Russian Presidential Candidate Ksenia Sobchak: “TV Host,” “Starlet,” and Youngest Candidate in Russian History
Ksenia Sobchak, the only woman candidate to make it to Election Day in the 2018 Russian presidential elections, faced hurdles because the Russian presidency is perceived as a male domain. In a new article published in NCA’s Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Maria Shpeer and Lindsey Meeks analyze Russian media coverage from five online news outlets to determine how Sobchak’s gender and the norms of Russian politics shaped coverage.
Gender Roles in Russia
In the early 2000s, the Russian Federation made nominal attempts to improve gender equality and address domestic violence. However, the policies were not a high priority, so efforts to address these issues were limited to official pronouncements. In the mid-2000s, the Russian Federation shifted in the opposite direction to combat low birth rates. Government rhetoric emphasized maternal roles and various policies were enacted to raise birth rates. According to Shpeer and Meeks, this emphasis on traditional roles is also found in Russian media and promoted by the Russian Orthodox Church. They note that feminism is often described as “radical” and as a threat to traditional family values. Today, Russian women still do not have equal constitutional rights.
Gender Roles in Russian Politics
Because of the emphasis on traditional gender roles, the authors also note that many Russians (nearly 60 percent) believe that men are better political leaders than women. In addition, they observe that in Russian politics, political acuity has been associated with the hypermasculine stereotype of the “muzhik,” which Shpeer and Meeks describe as “being strong (‘a real man’) and unflappable (‘a true patriot of the country,’ ‘dependable’).” Accordingly, hypermasculine tropes are promoted by the media. The authors note, for example, that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has been traditionally framed by the media as ‘bare-chested in Siberia,’ ‘Russian Marlboro man,’ ‘an action hero,’ ‘military serviceman,’ and ‘macho sex-object.’” Because of the gendered nature of Russian politics, men have dominated the political sphere. The legislature is dominated by men, and no woman has ever been president of Russia. Women in Russian politics face stigma and stereotypes when running for office, and these are often reinforced by the Russian media.
Ksenia Sobchak is part of a Russian political family, whose background in Russian media has also brought her celebrity status. However, poor reception of some of her work has also led Sobchak to be labeled the “Russian Paris Hilton” by the Russian media. In 2017, Sobchak declared her candidacy for Russian president in the upcoming 2018 election, becoming the youngest candidate in history. Using the slogan, “Sobchak against everyone,” the campaign was supported by the Civic Initiative Party.
Shpeer and Meeks conducted a content analysis of the coverage of Sobchak’s campaign from December 15, 2017, through March 18, 2018 (election day) by the five largest online Russian news outlets. The authors found that the media used more legitimizing labels, such as “candidate,” than delegitimizing labels, such as “TV host” or “starlet.” “Candidate” was by far the most frequently used term, with more than 93 percent of articles using that term. The second and third most-used terms were “TV host” (nearly 33 percent) and “journalist” (nearly 7 percent). In addition to these terms, some outlets used other terms, such as “female-Centaurus Chuck-Chuck” (mocking Sobchak’s appearance) and “fake candidate,” both of which de-legitimized Sobchak’s campaign. Shpeer and Meeks argue that “these additional labels draw a more complete picture of how the media portrayed Sobchak’s image as not authentic – an image that can seriously affect the public’s perceptions of her electability.”
Regarding issues covered by the outlets, Shpeer and Meeks found that Sobchak’s campaign received more coverage of issues perceived as “masculine,” such as foreign affairs, crime, and the military, than of “feminine” issues, such as education. However, the media emphasized “feminine” traits, such as emotion, more than “masculine” traits, such as independence. The most emphasized traits were: emotional (about 12 percent), collaborative (about 9 percent), and honest (about 8 percent). In addition, media outlets also emphasized Sobchak’s uniqueness as a candidate. This was often related to pro-Western views, her career as a TV host, or her age.
Shpeer and Meeks also considered some differences among credible news outlets, the mainstream media, and tabloids. They identify credible outlets as those that “inform,” while tabloids “focus on personal/private life.” According to the authors, “mainstream outlets” fall in the middle of the spectrum between credible outlets and tabloids. The authors identified two of the outlets as credible, one as mainstream, and two as tabloids. Shpeer and Meeks note that their study showed that credible outlets were most likely to describe Sobchak as a “TV host,” while tabloids were most likely to describe her as a “starlet.”
Shpeer and Meeks drew three main conclusions from their research. First, the five outlets studied used legitimizing labels more often than delegitimizing ones. However, the delegitimizing labels that were used served to associate Sobchak with reality TV, while obscuring more traditional qualifications, such as her prestigious education or her background as a political journalist. Second, the media emphasized masculine issues. Shpeer and Meeks suggest that this may be due to a general focus on masculine issues during Russian elections. They also speculate that the focus on masculine issues could have either hurt or helped Sobchak’s campaign. On the one hand, masculine issues may have served to validate Sobchak’s run for office. On the other hand, she may have been perceived as less competent on those issues. Third, when looking at the type of outlet, Shpeer and Meeks conclude that all outlets used both legitimizing and delegitimizing labels in their coverage of the campaign.