WASHINGTON — Democrat MJ Hegar is 44 going on 70, according to a recent ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee that transforms Sen. John Cornyn’s opponent so her hair looks gray and her skin sallow and gaunt.
Hegar was not amused with the photo, which she originally tweeted in June in support of National Gun Violence Awareness Day — but Republicans were quick to note that her campaign has applied similar digital techniques to Cornyn photos.
It is common for campaigns to digitally alter images of an opponent, giving their skin an unnatural hue, making the picture darker or using slow-motion to make them look ominous.
But scholars who study gender and politics say that since the physical appearance of women has historically defined the way they are viewed and treated in a society run by men, female candidates are uniquely targeted by the sort of editing that gets easier every election. And they expect to see more of it in the presidential campaign now that Joe Biden added Sen. Kamala Harris to the Democratic ticket.
“The physical appearance of female leaders can be expected to be quite important in how members of society view them and ultimately would vote,” said Maria Elizabeth Grabe, professor of media at the University of Indiana at Bloomington. “How women appear visually might very well matter more in politics than how men appear.”
Shortly after Biden’s announcement, the NRA posted a doctored photo of the two Democrats, warning they intend to dismantle the Second Amendment, exaggerating the former vice president’s forehead and turning Harris’ face into something reminiscent of a scarecrow.
“Emotional appeal is critical — especially for women candidates,” Pamela Conover, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said after reviewing the doctored photo of Hegar. “She goes from being middle-aged and serious to being somewhat older and menacing.”
Hegar spokesman Jake Lewis called it a “cheap trick” by the NRSC.
“I don’t doubt that 2020 has given me a few gray hairs, but c’mon,” Hegar tweeted. “This doctored image from Cornyn’s DC cronies made me do a double take! Politicians resort to tricks when they can’t win on their message.”
Cornyn campaign spokesman Travis Considine distanced the senator from the NRSC’s tactic, going so far as to criticize the GOP’s Senate campaign arm — which Cornyn chaired for four years.
But he said, Hegar is not above reproach. He cited a tweet she shared that showed Cornyn not wearing a mask at the Senate. Cornyn routinely does cover his face except when speaking, and the photo at issue was taken as he was about to speak to reporters after a Senate GOP lunch on July 28.
“It was wrong of the NRSC to alter that photo of MJ,” Considine said. “No woman should be portrayed that way.… I think we can all agree that a person’s physical appearance and matters of public health should never be politicized.”
NRSC spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez called Hegar’s complaint hypocritical, noting that in mid-July, her campaign produced a video that applied a red filter to Cornyn’s face, making him look demonic.
“To suddenly have a problem with filters just weeks after her own team used one on a video of Senator Cornyn, underscores this is a transparent attempt to stay relevant as she desperately relies on national Democrats to bail out her struggling campaign,” Rodriguez said by email.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, compared changing an opponent’s picture to changing an opponent’s words, calling it “a boundary that should not be crossed” by either party. She said photo editing like that done in the NRSC ad can be especially damaging for women because “it activates a range of stereotypes in women that we don’t have available to stereotype men,” Jamieson said.
Women who are considered to be too young and pretty are not considered to be smart, and they are often subject to sexualization that aims to delegitimize them and make them appear less serious, said Mary Angela Bock, associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.
Shortly after former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was announced as John McCain’s vice presidential pick in 2008, a picture of her was doctored to make it appear like she was wearing an American flag bikini and holding a rifle.
But when women are older, they are considered to be less sexually attractive and therefore invisible, she said. It is not the same case for men.
“Men, as they age in public life, are considered more patrician, more paternal, older, wiser,” Bock said.
In the photo, Hegar was made to look not just old, but harsh and witch-like, Grabe said. Female leaders tend to be looked at favorably when they are portrayed as motherly and nurturing, so opponents believe portraying them as harsh could hurt their credibility, Grabe said.
“That was what got Hillary Clinton when she first ran,” Grabe said, referring to the 2000 Senate campaign in New York, when Clinton was still first lady. “Even in her early days running for the Senate, she was presented as a person without emotion. Hard, overly ambitious. Women do not do well when they are put in that frame.”
But Clinton won that race, and reelection six years later. She served as secretary of state under Barack Obama after losing the 2008 nomination to him.
As the first woman to run for president on a major party’s ticket, Clinton was the “object of an enormous amount of stereotyping,” Jamieson said. Her image has been distorted countless times — for instance in June 2016, five months before losing the general election to Trump, when a doctored photo purporting to show her smiling beside terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden went viral. Another doctored image of her went viral on Facebook for years, where Clinton was edited to appear older and more haggard with red eyes, unruly hair and a garishly colored tropical tunic.
Operatives in both parties have been caught altering photos to make women opponents look older, harder and harsher.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee enhanced a photo of GOP Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona to emphasize facial wrinkles earlier this year, for instance.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also been targeted, Grabe said. Just last week, a video of Pelosi edited to make her appear drunk and slurring her words went viral on Facebook. It is the second time this year an altered video of the speaker has gone viral. The first video, tweeted by the Trump campaign in February, was edited to make it seem like Pelosi ripped up the president’s speech while he was saluting a Tuskegee airman.
Images of female candidates can be more effectively distorted because they tend to wear more colorful clothing and makeup that gives more color variance to work with in Photoshop and similar software, Conover said.
“If you have an unsmiling man dressed in a dark colored suit without makeup in an original photo, it is harder to tweak it to change the tone and the age,” she said.
The scholars expect online trolls to edit photos of Harris to insult her femininity and her blackness.
Already during the Democratic primaries, “She was visually represented as an angry, harsh woman,” Grabe said. “You can expect her ethnic background to be part of the narrative. We know Black women are very often portrayed as angry.”