HomeLearning CenterSexism Is Not a Joke: How Humor Is Used to Demoralize Women in Politics

Sexism Is Not a Joke: How Humor Is Used to Demoralize Women in Politics

Originally published by Luna Dantas for Harvard Political Review

Despite being featured in 2011 and 2012 by Forbes as the third most powerful woman in the world, former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff had her competence, capacity, and skills constantly challenged and undermined back home. In one of many examples, a magazine cover portrays the former president as an unstable, crazy, and hysterical woman unable to run the country. The cover headline, translated from Portuguese, reads: “The President’s nervous outbursts.”

Brazil is certainly not alone in disparaging its female leaders, and women in politics from around the world have received similar comments from newspapers for years. The same discourse accusing female politicians of being aggressive, unbalanced, and unfit to represent their countries was used to attack Hillary Clinton in a political report that highlights her “explosive attitude,” and leveraged against Cristina Kishner, who was characterized as someone to be feared due to her aggressive actions. The resemblance between these stereotypical reviews is astonishing. 

During Dilma Rousseff’s term as Brazil’s first female president, she received an unprecedented number of attacks in the form of memes, jokes, and comments, which quickly escalated into pure harassment. She began her first term in 2011 and her second term in January 2015, but the latter was not a long one: In May 2016, she was removed from office by the Senate on allegations of budgetary maneuvers to hide the country’s burgeoning debt, and had her mandate officially terminated a few months later. 

However, even six years after her impeachment, memes about the politician continue to spread throughout Brazilian social media. Such jokes tend to be cruel and often rely on sexual and prejudicial approaches. As the first and only female president of Brazil, Rousseff’s competence and intellectual capacity have been greatly questioned, making her a clear example of how humor, memes, and comments from male colleagues often subject women in politics around the world to rhetorical gender violence.

Worldwide, despite increases in the number of women at the highest levels of political power, widespread gender inequalities persist, according to the 2021 edition of the IPU-UN Women Map of Women in Politics, with disparities in female representation in governments around the globe remaining. According to the World Economic Forum, the greatest gender inequalities are in politics, and, at our current pace of progress, it will take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide. In a political and economic climate unfavorable to women and mostly dominated by men, it is not difficult to understand how, with the support of private media groups, internet memes criticizing both Brazil’s former president as well as female public figures around the world become successful.

It’s certainly possible for politics and entertainment — collectively known as “politainment” in some circles — to positively interact and even democratize important public debates. Internet memes, which are easy to understand, digest, and circulate, represent a large portion of politainment due to their simple and colloquial language. However, the success of this kind of entertainment depends on the attention it receives on social media and the number of shares and reactions it can trigger. Consequently, politainment can also allow for the spread of extreme and grotesque language through social media algorithms and other means of popular communication. Scientist Hilda Bastian affirms this duality, writing that “Humor can be used to create a quick bridge between people. But it can also reinforce outgroups’ otherness and relatively marginal social status.”

These ostracizing impacts of malicious political humor are exemplified nowhere better than in Brazil. In one of the worst demonstrations of rhetorical violence masked as humor, then soon-to-be-impeached president Dilma Rousseff was depicted on a car sticker in a denigrating sexual position. The image spread on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter throughout her last months in office, during which she had her worst public approval ratings. The slander was so vile that United Nations Women Brazil explicitly condemned the act. 

However, sexism can also spread in more subtle ways that, while no less violent, can be harder to identify and therefore easier to be put aside as “just a joke.” For example, in December 2021, France’s first lady, Brigitte Macron, was forced to address false claims that she is a trans woman, something that former United States First Lady Michelle Obama also dealt with back in 2017. First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon was directly attacked by a male politician who tweeted that her mouth should be taped shut along with “her legs, so she can’t reproduce.” 

The worst aspect of these rumors, jokes, and comments targeting female political leaders is that they have nothing to do with actual politics or policy. Moreover, the meme format of much of these communications seems to circulate freely on social media, regardless of such posts’ misogyny or prejudice, thus normalizing cruel and offensive language. Dilma Rousseff was impeached due to accusations of poor fiscal administration, but the trending memes that disparaged her were related to her image and body rather than her economic policies. Her case and that of many other female public figures are clear examples of female objectification and sexualization, both of which only encourage continued discrimination and violence — not democratic debate. 

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