Scholars Continue Gender Dialog at Saturday Seminar

By Taylor Long '13

The Saturday Seminar book discussion is something many Park Scholars say they look forward to each semester. It represents an opportunity for scholars from a variety of majors and ages, with a unique range of interests, to come together and critically discuss topics in the media. The topic of discussion changes each year —and books chosen for the fall and spring semesters speak to this topic. This year gender issues were up for debate.

Scholars began their discussion surrounding gender in the fall with Susan Faludi’s book The Terror Dream, which chronicles the backlash against feminism after 9/11. This past Saturday, the dialog picked up again with Notes from the Cracked Ceiling, by Anne E. Kornblut. The subtext of the book reads “What will it take for a woman to win” and this was the question scholars engaged through a series of independent discussions, documentary screenings, and group activities.

In particular, Kornblut delves into the semantics of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. What might have gone wrong? Could she have done something more to prove herself as worthy of executive office, something more to connect with young, woman voters? What unique challenges did she face as a female candidate? Then the big question — did her campaign fail simply because she was a woman?

To kick off the morning, students broke up into five discussion groups, facilitated by professors and administrators in the Roy H. Park School of Communications, to share their thoughts on the reading. Discussion focused on the way the media latches on to gendered narratives and the danger of denying the role gender plays in our perception of powerful women. Assistant Dean Bryan Roberts, who worked on multiple campaigns as a speech writer before getting a job as assistant dean of the Park School, was able to offer an insider perspective to issues of gender in political campaigns. We found ourselves discussing the relationship between how politicians hope to be portrayed, and how the media ultimately chooses to characterize them.

After a quick lunch, discussion groups reconvened for several video clips, an excerpt from the documentary Iron Ladies of Liberia, and the PBS documentary Women, Power and Politics. The two documentaries took the U.S.-centric questions raised by Kornblut in her book and applied them to the global scale. In Iron Ladies of Liberia, we saw female journalists producing a documentary about the rising female president of Liberia — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — and key female members of her administration. Women, Power and Politics related the success of female leaders abroad to U.S. females in political races and the next generation of female leaders.

Scholars immediately trained their critical eyes on these documentaries, bringing insights from experience as well as coursework. What some saw as flaws in the documentary acted as crucial jumping off points that guided the discussion and group activity that followed.

Breaking up into smaller groups again, scholars were assigned a female politician to research. This allowed us to interpret their political strategies and struggles they faced using gender as a critical lens. For example, groups were encouraged to categorize the campaign strategies based on the patterns of female campaigns Kornblut outlines in her book — was she marketing herself and being marketed as a mother, protector of businesswoman? We also analyzed media coverage of candidates for biases such as over-sexualization and pointed out what Kornblut called the “breast cancer effect” — the increased credibility and likeability of female politicians who battled breast cancer and won.

The day allowed students to debate gender issues in politics and hear many different perspectives on the issue. Above all, it encouraged scholars to debate the topics they will face in the field as media professionals.


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