A Gendered Blogosphere? Portrayal of Sarah Palin on Political Blogs during the 2008 Presidential Campaign

Article excerpt

This case study explores gender stereotyping by comparing the ways in which vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden were portrayed on Internet blogs. Results suggest Palin did not suffer from a lack of attention. While she did receive a considerable amount of coverage focusing on her personality and personal life in comparison to Democratic candidate Joe Biden, that was likely a result of her unique candidacy and persona. Perhaps most important, the blogs did not play to traditional gender stereotypes concerning issue coverage even as a stereotypically male issue dominated the political agenda.

The 2008 presidential election was the first in U.S. history to feature both a viable female candidate for the top spot in Democrat Hillary Clinton and a vice presidential candidate in Sarah Palin on the Republican ticket. The Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Clinton was so close that officials meticulously counted votes even into the month of June. Presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain announced his decision to place Palin on the ticket on August 29, 2008, making her only the second woman to be tapped by a major political party.1 In announcing his decision, McCain declared, "she's exactly who this country needs to help me fight the same old Washington politics of 'me first and the country second.'"2

Although neither Clinton nor PaUn prevailed in 2008, their achievements both as women and as political candidates in this historic race drew widespread attention not only from voters and the media, but from scholars as well. The news media remained fixated on these two women even after the election was over, ranking them as the secondand third-leading newsmakers for the week of November 10 to 16.3 Much of this attention originated from the notion that women are fundamentally different from men and somehow "unnatural" in the public sphere4 and that, as a result, the press frequently reports on women candidates as anomalies. At the core of these criticisms is the idea that the private and public spheres are at odds with each other. A review of gender stereotype literature examining expectations of the personality traits of men and women concludes that women are associated with communal traits (e.g., caring, nurturing, warm), while agentic traits (e.g., competent, successful, cunning) are associated with men.5 Further, in the vein of social learning theory, Eagly's social role theory suggests that strong cultural elements perpetuate these personality differences as both men and women adopt sex-linked traits, skills, and interests in order to fulfill the gender roles in which they are placed.6

Therefore, political women face the no-win situation of being either warm and womanly or competent and masculine/ In other words, they must choose between highlighting their communal traits and running as nurturing candidates or emphasizing agentic traits and running as strong equals to their male counterparts. While running "as a woman" can provide some advantages for women candidates when women's issues are at the top of the agenda,8 it can also disadvantage women by presenting them as too soft, especially when running for an office as masculinized as the presidency.9 Alternatively, emphasizing agentic traits can disadvantage women by stripping them of their femininity. As Lawrence and Rose eloquently assert, "a female candidate who seems unwomanly may be profoundly disconcerting to a public still influenced by deeply rooted notions of the qualities each gender 'should' display."10

Whichever portrayal of woman a candidate chooses to adopt will also undoubtedly affect the media coverage of her candidacy. For decades, studies of traditional news coverage of women running for political office have found significant differences in the way men and women candidates are treated, including amount of coverage, types of issues covered, and disproportionate focus on personal qualities rather than issues. …