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On Sexist Media Coverage of Hillary Clinton

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Espousing feminist viewpoints is so often really not cool -- in fact, feminists even have our own joke about how humorless we are:

JOKE: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?
PUNCHLINE: That's not funny.

(And that's the clean punchline.)

Whether they call themselves a feminist or not, many women and many men have noticed how different mainstream media coverage of Hillary Clinton's run for the Democratic nomination has been from coverage of male candidates. From her tone of voice and her style of dress, her eyes welling up with tears to her credentials as a senator, Clinton's run for the Democratic nomination has been awash with the most dispiriting ridicule I have seen in my (albeit short) lifetime.

(Let me say right up front that I voted for Barack Obama in the Connecticut primary -- in fact, I took a Metro North train back home to Connecticut to vote for Barack Obama in the Connecticut primary in the flesh. So I can tell you all about why Hillary Clinton gives me the heebie-jeebies -- but that conversation will include words like "Mark Penn," "Wal-mart" and "Iraq War," not "crying" or "nagging wives.")

Surprise, surprise, feeling protective of Hillary Clinton when media coverage manhandles her as ball-busting, overemotional or Anne Boleyn-grade manipulative is regarded as really not cool. And I don't say this because I think I am a martyr or I enjoy feeling like one -- I say it because I've had some frustrating conversations, mostly with men, who think one of two things:

1) They don't see the coverage as sexist or offensive altogether, or
2) They do think it's "a little" sexist but Hillary's such a uber-rich, out-of-touch, shady Republicrat, anyway, that it's just a sexist tint to a legitimate criticism of her smarmy ways.

So it was my distinct pleasure on Thursday night to attend a discussion, "From Bella to Hillary: Women, Media and Politics" at New York City's The Paley Center for Media to discuss how mainstream media coverage of female candidates has changed from the 1960s and 1970s, when women's and civil rights activist Bella Abzug ran for Congress.

Pat Mitchell of the Paley Center converged a slam-dunk lineup: radio host Laura Flanders, president of the Women's Media Center Carol Jenkins, former editor of Ms. magazine Suzanne Braun Levine, veteran television journalist Marlene Sanders, feminist writer (and generational icon) Gloria Steinem, author Mary Thom, and president of the White House Project, which seeks to elect more women to Congress, Marie Wilson.

Veteran TV journalist Marlene Sanders opened the discussion by lamenting, "It seems like we've been doing this forever," to which the other women soberly nodded their heads. Sanders explained to those of us born in the '80s that there were practically no women in politics in the 1960s or 1970s - other than the wives and daughters, who she was often asked to cover. Furthermore, men in journalism were often clueless about the implications of the blossoming women's movement.

In charged Bella Abzug, who former Ms. editor Suzanne Braun Levine noted wasn't "polite" or "motherly" -- and therefore, everyone from the conservatives to the peace activists were wary of. Bella's style was to demand, not ask, and -- for better or for worse -- many women who worked along side her are proudly scarred from a Bella Abzug tonguelashing. (She apparently used to say, "I'm only yelling at you because I respect you!")

Writer Gloria Steinem offered context for how women challenging sexism in the media and in politics were ridiculed, which those of us who work in feminist activism today can sympathize with. "We've moved from ridicule and invisibility to serious opposition," Steinem explained. "First [a movement] is ridiculed, then the next wave is 'it's not news anymore.' First you didn't need it and now it's kind of silly and you don't need it anymore!" Steinem's been around long enough to see feminism's successes of the 1960s and 1970s -- such as legal protections for women in the workforce, civil rights, the public acknowledgment of domestic abuse and sexual assault, legalization of safe abortions, and the widespread use of the birth control pill -- only to see the backlash rear its ugly head in the most Eisenhower-esque incarnations. To Steinem's eye, lately the "misogyny level has gone up."

Radio host Laura Flanders articulated Steinem's ideas further: "You go from a period where women were supposed to know their place...to a place where we've scored a lot of victories in terms of a place -- being allowed in the doors," but now there is a pervasive "post-feminist period" that Flanders believes to be media-generated. The post-feminist line is that feminism isn't needed anymore -- in fact, wealthy white women have the luxury of rejecting feminism's advances -- and therefore the mainstream media acts like it's over in America. "We're not allowed to talk about it anymore," Flanders said, even though mainstream media outlets still don't deny that there is widespread misogyny elsewhere in the world.

"We're not allowed to say there's a connection between what the pundits say and what society does," Flanders said. "It's Hillary's problem, not our problem."

But it is our problem. "We need to talk about the way the patriarchy functions," she told us. "It's not about getting a place at the table, it's about changing the table."

This cued a series of TV clips, done in part by the Women's Media Center, a sort of "best of the best" greatest hits of great moments in sexist male punditry. (Actually, I shouldn't say say "male" because Michelle Malkin's in there, too, talking about how haggard Clinton looks.) It's got Tucker Carlson saying when Clinton comes on TV "I involuntarily cross my legs" and a whole cornucopia of Chris Matthews doozies, including telling female guests how pretty they are. (Note to Chris Matthews: it's not a good sign if you have your own "Chris Matthews sexism" Huffington Post tag.) I hope they stick this video online for anyone who wants to see it.

Marie Wilson was the most hopeful of the bunch -- and rightfully so, because her organization, The White House Project, successfully trains women who believe themselves to be leaders in their community (one-third of them women of color) to run for office. "This really is the time for women's leadership," Wilson said, joking, "We will get to lead because things are a mess and we always get to clean up."

Of the sexist media coverage, Wilson noted (much like Amanda Fortini's piece, "Has Hillary Clinton's Campaign Caused a Feminist Re-awakening?", on sexism and Hillary Clinton in New York magazine recently), "It's been there all along and for the first time, people are admitting it is there." To this Steinem added, somewhat bittersweetly, that she speaks on college campuses several times a month and has noticed a change of mood in the state of feminism of late.

Carol Jenkins, president of the Women's Media Center, was also hopeful, although in a slightly different way -- she said Clinton running for president was the best thing to happen to the Women's Media Center, because before then, she was so often asked what they were complaining about. The reality, though, is that women occupy 3% of clout positions in the mainstream media, according to Jenkins, and the populace as a whole has "lost that furor."

Most of the panelists seemed to be saying that if more women were in positions of power -- mayors, senators, representatives, presidents, heads of media companies, TV pundits, op-ed columnists, radio show hosts -- then the discourse would de-frat boy, bullying of females and ridicule of serious issues would cease and sexist commentary would be met with shock and embarrassment, rather than naughty smiles. That may or may not be true, but I'm inclined to believe it is mostly true. I can't be the only one having those frustrating conversations where I feel protective of Hillary Clinton.

And I believe the moderator, Pat Mitchell, to be entirely right on when she said, "The candidacy alone has become an excuse for some unbelievably gender-ist and misogynist remarks."

So here's the question: Whether Clinton wins or not, will we wake up from this slumber?