Keeping up appearances imperative for female politicians
Calvin DeGroot

Former MLA of North Vancouver David Schreck created quite a stir with his comment on Twitter that premiere Christy Clark was showing an inappropriate amount of cleavage. Liberals, feminists, and New Democrats flooded his twitter account with hate mail; NDP party leader Adrian Dix called for an apology, but none was given.

Do we as Canadians still view women differently than we do men in the political arena? Unfortunately, this appears to be the case. The political analysis of Canadian female politicians goes way above that of their male counterparts. They are often heavily scrutinized on fashion, physical appearance, and character traits.

When examining the recent criticism female political actors have been facing, it is evident that sexism is alive and well in the both the media and the political arena. Unfortunately for Canada, political culture is often indicative of a country’s culture as a whole. Although Clarke easily dismissed the comments in a recent interview, saying, “I’m used to stupid criticism. I get it,” she admitted she has routinely faced this kind of scrutiny. T

he United States election in 2008 was historic: Barak Obama’s victory will always be remembered. However, equally as memorable was the way that the two prominent female politicians were treated in Canadian media. CBC’s Heather Mallic wrote that Sarah Palin looked like a “porn star” trying to win “white trash votes”. At the same time, the Globe and Mail writer Leanne Delap accused Hillary Clinton of wearing a “dumpy pantsuit” and comparing her “bee-hind” to a truck.

The trend continues against Canadian female politicians. Author Jenn Goddu studied Canadian newspapers and magazines for 15 years, observing that they tend to “focus on the domestic aspects” of female politicians rather than their positions on political issues.

Second term M.P. Jody Sgro says her male colleagues have been known to shout things such as, “Why don’t you go ho
me to take care of your kids?” across the Legislature. The cases are endless, whether it is Vancouver’s mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton being criticised for not being photogenic, or Ontario’s Liberal Finance minister Sandra Pupatello’s “nice legs”, women’s superficial qualities are constantly being given extra attention in our media.

Interestingly, in the majority of these cases, it is women attacking our female politicians. Even in the Christy Clarke cleavage story, David Schreck claimed it was his wife who brought it to his attention. According to filmmaker Jean Kilbourne (Killing Us Softly, Miss Representation), this recent girl-on-girl sexism is largely an effect of the mass media influencing women. Women are generally not the ones deciding how they are represented. Only three per cent of clout positions in telecommunications, entertainment, publishing, and advertising, and just 16 per cent of all writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, and editors are women.

The media is the single most powerful engine for influencing the way people think. The end product is women who grow up thinking that their sole value lays in how they look. This explains why, according to author Paul Campos, when women and power mix, “cosmetic considerations manage to become matters for the strictest scrutiny.” When the media focuses on the personal attire and style over public policy, it dehumanizes both the politicians and the audience.

Furthermore, it has been over 80 years since women have been able to work in government (1929), yet women currently only occupy 25 per cent of government positions. The 2011 election saw a record number of females elected; however, this is directly correlated to the record number of NDP seats won. Canada still ranks 52nd in the world for the percentage of women elected.

In the Conservative party, female representation is scarce. The percentage of elected Conservative women is up from 11 per cent in 2008 to 17 per cent in 2011, but the numbers are still embarrassing. In Stephen Harper’s cabinet, there are only 5 women out of 27 postions, with none of them holding senior posts such as Health or Finance Minister.

Author and Political Studies professor at the University of Toronto, Sylvia Baskevkin argues that the Harper government is “closer to organized anti-feminism than any regime in the country's history.” While that may be a slightly hyperbolic claim, former Prime Minster (Canada’s only female PM) Kim Campbell argues that if women are never seen in prominent political roles, we will begin to believe that it is “unnatural for them to be in those roles.”

It is important to note that equality of women has come a long way in Canada, and we are blessed to be one of the few countries in the world where, constitutionally, women and men are equal. However, as has often been said, good is the enemy of great, and Canadians have been satisfied with “good” for far too long.

//Calvin DeGroot, Writer
//Illustration by Kailey Patton

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