07 Jun 2019

Sexist representation in French media persists

Capable female politicians are breaking through the glass ceiling and proving their ability in the public sphere. Yet in France, media tends to focus on the "female", ignoring the "capable politician" aspect entirely.

Sara Saidi
Sara Saidi NewsMavens, France
Sexist representation in French media persists - NewsMavens
Marine LePen, Marlène Schiappa, Arlette Laguiller Wikimedia Commons

When the French media uses adjectives that categorize female politicians according to their “femininity” or “lack of femininity” they also perpetuate the idea that women, even political ones, are above all simply “women”.

Say their names -- Anne Hidalgo, Najat Vallaud Belkacem, Marlène Shiappa… 

Women are slowly gaining ground in French politics. Indeed, nowadays, women comprise 32% of the French Senate and 38.7% of the National Parliament -- an increase from only 26.9% women in 2012. But these percentages hide a more complicated reality, for while they may be fighting for women’s rights and taking aim at the glass ceiling, they are also squaring off against a deeply patriarchal system that cannot quite rationalize their presence in the hallways of power. In fact, because of their commitment to the public sphere, female politicians are considered “different” from other women. 

According to research quoted in a 2015 European Council Report (Global media monitoring project): “Political women are often represented as extraordinary people capable of spectacular thinking.” This perception can give the idea that they are not “normal” in comparison with other women. Furthermore, because they are “women” they also continue to endure sexist remarks and reactions from the media, social media and their male colleagues. 

The case of Denis Baupin, an ecologist, who was accused of sexual assault and harassment by eight women, including four female politicians, in 2016 is one example. Last October, seven female politicians signed a public letter to denounce sexism, and misogyny in politics. They denounced for instance the case of a male politician who called one of them “hysterical”. They also protested against the media’s use of “wife of” in stories about women serving in official capacities. From their perspective, all these remarks are being made to de-legitimize them.

The way media talks about women affects how people think about women

By upholding sexist stereotypes when covering female politicians, the media influence the voters’ opinions of their capability. Media is the mediator between citizens and politicians, therefore, the presentation of women in media, either in newspapers, TV or radios -- can change public perceptions and influence political choices.

First of all, female politicians are less present in media than their male colleagues. A study from the Superior Council of the Audiovisual (CSA) in 2017 affirms only 30% of experts appearing in media (TV) are women and only 32% of politicians invited to speak on TV programs are women. Since February 4, 2015, the CSA Superior Council of the Audiovisual has been charged to check the equality of representation between men and women on different programs and to fight against stereotypes, sexism and violence against women.

But even if women appear on TV programs, they won’t be asked to speak about the same topics as their male colleagues. According to a report from the European Council (Global Media Monitoring Project of 2015) the five topics that are the subject of serious discussion in Europe are government, accidents, sports, economic and criminal questions. But results show that women are not being asked to discuss serious political issues. This means that in the minds of voters, these “serious” topics will always be associated with men. 

According to Sylvie-Pierre Brosselette, a former member of the CSA : “it is important to change the situation and show that women are able to legitimately speak about all topics and not only education or health.” 

Specialist in gender and political communication Karen Ross also explains that when women are interviewed, they are presented according to stereotypes which have nothing to do with their role and/or position. In 2003, Cecile Sourd, wrote an essay on “symbolic exclusion of political women in the french media”. She compared the way political men and women are described and their presence in different media during the presidential elections of 2002.

Forget her political views, how does she look?

The case of Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right National Rally party is quite interesting. When describing her, journalists focus mostly on her masculinity. Cecile Sourd also notes that the semantic terminology used to describe Marine Le Pen is often associated with seduction “In this way we read in an article on June 10, 2002 in Marianne that Marine le Pen ‘flirts with a metallurgist’, ‘attracts the client’ or ‘simpers’”.

Another case is Arlette Laguiller, the first women to present herself as a presidential candidate in 1974. According to Céline Sourd, she is also considered a seductress in Le Nouvel Observateur April 3, 2002, “she warbles almost without cheating” (elle roucoulait déjà sans tricher tout à fait) or “in each of her meetings she criticizes the communists and at the same time, tempts them, kind, sadistic, skillful” (a chacun de ses meetings elle tance les communistes et les tent à la fois, gentille sadique, habile)

More recently, Benoît Rayski, a journalist from Atlantico, in a subtitle to an article on Marlène Schiappa referred to her as the “queen of bitches” referring to the erotic books written by the Secretary of Equality between women and men. He later apologized.

In conjunction with this semantic focus seduction, women’s clothing choices are often commented upon by the media. As Céline Sourd explains, one of Marine Le Pen’s outfits described by Le point - (24/02/02) as: “a black pantsuit lengthen her shape” (Un tailleur-pantalon noir lui allonge la silhouette) -- is a judgement, as the article later addresses her shape: “this cherished father from whom she inherited his massive shape” (ce père adoré dont elle a hérité la silhouette massive ).  According to Céline Sourd in the media's eyes “Marine Le Pen does not seem to have a typically feminine body”.

In the same way, when a journalist writes about someone’s “clinging skirt and high heels” (Jupe moulante sur talons hauts) it carries connotations of seduction, and, according to Celine Sourd, implies that women can convince more through their physical appearance than their ideas. 

Cecile Sourd also notices that references to women's body are more common in media coverage of for women than for men.

In general, female politicians are almost always described by adjectives that reduce them to a “good student”, “mother” or “wife”. The media more often speak about female politicians’ style, hair cut or behavior rather than about the political issues they are working on.

Again this is the case of Marine le Pen: The “Blond child of Saint Cloud” (Marianne, June 10/16, 2002, Blonde enfant de Saint-Cloud) and also of Marlène Schiappa, Secretary of Equality between women and men, who stated that when she wants to be heard,  she ties her hair up. She also affirms that every morning she sorts through the articles about her and divides them into two piles. Those focusing on her physical appearance and those dealing with her activities. The results? The first pile of newspapers is always larger than the second.

This is not uncommon, for example, in an article of La Dépêche about former deputy Nathalie Kociusko Morizet we can also read about the way she dresses: “sneakers and navy blue cropped trousers , orange t-shirt orange her phone always in hand.“ 

Aurore Bergé, 31 years old and a deputy “En marche”, was invited onto a TV program last February and was insulted in the social media because she wore a short dress. This lead to a debate about how women should dress for a TV program. During one of these debates, on another TV program, Aurore Bergé claimed the right to choose her outfit. 

But France-info journalist Jean-Michel Apathie did not agree: “the way women and men dress can sabotage the speech they want to give. Maybe your outfit was not appropriate for a political public speaking (..) you wouldn’t dress like this in the National Parliament, which proves that we cannot wear whatever we want”, he claimed. 

Keeping on with women’s outfits, we can also find articles on the bras and lipstick of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the former minister of National Education, Higher Education and Research. It also happened to Sibeth Ndiaye, a government Spokesperson because of her hair. Also Purepeople considered, in Mai 2017, that she should wear high heels in this type of position.

In her book, “Gender, Politics, News: A Game of Three Sides”, Karen Ross says “The ways in which the media undermine women are both subtle and overt. They include an over-emphasis on personal attributes and characteristics to the detriment of covering her policy position -- here’s the woman, not the politician (…) as if her gender is the most (and perhaps only) interesting thing about her.”

She's a heck of a mother

Celine Sourd also notices how the media puts women in their traditional roles as wife or mother. This is the case of Marine Le Pen in Le Point 24/05/2002): the journalist speaks about Eric Loriot her “‘partner of todays'" (compagnon d’aujourd’hui) -- which means she is divorced and can change her partner and affirms that Eric Loriot chaperones her”: This implies a male influence and affirms the idea that women need male support.

Irene Tharin was a deputy in Doubs. On June 14, 2002  Le Point wrote: “before being a political woman, Irene Tharin is a mother of 6 children” for Celine Sourd the description sounds like being a mother is more important than her political commitment.

Dominique Voyet, former minister said she was described as distant and despicable, because of her behaviour. “If I was a man, this behavior would be qualified as rigorous instead of distant and despicable”, she says ruefully.

Arlette Laguiller is described as a woman lacking in femininity. Furthermore, journalists often present her as single without kids but seem to look for an excuse to mention this unsual fact. In this way, Arlette Laguiller is described as a kind of “saint who sacrificed herself for the people”. 

Another practice is to call a woman only by her first name and men by name and last name. That occurred in 2017 to Delphine Gény-Stéphann. She was to become the secretary of state to Bruno Le Maire. The minister of the economy and finance called her only “Delphine” while he called her predecessor by his full name “Benjamin Griveaux”. For Marlène Coulomb-Gully, a research specialist in political communication, “women are more easily called by their first name, just as in the private and domestic sphere.”

Are women really good at this kind of job?

Often, in media, radio commentators use sexists jokes and speak about women using adjectives such as emotional, delicate, or hysterical. According to a report on the use of sexism in funny sequences of french media, published last January by the high council for equality between women and men, 71% of the sequences used sexism to make humor.

There is also a tendency to weaken women. One journalist said that female politician Cecile Duflot “whimpers”. Unconsciously, this can make audiences think women are not capable of political responsibilities. Worse, in Libération, we can read in 2007 about Ségolène Royal, candidate to the presidential elections: “There is of course the question nobody dare to ask. If Ségolène Royal do not charm, can we hear it is because she is not made for the presidency”. She has also been compared to a bird “becassine” by journalist Dominique Hombres in Le Monde. Becassine is usually used to describe someone as stupid.

Furthermore with Ségolène Royal -- the ex-wife of former president François Hollande -- we can see an allusion to jealousy or competition between her and the new wife -- Valerie Trierweiler. We can read in Elle the title : “First lady vs. First woman”.

It doesn't have to be this way

According to Segolène Hanotaux a member of collective feminist “Prenons la Une!”, the first step is to make people conscious of the situation. She explains the importance of women experts in media to allow young girls to have female role models. “Media should be reflection of the society”. Education in school and at home can also make a difference. The collective “Prenons la Une!” also want these issues to be integrated into the curriculum of journalism programs.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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