weigh in.

By Katie Hyslop 22 Mar 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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How does sexism play into the narrative? Photo of Premier Clark, Facebook.

It's no surprise that Premier Christy Clark has been the centre of media attention and criticism in her short tenure in the province's top job. But how much of the criticism is fair comment and how much is sexism against a female premier?

Liberal supporters have leveled charges of sexist coverage of Clark at the media since she took office in 2011. In February, former Liberal MLA Sheila Orr wrote a letter to the Times Colonist accusing press gallery reporters of ignoring the premier's accomplishments because "the [sexist] narrative was established."

That month Madam Premier, a Tumblr site with a collection of screenshots and links to sexist comments about female political leaders, was created. The most recent post is a sample of Iain Hunter's March 10 Times Colonist op-ed on Clark, where he suggests much of her political trouble "has to do with her sex. Political leadership makes hard demands of women. Trying to be more like men throws away the only advantage they have."

The Tyee spoke to Hunter, who said he wasn't suggesting women shouldn't be in politics, but rather was attempting to show women are often harder on female politicians than men despite disadvantages women in power face from sexism. But some didn't read it that way.

Less recent, but more notorious, is the coverage of Richard Branson's invitation for Clark to join him for naked kitesurfing; a radio host's question about what it was like being a "MILF," to which Clark responded "better a MILF than a cougar" (the former a vulgar term for a desirable older woman, the latter a term for a woman who goes for younger men); and former NDP MLA David Schreck's public complaint about her cleavage showing in the legislature. No other current provincial party leader has had to deal with this kind of coverage.

But does the media have an overall sexist bias towards Clark? If you ask those outside of her support base, there isn't enough evidence of sexism to make a definitive case.

The Tyee asked Kathleen Cross, co-director of News Watch Canada and associate professor of communications at Simon Fraser University, if an alleged lack of coverage of Clark's accomplishments was sexist. While Cross agrees that Clark, like all female politicians, has been subjected to sexist coverage, she wasn't sure any lack of coverage of the premier's accomplishments is sexist.*

"It's really hard to tell if it's sexism or if it's just the media jumping on the bandwagon of a failed government," she said.

"There are some issues around sexism, but the criticisms about her government are fair criticisms. So you can't say, without looking at other examples and doing a real comparative analysis, that the negative coverage that the Libs have been getting is because of sexism."

'They don't take her seriously': Orr

Diamond Isinger, a communications consultant who's worked for both the federal and BC Liberals and Vision Vancouver, created the Madam Premier site because of the amount of sexism and misogyny she sees directed towards female politicians online.

Most of the examples on Madam Premier are from members of the public through social media sites like Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook, while others are from news site comment sections.

But while the sexism in online public commentary is hard to miss, Isinger says there is more subtle sexism being practiced in the mainstream news media.

"I think there's a lot of gendered language that gets used to describe women in politics," she told The Tyee.

"There's been a variety of coverage on different TV stations and different newspapers where the premier's been referred to as a lightweight or something similar, (or) said that she lacked substance, and that's a very convenient way of using sexism in coverage without being so explicit."

On Madam Premier, Isinger deconstructs some of the statements in Hunter's Times Colonist op-ed. She quotes from the column and makes these observations:

"If the legislative precinct makes her sick, as she has said it does, why is Christy Clark so keen, apparently, to stay there as premier? Is there such a thing as political bulimia?" Hunter makes casual jokes about bulimia.

"A lot of it has to do with her sex." Hunter suggests that her unpopularity is because she's a woman.

"Political leadership makes hard demands of women." Hunter condescendingly suggests that all women aren't up for leadership.

"Trying to be more like men throws away the only advantage they have. Floppy grey pant suits don't suit." Hunter implies that "the only advantage" women in politics have is their sexuality and appearance.

"...delegates chose a leader, not for leadership abilities, but because they thought a woman had the best chance of keeping their party in power." Hunter says that BC Liberal Party members -- who democratically elected Premier Clark as leader -- only picked her because they decided to take a "chance" on a woman.

But Clark hasn't been the only victim of sexism in B.C., Isinger told The Tyee.

"Carole James faced a lot of nastiness and a lot of buzzwords that were used to describe her: she was often called shrill or similar things to suggest she was a little bit too harsh as a leader or not feminine enough," she said.

Sheila Orr, who represented Victoria-Hillside for the Liberals from 2001-2005, told The Tyee she wrote a letter to the Times Colonist because she couldn't stay silent about the media bias she sees towards Clark.

"I don't think she's had a fair shake. I think some of the things that she has accomplished as a female leader in this province have been as good as any I've seen and she gets no credit. She's just brushed off," she said, referring to the legislature's press gallery as "the old boys network."

"I think they dismiss her; they don't take her seriously."

But longtime B.C. press gallery member Vaughn Palmer, who has reported from the legislature for the Vancouver Sun for almost 30 years, disputes Orr's claims.

"I think it's common for members of government parties that are in political trouble to claim that their accomplishments aren't recognized and that their failings are overemphasized," he said.

"[Orr] also claimed that there's been no reporting on what Adrian Dix would and would not do: that's just simply not true. There's been extensive reporting on the things Dix has promised to do. There's also been a fair amount of reporting on where he's said, 'Wait for the platform.'"

Palmer also added labeling the press gallery as an "old boys network," is inaccurate, citing younger reporters like Stephen Smart, Rob Shaw, and The Tyee's own Andrew MacLeod as reporters who weren't even covering the legislature when Orr was in office.

Then there's the presence of a couple of female reporters like Justine Hunter, who has covered provincial politics for 25 years, or Sophie Rousseau with Radio Canada TV. The Tyee contacted Hunter for comment but she did not respond by press time.

MILF story 'unseemly': Baldrey

Long-time Global TV reporter Keith Baldrey did acknowledge an underlying sexism in media coverage, but not just for Clark.

"Unfortunately, I think it's inevitable that female politicians, particularly female political leaders, are going to encounter some sexist coverage from the media," he told The Tyee.

"I think that is either through overt sexism or just not even noticing it sometimes when it happens."

But he doesn't think he's ever done any sexist reporting, shying away from the obviously sexist stories about Clark.

"I've never covered any of those types of incidents, because I find them somewhat unseemly. The MILF incident came up on CKNW, which I do every week, and I don't know why people want to keep stuff like that going as some kind of story. I don't think that really serves anybody."

Former NDP leader Carole James says female leaders are treated to a "double standard" by the media. In addition to reporting on her hair, looks, and clothing, James says B.C. media accused her of being "weak" when she proposed an end to heckling and personal attacks in the legislature.

"There's no question in my mind that that was a gender issue," she told The Tyee, adding to her knowledge she was never called "shrill" by the media.

"Because we've seen men who take that on, including Adrian [Dix], and Adrian and I have talked about this, who've been praised for that kind of approach... [seen as] a strong sign of leadership."

James says gender likely played a role in her party's decision to replace her as leader, but it wasn't the only reason. She says sexism is a reality, but not an excuse for Clark's problems.

"I think there's some unique criticisms that come for women in leadership, but I don't think it's the only rationale that people can use for why someone's having a challenge in their leadership position," she said.

Independent MLA Vicki Huntington, who has represented Delta South since 2009, agrees some of the reporting about Clark has been sexist, but on the whole the media has been fair to the premier. A political veteran since her days as municipal councillor for Delta in the early 1990s, Huntington says she has never been subjected to sexism by B.C. media.

"But then, most of my political career has been in a community that doesn't seem to have a problem with female politicians," she said.

"We've got a mayor, an MP, and an MLA that are all female, and we're covered evenly and well by local press."

Green Party Leader Jane Sterk says she hasn't been the subject of sexist coverage, either. Instead she believes Clark has brought on some of the coverage herself.

"She's been known to use, I think, inappropriate sexual allusions in her own language," she told The Tyee, referring to a speech the premier made in Crown Isle in February where she compared her ex-husband to a microphone that would not stay upright, in addition to her answer to the MILF question.

"From my perspective that's completely inappropriate to tolerate being asked questions like that, and the fact that she answers them, I think, demonstrates that she doesn't understand that that's inappropriate."

The worst offenders

Orr says the microphone comment shows Clark's sense of humour. But Janni Aragon, a senior instructor in the University of Victoria's department of political science, disagrees. She says comments like that show Clark doesn't realize she's not "one of us."

"She's not a regular person: she needs to think, in my opinion, through some of the actions that she takes or some of the things that she says. She's not a regular person like you or me. She is a public person," she said.

Aragon, whose research interests include gender and politics and feminist theory, agrees there's sexism in news coverage of women in politics. She says typical sexist coverage, like the details of how female politicians dress or style their hair, is even moving over to coverage of men, citing a recent Globe and Mail article detailing Justin Trudeau's "makeover."

She says in addition to the coverage of Branson's indecent proposal, Schreck's cleavage complaints, and the MILF question, she recalls questions in the media about whether Clark was trying to use her gender to her advantage when running in her Point Grey riding. But that was in 2011.

"[Do I] consistently see her being picked on because she's a woman, or gendered or sexist language against her? No, I have not witnessed a strong pattern of that, and this is something that I actually do look for, have my radar on," she said.

"I think unfortunately what the province has is an ineffective leader," she added, noting she is an American who cannot vote in Canada.

Most of the people The Tyee spoke to for this article, however, say sexist coverage of Clark, real or perceived, is nothing compared to the sexism and misogyny directed towards the premier in social media, blogs, and the comment section of news websites. In those venues, it's not uncommon for anonymous critics of female public figures to use gendered insults; some go so far as to raise the threat of sexual violence. Female politicians like Clark are expected to take much worse commentary than their male counterparts.

Aragon says the belief that this is fair comment is part of "rape culture," and while it can be chalked up to Internet trolls, it's indicative of a lack of acceptance of female politicians by some members of the public.

"It speaks to some people not accepting Clark or whoever it might be... as being part of the club and want to attack her or attack women, and to debase them in such a sexualized way and say they want to rape her or hurt her -- it's women hating," she said.

"Thanks to the vagaries of social media, people feel safe behind their laptop and will say terrible things, and perhaps some will apologize after the fact. Others won't."

*Story updated March 22 at 11:28 a.m.  [Tyee]

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