Marketing the female politician: an exploration of gender, appearance, and power

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Minita Sanghvi (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Nancy Hodges

Abstract: Since the founding of the United States of America, there have been just 34 female governors and, as of yet, no female president or vice president (CAWP, 2014). Today, women comprise just 18.3% of the Congress and only 5 of the 50 governors are female (CAWP, 2014). This disparity may be the result of the perception that electing individuals to positions of power that impact millions of people is still predominantly a male bastion (Watson, 2006). Female politicians who seek election to public office often face biased media coverage and receive greater attention to their physical appearance, including clothing, hair, and shoes, than they do for more substantive issues (Baxter & Lansing, 1980; Carroll, 1985; Falk, 2010; Siegel, 2009; Watson, 2006). While previous studies have analyzed the increased scrutiny female politicians face with respect to appearance (Carlin & Winfrey, 2010; Falk, 2010) none have addressed the underlying reasons for it. This study fills that gap in the literature. The purpose of this dissertation is to understand the lived experience of the female politician from a phenomenological perspective. Thus the guiding question of the research is: What is it like to be a female politician? Two objectives were developed to address the research question: (a) to explore the role of appearance management in the marketing of the female politician; and (b) to investigate how issues of gender and power shape others' interpretations of the female politician. This study integrates literature on dress and appearance management with that of political marketing and women's studies to address the topic, and considers the gender hierarchies and power dynamics that surface using Freud's psychoanalytical theories from a feminist perspective. Three methods of data collection were employed, including in-depth interviews, focus groups, and secondary supplemental data analysis. A concentric circle approach based on Strauss and Corbin's (1994) conditional matrix allowed for creation of a holistic participant sample. Four female politicians, including a governor, a senator, a state senator and a mayor, encompassing executive, legislative, state and local offices were interviewed. In addition, 17 staff, aides, political consultants, volunteers, media and PAC members were interviewed. Last, two focus groups were conducted with a total of 12 voters. Data were analyzed for similarities and differences based on the various perspectives of the participants' experiences, which were then used to structure three layers of thematic interpretation: (1) Understanding the Lived Experience of the Female Politician, (2) Marketing the Female Politician, and (3) Voting for the Female Politician. Utilizing the theories of Freud, this dissertation is the first to attempt to explain the impact of modern day manifestations of power and gender dynamics within the lived experience of female politicians. Findings reveal the struggles specific to female politicians, such as impossible appearance standards, issues of self-doubt, trouble building credibility and dealing with the old boys' network, as well as subtle forms of discrimination, such as lack of access to critical resources. This interdisciplinary study reveals how appearance is used as a code to indicate deeply-held, unconscious biases that facilitate the ongoing objectification of female politicians, and points to the pressing need for further research on the topic of appearance and political marketing.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2014
Appearance, Freud, Marketing, Politicians, Power, Women
Women politicians $z United States
Women $x Political activity $z United States
Beauty, Personal $x Political aspects $z United States
Feminist theory $x Political aspects $z United States
Marketing $x Political aspects $z United States

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