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The Politics of Mediated Gender: Women Politicians in the Bulgarian Press

1. Introduction

Almost twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is not too far-fetched to argue that Eastern European women have carried the burden of the post-communist transition. The transformative paradigm shift caused by the collapse of communism left the political and social positions of women in shambles. And while the Soviet system undoubtedly offered a number of state-protected privileges to women, unparalleled in the Western world, those privileges where often ideologically masked to represent a closely-controlled and fabricated sense of emancipation. This was meant to restrict the role of women in society to those directly benefiting the state-namely, the production of goods and the reproduction of population growth. As Azhgikhina (1995: 3) aptly pointed out, ‘in effect, the declaration of emancipation condemned women to a double burden – the new power demanded that she should take an active part in developing industry, and at the same time, the national mentality insisted that she fulfill all the traditional women’s duties in the home’.

Nevertheless, women’s participation in Soviet social and political life was strongly publicized and used as a propaganda tool, particularly so, in the channels of mass communication. In fact, the gender equality debate found itself at the helm of the communist propaganda machine, pedaling ideologically motivated images and portrayals of the communist woman as the ultimate benefactor of the revolution. As Kotzeva contended (1999), the press maintained the representation of the communist woman as an epitome of successful emancipation, articulating the idea that women had mastered control over the ‘parasite’ needs of leisure and aesthetics and over, the decadent trend of self-indulgence through fashion and beauty, and instead, has focused narrowly (and appropriately) on functional, productive-driven activities. Azhgikhina (1995: 4) argued that Soviet culture, ‘generously subsidized by the state, became a sort of ‘dream factory,’ while the press, and the media in general, were a ‘bazaar of dreams’, ‘tirelessly drumming new myths and images in public consciousness, creating another reality, which many Soviet people perceived as more real than reality itself’.

2. Constructing mediated women

These ideological constructions of womanhood were further solidified by the constant barrage of representations of mythical heroines next to real women-tractor-drivers, pilots, mechanics, and political functionaries, thus, building a very strong, and fairly stereotypical, public perception of what the woman and more specifically women politicians should look like. As Kotzeva explained (1999: 85), ‘the visual space of the socialist society was inhabited by the new Amazons-they were labeled “doers”, “fighters”, “functionaries”, “laborer”, “activists”, and so on’. More importantly, the socialist gender ideology (while proclaiming the triumph of woman in taming the revolutionary energy), showed that ‘women’s appropriation of a progressive masculine discourse was not to their benefit but rather functioned to curb a “transgressive femininity”,’ (Kotzeva, 1999: 85), leading in turn to a manufactured and controlled idea of femininity that had nothing to do with women’s self-expression and everything to do with the party line on gender equality.

Today, the representation of the communist functionary-female politician is a remnant of a political past relegated to history books. And while female politicians in Eastern Europe have made some significant steps towards challenging existing cultural and politician norms of gender equality, I argue that Eastern European politicians face another obstacle in their strife to assert a leading position in society-a growing and noticeably ubiquitous gender bias in the media. This certainly is not a new trend. Female politicians worldwide have had to face the problem that their media coverage is more negative than that of their male counterparts, that it focuses more on appearances than on issues, reinforces masculine and feminine stereotypes, and constructs a difference between ‘feminine soft’ news and ‘masculine hard’ news (Gidengil & Everitt, 2003; Herzog, 1998; Kahn, 1994a, 1994b, 1996; Ross & Sreberny, 2000; Sreberny & Van Zoonen, 2000). This essay argues that in Eastern Europe, however, these trends have been amplified by a media system in transition, which meanders between sensationalism and the complete rejection of state control over content and distribution, where intellectual journals are now easily found nestled among pornographic magazines and where the cultural norms of patriarchy are making a strong comeback in rethinking gender relations. As Havelkova (1999: 146) pointed out, ‘we must therefore, take into the account the entirely non-standard and unprecedented situation, in which the media have for years been operating in the unbalanced context of hypertrophied interest on the one side, and in almost complete vacuum on the side of the civic sector’. This again points to the uniqueness of the redefinition of gender relations, and their political consequences, in the climate of the post-communist transition.

This topic is important because gender biases disseminated by the media can have electoral consequences-a fact well exemplified by the current political campaign turmoil which has come to define the presidential race in the United States, featuring the first ever female Republican candidate for the vice presidency, Sara Palin, as well as Hillary Clinton’s run for the Democratic Party nomination. At a time when world politics is thoroughly ‘mediatized’ and ‘mediated’, information (and entertainment) received from the media does matter. As Corner (2003: 75) suggested, the media have become the public sphere in which the identity of the politician as a ‘person of qualities’ is constructed. The strength of these media-performative criteria is that they can disqualify certain candidates either from becoming public political figures at all or at least from competing for high office. This is a particularly alarming trend in Eastern Europe where the loss of state protection and welfare privileges, combined with decreasing political representation for women, might lead to a dramatic shift in the social positioning of women in the post-communist transition. Havelkova (1999: 146) contended, ‘the public has also began to regard politics as an area where the whole social transformation is turning out to benefit men rather than women, and it is in fact one of the first areas in which there is a serious public perception of undesirable gender differentiation’. Finally, the degree to which women move forward in securing a notable and active presence on the political scene, will become the litmus test of the success of the post-communist transition.

3. Stereotyping and ideology

Throughout the Soviet period, the representations of women were extremely didactic and had a most important ideological function to perform. At the same time, a look into the popular female images and stereotypes throughout the history of the communist regimes allows us to outline the specific features and paradoxes of that era and to understand one of the most dramatic social and political experiments of this century. As Azhgikhina (1995) argued, its main contradiction – that between image and reality, between declaration and the real state of affairs – can be traced back to the very first decrees of the Soviet government, which included the equality of men and women. In the case of Bulgaria, it must be noted that prior to the arrival of socialist rule in 1944, the emancipation of Bulgarian women received very little attention. Although franchise was extended to women in 1937, the existing women’s organizations focused primarily on cultural activities and charity (Kostova, 1998). Yet, as part of the socialist doctrine of equality, the Bulgarian Assembly passed a special bill in October 1944, officially proclaiming equal opportunities for both sexes. As a result of this new law, women were elected to the National Assembly for the first time in 1945 and women’s opportunities in educational and professional development were substantially expanded (Kostadinova, 2003). Women made a massive entry into some very prestigious professions, that were previously an exclusive masculine sphere, including the realm of politics. The number of women in the labor force reached 48 percent of all employees by 1982. That percentage stayed the same both in 1994 and 1996 (Kostadinova, 2003). Similarly, the political involvement of women peaked during the late 1980s, when women constituted 34 percent of the members of the local government bodies (Kostadinova, 2003). However, while statistical data from the socialist period shows that women were (reasonably proportionally) involved in the leadership of various political organizations, they were nonetheless left with very little opportunity to organize themselves outside the Bulgarian Communist Party or to define their own interests (Kostova, 1998). Even when women were seen occupying important political positions, those were mostly symbolic gestures of inclusion, or as Einhorn (1993) called them, ‘tokenism of the worst kind,’ as the real decision making power was limited to the Politburos of the Communist Party, which were almost exclusively reserved male territory.

At the same time, the press adhered closely to the ideological construction of the ideal woman of communist Bulgaria as a ‘political woman’- an enthusiastic and politically active member of society, whose main goals where always in alignment with these of the Communist Party. This concept was further propagated by the state-sponsored newspapers, who constantly printed articles about young women, embarking on political careers at the local and regional governmental level, while at the same time, attending to their family and social responsibilities. Reports of young women who manage to juggle their personal lives and take on the huge responsibility of representing their constituencies in government abounded in the press, accompanied by photos of them, working in the field, operating complex machineries or tending to the needs of sick children, all while smiling and looking content. A typical ‘political woman’ was devoid of any playfulness or coquetry, let alone sexuality. Azhgikhina (1995: 5) explained that ‘of all feminine manifestations, only motherly love in moderate quantities was tolerated; women actively mastered men’s skills, acquired education and took part in public life,’ dressed in conservative clothes, lacking any fashion sense and appearing utterly asexual.

4. Representing the communist woman and beyond

This stifling ideological control over the public image of the communist woman soon proved to be difficult to maintain, as public discontent with the repressive ideological communist system grew and eventually brought about its colossal demise. In the years immediately following the collapse of communism, a dramatic shift took place, transforming not only the political process for women, but also their very representation in the public sphere. The representation of the fashion model and beauty queen came to reign in the media, immediately and successfully replacing the ‘political’ woman. This change came almost ‘natural’ as a backlash against the socialist aesthetics and the artificial stereotypes of womanhood maintained by the communist party. The consciousness fostered by the totalitarian regime and expressed in the mythical heroine of the past was rejected and replaced with a full display of beauty, sexuality and hyper-femininity. This trend was readily embraced by the mushrooming of independent media outlets, which flagrantly used female representations of liberated, rebellious, and of young women bursting with sexual energy, in order to visually symbolize the rejection of the communist past and its stifling mores. For instance, the main opposition newspaper, Democratsia, used a topless beauty contest to drive a political point. While publishing the first ever photo of a half-naked young woman in a daily newspaper (the winner of the competition), the newspaper also commended the new sense of liberation that was directly expressed by ‘stripping the clothes and the burden of the artificial morals of the communist past’.’

While the grasp over power of the communist party was slowly dissolving, so was the role of Bulgarian women in the political process. In fact, the first democratic, multi-party elections in 1990 registered a drastic drop in women’s parliamentary representation – going from nearly 21 percent to 8.5 percent. In fact, immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the political representation of women dwindled significantly. Kostadinova (2003) explains the trend as a result of changes in the electoral system that favored popular candidates and the highly competitive nature of politics in the first years of the post-communist transition. During the 1991 elections, however, the proportion of women MPs increased to 14.1 percent and fluctuated slightly until 2001, when it jumped to 26 percent. It is important to note, however, that the 2001 elections were not characteristic of Bulgaria’s political dynamics (Ghodsee, 2003). In 2001, the former Bulgarian king in exile, Simeon Saxecoburgotski, returned to Bulgaria, creating his own political party, the National Movement Simeon Second (NDSV), which attracted a huge following among women, young, successful Bulgarian expatriates and influential figures from the world of business and finance. Because Simeon Saxecoburgotski registered his political movement with the Bulgarian Women’s Party before the 2001 elections, he was committed to bringing a number of women into parliament. He compiled a list of women from varied walks of life and experiences, including both highly respected business women as well as inexperienced fashion models. NDSV’s sweeping election victory made it the largest parliamentary group in the 39th National Assembly and brought an impressive number of women MPs into Parliament: 26 percent of members of parliament and 35 percent of NDSV’s members were women.

The last parliamentary elections took place on June 25, 2005 and included candidates from more than 22 parties and coalitions (see  www.parliament.bg). While the elections had registered the lowest voter turnout since the fall of the Berlin Wall (56 percent of registered voters participated), they brought 21 percent of women MPs to the 40th National Assembly. This number, although fairly high compared to other nations in Europe and the world, was nonetheless alarming, considering that the 2005 elections saw a dramatic increase of the number of women running for office – in 2001, 243 women were on the election ballots, compared to 713 female parliamentary candidates in 2005 (UN Human Development, 2005). The Coalition for Bulgaria (CB) won 84 seats while NDSV won 53, with 22 women in its parliamentary group. The number of women in key leadership positions was modest. The 40th National Assembly has only one female chairperson of a standing committee (the committee of culture) and out of the eighteen ministers (including the Prime Minister) in the government, only three are female – Emel Etem, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Disaster Management Policy; Emilia Maslarova, Minister of Labor and Social Policy; Meglena Kuneva, Minister of European Affairs. Additionally, three ministries have currently no female representation (Danova, 2006).

And while the political representation of Bulgarian women in parliament meandered between success and stagnation, the public discourse on their role in social and political life was directly affected by the transformation of the mediascape. With the emergence of the market economy, feminine representations turned out to provide a most profitable commodity in the bustling new competitive media market. The media quickly blossomed in the new era of post-communist uncertainly and deregulation. Thrown into the world of a market economy, all media – both established media (supported by the state) and new media outlets – faced new competitors. Among those, the tabloid press, which flourished in the atmosphere of rejecting communism in favor of capitalist business models, ran on sensationalism, politically provocative articles, racy news with even racier imagery, nudity and misogyny as an indispensable strategy for success. This trend was further amplified by the general public sentiment of rejecting any form of state control (and press censorship as the ultimately manifestation of it) leading to a wide acceptance of and strong encouragement to challenging existing norms, including those guiding gender relations. Ironically, the long awaited freedom of the press found a new expression in the boom in the number of pornographic publications. ‘This phenomenon is easily explained by the fact that for decades, sex was taboo, and besides, a talk about anything erotic was understood as the freedom of self-expression’ (Azhgikhina, 1995: 11).

As a result of this trend, images of the female body accompanied by gender-stereotypical comments, combined with a market ideology represented women and their sexuality as yet another available commodity (Kronja, 2006). Partially-clad women and nude ‘page 3’ models of the daily papers have become a regular diet for the Bulgarian reader and become accepted as a routine. As Siklova (1993: 76), a well-known Czech dissident and a women’s right advocate, said: ‘As the enforced false ideology breaks down, many people welcome the freedom to return to traditions once forbidden. . . Freedom takes on different forms. This may give the impression that we are returning to patriarchy, but it is more a reaction to our recent past’. In this vein, freedom of speech in Eastern Europe, for example, has indeed been interpreted to be both the liberating idea of speaking one’s mind and also, to do so, in a direct, sensationalist, and often, unflattering manner. This is particularly true in the case of covering female politicians and MPs, who are often ridiculed for their inept and naive political behavior and are even more frequently reduced to being women first, and politicians second. For example, in a July 2008 article featuring a new political coalition, which was being formed between notable female MPs and a the male leader of a new political formation, the front page of the two most widely circulated newspapers in Bulgaria, Trud and 24 Chasa, were adorned by a photo of a line of crossed female legs, with ‘elegant shoes and perfect manicures’. Female politicians are often featured talking about their fashion choices, their family responsibilities and their relationships with male colleagues, caught in the midst of embarrassing moments, wearing revealing or ill-fitted outfits, or even more frequently, juxtaposed against rough and stumbling male MPs who look stunned to be in the presence of such beauty. Ironically, even among forward thinking women such as the female MPs of the Bulgarian parliament, as Roman (2003: 56) pointed out, an ideal has settled in, ‘a provocative feminine mystique of Western origins stressing beauty as a paramount goal’. And while this could be interpreted both as a reaction to the asexual, communist functionalist representations of the political woman of the past, it could also be attributed to the media’s insatiable need to create ‘a sensation’ or to ‘spice up’, and in this case, ‘sexy up’ the political news which for forty five years has been nothing but reprints of endless pages of communist leaders’ speeches and repetitive cycles of artificially-fed party lines.

5. Conclusion

The lack of a more balanced diet of media portrayals of women politicians is indeed a troubling sign of the growing pains of a media system in transition, but also the direct result of an aggressive push towards market-oriented journalism that thrives on circulation and neglects professional norms in the interest of increased advertising revenues. As Underwood pointed out (2001), it seems that the intertwining of news with marketing goals is everywhere, transforming news as a product to be sold, and turning citizens into consumers. This trend becomes even more alarming when it is internalized not only by the reporters, but also by the female politicians themselves, who not only do not condemn this style of reporting, but often actively seek it, in order to receive much needed publicity. A society brought up on stereotypes, with a collective memory which lacks a solid foundation in reality, and gender relations still caught in the limbo of the post-communist transition, needs balanced, honest, sincere and diverse representations of women in politics for a palpable change in the public consciousness to take place. For this process to ensue, both media practitioners and politicians alike must commence a much-needed public dialogue on ‘gender in politics’ and ‘politics in gender’. As Havelkova (1999: 163) said: ‘as yet, discussion has not shifted from the purely cultural level to the level of the theory of democracy and active citizenship, let along the context of social policy’. Perhaps this is finally the time to do so.

References

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Bio

Dr. Elza Ibroscheva (Ph.D., Mass Communications and Media Arts, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale) teaches publication layout & design, visual media analysis, and media campaigns. Dr. Ibroscheva was at Southern Illinois University Carbondale prior to joining the faculty in Edwardsville. She has worked as a TV reporter in Bulgaria and as an interpreter at the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency. Her research interests include international communication, globalization and culture, media effects on society and media stereotypes.

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