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Why this song could not have been written about a man. The high price of being a woman in politics

Luba Kassova | January 11, 2023
Why this song could not have been written about a man. The high price of being a woman in politics Why this song could not have been written about a man. The high price of being a woman in politics

This opinion piece was first published in Bulgarian by the Bulgarian news provider

“Tired ..., a hungry hyena, I enter the office ... with a moustache on, tarted up and ready for battle, without a penny in my pocket ... at this hour…I was promised salaries but all I see are beds…”, I listen to the degrading song just released on the internet about Lena Borislavova, previously Head of Cabinet in the former Bulgarian PM Kiril Petkov’s government, who withdrew from politics following a sustained media attack on her for an alleged affair with Petkov. The song unveils three important sexist stereotypes about women in Bulgaria, and to a greater or lesser extent globally: that women sell their bodies to get ahead in life while their intelligence is ignored as an irrelevance; that women who strive for positions of power are overly ambitious and aggressive “hyenas”; that women will use all means necessary, including sex and corruption, to ‘crawl’ out of poverty. Predictably, the song also attacks what is seen as the female protagonist’s main asset - her appearance – the denigration of which would lead to her ultimate annihilation.

This song could have not been written about the former PM (an equal participant in the alleged affair) or indeed any other man. It could only have been written about a woman. Why? Because of the asymmetry in how men and women are judged: attributes which are perceived as positive in men are deemed negative in women. So whilst it is admirable for a man to show ambition in seeking a powerful job, it is shameful for a woman to do so. Whereas men are judged on performance and achievements but never on appearance, the judgement of women rests far more on appearance, especially sex appeal, than on potential or professional achievements.

Although the song’s narrative has plumbed new depths in its weaponizing of women for political gain and its vulgar expressions of sexism, none of its messages are new when it comes to Lena Borislavova’s portrayal in Bulgarian news media. This has provided a window onto Bulgarian society’s belief system about women and their role in politics or other public spheres. In 2022, when news coverage of the scandal of her alleged affair with the then PM Petkov eventually drove her out of politics, I was taken aback by the unfiltered abuse she was subjected to in the media, referencing this in my latest report From Outrage to Opportunity, which was released globally at the end of last year and covered in many leading publications globally.

A portrayal analysis of 24 of the highest-ranking Bulgarian news articles on the topic on Google between 15 th June and 29 th August, conducted by AKAS, unearthed that the media had viciously attacked Borislavova but not Petkov. Moreover, the attacks were not anchored in political arguments but were rather of a personal nature. 

58% of the analysed articles on the alleged affair contained a sexual reference to Borislavova, 33% made reference to her appearance and the same proportion described her in derogatory terms. One article bore the headline: “Seduced and abandoned. The fate of much trash”. Others referred to her as pushy, fiery or an ambitious brunette. A major Bulgarian newspaper ran an article that included this particularly damning statement: “There is a Bulgarian saying: ‘She washes his feet and drinks the water.’ It refers to women who tend to men in power, and instead of being looked after, are turned into pathetic concubines.” Regrettably, only 38% of the articles gave voice to Borislavova herself. As she reflected on her decision to withdraw from politics, “Being involved in politics in Bulgaria has its price”.

According to a 2017 Eurobarometer survey on gender equality across all 28 EU nations, Bulgarians rank second in believing that gender equality has been achieved in leading positions in organisations, and fourth in believing that there is no problem with the way women are represented in media and advertising.

Yet, unlike men, women in Bulgarian news are often portrayed in a traditional, submissive, and offensive light. They are also marginalised in coverage. My team’s analysis of the GDELT global news database uncovered that in 2022 men were 3 times more likely to be referenced in Bulgarian news than women (compared to twice as likely globally).

The answer to this seeming conundrum of perceptions of achieved equality and the gender unequal reality lies in the pro-male biases and traditional values that define the belief system of Bulgarians. For example, across all EU countries, Bulgarians are the most likely to believe that a man’s most important role is to earn while a woman’s is to care for her family. Bulgarians are the 7 th most likely to believe that women lack the necessary qualities/skills to hold positions of responsibility in politics.

For change to occur, it is crucial to recognise that, contrary to popular belief, the coverage of women in news media is far from equitable. Even experts defending Borislavova, like the psychologist Ani Vladimirova, referred to her in interview on Nova TV as “the girl” while the song’s creators were “the men”. This unconscious choice of words immediately positions Borislavova as a less authoritative figure in the eyes of society. The good news is that 82% of Bulgarian journalists believe that their journalism should promote tolerance and cultural diversity. What better way to do this than to follow this simple but powerful advice offered by prominent British journalist Mary Ann Sieghart on the question of tackling gender bias: “…Whenever a journalist is writing about a woman, he or she should always ask themselves, ‘Would I have said this about a man?’ So when gratuitous comments on what women are wearing, what they look like, their hairstyles, their voice are made, ask yourself, ‘Would I say this about a man?’, and if the answer is no, then delete them.” We must delete quite a bit of what we are habituated into writing about women in news coverage, before women like Borislavova stop being forced out of the public arena and our lives become more equitable and fair.


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