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  • "Madonnas," "Assassins," and "Girls":How Female Politicians Respond to Media Labels Reflecting Party Leader Strategy
  • Alisa Gaunder (bio)

In Japan, when women have entered elections in large numbers, the tendency has been to label them. For example, in 1987, as the Japanese Socialist Party (JSP) began supporting women activists, wives of labor union leaders, and daughters of former assembly members for office in the local unified election, it was labeled the "Madonna Strategy" (sakusen). Then when Doi Takako, the first female party head, led ten Socialist women candidates to victory in the 1989 Upper House election, it was dubbed the "Madonna Boom" (būmu). As we shall see, Madonna is most commonly interpreted as meaning "maternal," while "boom" indicates a temporary fad that bursts onto the scene. Similarly, in 2005, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Prime Minister Koizumi Junichirō (2001-2006) hand-picked several glamorous, successful career women to act as so-called "assassins" (shikaku) in districts where "postal rebels" were running.1 These women were not the only "assassins," but they received a large amount of media attention. "Assassin" indicates a sneak attack reflecting Koizumi's electoral strategy. Finally, in the 2009 Lower House election, the twenty-six first-term Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) women politicians were called Ozawa's "girls" (gāruzu) referencing the President of the DPJ who supported their nomination. The label "girls" clearly casts these female candidates as dependent, if not subservient. [End Page 23]

These labels raise several questions: Why have these images of women politicians emerged? How have women responded to these labels? And, how have the labels changed over time? This article explores the extent to which culture, the media, political parties, and politicians influence the image of women politicians. It argues that both gender and the female politicians' role as symbols of change shape the labeling. The labels emphasize women's outsider status in the political realm and often serve to limit the complexity of these women politicians. This oversimplification makes their appearance in the political realm more contained and familiar.2 The media create the labels, but the labels reflect how both the media and party leaders are using the women for their own purposes (e.g., selling newspapers and winning elections). In response, some female politicians reclaim the labels in subversive ways by attempting to change the narrative, while others respond to labels in conformist ways by embracing gender stereotypes. Indeed, one of the main goals of this article is to explore how female politicians react to being labeled in ways that cast them as outsiders or dependent on party leaders for their success.

Case Selection

Throughout the postwar period, women who have entered the political realm have been characterized as aberrations from the norm, as well as dependent and even less competent. Most commonly, these political women have been wives or daughters of politicians, television celebrities, or Olympic athletes. These categories often limited their ability to define themselves as politicians, especially at the national level.3 Indeed, women have had more success at the local level where they have been able to establish a relevance of politics to their more accepted role as housewives, supporting policies related to the environment, consumer protection, and education (LeBlanc 1999).

This article explores how women were characterized in the 1989 Upper House election, the 2005 Lower House election, and the 2009 Lower House election. These elections were significant because they represented three of the largest increases in female representation in the postwar period. These women faced many of the gender stereotypes that have plagued women throughout the postwar period. The difference with these elections was that, because these women entered as a large bloc, they were given the most distinctive labels: "Madonnas," "assassins," and "girls." The large number of women nominated, the heightened media attention, and their initial success distinguish these elections. Despite these similarities, key differences existed in the types of images presented and the parties backing the women. The Madonnas were supported by the largest party on the left at the time, the JSP. These women were presented as a bloc and had the image of ordinary women. In contrast, the conservative and dominant LDP backed the female assassins in...


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