The Media’s Michele Bachmann Obsession: Tough Reporting or Sexism?

Coverage of the right-wing female firebrand’s presidential campaign is stirring up memories of Sarah Palin’s tense relationship with the press in 2008

The last time a good-looking, hard right-wing female politician caught the media’s fancy, the frenzied coverage sent charges of sexism bubbling to the surface.  

Now it’s Michele Bachmann’s turn.

With a controversial Newsweek cover, some pesky questions from the press about who wears the pants in her own family, and her Iowa straw poll win last week, Bachmann has become a Mama Grizzly-sized target.

As with Sarah Palin, the media keeps the focus as frequently on Bachmann’s verbal gaffes as on her political positions.

“It does seem that female politicians get  caricatured more harshly than men. They seem to get caricatured more quickly,” Jessica Wakeman, a writer for the women's pop culture blog The Frisky, told TheWrap. 

Also read: Newsweek's Michele Bachmann Cover Unlikely to Give Mag What It Needs Most

Bachman’s perky looks and anti-establishment views were on display in last week’s hotly debated Newsweek cover story, which plastered a shot of the loony-eyed congresswoman alongside the headline “The Queen of Rage.” 

Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin took the magazine to task, saying Newsweek  “… resorted to recycling bottom-of-the-barrel moonbat photo cliches about conservative female public figures and their enraged ‘crazy eyes.'"

And in this case, even Jon Stewart thought it was over the line (video below):

During last Thursday’s Republican presidential debate, Bachmann was asked to explain an earlier remark that implied wives should be submissive to their husbands. Some of her supporters fumed that Bachmann had to field such a question about her marriage; the debate audience gasped at the query. 

Other political watchers felt that particular line of inquiry was fair game. 

“In some ways calling the coverage sexist is almost sexist,” Joan Walsh, editor at large for Salon, told TheWrap. “To not cover her gaffes seems almost protective of her and sexist in a way.” 

Gaffes are one thing, but as the Telegraph's decision to feature a picture of Bachmann chowing down on a footlong corndog at an Iowa fair demonstrates, the media is not above highlighting the God-fearing politician with a rather phallic-looking snack in her mouth.

On Tuesday, pictures emerged of rival GOP candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, conspicuously munching on a similarly prodigious corndog. Whether those photos will rise to the same level of scrutiny as those of Bachmann remains to be seen. 

Not that Bachmann has exactly discouraged the gender double standard. The press may scrutinize her outfits, just as they do the getups worn by Hillary Clinton and Palin. But as a recent New Yorker profile of the politician documents, Bachmann is singularly obsessed with appearances, refusing to be photographed in informal clothes. 

“The glamour-puss element to their candidacy is partly imposed, but partly encouraged by them as well,” Bruce Cain, professor of political science at UC Berkeley, told TheWrap. “Once the media senses a person is more a glamour-puss than a substance person, they will press you with the kind of factual questions they might not push on other candidates.” 

There’s also no denying that Bachmann is a problematic figure for feminists who might be compelled to rise to her defense. 

Bachmann’s stances on the debt ceiling or the Iraq War fail to generate the same attention as the time she confused John Wayne’s Iowa hometown with that of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, or when she wished Elvis Presley a happy birthday on the anniversary of his death. 

She's certainly not the first female politician to face scrutiny that seems inappropriately harsh — Hillary Clinton is often indelicately labeled a shrew for the slightest display of assertiveness.

But it's Bachmann's very intelligence that always seems up for debate.

And willingly or not, she seems to invite comparisons with Sarah Palin.

“She does fill the Palin niche,” Cain said. “They’re both media-genic. They have the capacity to say in snappy sentences things that are often controversial, and they can state their policy ideas in snarky one liners. That’s important, because much of modern campaigning is by electronic media and social media, so they come across well on TV, radio, tweets and YouTube.” 

Taking a page from the former Alaska governor, Bachmann has also demonstrated a tenuous relationship with facts and a creative interpretation of American history, such as her much derided claims that the Founding Fathers worked “tirelessly to end slavery."

Like Palin, she has also engaged in a love-hate relationship with the press corp. She craves its attention, but refuses to answer questions about her more controversial beliefs on homosexuality and Dominionism, a view among conservative Christians that they should take control of secular institutions. 

To Walsh’s way of thinking, the marriage questions and the photo shoots are less offensive than the constant comparisons with Palin.
“They always say she’s the smart Sarah Palin; she’s never the pragmatic Ron Paul or the Christian right Ron Paul,” Walsh said. “She and Rick Perry have a lot in common, so why is she not compared to Rick Perry? Women have to go in the women candidate silo.”

It’s also left Palin in the unusual position of ceding the klieg lights to Bachmann, putting her own presidential ambitions, if indeed she has any, in jeopardy.

That Palin has been eclipsed by Bachmann can also be chalked up to a series of political miscues ranging from her ill-considered “blood libel” comments following the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to a bus tour of historical sites that produced only one highlight reel worthy moment, a rambling re-imagining of Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride

The consensus is Bachmann’s Tea Party views and penchant for putting her foot in her mouth will prevent her from ever winning the Republican nomination, but her technicolor conservatism has helped her stand out in a field of staid men in gray flannel suits.

At least, that was the case, until the cowboy boot-wearing Rick Perry dropped his figurative 10-gallon hat in the ring last week. 

Just as Bachmann’s entry into the race pushed Palin out of the limelight, Perry’s White House run threatens to leave the current Tea Party standard bearer in the dust. 

“Rick Perry changed her coverage. She was on the verge of being taken seriously as a candidate, and his announcement very effectively stepped on her Iowa victory,” Raphael Sonenshein, professor of Political Science at California State University, Fullerton, told TheWrap. “Her strategy is to survive and hope he self-destructs. Everyone wants to write about Perry now.” 

If that’s the case, than Bachmann may be about as relevant as Christine O’Donnell — another Republican political figure who stopped generating headlines, sexist or otherwise, the moment she lost her race.