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Of beauty and politics: women, politics and the media in post-communist Bulgaria.

Almost twenty year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we can easily argue that women have carried on their shoulders the brunt of the post-communist transition, perhaps the most evident manifestation of which is found in their shrinking participation in political discourse. This is particularly evident in the case of Bulgaria, where women have been prominently present in political power before the collapse of communism and have enjoyed a noticeable political clout during the initial stages of the democratic transition--a female Vice President, a woman Prime Minister, and a number of parliamentarians. During the years of communist, one-party rule, for instance, the proportion of women Mps in the Bulgarian Parliament fluctuated between 5.7 percent and 21.7 percent, which was impressive in comparison to women's parliamentary representation in most western countries (Sloat, 2005). However, these figures stood for 'tokenism of the worst kind' (Einhorn, 1993, p. 151), since the real decision-making power was in the hands of the Central Committees and the Politburos of the Communist Parties, virtually limiting women's participation in active decision-making roles.

Dwindling political representation aside, I argue that Eastern European women face another obstacle as they strive to assert a leading position in society--a growing and noticeably ubiquitous gender bias in the media. This certainly isn't a new trend. Female politicians worldwide have charged that their media coverage is more negative than their male counterparts, focuses more on appearances than on issues, and reinforces masculine and feminine stereotypes (Kahn, 1994, 1996; Herzog, 1998; Ross, 2000; Robinson & Saint-Jean, 1991; Ross & Sreberny, 2000). To explain this tendency, Gidengil and Everitt (1999) identify three phases in the study of women, politics and media, beginning with visibility/invisibility (typified by Tuchman, 1978), then moving to the narrow focus in coverage of women politicians, and finally into "gendered mediation." The latter "shifts the focus ... to the more subtle, but arguably more insidious, form of bias that arises when conventional political frames are applied to female politicians" (p. 49). The gendered mediation thesis rests on the assumption that the way in which politics is reported is significantly determined by a male-oriented agenda that privileges the practice of politics as an essentially male pursuit (Kahn, 1994; 1996). The image and language of mediated politics, therefore, "supports the status quo (male as norm) and regards women politicians as novelties" (Ross & Sreberny, 2000, p. 93). As such, the news is not simply reflecting the fact that politics is still very much a man's world, it is playing an active role in perpetuating a stereotypically masculine conception of politics and politicians (Rakow & Kranich, 1991; Peake, 1997; Sreberny & Van Zoonen, 2000).

In Eastern Europe, these trend have been further amplified by a media system in transition, which meanders between sensationalism and complete rejection of state control over content and distribution, where intellectual journals are now readily found nestled among pornographic magazines and where newspapers compete through "sexying" news stories, using genderbiased language to win audiences and earn advertising revenues. Images of partially-clad women and nude models on the inside pages of the daily paper have become a regular diet for the Bulgarian newspaper reader. Some of these trends towards the hyper-sexualization of women in the media, and particularly so in advertising, have been documented in the mass communication literature (Skoric & Furham, 2003; Ibroscheva, 2007), pointing out that an alarming shift in the portrayals of gender roles is already taking place, but only a few instances of these changing roles have been analyzed in the realm of political communication and public discourse.

This topic is critically important to study because gender biases disseminated by the media can have electoral consequences; at a time when politics is thoroughly "mediatized", voters respond to candidates largely in accordance with information (and entertainment) received from mass media. As Corner (2003) suggested, the media have become the public sphere in which the identity of the politician as a "person of qualities" is constructed, and the strength of these media-performative criteria are often such as to disqualify certain candidates either from becoming public political figures at all or at least from competing for high office (p. 75). This is a particularly alarming trend in Eastern Europe where loss of state protections 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. More importantly, how these trends are going to materialize for women all across Eastern Europe will become the litmus test of the success of the post-communist transition.

Bulgaria is uniquely suited for such a discussion for a number of reasons. For instance, in the last parliamentary elections of 2005, 50 women became Mps, giving Bulgarians a 20.8 percent female representation ( Generally speaking, Bulgarian women have taken some steps towards visible representation in the political discourse with mixed measures of success. The most significant achievement came in 2001, when women accounted for close to 26 percent of the parliamentary seats, a significant jump from merely 11.2 percent just four years before, securing Bulgaria the top position among all Eastern European countries in number of female Mps in parliament ( It is important to note, however, that the 2001 elections were not characteristic of the usual political dynamics in the country. In 2001, the former Bulgarian king in exile, Simeon Saxecoburgotski, returned to Bulgaria, creating his own political party, 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 election, 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 businesswomen and inexperienced fashion models (Ghodsee, 2003).

And while the participation of women in elected bodies in Bulgaria appears to be good and in fact, has been commended as a sign of progress for women in post-Soviet transitional societies, women's participation in effective position of governance remains low. For instance, only 16% of ministers are women, more important, women ministers tend to occupy soft issues cabinet seats, such as social affairs, disaster relief and EU integration. This makes the measures of effective political representations at minimum unsatisfactory, but in fact, renders official mechanism to achieve gender parity virtually non-existent. In fact, a 2005 study by the Open Society Institute on gender equality in the new EU members and candidate countries identified Bulgaria as the only country lacking a specific body on gender equality at the governmental and parliamentary level.

Not only that, but as Ghodsee (2003) points out, the real percentage of women's representation in Bulgarian parliament was less than 10 percent according to female members of the opposition, as the majority of female parliamentary members of NDSV were, what they called, "mere fillers" of prearranged political quotas. More importantly, as Godshee pointed out, BG female politicians do not rally for women's issues and causes and often, refuse to lobby for gender-based NGOs and other advocacy groups.

The need for this analysis becomes even more evident when examining the shortage of research, particularly in media studies, focusing on women, the media, and politics in Eastern Europe. A few studies have addressed the issue of gender in media coverage of women. For instance, Isanovic (2006) explored gender representations in the daily newspapers of Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia to find out that women are

hardly visible in stories that "make the news," but their visibility is much higher in stories of media, cultural or artistic nature where they are often depicted in mostly decorative fashion. As the author stated, "we can conclude by paraphrasing Snjezana Milivojevic--in all three countries the face of the serious news is male, and the body of the entertainment of female" (p. 76). Another study that sheds light on the media coverage of female politicians in Eastern Europe is Danova's (2006) contribution to a recent report on stereotypes of women in Bulgarian media. In her critical comparison of two Bulgarian newspapers' coverage of female politicians, Danova argues that female politicians are presented as private consumers rather than public figures--a result of a post-modern globalizing discourse.

Finally, part of the problem, and therefore of the answer, about women politicians' media profile lies in the political economy of the newsroom (see Meehan & Riordan, 2002; Bourdeau, 1998), and in the fact that most newsrooms are dominated by men. As Carter et al. (1998) point out, "feminist gender-sensitive studies of journalism are becoming increasingly concerned with the changing of news media ownership [especially] within local, national and global contexts" (p. 3). Although some women politicians are beginning to exert some control over the ways in which they relate to the media, for instance, through cultivating relationships with particular journalists, these proactive responses remain a few isolated examples.

Evidence of gender mediation is abundant across the pages of the popular press in Bulgaria. So much so that being exposed to gendered remarks that have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with being a woman have become a rite of passage for the Bulgarian female politician. This, in turn, has led women politicians to internalize the peculiarities of the gendered political discourse by trivializing and self-objectifying their own qualifications and political competencies. For instance, in a 1996 newspaper interview, Elena Poptodorova, at the time, MP from the Socialist Party and later on, appointed the Bulgarian Ambassador to the United States noted that "when a man stands at the podium and delivers a speech, everyone first listens to him, and then examines him physically. With women, it's the other way around," recognizing that as part of playing the political game, women have to adapt to being scrutinized both for their appearance and their political qualifications by the media and the public alike. As if to farther exemplify this tendency, in the profile introducing Poptodorova's interview, she is described, it appears, without much objection on her side, as "the Beautiful Helen, "the princess of Bulgarian diplomacy", "the most charming MP", "Miss Parliament," further stressing her physical attributes at the expense of her long-standing experience in politics.

Other examples of the often derogatory language used to describe female politicians in the Bulgarian press include frequent profiles of the MP candidates' background during the 2001 parliamentary election, in which the male candidates are described as being under "the female shoe"--a derogatory expression used to mock a spousal relationship, in which the husband is dominated by his wife. Many of these reports were prompted by discussion of the special pact between Simeon Saxcoburgotski and the leader of the Bulgarian Women's Party, Vesela Draganova, whose political party formed a collation with the King. Draganova was often the focus of discussion, described as "some Eve-like character who tried to steal the apple from the male political Garden of Eden in order to use it as a stake in her own political game," while members of the Women's Party were refereed to not as "politicians" but as "political pawns", further stating that only because of the loopholes in the political system were women candidates finally appearing in droves on the political scene. As the new arrangement between the tsarist movement, visually represented by the young and super-successful, mostly male, young expatriates employed at top positions in London banks and institutions, and the Women Party, whose face was exclusively female and deliberately "feminized," became a news centerpiece, the media coined a number of jargon terms to refer to the influx of women in politics, calling them "members of the weaker sex", a "delicate electorate," "the political party that's playing dress up," etc. A leading Bulgarian daily went as far as describing the female MP candidates as "beautiful, politically unburdened, popular and arousingly aggressive."

This noticeable tendency to eroticize the political process, which I argue is a manifestation of the cultural backlash against the stern, asexual image of the socialist woman/functionary, finds further support in the reporters' tendencies to not only trivialize the political achievements of female politicians, but also to infantilize them. This leads to an alarming trend in the public discourse which I argue could be identified as the "Political Lolita" syndrome--the tendency to view female MPs as political novices, inexperienced, yet curiously active party functionaries, always left in the shadow of the mature and qualified male politicians. An example of the "Political Lolita" syndrome in action is perhaps Nadezhda Mihailova's rise to political power. Mihailova was Bulgaria's first female foreign affairs minister and chief negotiator in the nation's bid for entry in the European Union. In this position, naturally, she enjoyed wide coverage in the popular press not only because of her unique appointment to the highest diplomatic post in the country, but also because of her noticeably good looks. While the papers competed who is going to invent the most suitable nickname for Mihailova (pretty Nade took the top award), covering her political career offered reporters ample opportunities to practice gendered mediation. One of the glaring examples of this is an article in which Mihailova was compared to Natasha Rostova from "War and Peace" at the debutant ball. "Eager, charming shy and making her first steps in the world of diplomacy, she comes across as a stubborn girl. The beautiful valedictorian, who overcame her puberty and her sense of shyness, will lead the country in the European Union negotiation." Comments on Mihailova's looks became commonplace for the press, some of which were extremely dismissive about the leadership skills. Thus, a report in a leading daily quoted the outspoken Bulgarian parliamentarian George Ganchev, attributing Mihailova's success in her foreign diplomacy effort not to her qualifications and negotiating skills, but because she "looks great in those world leaders' group photos, " continuing to say "if they {foreign diplomats} like her so much, why don't they buy themselves a Barbie doll?"

There is very little room for arguing that women occupy far less prominent space than men in both political power and representation around the world. In Eastern Europe, this phenomenon has intensified with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which brought about an unprecedented masculinization of the democratic transition and translated in a parallel trend towards the "sexying" of politics. This, on the other hand, has been accompanied by widespread use of stereotypical, and often, sexualized images and representations of women in the press which in turn, leads to the creation of a social climate tolerant towards and in fact, encouraging, of sexism in public life. Perhaps this cultural shift can be partially explained by an aggressive move towards obliterating the visual remnants of the communist past, including the imagery of the female politicians, dressed in conservative suits, lacking any fashion sense, and utterly asexual. As Kotzeva (1999) contended, part of the ideological motivation of the press to maintain the image of the communist woman as an epitome of successful emancipation represented the idea that women have mastered control over the "parasite" needs of leisure and aesthetics, the decant trend of self-indulgence through fashion and beauty and instead, have focused on functional and production driven activities. "The visual space of the socialist society was inhabited by the new Amazon--they are labeled 'doers', 'fighters', 'functionaries', 'labourers', 'activists', and so on" (p. 85). Therefore, the socialist gender ideology while proclaiming the triumph of women 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, p. 85), at the same time, denying women any sense of self-expression outside of the ideological dogma of socialist gender identities.

Today, the public discourse as reflected in the popular press has taken a full turn in the opposition directions. What is most alarming is that women politicians often become victims not only of gender-biased and stereotypical portrayals in the press, but also of sexist violations at the work place. A recent example comes from remarks addressed towards Livia Jaroka, the first female Roma member of the European Parliament representing Hungary. Jaroka was nominated for a special youth leader award for her contributions to the advancement of human rights. Here is what Dimitar Stoyanov, an observer representing Bulgaria at the European Parliament and a member of the ultranationalist party Ataka (Attack), said about Jaroka in an e-mail message:

"Well, gentlemen, I must disagree with you. In my country there're tens of thousands gypsy girls way more beautiful than this honorable one. In fact if you're in the right place on the right time you even can buy one (around 12-13 years old) to be your loving wife. The best of them are very expensive--up to 5,000 euros a piece, wow!. . .So let's get back to Miss Laroka's nomination. Believe me, I've seen lots of gypsy women, but all that are at her age are much skinnier. Doesn't she sharing [sic] the terrible suffering her people are bearing all around Europe, the poverty, the miserable conditions and the unemployment???? Well, I guess when you're an MEP you have to put some weight on you. Have to look serious." (original message published at

Stoyanov continued by questioning the appropriateness of her age for a youth leadership award, while showing the same level of disdain and intolerance not only for her political credentials, but also towards her personality, her qualifications and physical appearance. While this incident took place outside the borders of Bulgaria, the gender-biased language and often-pornographic treatment of women's roles as exemplified in this public discourse does not. As Sarnavka, Mihalec, and Sudar (2002) point out, even when women achieve a measure of political success by joining the parliament, they are still not safe from insults and humiliation based upon their gender. As Meads (1997) points out, this is not an unusual phenomenon. Rather, she argues, women are forced into cliches well past their use-by date and the media often ignore the discrimination women face today. "It is more likely that media reporters will comment on women's personal appearance, discussing their hairstyles, weight, clothes, shoes or glasses. There is generally less comment on "men's beer bellies, suits, size and family roles" (Van Acker, 2003, p. 117). Therefore, media portrayals continue to rely heavily on stereotypes and predictable gender conventions which do prevent a well-rounded and thoughtful analysis of the role of women in the political discourse. In fact, what they do is encourage is the normalization of discriminatory and sexist language used by public officials for which they never get sanctioned. Two glaring examples of this include the claim of the attorney general in 2006 that we cannot effectively fight crime with female judges as well as the former minister of education interview for Playboy magazine in which he stated that the most admirable part of a woman is her breast.

Without fundamental restructuring of gender relations in both private and public discourses, and particularly so in political participation, women will continue to bear the burden of the pre-communist patriarchal oppression, the pseudo-emancipation and the post-communist transitional illusion of political power topped with a false sense of empowerment generated by publicly flaunting female sexuality. Democratization of gender relations in the political sphere is a sorely needed, but sadly neglected, aspect of social transformation which contributes importantly to the shaping of gendered identities and gets directly translated into media content as well.

Indeed, a fundamental shift in both gender norms and media conventions is needed to bring about the beginning of a new era gender discourse--one in which equality of the sexes is more than a utopian idea. While society's gender lens has been significantly blurred by an intoxication with masculine power and determination, it is important to note that in Eastern European societies, women are equally responsible and silently contributing to the creation of the barriers of sexism and gender inequality. More importantly, the media, a significant number of which are represented by female reporters and editors, support sexism by portraying women politicians in a manner that discredits their political importance and influence. Thus, we often read interviews and see pictures in which women politicians speak about their favorite recipes, talk fashion and shopping tips, share their wardrobe secrets and preferences in undergarments (Sarnavka, Mihalec, and Sudar, 2002). The tendency to partake in this gendered mediation and in fact to willingly seek out this type of self-objectifying coverage is not an entirely unfamiliar process in the East. In fact, as Kristeva (1986) once poignantly pointed out, women in Eastern Europe often tend to be among the staunchest supporters of the established social system. "In the East,... women promoted to decision making positions suddenly obtain the economic as well as the narcissistic advantages refused them for thousands of years and become the pillars of the existing governments, guardians of the status quo, the most zealous protectors of the established order" (p. 201). In order for a palpable change to ensue, women should cease to participate in the marginalization of their own representatives, first and foremost, by challenging and transforming media conventions and newsroom rituals in favor of a more balanced and impartial approach to covering both women politicians and women's issues.


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Elza Ibroscheva is an Assistant Professor in Mass Communications at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She holds a doctoral degree in Mass Communications and Media Arts from Southern Illinois University. She has been the recipient of a number of research and study grants, including awards from University of Oslo, Norway, Central European University, and the Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies Center at University of Illinois. Her work has been published in the Global Media Journal, the Journal of Intercultural Communication, the Russian Journal of Communication and Sex Roles: Journal of Research, among others. Her research interests include international communication, effects of globalization on culture, and politics and gender representations in the media.
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Title Annotation:FORUM
Author:Ibroscheva, Elza
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EXBU
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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