Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, just won a second term by a landslide. Yet her victory is qualified in the press first and foremost by the degree of acceptance around the world, by others’ perception of her emotional countenance and by her personal “feminine” qualifications.
Benevolently sexist journalism
In their article in the October 18, 2020 The Washington Post, Emanuel Stoakes and Miriam Berger qualify this exceptional woman leader not for her presence, her strong personality, her knowingness, and her policies, but rather for her rising stardom on the world stage, her “beaming” smile and her (obviously feminine) kindness and compassion. This kind of coverage on the success of a woman politician and leader of a nation is an example of benevolent sexism undergirded by gender stereotypes that preserve inequality in power structures.
Linking a landslide win with her image boost from rising stardom perpetuates the idea that what matters most in a woman leader is her ability to be and stay in the spotlight, rather than her ability to govern at the helm of a country, with strength, intellect, firmness, vision, perseverance.
A “beaming” smile hinges on male-dominated power dynamics (when has a man politician or leader been qualified for a beaming or any other qualified smile?) is a subtle way of paternalistically demoting a woman’s qualifications by presupposing her the “sunnier” and socially weaker sex who only shines when she smiles. The focus on Ardern’s smile, after establishing her acceptance through stardom, denotes the age-old trope that women who smile are less scary and more acceptable.
Continuously putting kindness and compassion front and center of a woman’s way of leading but divorcing these much-needed leadership qualities from Ardern’s policies or the challenges her nation faces reveals ingrained gender-based stereotypes. It is an indirect way for journalists to frame a woman politician’s success within the limits of her paternalistically expected feminine social role of caring for others.
While it is wonderful to see women leaders like Ardern being praised so widely, how that praise is expressed in many mainstream press articles emphasizes the stereotypical characteristics still expected of women leaders and politicians: Smile! But don’t agitate men’s amour propre with excessive expressions of joy, exuberance, or – men forbid! - toughness. Gendered reinforcement of expected leadership qualities and performance is what helps put destructively aggressive and narcissistic male leaders, like Donald Trump, in power.
How to write with equality
Journalists, both male and female, need to start practicing equality by using reversibility: don’t qualify her unless you would qualify him. Don’t get tangled up in notions of women’s leadership success qualified by a smile or the tyranny of nice. Don’t groom a woman’s self with the sexist paramount goal of describing how appealing she is to everybody while offending no one. Both women and men leaders should be expected to ameliorate the social and political environment and transform their surroundings for the better through kindness and compassion.
A woman can be a successful leader without behaving like a stone-cold bitch, or overflowing from a wellspring of emotion, or expressing cheerful docility. As Rachel Vorona Cote writes in her recently published book Too Much. How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today (2020), American culture, for all its staggering progress towards gender equality still possesses a meager threshold of discomfort when faced with examples of nonnormative difference with white heteronormative ideology. The Rambo-like masculine experience of forceful power and virile control is no longer universal, and women leaders are not Alices in Wonderland!
Praise to mould-breaking women
The confident and self-assured success of women leaders, like Jacinda Ardern, is predicated on their ability to break the macho mould through a more representative and humane style of governing. This inherently involves compromise and collaboration rather than aggression, domination and gaslighting.
Ardern has greatly contributed to reinventing political leadership so it’s inclusive and responsive. And that’s why she won in a landslide. Her victory is a clear result of her competent, integrative, other-centered, future-looking policies and stewardship. She is neither too much nor too little. She is just the right leader.