A Question of Relativity: The Role of the News Media in Shaping the View of Women in Asian Political Dynasties

By Lynette Lithgow

A paper by Lynette Lithgow, spring 2000 fellow (deceased), attempts to explain why Asia has consistently produced more women heads of government than any other region in the world, despite a lack of empowerment for the ordinary Asian woman. This paper examines the forces that have helped to propel a number of women onto center-stage in the Asian political theater and, in particular, the role of the news media in this process. It explores the link between media portrayal of the dramatic rise to political power of some Asian women, the values inherent in journalistic commentary on their political governance, and its potential impact on the way women and leadership are perceived in much of Asia. Looking broadly at Asian women political leaders, but in particular at newspaper coverage of former President Aquino of the Philippines and President Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka, this study explores three main themes: 1. The “mediation process” in the media portrayal of widows and daughters of assassinated Asian leaders and the way in which public opinion may have been “guided” towards perceiving them as the rightful heirs to political power. 2. How journalists have presented widowhood and bereavement as potent political assets. 3. The gender stereotyping of these women in newspapers which has promoted and perpetuated prejudice and perhaps shaped public expectation of them as politicians. The study ends by pointing to several important questions that arise from the research that may have far-reaching significance on the prospects for women in politics in Asia.

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