‘To render a portrayal of any woman as a pair of legs is gender stereotyping in its purest form…’
By SUSAN FRANK and KEVIN HALL
The 2016 presidential campaign season is upon us all too soon, and editorial cartoonists across the nation are busily drawing caricatures of candidates. Designed to be instantly recognizable to the reader, these renditions usually emphasize a person’s distinguishing physical features, such as ears, hairstyle, or nose.To render a portrayal of any woman as a pair of legs is gender stereotyping in its purest form, and it follows a centuries-old pattern of repression of women that seeks to relegate their position to one of inferiority to men in which their primary role is to bear children.
It came as a great disappointment to see Senator Hillary Clinton reduced to a headless pair of crossed legs and a campaign button in a recent Sacramento Bee political cartoon from Editorial Board member Jack Ohman (May 1, 2015, “Sen. Sanders ponders”). This approach to drawing one of the most accomplished and inspiring female politicians of our time left us dumbstruck. We saw it as a gratuitously insulting, sexist depiction.
We are willing to take Mr. Ohman at his word that he did not intend it to be sexist, and we also are willing to believe, as he stated in a recent radio interview, that he has the full backing of his editors and publisher.
It’s still sexist. To render a portrayal of any woman as a pair of legs is gender stereotyping in its purest form, and it follows a centuries-old pattern of repression of women that seeks to relegate their position to one of inferiority to men in which their primary role is to bear children. All too often this treatment is applied to women who seek higher office. Ohman goes so far in his drawing as to give the reader a view up and under Sen. Clinton’s skirt. Ironically, if she is known for any particular distinguishing characteristic, it’s that she wears pantsuits exclusively.
Former Sierra Club director Carl Pope once observed that racism is like a virus: One can have it and not know it. The same holds true for sexism. We can unconsciously commit acts of racism or sexism despite our best intentions. The real challenge arises when someone confronts us on this behavior. Can we drop our defenses and fully consider the reaction we’ve triggered?
Mr. Ohman has accused his critics of seeking to defame him. That is not our intent, and by “our” we refer to the more than 325 people, including many prominent women’s rights advocates, who have signed a petition calling on the Bee to apologize for the cartoon.
We fully recognize and support everyone’s right to free speech and the vital importance of our free press. We also acknowledge this is a sensitive time for editorial cartoonists in light of recent events in Texas and France. We are not seeking to silence Mr. Ohman.
However, we do insist the Bee hold itself to a higher standard than less scrupulous publications. An apology to its readers would be appropriate, particularly if accompanied by a commitment to more carefully reviewing its portrayal of women – especially women in positions of power in all fields – in future cartoons, editorials and articles.
As the campaign season gets underway, it is important the Bee set the right tone for the sake of all candidates – they deserve fair, unbiased coverage.