Gendered Media Representations in International Relations: Part 1


This series investigates the gendered meaning encoded in media texts. Three articles are adapted from an MSc dissertation which combines feminist IR theory and discourse analysis. The articles shed light on the role of the media in constructing and reproducing gender perceptions, and how the conduct of international relations perpetuates an unequal distribution of power and perceived competence among world leaders based on gender. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are analyzed. The analysis is clustered into three themes: the “f” word, qualities of leadership, and physical appearance. The first theme refers to feminism as the “f” word to underscore the negative connotations associated with the term. The second theme explores how the primacy of masculinity in political leadership is taken for granted. Lastly, the third theme addresses physical appearance because the masculine dress code in international relations indicates that gender matters.

PART 1 - German Chancellor Angela Merkel

International politics are conducted within a global communications infrastructure (Rivenburgh, 2010: 187). The global proliferation of news and entertainment media have established a new precedent with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle. A statesperson operates on the international stage with a media spotlight, therefore, policy decisions, state visits and clothing choices lead to extensive press coverage. I argue that the media tend to portray heads of state through a gendered lens. Media representations of gender, leadership and political power may serve to undermine or establish a leader’s credibility, feminist values, and appearance.

Feminist constructivism and hegemonic masculinity are theories used to establish how gender perceptions are socially constructed in politics and society (Enloe 2000; Tickner 2014; Peterson 1992; Pettman 1996), and subsequently, publicized in global media. Hegemonic masculinity focuses on “the global dominance of men over women” (Connell, 1987: 183). Feminist critical discourse analysis (Lazar 2007; Lazar 2005) is used to analyze online newspapers and digital magazines. A textual analysis of the international media texts selected include online feature stories in Politico, Time and Vogue magazines, and online news articles in The New York Times (NYT) and The Washington Post. The sources selected were limited to articles containing terms which fell under the thematic framework such as “feminist,” “leadership,” and “wardrobe” or “fashion.” Media with a focus on traditional news outlets are crucial, however, popular culture does not exist in isolation. For this reason, both traditional political commentary and popular culture media are combined. The media presence of Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, and Theresa May in news and entertainment sources reveal characteristics about their public personas and how the media framed their relationship with feminism, leadership qualities, and appearance.

Angela Merkel has routinely received international publicity with narratives in the media such as “the world’s most powerful woman” (Forbes 2016) and the “de facto leader” of Europe (Vick and Shuster 2015). Throughout her career, Merkel has been elusive about her thoughts on feminism. Her leadership qualities remain largely uncontested in mainstream media. Nonetheless, commentary about her appearance during her 2005 and 2009 campaigns for premiership have drawn considerable media spotlight and scholarly intrigue. Media representations potentially have serious implications for gender relations in international politics, which remains largely under analysed in IR (Mowlana 2016; Morris and Waisbord 2001). As a result, hegemonic masculinity has been encoded in gendered norms of state power.  

The “F” Word

At the Women20 (W20) summit in Germany earlier this year, Merkel made headlines during a panel discussion, which revealed her tenuous relationship with feminism and being labeled as feminist. Unsurprisingly, Merkel underwent extensive criticism for the hesitation she displayed at the W20 summit, further discussed below. The NYT and Elle were blunt critics, while Handelsblatt Global provided a systematic defence of Merkel’s participation.

Elle depicted her response as “bizarre” and adding “confusion” to the debate about what feminism means (O’Malley 2017). The Elle article contributes to this debate and suggests that feminism means agreeing that “women are equal to men” (O’Malley 2017), attempting to dispel the confusion that Merkel allegedly incited. The piece in Elle argues that “Merkel is a feminist,” but she delivered a “convoluted and questionable message” and should label herself a feminist “without the hesitation” (O’Malley 2017). In this instance, the media does not contest Merkel’s claim to feminism, but rather criticize her lack of assertiveness.  

Merkel seems restrained to call herself a feminist due to certain norms of hegemonic masculinity in the culture of international politics.

As a high-profile public figure, Merkel arguably felt pressure to distance herself from feminist-oriented policy prescriptions, and social constructs of femininity which are associated with the term feminist. When the panel moderator asked: “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” the NYT contributors wrote, “Merkel practically responded with an eye-roll” (WITW Staff 2017). One moment was emphasised during this panel discussion when panelists who considered themselves feminists were asked to raise their hands, “Merkel’s hand, decidedly, did not go up at all” (WITW Staff 2017). The NYT article notes that “running for a fourth term” and the fact that “German voters will go to the polls in September” might explain her “cautious response” (WITW Staff 2017). Merkel seems restrained to call herself a feminist due to certain norms of hegemonic masculinity in the culture of international politics.

Handelsblatt Global points to Merkel’s “ambivalence” toward feminism as “typical of her compatriots” (Devins 2017). In other words, women like Merkel “who grew up in East Germany . . . today feel less of a need to identify with feminism” (Devins 2017). Handelsblatt Global notes that “feminist discourse in Germany thus faces the same tension as in other Western countries” (Devins 2017). In her response to the question about being a feminist, Handelsblatt Global reports that Merkel said: “The history of feminism is one where there are similarities with me and then there are differences. I would not like to decorate myself with a label I don’t actually have” (Devins 2017). Another panelist interjected and said: a feminist is “someone who wants all women to have the chance to be happy and proud of themselves” (Devins 2017). Chancellor Merkel was “visibly relieved” and replied: “Then I am one too” (Devins 2017).  

Based on the media’s extensive coverage of the event, a discernible pattern was Merkel’s unwillingness to use the “f” word in her remarks. Merkel seems acutely aware of how explicitly carrying a feminist label would both disadvantage and disempower her as chancellor and an actor in international politics. This illustrates that IR tends to operate within a hegemonic masculinity discourse which precludes stateswomen from engaging in a feminist discourse and therefore constrains a stateswoman from endorsing feminist values.

Qualities of Leadership

In Time magazine, Merkel is characterized as “chancellor of the free world” (Vick and Shuster 2015), which reflects that Merkel’s leadership credentials and competence are not usually contested in the media. Her style of leadership is praised. Merkel operates within accepted masculine constructs of political power. Time mentions her “cerebral approach to governance” (Vick and Shuster 2015) which tends to be admired. German pundits have called her “Merkelvellian when she outsmarted, isolated or just outlasted anyone” (Gibbs 2015). In fact, Time argues that Merkel’s “political style was not to have one; . . . no charisma, just a survivor’s sharp sense of power and a scientist’s devotion to data” (Gibbs 2015). Time also reports that she continues to be “resolutely dull” (Gibbs 2015). Dullness appears to be a desirable quality of leadership, especially for women in power. Thus, stateswomen are often described as uncharismatic or lacking personal charm. She was named Time’s Person of the Year 2015 for a variety of reasons, but notably “for providing steadfast moral leadership” (Gibbs 2015). This focus on Merkel’s propensity to embody morality is a recurring theme in media reports.

According to Politico, Merkel represents “the West’s last, best hope” because she is the “longest-serving and most powerful leader in Europe” (Rubin 2017). She is depicted as “unfailingly modest, competent, and consensus-oriented” and the “only leader in Europe who even has a plausible claim to moral leadership” (Rubin 2017). Politico explains that her “unexpected decision to accept some 1 million refugees” (Rubin 2017) established her moral credibility. Merkel’s calculated political risk continues to be applauded.

In Newsweek, Merkel’s candidacy announcement for a fourth term raised the question, “Could Merkel be the savior of liberal politics in the West?” (Qvortrup 2016). Newsweek argues that “Merkel is the personified image of stability” (Qvortrup 2016). According to Newsweek, “thinking endlessly” is her “style of governance” (Qvortrup 2016). In the NYT, Merkel is described as “the last powerful defender of Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance” (Smale and Erlanger 2016). Therefore, Merkel seems to be taken seriously as a global leader precisely because of her willingness to exercise political power in a manner that is consistent with hegemonic masculinity.

Media representations of Chancellor Merkel have been conveyed in predominantly masculine terms.

Lünenborg and Maier (2015: 192) observe that Merkel engages in gender binaries and avoids being positioned as a woman. A powerful leader like Merkel still operates in a gender ideology which “subordinates women to men” (Lünenborg and Maier: 192). Her political recognition relies on the ability “of a woman to act successfully as a man” (Lünenborg and Maier: 193). Hence the ways in which Merkel’s aptitude for leadership described in the NYT, Politico, Time, and Newsweek are indicative of a woman who must act like a man to be portrayed as a powerful and competent leader. Over time she prudently and unapologetically has distanced herself from the attributes which define her personhood as feminine. Her leadership qualities are aligned with masculine constructs of politics and power; as a consequence, Germany is necessarily perceived as a masculine state.

Physical Appearance

Merkel’s wardrobe choices have been described as frumpy, plain, and boring in news and entertainment mediums over the years. Her signature look is a three-button blazer. Merkel’s colorful jackets are the extent of her fashion sense and may be a symbol of her political persona—a rational woman. However, early on, Merkel was mocked and “criticized for her lack of fashion sense” (Campus, 2013: 85). She was often publicly “criticized for her hairstyle and dress” in German media and “forced to revise her haircut and clothes” (Campus: 87). It is noteworthy that the media “put pressure on Merkel to represent the image of the nation in a proper way” (Campus: 87). From a feminist perspective, images of the state in media discourses are understood to communicate masculine constructs of power.

The NYT describes Merkel as “tweaking the male uniform” worn in the political world and “keeping within a traditional framework” (Friedman 2016). Merkel is understood to “dress like a man” (Friedman 2016). The NYT’s description clearly demonstrates how often Merkel, whether in wardrobe or leadership style, is amalgamated with masculinity. In Vogue, Merkel is portrayed as a “short, matronly woman . . . wearing her signature black trousers and sensible walking shoes” (Marton 2017). Even in a fashion magazine, Merkel is considered the “last real democratic leader standing” (Marton 2017), referencing her apt leadership qualities and associating her appearance with power. However, readers are asked to wonder how an “uncharismatic woman” (Marton 2017) became Europe and the world’s most influential leader. Charisma is a quality that women as leaders are unable to associate with themselves because it is only considered favourable and desirable in men. The charming leader “is simply a model not available to women” (Campus, 2013: 88).

Wiliarty (2010: 143) notes Merkel’s background as a scientist “had an important effect on how she views politics. She values rationality, competence, and knowledge, all of which are traditionally male personality traits.” Merkel grew up in East Germany, and as a result, the “question of whether she looks sufficiently feminine has been inextricably linked with the question of whether she looks sufficiently western” (Wiliarty: 146). After she changed her image by “bobbing her hair, starting to wear pantsuits, or putting on make-up and jewelry—these changes were perceived as both feminizing and westernizing” (Wiliarty: 146). Mushaben (in press) rightly argues that Germany’s conservative elites “decided to present her as an honorary man” rather than celebrate “Merkel as their first woman chancellor.”

To conclude, Merkel’s success is predicated on the idea that she represents an “honorary man” with immense political influence and state power. More recently, Merkel has come to exemplify Western leadership because of her capability to secure the liberal world order. Media representations of Chancellor Merkel have been conveyed in predominantly masculine terms. She conforms to traditional characteristics and images of powerful men. The gender order in international politics continues to privilege masculine identities over feminine identities.

Clara Martinez completed her master's in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


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Marissa Conway