Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
August 8, 2011

Return of the Bug-Eyed Bachmann

The blogosphere is abuzz with commentary about Newsweek’s bug-eyed Bachmann cover. Indeed, the shot could be used to illustrate the Urban Dictionary’s definition of “crazy eyes”:  a state in which “the white part of the eye (the sclera) is clearly visible above and below the colored part of the eye (the iris).” That definition also notes that crazy eyes are “typically found in women.” In an earlier post (all of three weeks ago), I explained why the meme of the crazed female politico is problematic, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum. As this frame moves from the margins to the center of political dialogue, it’s worth using the Newsweek cover as an opportunity to examine the frame in more depth.

First, the photo is oddly dissonant with its corresponding headline “Queen of Rage.” Bachmann looks neither regal nor enraged in the photo. Her navy jacket, perfectly ironed collar, and prim pearls are designed to make Bachmann look the picture of disciplined conservative leadership. Her make-up is camera appropriate—nude lips serving as a counterpoint to earlier photos of her in a more garish pink glaze. Like Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and John Edwards, Michele Bachmann is photogenic, so Newsweek editors presumably had to dig for an unflattering shot. They settled on one that makes her look manically bright-eyed.

Indicting a female as both bubbleheaded and unstable is a time tested way to slam women politicians. In her book, Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership, Kathleen Hall Jamieson explains how this played out historically:

In ways that defy logic, women are treated as if they are governed by their bodies and men as if they are ruled by their minds. So, although it was President John Kennedy who took mood-altering steroids to control his Addison’s disease, Senator Hubert Humphrey’s physician Edgar Berman ruled out the possibility of a female president on the grounds that the mood-altering effects of her “raging hormones” would disqualify her (p. 53).

Most people believe that we’ve moved beyond this level of sexism in our political culture, and many liberals are sanguine about the sexist implications of the recent Bachmann depictions, adopting a sort of “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck . . .” mentality. The problem with this logic is that virtually identical images have been used to indict a long, diverse, multi-partisan list of women, including (most recently) Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton. The trend illustrates the tenacious intransigence of this sexist narrative and the ways in which it can be applied to any woman—regardless of age, race, party affiliation, or level of intelligence. Remember that during the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton’s so-called “coronation” was disrupted by characterizations of her as obsessed with the presidency, as Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, as “America’s Lady Macbeth.” Critics of Secretary Clinton continue to repeat that old saw, recycling images like the following from in a March 2011 post:

By  featuring the “crazy-eyed” photo of Bachmann on their cover and dubbing her the “queen” of rage, Newsweek editors are resurrecting the stereotypes that plagued Clinton, reinforcing the narrative that says that women are unstable and (therefore) ill suited to leadership. The imaging is sexist not because women politicians are attacked (male politicians get attacked all the time—there’s plenty of vitriol to go around). It has to do with the ways in which political women are attacked. Women candidates are much more likely than their male counterparts to be characterized as crazy because women historically have been viewed as less rational then men. Notably, when male politicians are derided, it’s their manhood, rather than their rationality, that is called into question. The charge that President George H.W. Bush found toughest to shake was that he was a “wimp.” Opponents of a Hillary Clinton presidency satirized her by feminizing Bill:

Barack Obama’s failure to connect with the Tea Party constituency resulted in this gendered satire:

So, when women are deemed unfit to lead, it’s because they are crazy. When men are deemed unfit to lead, it’s because they are . . . women.

You don’t have to be a “liberal feminist” to see the pattern—in fact, many avowed liberals and feminists  (like conservatives and anti-feminists) remain determined to explain away the pattern, steadfastly convinced that their political opponents really are crazy. When it comes to campaign-season crackpots, I guess it takes one to know one.

– Karrin Anderson

(Clinton image credit: via truthfrequencynews.  Bill and Hillary image credit: via . Obama cartoon image credit: Mike Lester vi )

  • Stan B.

    Bachmann’s (the vast majority of whose photos have been quite flattering of late since she toned down the harlequin makeup) shooting for all the marbles now, so it should come as no surprise that at least some of her photographs come out less than flattering, and that at least one (I would hope) exposes her for the messianic lunatic that she truly is (as does this one). Even John McCain got purposely sabotaged by a (female) photographer.

    No surprise that sexism, and racism (as Hillary proved towards the end of the ‘08 Democratic candidacy) are alive and well and part of any Presidential run.

    • Randy McDonald

      “Exposes” Bachman?

      “Illustrates” a common belief that she’s a person with dangerously askew ideas, sure.

      Convincing people that she is crazy not via the sort of bad picture most people have had to suffer through is something else entirely.

  • pws

    Oh come on!  This is Michelle Bachmann we’re talking about here.  Her ideas actually are crazy.

    Of course, most of the time she doesn’t look crazy, and finding pictures of her where she looks crazy could be considered dirty pool, but she’s unfit to be a Republican front runner and certainly unfit to be President of the United States.  (There are males on the Republican side, Rick Perry comes to mind, who are equally as nuts if it makes you feel better.)

    The fact that she’s made it this far in the primaries, when she has no accomplishments whatsoever that would suggest she’s qualified for the Presidency and a history of insane religiously-tinged rhetoric going back many years is a particularly sad commentary on the state of American politics.

    I’m not a Hillary Clinton fan, I consider her too hawkish for my tastes, but comparing her to Michelle Bachmann is incredibly insulting.

    • Susan Donovan

      I don’t think it was comparing them to each other but rather comparing the sexism used in images of them to each other. Everything you say about Michelle Bachmann is true. Yet, she still a part of this sexist trope about women leading. 

  • tinwoman

    I disagree with pws.  She looks like this all the time, and it’s hard to find a pic of her that doesn’t have this hard, unblinking stare.  It doesn’t help that she IS crazy in the clinical sense.  I don’t find it sexism.

    I also think a person of her stature would have some say in the final cover photo, so this makes me wonder what was rejected.  After all it is not a candid shot but a posed studio portrait, probably specifically for this cover.

  • quincyscott

    “So, when women are deemed unfit to lead, it’s because they are crazy.
    When men are deemed unfit to lead, it’s because they are . . . women.”

    I think this makes a valid point.  However, I’m not sure Michele Bachmann is the best example to use to illustrate this bias.  Google her for images, and you get an awful lot of crazy eyes.  You would really have to cherry pick images to find Hillary Clinton looking nuts, but Bachmann spends a lot of time in front of the camera giving crazed looks.  More importantly, her policies and beliefs are irrational and ill-informed.  Am I not allowed to say this because Bachmann is a woman?  I think that I would feel the same way about any man who held the same beliefs and wanted to make the kinds of changes to my country that she embraces.

    The right’s criticism of Hillary Clinton are not usually that she is a crazy woman.  Rather, they caricature her as domineering, feminist, manly, over-educated.  The whole point to the Michelle Bachmanns and Sarah Palins of the world is that they are “real” women.  They dress pretty, they get emotional, they are righteous mothers.  Folks on the American right may claim to admire Margaret Thatcher, but the rising stars are all attractive and brainless.  I find their response to the Newsweek cover completely ironic: How dare you imply that Michelle Bachmann is crazy (but that’s why we love her)!

    Anyway, congratulations go to Newsweek, for reminding us that they were still in business.

  • psychohistorian

    I see the picture as showing someone who is ready and ripe to be raptured.

  • bystander

    Well said.  One doesn’t need to read deeply into the history of women to find this characterization of women as crazy/unstable/mad.  And, that double play on mad is, iirc, one of the foci of Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness.  If one goes into Google Images, one can find an array of flattering, as well as madness emphasizing, photographs.  Two others of her in the same suit she’s wearing for this Newsweek cover offer a different view.  One from The Guardian and another from The Christian Science Monitor.

    Regardless of what I think of Bachmann’s politics, cultural views, or religious affiliation, if I think she’s crazy, I think she’s crazy like a fox.  And, as deeply as people want to characterize her as nuts, because she frightens them, and they need to reduce her to irrelevancy (a well tested strategy with such high profile women), people would be crazy to underestimate her.  Wasn’t it Bachmann who came out looking so well in some recent Republican “debate”?  I don’t care for Bachmann’s politics on the merits.  I don’t have to make her crazy to reject her candidacy.

    No.  Bachman is intense, and animated, emotive, and forceful, but I doubt she’s crazy.  I reject her for the positions she promotes, not because I question her emotional stability.  I don’t have to scroll all that far through Google images to find an analog for Michelle Obama; for example.  And, liberals (of which I are one) would reject a similar image characterization to manage the public profile of Michelle Obama. 

    You are exactly correct, Karrin.  This is how our culture “manages” women.  And, it’s a tendency that every woman aspiring to a high profile position in the arts, business, politics, education, religion… has to navigate.  My own historical touchstone is Zelda Fitzgerald whose, again iirc, madness was thoroughly reappraised in Chesler’s book.  I don’t have to call Michele Bachmann crazy not to like her politics.

  • Michael Shaw

    I reject the idea that a cheap and denigrating photo (for all the reason’s Karrin mentions, as well as those that hit you right at “face value”), has any merit at all.  If Bachmann is dangerous, crazy, crazy like a fox, deluded, infantilized or infantilizing, or multiples of these, it’s a complete failure of photojournalism and photo-editing to run with that photo on the Newsweek cover when there are innumerable photos that could get at a whole range of insights and critique with plenty of complexity as well as punch.

    I just find it so sad that this cover appeared the same morning as the post we offered in Originals showing Brendan Hoffman’s excellent photos of Bachmann leading prayers and praying and preaching politics in violation of IRS rules at two different evangelical churches in Iowa.

    Those pictures not only say something, they speak volumes.  Too bad Newsweek doesn’t have the confidence to go high and low at the same time.  It’s certainly not for a lack of imagery out there.

    • Susan Donovan

      Many people would view those images as very positive. My initial reaction to them is that they make her seem very thoughtful and trust-worthy. (It’s very hard for even very liberal Christians to view our religion critically.) –that said, the mad-eyed woman is a trope and an old one at that. It’s a boring way to discredit her– her crazy ideas do a good enough job on their own.

      I also think that male republicans who are equally wrong are often taken more seriously, just because they are men. When a man shots it’s leadership, when a woman will do the same thing it’s shrill or “crazy” –

      Still, as a woman I have this whole betrayal issue with woman like her. They remind me of women I knew in college who’d talk about how they are not like those awful feminists (oh no) mostly to get guys to like them. (Or, more charitably, to avoid the direct glare of everyday sexism.)

      It’s like how Allen Keys is only anyone BECAUSE he’s black. Yet he accuses other black people of unfairly benefiting from affirmative action. 

      These are the people who get ahead by walking on the back of people who are just like they are. And they take their own success as proof that there is no prejudice: just a glorious meritocracy, where the best and brightest rise through hard work and dedication.

      To anyone looking in it’s obvious that isn’t the case, and women like her are used to reenforce sexism (how could it be sexist if a woman said it?) 
      But, I’m certain all of this makes sense in her own reality.

    • Clarkdenoon

      Check the IRS code regarding politics in the church, and note Obama’s numerous political preaching events. They may both be in violation (Election Year Activities and the Prohibition on Political Campaign Intervention for Section 501(c)(3) Organizations). Churches are allowed to invite a candidate to speak if all the other candidates are invited. It’s not a violation if only one accepts the invitation.,,id=154712,00.html

  • Susan Donovan

    I think (it’s possible) there is more going on in the Obama image than just sexism. Well, maybe not in that image alone, but the image of either black men emasculated by being dressed as women and/or the image of black women as manly has a more complex history.

  • Guest

    Howard Dean was repeatedly derided as “crazy” for his famous red-faced yawp.  Is the issue uniquely gendered?

    • Susan Donovan

      Yes., it happens to women more often (more consistently) than men– that’s not to say that it has never happened to a man. 

  • Pingback: The New Agenda » Blog Archive » Return of the Bug-Eyed Bachmann

  • Anonymous

    It is typical of the superficial mentality that her supporters are so obviously peeved by this photo of her looking slightly deranged. Go on any Palin or Bachmann fan site and you will constantly hear her supporters make inane statements like, “Oh, she’ll make a wonderful president. she is so glamorous.” Isn’t that just as sexist? I
    Maybe just maybe she looks like a lunatic because she actually is a lunatic, as any journalist who has reviewed her statements could see.  Okay, forget her rants, what about hiding behind bushes to spy on a gay rally? That completely inappropriate smooch of George Bush after his speech? 

  • fitz

    Apologies for the slight drift, but I have complained to my family about the feature photo editor at Newsweek for years.  The photographs of politicians, when used on the covers, seem to be chosen because they are unflattering, and the editor’s abysmal choice spares neither sex, age, nor political persuasion.  Even worse, the lighting is unimaginative.  I would use it for maybe shooting product for a grocery store flyer. 

    The importance of discussing the importance of sexism in the media that takes place in Bagnews elevates the merely incompetent editor to a higher status of  a knowing, willful manipulator of public sentiment.

  • fitz

    Apologies for the slight drift, but I have complained to my family about the feature photo editor at Newsweek for years.  The photographs of politicians, when used on the covers, seem to be chosen because they are unflattering, and the editor’s abysmal choice spares neither sex, age, nor political persuasion.  Even worse, the lighting is unimaginative.  I would use it for maybe shooting product for a grocery store flyer. 

    The importance of discussing the importance of sexism in the media that takes place in Bagnews elevates the merely incompetent editor to a higher status of  a knowing, willful manipulator of public sentiment.

  • Pingback: Latest Meme News |

  • tinwoman

    Somebody brought up the issue of plastic surgery and that part of the reason she looks this way is because she’s always having her face pulled.  I don’t know but face lifting, esp. recent might also account for some of this look.  It struck me as a very reasonable explanation.

  • APB

    Take a look at the photo here:

  • satanlovesvulva

    I’m not gay, but since I saw this picture of Michelle on the cover of Newsweek, I’m now leaning toward the south pole.

  • omen

    my first impression was that she looks like she just won the lottery. a visual representation of the sound a cash register makes while ringing. a cartoon version would place dollar signs over her eyes.

    but then i heard her prayer at an anti gay forum:

    “I thank you, oh God, that you are, literally right now, by faith
    you are lighting a fire, a fire of the Gospel that would sweep this
    city, but even more so that it would sweep Minnesota. And that
    Minnesota would just become a burning incense. A sweet-
    incense of praise and sacrifice into your kingdom.”

    now i think she looks like somebody hypnotized. this is the look of someone brainwashed into some fringey, out-of-the-mainstream cult.

    if it’s sexist to call this one particular woman crazy (as opposed to all women) then what defense have we when the lunatics take over the asylum? not calling out the elephant in the living room only lends more power to the elephant.

  • E76549

    Howard Dean and John McCain were said to be wild and crazy. It is not limited to female candidates.

  • Stan B.

    Illustrates, exposes, reveals, unveils, demonstrates… it “shows” as much as any one photograph can about the inner workings of any one individual- and whatever we (be it group or individual) want to read into it.

  • Randy McDonald

    In the case, what’s the point apart from producing an in-joke magazine cover?

  • Johnny Lewis

    She is crazy. Her words. Her actions. Her church. 

  • omen

    the main critique against hillary wasn’t that she was crazy. sure, people on the right might have called her that but she wasn’t saddle with that view of her.  a minority view (and one satirized photo labeling her as such) doesn’t equal an over arching narrative.

    being gutsy, tenacious, and ambitious won her admiration for having “balls,” hence she would get rendered in portrayals as male. which is sexist, i suppose, but also a compliment. even her critics acknowledged her skillful campaigning. crazy people typically aren’t complimented for their competence. conversely, the clinton campaign accused obama of lacking balls, which was sexist as well.

  • Irishdave3

    Sneaky of Tina Brown to exploit reality this way…unless of course in this specific case… this stereotype has no basis in reality.  

  • Irishdave3

    Sneaky of Tina Brown to exploit reality this way…unless of course in this specific case… this stereotype has no basis in reality.  

  • omen

    this sanction that bars politicking in church — how is this not a violation of first amendment rights? this is a rule that LBJ came up with in order dampening opposition to the vietnam war that was springing up in churches. has its constitutionality ever been tested? ironic how churches are denied rights that are awarded to corporations. aren’t churches people too?

Refresh Archives

Random Notes