Kamala Harris: Beauty Tropes, the Media and Politics

The need for anti-racist and anti-sexist journalism has never been greater. Only by smashing through the glass screen can we begin to break the glass ceiling.

By Rebekah Pierre

When Kalama Harris shattered America’s highest glass ceiling to become the first black female VP, the media could have focused on any number of her faculties– her intellect, charisma, or progressive values.

If she were a man, perhaps the headlines would have read ‘Author rewrites history books by becoming VP’, or ‘Former lawyer to lead the land’. Her cerebral accomplishments would have dominated the top line – male politicians are perceived in line with traditionally masculine qualities such as intellectualism or wit, as opposed to outer appearances.

In contrast, much of the media coverage of Harris’ victory was vapid, patronising, and painfully cliché. 

The day after the election result, a UK national newspaper was criticised by MP Karl Turner, amongst others on twitter, for peddling sexist stereotypes with the following headline: 

Why Kamala Harris is the Modern Beauty Icon the World Needs‘.

This would have been perfectly acceptable were it not for one superfluous word – ‘beauty’.

It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with the desire to be beautiful; despite patriarchal stereotypes, attractiveness and intelligence are not mutually exclusive.

There is a time and a place for celebrating beauty– and doing so the day after one of the most significant breakthroughs for women in the US’s political history was not one of them.   

The media is already saturated with carefully curated images of gorgeous women – not a day goes by when their existence escapes our notice. But it isn’t every day a woman of colour becomes the US Vice President. In fact, that is a once in 231 years type of deal.

But it wasn’t just the headline that was problematic. The article itself, which outlined Harris’s ‘tricks to youthfulness’ was both misogynistic and infantizing.  When youth is fetishized, it furthers the idea that beyond a certain age, women are destined for the proverbial scrapheap.

Kamala Harris is stunning but there is so much beyond the surface. So rather than waxing lyrical about her “power pearls”, why can’t the media just discuss her power full stop? And instead of hypothesising as to whether or not she wears a wig, why not speculate as to what makes the brains beneath tick?

Professor Sunny Singh, whose research interests include social justice, equality and intersectional representation at London Metropolitan University, says such features “intend to undermine women leaders. In a cultural, wider discourse, we have a long history of judging women who are well dressed or beautiful as frivolous, shallow or superficial”.

And sexist attitudes in the media go beyond appearance and into the domestic realm. Singh continues “earlier today, Angela Merkel was asked by a journalist about doing the laundry. This is one of the most important leaders of the world”.

Double Standards

Some may argue that beauty editors are simply doing their job by running features such as these. Several news outlets have jumped on the beauty bandwagon, from Pop Sugar, to Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue, who have written on everything from her head to her feet. 

But Singh challenges this “seemingly benign” coverage, saying “the relentless focus on looks, clothing and style is often crouched in an idea of ‘positive coverage’, so it is plausibly deniable. But the fact remains that the underlying narrative is that a woman is only worth her appearance”.

Singh also points out the ‘double standards’, and the absence of equivalent beauty articles on male politicians.

Indeed, when the former VP Mike Pence secured his position in 2016, the headline ran by the same newspaper read ‘Mike Pence: Donald Trump’s VP will soon be the second most important man in Washington’.

Not one reference to his physical appearance was made in the entire article, because it was irrelevant. Just as Harris’ appearance bears no relevance to her competency.

A quick look at google trends shows that combining Harris/Pence’s names with the term ‘beauty’ have polar effects. In August, Harris received a peak value of ‘100’ for the combination. Whereas for Pence, not enough data was found. This reveals an awful lot about the unequal treatment the media affords to men and women.

In fact, only one beauty article appeared for Pence at all, questioning whether or not he had Botox. So granted, he wasn’t immune to being scrutinised for his looks. But there is simply no comparison.


By running features which focus on Harris’ appearance, the media portrays women as being little more than ‘pretty props’ in politics, giving rise to sexualisation.

For women of colour, sexualisation is compounded by the context of historical and systemic racism, which is linked to “imperial Christian moralities” says Singh, who explains “it’s the idea of the virginial pure white woman versus this kind of hyper-sexualised woman of colour”.

Already, there have been attempts to sexualise Harris’s past. “From day one” explains Singh, “there have been smears about sexual favours”.


Kimberle Crenshaw, a lawyer, civil rights activist and scholar, described ‘Intersectionality’ as “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other” in an interview with Time.

Applying this lens to Harris, she experiences a double jeopardy due to gender and race.

Based on gender alone, it is astonishing she made it to office at all, given the US ranks 75th globally in women’s representation in government.

But for Harris, who is the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, this gender bias is exacerbated by racism, stacking the odds ever more against her favour.

Beyond Beauty

Living up to her name, which translates to ‘Lotus’ in Sanskrit, Harris’s exterior may be pretty, but beneath this lies incredible resilience.

As described in her autobiography, “A lotus grows under water, its flowers rising above the surface while its roots planted firmly in the river bottom.”

Forging a career in a male-dominated industry, she was often the most senior female in the room. Simply existing in such spaces meant breathing in the toxic air made stagnant by centuries of institutionalised sexism.

More than enough has been written about Harris’s flowery surface. But not enough attention is afforded to what lies beneath. Here are a few of her academic achievements:

Education – Her sights were already set political acclaim when she majored in political science and economics at Howard University, before completing a law degree at the University of California.

Legal activism – Harris was the first black woman elected as the district attorney for San Francisco in 2003. Specialising in child sexual abuse cases, she fought  against child prostitution, by reframing underage girls as victims, not offenders.

In 2011, she served as California’s attorney general. Here, she defended California’s landmark climate change law, helped secure marriage equality, and prosecuted international traffickers.

Written work – Harris has authored two non-fiction works, ‘Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer’ andThe Truths We Hold: An American Journeyand ‘Superheroes Are Everywhere’, a children’s book.

The majority of the population will never hear about these achievements, which means Harris’ 2D portrayal a beauty prop may go unchallenged – forever.

The need for anti-racist and anti-sexist journalism has never been greater. Only by smashing through the glass screen can we begin to break the glass ceiling.

Image Credit: NumenaStudios / Shutterstock