Body politics: Media, gender and leadership in Australia, Canada and New Zealand

Are women prime ministers stalked by “lipstick watch” - persistent media interest in their hair, clothing, personal grooming practices and sexual allure? If so, what does it mean? How are their bodies politicized through news coverage and what do these media representations reveal about understandings of political leadership?

Speaker's abstract: Bodies matter in politics. In an increasingly mediated, personalized, celebrity-focused and intimized public sphere, the elite politician’s body is a subject of political discourse. Political leaders are expected to personify their parties and their nations, and their bodies are profiled and appraised for symbolic resonances with the myths, dreams and values of the public. Since the body is the site on which gender is inscribed and gendered identities constructed, media representations of women prime ministers’ bodies offer insights into the ways in which political leadership is comprehended as gendered performance. By examining news coverage of the women who served as prime minister of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as well as the men they competed against in national elections, I answer the following questions about the relationship between mediated representations of the body and understandings of political leadership. Are women’s bodies more likely than men’s to be noticed and scrutinized by the press? How are features of the body such as its size, comportment, adornment, physical attractiveness and sexual allure used as metaphors for political authority and authenticity? Are representations of women’s bodies invariably trivializing and de-legitimizing while men’s bodies are read as personifying political leadership?

Linda Trimble is a Professor in, and former Chair of, the Political Science Department at the University of Alberta, Canada, where she teaches courses on Canadian politics, media politics and research methods. An expert on women’s legislative representation, Dr. Trimble’s work on media, gender and politics has appeared in The Canadian Journal of Political Science, Feminist Media Studies, The International Journal of Press/Politics, and Journalism Practice. This public lecture is drawn from a book she is writing about news coverage of women prime ministers in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, called Ms. Prime Minister: Media, Gender and Leadership.

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