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How the 'princess effect' hurts female politicians

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill January 23, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Even when a women's magazine tries to empower a female politician, it usually demeans her, argues Sarah Kendzior in a Politico Magazine article this month.

"There are still only two main tracks for the female politico: intimidating and powerful or submissive and charming," she wrote. "When combined, these qualities translate into 'having it all,' although 'all' must be tempered with notes of humility, lest the women vault back into the 'intimidating' category. As pundits debate the virtues of female confidence, it is the confidante who is still made to appear the ideal female type: the yes-woman, capable yet culpable, assertive in her lack of assertions."

On The Daily Circuit, Kendzior referenced one particular section of Vogue's profile of outgoing United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice that mentions her makeup:

At 48, she is too veteran a Washington hand to reveal her own policy views. She prefers to describe herself as "pragmatic" and demurs on the question of what to do in Syria, saying only that the situation there is "one of the toughest I've seen." She also challenges the Rosebud theory of her interventionist tendencies by insisting that "Rwanda has certainly been overstated in my experience." When I press her to articulate her personal positions, her eyes, lined in her trademark aqua blue, settle in a glare. "Let me make this simple," she says, leaning forward out of her rigid posture. "No national-security adviser worth his or her salt has an independent agenda." 

"It's an enormous distraction in the middle of a serious political conversation," Kendzior said. "It takes you out of the moment of the article. In a simple sense, it's just bad writing, but I think it's damaging for the women they portray because it distracts the reader from their policy ideas."

But this practice isn't limited to the pages of Marie Claire or Vogue. Even hard news publications like The New York Times and the Washington Post are falling prey to what Kendzior calls "the princess effect." 

Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, said the perception of media bias is more hurtful than actual bias. 

Lawless looked at more than 6,000 news articles covering members of Congress during the 2010 midterm elections. This type of appearance coverage only happened in 2.5 percent of the cases and men were just as likely as women to receive it. 

The perception of bias makes women think they are less qualified than men for elected positions or they don't have thick enough skin to handle the coverage, Lawless said.

"If they are going to run for president of the United States or senator from New York or California, it's likely they probably will receive that kind of coverage," she said. "But given that we have more than a half-million elected offices in this country and the overwhelming majority of them are located at the state or local level, most candidates don't get any media coverage. I think it's important to send the signal that but for these highest offices and these really, really high profile contests, this is just not the reality. If we can let women know that, and let them know not only that the media will cover them fairly in most cases and voters are willing to vote for them, that might begin to close this qualifications gap."

Have you noticed profiles of high-power women with a particular spin? Leave your findings in the comments below.