Images of a Breakthrough Woman Candidate: Dianne Feinstein's 1990, 1992, and 1994 Campaign Television Advertisements

By Sullivan, David B. | Women's Studies in Communication, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Images of a Breakthrough Woman Candidate: Dianne Feinstein's 1990, 1992, and 1994 Campaign Television Advertisements


Sullivan, David B., Women's Studies in Communication


This study explores the thesis that a shift in the dominant media of communication from print to electronic sources may aid outsider candidates' bids for high offices in U.S. politics. The shift in the kind of symbol--from printed word to icon--that holds the most currency in the contemporary media environment upsets conventional assumptions about social reality, leaving space for political outsiders to redefine public conceptions of authority and who should hold it. The 1990 gubernatorial and 1992 and 1994 U.S. Senate campaign ads run by "breakthrough" woman candidate Dianne Feinstein may provide evidence of this epistemological shift in political image-making. Semiotic analysis of 45 Feinstein television advertisements across the three campaigns reveals that she relied on non-traditional coding to construct a campaign persona that defied some traditional, masculinized entailments of candidate image while she redefined other image dimensions, such as competency, toughness, and leadership.

The transition from print to electronic culture has dramatically altered the stage on which the American political campaign drama is acted out (e.g., McLuhan, 1964; Meyrowitz, 1985; Postman, 1985; Schwartz, 1972). This shift from linear to mosaic story forms and the emergence of the icon as the defining symbol in public communication is forging a new political epistemology (McLuhan, 1964; Sullivan, 1995a). McLuhan (1964) noted that electronic media, especially television, displace an audience's point of view by confusing distinctions between what is inside and what is outside the media environment. He further asserted that this displacement of perspective obscures what were in print culture distinct lines of candidate identification in electoral politics.

American electoral politics developed in an era defined by print media. In a print-dominated media environment, the candidate's personality primarily defined her or his image. Print media, according to McLuhan (1964), emphasize individuality, which manifests itself most overtly in personality. Personality, therefore, became the most public manifestation of the candidate's identification (e.g., Hart, 1994). In electronic culture, however, the icon has replaced the written word as the most influential kind of symbol used in public communication (Boorstin, 1961). Hence, candidate image today is defined in electronic culture via an entirely different epistemology than that fostered by print media. "Epistemology" in this case refers to how various communication channels assert, like metaphors, an "unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality" (Postman, 1985, p. 10). Given the prominence of the icon, an emphasis on personality is succeeded by a focus on persona, or dramatic character, because televisual media confuse the distinction between actor and character. In short, the distinction between personality and persona in candidate image-making is a function of the influence of media message coding on public perceptions of reality.

When new media change the manner in which messages are coded, the new coding requires us to adjust how we make sense of the messages, and we therefore adjust our perceptions of reality (McLuhan, 1964; Ong, 1982). Whereas personality was taken to represent what was "real" about a given candidate in print-dominated campaign discourse, the icon in the age of televisual politics shifts attention to persona as representing what is "real" about the candidate (Sullivan, 1995a). The person represented in televisual media becomes defined foremost through two affective dimensions: first, by how she or he visually appears to people and, second, by the sense of social relationship that image evokes. The candidate's achievements and character thus become secondary defining characteristics. The key assumption underlying this thesis is that televisual media imitate the interpersonal situation, thereby altering the relational context in which meaning is constructed (Gozzi & Haynes, 1992). …

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