Communication Currents

Framing Gender: Pioneers, Beauty Queens, and Unruly Women

October 1, 2008
Political Communication

When Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain named the relatively unknown governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, to be his running mate, political pundits and journalists alike were baffled. Communication scholars, however, can explain why this newcomer helped McCain get a bump in the polls. Analysis of campaign communication also reveals some of the reasons why Senator Barack Obama was able to displace his well-funded, heavily-favored opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton, during the Democratic primary race. In addition to being excellent orators, Governor Palin and Senator Obama benefitted from implicit media frames that positioned Palin as a plucky, pioneering upstart and Clinton as an all-too-familiar face—that of the intimidating feminist or nagging wife.

Shortly after McCain introduced his running mate, writers for alleged that McCain's choice proved he was “willing to gamble—big time.” Republican Pat Buchanan called McCain's pick the “biggest political gamble I believe just about in American political history . . . that is not hyperbole.” Although Palin lacks the typical pedigree of most vice-presidential nominees, she did energize the cultural conservative base that has held McCain at arm's length. Her take on the energy issue was appealing to the many Republicans chanting “drill, baby, drill” at the Republican National Convention. Her acceptance speech at the RNC proved that, despite her gender, she was able to fulfill the attack dog role typically assigned to VP candidates that allow presidential nominees to appear to rise above the fray. More than that, however, Palin's political image fits squarely within what Kristina Horn Sheeler and I have identified as metaphors of female identity that become implicit media frames for political women: Pioneer, Beauty Queen, and Unruly Woman.

Since women still remain a distinct minority among the ranks of U.S. national political leadership, their presence in prominent campaign positions highlights their status as Pioneers, perhaps the most common frame for women running for high office. The Pioneer role most often highlights women candidates' difference— positioning them as symbolic tokens of women's political achievements rather than serious applicants for the job. Palin invoked this version of the Pioneer when,in her speech that accompanied McCain's public announcement, she said:

I can't begin this great effort without honoring the achievements of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and, of course, Senator Hillary Clinton who showed such determination and grace in her presidential campaign. It was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America. But, it turns out the women of America aren't finished yet and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.

Part of Palin's appeal, however, is that she inhabits the Pioneer frame very differently than did her predecessors. Drawing on the frontier myth that has served many male presidential candidates well, Palin presents herself as an independent thinking, rugged Alaskan, and member of the National Rifle Association. In the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt's “strenuous life,” Palin is the woman who can raise a large family, reform state government, participate in the PTA, oversee oil exploration, and field dress a moose. This feminine/feminist image retains the novel appeal of the Pioneer while investing it with the more substantive and familiar narrative of classic American exceptionalism.

Although the image of a Beauty Queen would seem to be the antithesis of the Pioneer, it, too, is often used in coverage of female politicians. Palin happens to be a former beauty pageant contestant, a fact that is repeatedly included by journalists reporting on her political biography. The Beauty Queen frame, however, invokes more than a candidate's literal pageant history. Instead, the Beauty Queen standard is used tacitly in media narratives to prove political women's supposed authenticity as women. Ever since Hillary Clinton burst onto the national political scene, old pictures of her from her college days in Coke-bottle glasses with no makeup have abounded. When political women resist traditional beauty standards, it's easier to stereotype them as radical feminists, making them seem threatening to some voters. Because the Beauty Queen knows how to adhere to society's rules for appearance, it follows that she will not use public power improperly. However, a woman who challenges conventions of appearance is signaling her intention to undo other traditional standards.

If the Beauty Queen frame governs the narrow sphere of physical appearance, the metaphor of the Unruly Woman has the power to invoke broader assumptions about women who seek power. For much of her public career, Clinton faced charges that she acted beyond the confines of her proper role as first lady, then became the strident Senator from New York, and most recently acted as the heir apparent to the U.S. presidency. Each narrative framed her as a woman exceeding the boundaries of her position. So sexist was some punditry that it was lampooned in a video montage broadcast on Comedy Central's The Daily Show after Clinton's intention to end her presidential campaign was announced. That montage featured outtakes of media personalities saying things like “Married men will never vote for Hillary Clinton because, and I quote, [quoting viewer mail] ‘Her shrill voice reminds them of their nagging wives.'” Or, as conservative commentator Tucker Carlson said, “Every time I hear Hillary Clinton speak, I involuntarily cross my legs.” Glenn Beck noted that Clinton “could say ‘I want to give Glenn Beck a million dollars' and all I'd hear is ‘take out the garbage.'” And MSNBC's Mike Barnicle echoed, “When she reacts the way she reacts to Obama, with just the look, the look toward him, looking like everyone's first wife standing outside of probate court.”

When Clinton was cast as the Unruly Woman it made her seem, simply, less presidential. Since Palin already was reaping the benefits of the Pioneer and Beauty Queen frames, however, she was able to accept the mantle of Unruly Woman in much the same way as did former Democratic Texas Governor Ann Richards. Dovetailing nicely with the portrait of a straight-talking frontierswoman, the Unruly Woman frame underscored the image the McCain campaign was constructing of Palin as rabble rouser and reformer. Since Palin's large family, intact marriage, all-American beauty, and conservative credentials shielded her from attacks as a stereotypical feminazi, she could revel in unruliness, turning it to her strategic advantage in ways that were not available to Clinton.

When it comes to assessing the efficacy of campaign communication, the media often turn to historians or political scientists for insight. This article demonstrates that scholars of communication enhance that conversation by identifying and interpreting the ways in which political media frame candidates and leaders. Those frames are tacitly connected to stereotypes that can influence a candidate's personal credibility. When choosing the next president of the United States, voters need to critically assess the extent to which their opinion of a candidate's public persona is shading their understanding of that candidate's policy platform.

About the author (s)

Karrin Vasby Anderson

Colorado State University

Karrin Vasby Anderson (@KVAnderson) is Professor of Communication Studies at Colorado State University and co-author of Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture and Governing Codes: Gender, Metaphor, and Political Identity.

Karrin Vasby Anderson