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Sexism against female politicians, always a problem, may have reached a new low. In an attempt to re-brand its West Coast coverage as “cutting edge” and win back the youth for the conservative cause, the Breitbart.com web empire of smeardom has created a new series of ads which feature Nancy Pelosi’s powerful head photoshopped onto the (presumably twerking) body of Miley Cyrus, complete with a lolling tongue. Other poorly-thought out Breitbart mash-ups include Mark Zuckerberg’s mug on a topless female model, Piers Morgan jumping a border fence, and Jerry Brown’s kisser on a muscle-bound dude.
First of all, this epic fail does not come within miles of being hip. Twerking jokes are so 2013. But more importantly the ads are offensive, notably the border-crossing gag and the flagrantly misogynist treatment of Pelosi’s image. The latter can’t even clear the bar of ironic sexism or crude bromance-film sexism. All it achieves is dopey schoolyard humor. “Hey, I have an idea. Let’s put the head of one person on the body of another. It’s hilarious ‘cause they don’t match. Also: boobs! ”
“It’s so tasteless that I mean, is it even worthy of a question?” Pelosi said on Monday when asked about the ads. Her friend Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC chair and my personal heroine, released a statement Monday that had a bit more venom for the ad. “To say the least, the Breitbart News ad is foul, offensive, and disrespectful to all women,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It is a disgusting new low and would be reprehensible against any woman –- regardless of party.” Even a right wing blogger, Justin Higgins, said he was appalled: “Just because we have massive disagreements with Pelosi on policy doesn’t mean we can ignore the obvious double standard.”
While it’s laughable that the Breitbart.com team doesn’t know how to be edgy, and instead comes across as offensively juvenile, Wasserman-Schultz makes a good point: the deeper wrong goes far beyond one political figure. The treatment of Pelosi, among the most powerful women in the nation, is emblematic of a larger trend: the gauntlet that all female politicos must run when dealing with the media.
“There is a double standard,” Hillary Clinton, who would certainly know, said at an appearance recently. "We have all experienced it ..and I think in many respects the media is the principal propagator of its persistence.” As an election simulation by the Name It. Change It. project on media coverage of women in politics, found, sexist coverage of female political candidates doesn’t just hurt candidates’ feelings -- it hurts their chances in an election. “Even in a simulated campaign environment, where a woman candidate has already been attacked, sexist coverage further diminishes her vote,” the simulated campaign found. “It also deteriorates the perception that she is qualiﬁed -– which strongly correlates with the vote.”
The ultra-conservative media machine has long had a special vendetta against Clinton, but Pelosi has been a perennial thorn in its side too. She’s a mega threat to the misogynist M.O. because of the mixture of her femininity -- all those grandkids at her inauguration and her lavender suits, bless those awesome lavender suits -- and the sheer political power she wields. Her chutzpah is kind of amazing. Anyone who follows political wonkery knows what pundits say about Pelosi, far more often than they say it about her male counterparts across the aisle: She can really “get her caucus to fall in step.” She basically ushered health care reform past the finish line, so we can thank her for our no-copay contraception.
Pelosi is a true political animal, canny and aggressive, and over time she has clearly learned to not give two craps what the haters say. Without that kind of resilience, she’d be toast. As the Name It. Change It. study showed, when women fight back against sexist coverage and “name it,” they regain lost ground with voters.
I was the last person in the world to be surprised by a sexist attack emanating from Breitbart.com. Early in my political blogging career, I was the target of a hit piece there -- fortunately it was before hardcore Twitter trolling by minions of big media personalities inevitably followed such a piece. The article itself was a standard take-down attempt: “We are fortunate that, to date, Ms. Seltzer's writings have been relatively confined,” the writer noted. “With any luck, she will be further pushed to the fringe, where she belongs.” (I guess that luck ran out!)
However, the inclusion of my picture front and center and the focus of the article on me, not the outlet where I wrote or my words themselves, signaled that hordes of commenters were free to make their comments as personal as they pleased. And they did. Soon enough other right-wingers took to their personal blogs to hurl anti-Semitic and gendered slurs my way. It was hardly the worst attack ever, and it was a heck of a lot more subtle and low key than the Pelosi-as-Miley gambit, but to a young woman just entering her field, it hurt in a way that felt distinctly gendered, and intimidating.
These attacks are frustrating for that reason. For every seasoned female politico like Pelosi who shrugs off the sexist BS, there’s another young woman viewing the ad who decides not to bother with politics because she doesn’t want to deal with the fallout. And that’s a shame.