- Ms. Prime Minister: Gender, Media, and Leadership by Linda Trimble
This volume probes media coverage of four female political executives who governed similar Westminster parliamentary systems since the 1990s: Kim Campbell in Canada, Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark in New Zealand, and Julia Gillard in Australia. The book offers detailed evidence (both qualitative and quantitative) of how traditional gender binaries characterized newspaper and television accounts of these leaders as well as the men against whom they competed for power. Typically, journalists used descriptive comments and metaphors that presented men as strong, capable decision-makers and women as weak, ill-equipped candidates for public leadership.
How did news reports and opinion columns convey these impressions? Linda Trimble analyses more than 2,500 media stories to show how journalists emphasized the speech, appearance, and family status of female decision-makers – often in ways that portrayed them as deviating from male norms and, hence, as defective and deficient political actors. For example, Canada's only female prime minister was frequently described as an unfiltered, strident speaker. This treatment contrasted with more rare and more positive commentary about the expressive style of Jean Chrétien. Similarly, the stress placed on Campbell's height and two divorces helped to promote a view that she lacked the requisite physical stature and emotional stability to lead.
This volume stands out for employing a wealth of data drawn from three highly comparable political systems and for a thematic focus on how journalists can sometimes disrupt stereotypical narratives. Among the most significant contributions of the study is its careful documentation of when biased reporting is most prevalent – namely, at the points in women's careers where they have ascended to party leadership and departed from public office. Trimble cites not just Canadian commentators who questioned why Campbell was being judged by a different set of measures than male leaders but also New Zealand reporters who concluded that Clark's approach to governing was firm and decisive. The book suggests that each of these challenging tropes helped to normalize the presence of women in top public office: the first because it drew attention to the need for balanced media coverage and the second because it presented female executives as legitimate political agents who could effectively wield the levers of power.
Ms. Prime Minister is less hopeful when it comes to the ability of leaders to unsettle the status quo. The concluding chapter presents a series of tips for political practice, one of which says: "[I]t is unwise for women political leaders to highlight the sexist, biased, and hateful treatment directed at them." Citing the treatment of Gillard following her 2012 speech to Parliament that alleged misogyny in Australian politics, Trimble argues that the prime minister was severely chastised for calling into question the egalitarianism of her country and widely portrayed as a whining, desperate politician. An alternative reading might consider Gillard's strategy as a risky, but courageous, response to [End Page 209] the silencing of women's public voices and as a welcome rejection of expectations that female politicians will remain polite and deferential in the face of discriminatory practices. While the speech may not have saved her career, Gillard was perhaps pursuing other objectives.
This book shows clearly that gender is a dominant theme of political news. In so doing, it opens the crucial question of consequences for citizens, journalists, and leaders. To what extent are voters swayed by distorted narratives? How might reporters be held to account for the biased perspectives contained in their stories? Under what circumstances can the unwillingness of women leaders to be marginalized and demeaned turn the tables on prevailing patterns? In short, Ms. Prime Minister offers a valuable foundation for future enquiry.
Department of Political Science, University of Toronto