Which Kinds of Attack Ads Are Most Devastating to Female Candidates?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Nov. 22 2011 7:26 AM

How To Hit a Woman

The new anti-Elizabeth Warren ad, and how political attack ads differ when the target is female.

Anti-Elizabeth Warren ad.
From an anti-Elizabeth Warren ad by Crossroads GPS.

Recently, Karl Rove’s political action committee released an ad attacking Elizabeth Warren, who is challenging Scott Brown for a Senate seat in Massachusetts. It is a nasty hit, linking her to “extreme left” Occupy Wall Street protesters who “attack police, do drugs, and trash public parks.” At one point the words “Professor Elizabeth Warren” are stamped onto the screen like an indictment. Warren comes across as an effete and slightly deranged liberal professor.

Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

This type of attack-by-association, painting a candidate as way too fringe for a civilized electorate, is a popular trope of negative political advertising, employed against male and female candidates, Republicans and Democrats alike. But in recent years it has been used to particularly devastating effect against women running for office. Voters tend to “assume a female candidate is a protector of social values, a custodian of the family,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who directs the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. Linking a woman to radical counterculture forces can therefore make her seem that much more deviant and threatening.

A review of the advertising suggests that conventions of negative advertising against women are often different from the conventions of advertising against men. As John Edwards and his expensive haircut will recall, male candidates are particularly vulnerable to seeming less than entirely masculine. Women, meanwhile, are especially vulnerable to being portrayed as insufficiently warm and feminine. Also: overly vain, grotesquely ugly, unmarried, amoral, slutty, nutty, arrogant, and stupid.

But attacking female politicians can be tricky, whether the venue is a debate stage or the Internet. In a co-ed political environment, viewers sometimes see sexism where none is intended. Was Rick Lazio out of line when he invaded Hillary Clinton’s personal space during a 2000 Senate debate, and if so, was it because she is a woman? In which case, what are we to make of Mitt Romney doing much the same thing to Rick Perry during a presidential debate last month? Can’t a man be boorish toward a woman without being sexist? On the other hand, intentional sexism, when subtly done, can be hard to prove. After all, not every attack ad includes a female candidate portrayed as a stripper. (Yes, that happened. See the final category below.)

Herewith, some common tropes of recent political ads attacking female candidates.

Nutty
It’s a short hop from extreme to crazy. The Crossroads GPS ad against Elizabeth Warren works not just by portraying her as radically liberal, but by implying that she is unhinged. After showing chaotic scenes of angry young mobs and what looks like a street explosion, and noting that protestors “support radical redistribution of wealth and violence,” the ad cuts to a clip of Warren’s “class warfare” speech, with the volume turned way down, so that the viewer cannot hear the warmth in her voice or the substance of her argument. She is gesticulating strenuously, and the scene implies passion without reason.

Images of female candidates looking angry or self-righteous are a staple of negative ads; the implication seems to be that they are out of control, overtaken by their own emotions and, utterly unfit for office. Nevada Sen. Harry Reid showed his opponent Sharron Angle first smiling sweetly, and then with her face contorted with feeling. “Not just extreme,” the ad intones: “dangerous.”

Power-Mad Bitch
Long before she first ran for office and became the subject of her very own attack ads, Hillary Clinton was attacked in various venues as insufficiently feminine, as a lesbian, as scheming, power-hungry, and emasculating. When in 2000 she ran to represent New York in the U.S. Senate, her opponent, Rick Lazio, ran an ad saying, “Hillary Clinton: You can always trust her to do what's right—for Hillary Clinton.'' The same year state’s GOP chairman released a fund-raising letter calling her an “ambitious, ruthless, scheming, calculating, manipulating woman.” The letter used the word “woman” five times. A group called the Christian Action Network even produced an ad with a male narrator saying, “it is rumored that Hillary Clinton is a lesbian … sometimes rumors are true,” while creepy horror-movie music played in the background.

During her presidential run, this theme of Clinton as power-hungry and ruthless continued. In the trailer above for the infamous Citizens United movie about her, Clinton is described as “deceitful,” “vindictive,” “venal,” and “sneaky,” while unattractive photos of her flash across the screen. During the primaries, Barack Obama ran a radio ad claiming “she’ll say anything.” It wasn’t an ad, strictly speaking, but a video of a woman asking John McCain, “How do we beat the bitch?” became emblematic of the obstacles Clinton encountered that campaign season.

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