Semiotic violence against women: Theorizing harms against female politicians

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Definitions of violence are contested, ranging from minimalistic conceptions privileging physical attacks to more comprehensive approaches recognizing a broad array of physical, sexual, psychological, and economic violations. Investigating the phenomenon of violence against women in politics, I theorize semiotic violence as a fifth form of violence against women, one that mobilizes sexist words and images to injure, discipline, and subjugate women. While perpetrated against individual women, these acts amplify gender inequalities by suggesting to the general public that women as a group are unworthy. Drawing on research in multiple disciplines, as well as a global database of news items collected between 2014 and 2019, I identify two modes of semiotic violence: rendering women invisible and rendering women incompetent. The first seeks to erase women as political actors and deny their right to speak and be heard in political debates. The second rejects women’s qualifications to serve in political roles based on gendered tropes related to temperament, knowledge, sexual objectification, and femininity. Semiotic violence is not only part of a broader continuum of violence, I suggest, but also the most widespread, concealed, and trivialized form of violence against women. Recognizing semiotic violence is thus important for both feminist research and activism, creating new vocabularies to speak about women’s experiences—and, in turn, challenging the structural inequalities that normalize these harms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)371-397
Number of pages27
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2022
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gender Studies
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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