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Michele Bachmann: Mad Woman?

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MICHELE BACHMANN
AP

Co-authored by Rachel Dempsey.

This week's issue of Newsweek, timed to coincide with Thursday's Republican primary debate and Saturday's straw poll in Iowa, sparked controversy for its striking picture of Michele Bachmann over the headline "Queen of Rage." Conservative commentators called the candidate's photo sexist, saying it took an unfair potshot at her appearance that her male counterparts would never have suffered.

We've cried sexism before on Bachmann's behalf on this very blog. And it is true that her appearance is subject to harsher scrutiny than her male counterparts. But in this particular instance, the accusations ring false. It's not a subtle picture, but Newsweek isn't going for subtle. No more than two months ago, the magazine carried a picture of Bachmann's fellow candidate Mitt Romney Photoshopped onto a dancer's body, meant to look like the poster of the Broadway musical Book of Mormon. Not exactly dignified. Newsweek's desire to stir up controversy appears to be gender neutral.

The truly interesting part of the cover, then, isn't the photo. It's the headline: Queen of Rage. As Ruth Marcus points out over at the Washington Post, the subject of angry women is a weighted one. Studies show that, in male-dominated fields, displays of anger increase the perceived status of men and decrease the perceived status of women. (And really, what's a more historically male-dominated than the presidential primary field?) Deeming Michele Bachmann the Queen of Rage -- particularly in tandem with that admittedly crazy-eyes photo -- is bound to trigger certain negative-competence stereotypes.

The thing that makes Newsweek's cover a low blow is that Michele Bachmann does anger well. When a woman gets angry, people tend to assume that the anger is internal; that is, that she is an inherently angry, out-of-control woman. Angry men are assumed to have had an identifiable environmental trigger. As a result, angry women are seen as less competent and reliable than their male counterparts.

Bachmann's entire political being is built upon a platform of populist rage. And yet somehow, for the most part, she avoids triggering the stereotypes of the angry woman. Witness Thursday night's showdown between Bachmann and fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty, which she is universally acknowledged to have won. Pawlenty was visibly nervous as he criticized Bachmann's record. Bachmann responded calmly, keeping her voice low and even, first facing Pawlenty directly to respond to his criticisms and then turning to the audience to list her own accomplishments. As puzzling as some of the accomplishments were (The Lightbulb Freedom of Choice Act? How is that even a real thing, much less something that qualifies one for presidency?), her tone was unwavering, and stood in sharp contrast to Pawlenty's flustered stuttering.

Most importantly, Bachmann never actually got angry. She did not shy away from the conflict, but rather met Pawlenty's criticisms with coolly stated facts. One thing that struck us watching the debate last night is that Bachmann is an excellent speaker. She makes what she says sound reasonable, even when it patently isn't. And one of the primary ways in which she does this is by channeling others' anger without internalizing it. Social scientists recommend that women avoid backlash for displays of anger by pointing to its external source, thus avoiding the stereotype of the angry woman. Bachmann's rage is the Tea Party's rage, not her own.

To be clear, we don't want Michele Bachmann to be president. As she and Sarah Palin both make eminently clear, a woman candidate is not the same thing as a woman's candidate. But we've said it before and we'll say it again: pandering to stereotypes about female competence is a shortsighted strategy that ultimately makes things harder for women regardless of political stripe.

For an excellent counterpoint to Newsweek's story, check out the New Yorker's piece on Bachmann, also out this week. Rather than go after the crazy eyes, we should be going after the crazy.

Joan Williams is the author of Reshaping the Work-Family Debate and Unbending Gender. She and Rachel Dempsey are co-writing an upcoming book about gender bias against professional women.

Editor's note: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty as Iowan instead of Minnesotan. The current version reflects this correction.