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.

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.

Wicked Witch
Nancy Pelosi was one of the most despised figures of the 2010 midterms. Unlike the power-mad bitch, the witch is not emasculating; rather, she is so liberal and free spending as to be downright scary, maybe even evil. In a typical Nancy-is-evil ad, then-Missouri Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton was shown grinning at Pelosi as a gray sky loomed above their heads and a narrator warned of “his support of Nancy Pelosi’s extreeeme agenda.”

In a long-shot bid to challenge Pelosi’s very safe San Francisco congressional seat, Republican John Dennis took the witch caricature literally, bringing in an actress to portray Pelosi complete with a black hat, a broom, and flying monkeys wearing “I.R.S.” sandwich signs. “Here are my monkeys to make you pay!” the witch shouts at taxpayer Dorothy, until Dennis shows up and throws a bucket of water on her. (Pelosi has been lampooned in this way at least as far back as 2006, when Roll Call’s Mort Kondracke dubbed the incoming speaker “The Wicked Witch of the West” for her arm-twisting tactics.)

An ad in a 2010 Pennsylvania congressional race offered a variation on the theme, portraying Pelosi in animated form as a 50-foot goliath “gorged on our taxpayer dollars,” rising up through the roof of a building and then stomping through streets like Godzilla. More than with any other female politician in recent memory, Pelosi has been grossly caricatured in attack ads.

Frivolous
Negative ads suggesting that female candidates are vacuous and vain occasionally crop up, though they’re dangerous, tending as they do to provoke a backlash against the attacker. In 2008, some women were incensed by a Barack Obama ad called “His Choice.” The ad quotes John McCain discussing how he’ll need to rely on his vice-presidential selection for economic expertise, and then cuts to a video of Sarah Palin winking at the camera. The wink serves as an indictment, playing off Palin’s reputation for good looks and bombast.

In 2000, during a Democratic congressional primary in New Jersey, a female candidate named Maryanne Connelly was portrayed in a radio ad as a contestant on a game show. Asked a policy question, the voice playing Connelly replied, “Ooh, that’s hard.” ‘Nuff said. And in the ad below, from a 2010 state Senate race in North Carolina, Republican Wesley Meredith’s campaign hired an actress to play his opponent, Democratic incumbent Margaret Dickson. Dickson’s lookalike is shown putting on mascara and lipstick and doing her hair, while a voiceover accusers Dickson of insider trading. “Who does she really care about?” the voice asks. “Is it you, or is it just a charade?” Dickson said the ad made her look like a prostitute. She lost the race.

Deviant
Both male and female candidates can be painted as corrupt, amoral, or degenerate. But, as Democratic strategist Celinda Lake has noted, voters impose a greater penalty on women’s misbehavior, which is probably why ads that accuse female candidates of having no moral center can pack an extra wallop. A recent example of this kind of ad was Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s 2008 accusation that her challenger Kay Hagan had attended a “secret fundraiser” hosted by the founder of a PAC called the Godless Americans. She “took Godless money,” the ad said. The ad actually prompted an anti-Dole backlash in a tight race, however, and Hagan won.

During the 2010 gubernatorial race in South Carolina, now-Gov. Nikki Haley withstood rumors of infidelity and was called a “raghead” by a state lawmaker for her Sikh background. The negative ads against her took a slightly more subtle tack, implying that the Republican candidate was unknown and vaguely nefarious. She “isn’t who she says she is,” one ad suggested. “There’s so much we don’t know about her,” said another. “But we already know we can’t trust her.”

An ad attacking Democrat Ann Richards in 1990 left a lot less to the imagination. During her run for governor, one opponent ran an ad suggesting Richards might be a degenerate drug user. “Did she use marijuana, or something worse, like cocaine?” the ad asked, without offering any proof.

Uppity
During the 2010 midterms, California Sen. Barbara Boxer faced a challenge from Republican Carly Fiorina. While Boxer was busy accusing Fiorina of holding “reckless” and “dangerous” positions and of being Sarah Palin’s handmaiden, Fiorina hit Boxer with ads depicting her as egotistical, bossy, and fond of hearing herself talk. In the ad below, Boxer’s head grows into a massive hot air balloon and floats across the country, all the while talking, talking, talking, telling “us all how to live our lives,” a narrator says. In another ad, Fiorina attacks Boxer for once asking to be called “senator” instead of “ma’am”—playing off the idea, as Jamieson put it to me, that Boxer is “arrogant and doesn’t know her place.”

What??!
In a rare instance of overt sexism, not to mention racism, not to mention insanity, one that will probably never be replicated, a group called Right Turn USA earlier this year launched a bizarre Web ad depicting California Democratic congressional candidate Janice Hahn as a stripper. Nothing is left to the imagination; there’s even a pole and booty shorts. The stripper-as-Hahn shakes her rump as two black men slap her behind and sing, “Give me your cash, bitch.” Ostensibly the ad was an attack on Hahn for having supported, as a Los Angeles councilwoman, efforts to hire “hardcore gang members with taxpayer money to be 'gang intervention specialists.’ ” (Here’s a brilliant rebuttal from the new site FlackCheck.org pointing out the ad’s internal inconsistencies—not that you were likely tempted to take it seriously.) But really, the ad appeared calculated to maximize press coverage through noxiousness. It was successful in that, but in nothing else: Hahn won the election.

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

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