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date: 25 February 2021

Intersectional Stereotyping in Political Decision Makingfree

  • Erin C. CasseseErin C. CasseseDepartment of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware


Intersectionality is an analytic framework used to study social and political inequality across a wide range of academic disciplines. This framework draws attention to the intersections between various social categories, including race, gender, sexuality, class, and (dis)ability. Scholarship in this area notes that groups at these intersections are often overlooked, and in overlooking them, we fail to see the ways that the power dynamics associated with these categories reinforce one another to create interlocking systems of advantage and disadvantage that extend to social, economic, and political institutions. Representational intersectionality is a specific application of intersectionality concerned with the role that widely shared depictions of groups in popular media and culture play in producing and reinforcing social hierarchy. These representations are the basis for widely held group stereotypes that influence public opinion and voter decision-making. Intersectional stereotypes are the set of stereotypes that occur at the nexus between multiple group categories. Rather than considering stereotypes associated with individual social groups in isolation (e.g., racial stereotypes vs. gender stereotypes), this perspective acknowledges that group-based characteristics must be considered conjointly as mutually constructing categories. What are typically considered “basic” categories, like race and gender, operate jointly in social perception to create distinct compound categories, with stereotype profiles that are not merely additive collections of overlapping stereotypes from each individual category, but rather a specific set of stereotypes that are unique to the compound social group. Intersectional stereotypes in political contexts including campaigns and policy debates have important implications for descriptive representation and material policy outcomes. In this respect, they engage with fundamental themes linked to political and structural inequality.

Intersectionality—Origins and Overview

Intersectionality is an analytic framework for investigating categorical inequality. It maintains that looking at inequality linked to any one social division in isolation is misleading, because multiple categories of social division (i.e., race, gender, sexuality, class, (dis)ability) intersect in ways that are co-constitutive and mutually reinforcing (Collins & Bilge, 2016; Hawkesworth, 2006). It has also been defined more broadly as a way of framing category interactions, as a political orientation, as a normative theory of social justice, and as social justice praxis (Hancock, 2016). Intersectionality scholarship arose from black feminist scholars and activists who recognized that social movements linked to one axis of inequality in isolation (e.g., race-only in the civil rights movement or gender-only in the women’s movement) overlooked their experiences as both black and female, leaving their political interests and agendas largely unarticulated. The Combahee River Collective, a Boston-based black feminist lesbian organization, clearly articulated this perspective in their mission statement, stating that it is “difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives, they are most often experienced simultaneously” (Combahee River Collective, 1995, p. 234, cited in Cole, 2009). Asian American feminists made a similar argument about the critical need for a feminist discourse acknowledging that Asian American women “derive their identification and self-esteem from both ethnicity and gender” (Chow, 1989, p. 367; Shah, 1997).

The origins of intersectionality research are often attributed to Patricia Collins (1990) in the field of sociology and Kimberle Williams Crenshaw (1989, 1991) in the field of critical legal theory. However, their formulations of intersectional logic are heavily informed by earlier scholarship in other fields (e.g., hooks, 1984, in cultural studies), and from the insights of black feminists dating back to the 1830s who employed “intersectionality-like” thinking (e.g., Sojourner Truth in her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech) (Cooper, 1892; Robinson, 1851; for a detailed historical analysis, see Hancock, 2016). Parallel lines of intersectional thinking also developed globally through scholarship aimed at understanding inequality in colonial and postcolonial contexts worldwide (e.g., Mehta, 1999). All of this work shares a common interest in pursuing a more holistic understanding of how oppression functions by (a) shifting away from single-categorical analysis toward analysis of overlap, convergence, or intersection between multiple social categories and (b) re-conceptualizing power as relational and contingent rather than binary and fixed (i.e., a group either has power or it lacks power).

One key insight from research on intersectionality is that social categories overlap in ways that create distinctive experiences and material outcomes. Groups at category intersections are often rendered invisible by their social location, and intersectionality challenges us to carefully scrutinize interstices where this is likely to occur. In doing so, work in this vein breaks down essentialist perspectives on categories like race or gender. Thinking of members of a single social category in an essentialist way—in terms of sweeping generalizations about commonalities in their experiences and interests—obscures important heterogeneity within a particular category (e.g., Hawkesworth, 2006). For instance, research on gender-based economic inequality often sites a single wage gap to summarize earnings inequality between men and women (approximately 83 cents on the dollar). However, this single figure obscures significant variation among women, with black women making about 65 cents and Latinas making about 59 cents for every dollar earned by white men (e.g., Gould & Schieder, 2017). Shifting from a single gender gap to multiple gender-race-ethnicity gaps lends insight into the ways that intersectional disadvantage directly affects the material experiences of different groups of women. Thus, the goal of intersectional analysis is not an inter-category comparison, but more of a focus on intra-category heterogeneity, its origins, and its consequences (Bhattacharya, 2012; McCall, 2005). In this way, intersectionality “sheds light on the complexity of people’s lives within an equally complex social context” (Collins & Bilge, 2016, p. 25).

Researchers have grappled with how to best shift from a single-category to a multiple-category analytic framework, given that there are no clear methodological guidelines for doing intersectionality research (Bowleg, 2008; McCall, 2005). Hancock notes that “intersectionality demands a re-articulation of the relationships between what are traditionally perceived as conceptually distinct analytical categories of difference” (2016, p. 120). Over time, there has been a progression from thinking of intersections in terms of additive disadvantage—captured in terms like “double jeopardy” (Beale, 1979) or “multiple jeopardy” (King, 1988)—to a more interactive, multiplicative, or synergistic perspective (Dhamoon, 2011; Weldon, 2006). The underlying logic of the more additive approaches is that the categories are separable, and the disadvantage associated with each can be mechanically parsed out and then added back together to calculate an intersectional disadvantage. Scholars warn that this additive approach amounts to a kind of “double vision” in which category-based disadvantages are either inherently or explicitly ranked (Narayan, 1998, p. 266; see also Shah, 1997), contributing to an “oppression Olympics” kind of mindset (Martinez, 1993). Although most scholars recognize the limitations of additive thinking, it has been difficult for scholars to fully break from this mindset and the idea that different categories are in some way conceptually “severable,” particularly those working from empirical, positivist approaches (Hancock, 2016).

A second key insight emerging from research on intersectionality is an understanding of power that is relational and contingent rather than fixed and binary. Intersectionality research foregrounds power relations, allowing scholars to “investigate how material realities are structured by interdependent systems of domination” (Brown & Gershon, 2016, p. 4). Power dynamics associated with gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and identity—that is, sexism, racism, heterosexism—operate in concert and reinforce one another. They are “a series of interlocking systems that cut across conventional identity categories” (Cole, 2009, p. 175). From this perspective, various modes of oppression cannot be separated because they are part of the same overarching system. Collins and Bilge (2016) describe the relational aspect of power in the following way: “intersectional frameworks understand power relations through a lens of mutual construction” such that “power relations of racism and sexism gain meaning in relation to one another” (Collins & Bilge, 2016, pp. 26–27).

These intersecting axes of power do not yield a fixed power hierarchy. Instead, power and advantage vary across time frames, contexts, groups, and individuals. The concept of “dominant” and “subordinate” groups is somewhat muddied from an intersectional perspective, as groups at the intersections of certain categories are simultaneously advantaged and disadvantaged. For instance, white middle-class women may experience advantage based on their race and class status, but disadvantage based on their gender. Their experience of relative advantage and disadvantage and ability to exercise power varies across different contexts and conditions (see, e.g., Levine-Rasky, 2011), making their social and political position permeable or contingent. Thus, intersectionality is not simply a theoretical perspective on identity and its complexity but also a framework for analyzing power relations centered on understanding broader systems that create and perpetuate inequality. This mode of analysis is inherently political, as its emphasis on structural barriers to inequality “highlights the significance of social institutions in shaping and solving social problems” (Collins & Bilge, 2016, p. 17) and “views social categories in terms of individual and institutional practices rather than primarily as characteristics of individuals” (Cole, 2009, p. 172).

As an intellectual framework for understanding power relations and social inequality, intersectionality’s influence has been wide ranging, spanning academic disciplines in the humanities, law, and social sciences. It also has growing pop-culture cachet, with a significant conceptual presence on social media. This explosion of intersectionality-oriented thinking both inside and outside the academy has led scholars like Ange-Marie Hancock (2016) to comment on its “memetic” power.1 Memes inevitably mutate, and this mutation has spawned several distinct variants of intersectional scholarship, each of which focuses on a specific manifestation of intersectional power dynamics. These variants range “from political, structural, and representational intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989), to strategic intersectionality (Fraga et al., 2006; Bejarano, 2013), intersectional stigma (Strolovitch, 2007), and intersectional political consciousness (Greenwood, 2008)” (see also, Hancock, 2016). The sections that follow focus on the representational variant of intersectionality and its relationship to stereotypes and political cognition in the context of campaigns and elections.

Representational Intersectionality and Stereotyping

Representational intersectionality focuses on the role cultural imagery plays in producing and reinforcing hierarchies linked to race, gender, and other social categories. The term was original coined by Crenshaw (1989), who noted that common tropes of black women—such as those casting them as hypersexual—work against efforts to address the violence they face. Collins (1990) engaged with this same idea, but through a framework of “controlling images.” These images are widely shared depictions of groups that seek to normalize racism, sexism, and poverty. From both perspectives, common media representations of a group convey information about its traits, values, and experiences, powerfully shaping how the group is perceived by the broader public (Millard & Grant, 2006). Status and power interact to produce images of groups that convey stereotypes and evoke emotional reactions to the groups (e.g., intergroup image theory, see Alexander, Brewer, & Hermann, 1999). For instance, media coverage of poverty incorrectly depicts the poor as primarily consisting of blacks, particularly working-age men (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2007; Gilens, 1996; van Doorn, 2015). Research also shows that white women are often portrayed in media and popular culture as having positive feminine traits, while women from other ethnic groups lack these traits (e.g., Ginorio, Gutiérrez, Cauce, & Acosta, 1995; Harris Perry, 2011). This work points to the complexity underlying representations of seemingly singular groups like “the poor” and “women.”

For psychologists, these representations and controlling images are the driving force behind group stereotypes—the “cognitive, affective, and symbolic representations of social groups within society which are extensively shared and . . . are socially and discursively constructed in the course of everyday communication” (Augoustinos & Walker, 1998, p. 635). Although the terminology differs across fields of study, the underlying logic is the same: depictions of groups matter; they have power. Hancock (2016) recognizes this common thread among research across the diverse disciplines that employ an intersectional framework, writing, “Whether we are using the psychological concept of stereotypes, the anthropological concept of scripts, or a cultural studies’ understanding of narrative or discourse, intersectionality-like thinking emerges from all of these diverse arenas to contribute to both intersectionality’s visibility project and its project of reshaping categorical relationships” (p. 171).

As Hancock (2016) suggests, research coming out of positivist fields like social psychology and political science has often applied an intersectional framework to the study of stereotypes. Much of this work comes from the social cognitive tradition (e.g., Fiske & Taylor, 1991), which defines stereotypes as a set of widely shared beliefs about members of a group, which can include beliefs about their personality traits or behavioral patterns (McGarty, Yzerbyt, & Spears, 2002). Stereotypes have also been defined as “mental representations” of a group (Mackie et al., 1996, p. 43) and as schema used for social categorization (Fiske, 2010; Fiske & Taylor, 1984). Stereotypes simplify the characteristics of a group and generalize them to all of its members, creating an essentialized group representation.

The social cognitive perspective treats stereotyping as a natural strategy for coping with our limited info-processing capacities as humans in a complex social world. Stereotyping is meaningful as an information-processing strategy because social perception and intergroup behavior is influenced by the stereotypes linked to social categories (Cuddy et al., 2007; Kang & Bodenhausen, 2015; Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000), and their influence can operate outside of our conscious awareness (e.g., Devine, 1989). Although stereotypes are applied to many group-based categories, some of which are relatively banal, stereotypes associated with groups linked to more divisive categories like race, gender, class, sexual identity, religiosity identity, and (dis)ability status can have prejudicial and discriminatory consequences and thus play an important role in understanding intergroup attitudes and behavior. Stereotypes can “set up biased expectations, reinforce prejudices, and foster discrimination—even if we don’t personally endorse these beliefs” (Ghavami & Peplau, 2013, p. 113).

On some level, the very idea of intersectional stereotyping might seem a bit contradictory. Intersectionality research seeks to break through essentialized conceptions of groups, and stereotypes are simplified, essentialized conceptions of groups. However, research on stereotyping from an intersectional perspective shows that subgroups and associated stereotypes are an important part of political thinking and that efforts to look at one set of stereotypes in isolation paints an incomplete and even misleading picture of social and political cognition. Category boundaries and the meanings attributed to them are not static and discrete, meaning that social perception is a fairly complex endeavor (Kang & Bodenhausen, 2015). Thus, efforts to apply “intersectionality-like thinking” to stereotype processes have advanced the field.

Stereotype Content

Intersectionality informs the study of stereotyping in two primary ways: through a focus on stereotype content, including a closer look at heterogeneity within social categories, and by offering insights into the functional role of stereotyping. Early stereotype research focused on a single category at a time, leading to an overly simplistic understanding of cultural stereotypes and the sense that complex identities are reducible to their constituent parts (Ghavami & Peplau, 2013; Hurtado & Sinah, 2008). Increasingly, psychologists have recognized that intersectional approaches are required for better understanding social perception, which has tended to evaluate race and gender in isolation, rather than as mutually constructing categories (Goff, Thomas, & Jackson, 2008). What we think of as “basic” categories, like race and gender, operate conjointly in social perception to create distinct compound categories, such that stereotypes are not merely additive collections of overlapping stereotypes from each category, but rather a unique set of stereotypes that are specific to a compound social group (Ghavami & Peplau, 2013; Groom, Sherman, Lu, Conrey, & Keijzer, 2005). Thus, intersectional stereotyping can be defined as “stereotyping that is created by the combination of more than one stereotype that together produce something unique and distinct from any one form of stereotyping standing alone” (Doan & Haider-Markel, 2010, p. 71). In other words, intersectional stereotypes are qualitatively different from stereotypes associated with any single social category, because stereotypes combine synergistically and not additively (see also McConnaughy, 2017).

Much of the work on this topic has focused on identifying the stereotype profiles of intersectionally situated groups. One robust insight emerging from these efforts is that gender stereotypes are not applied similarly to women across racial groups and that white women are more likely to be described in gender-stereotypic terms than women from other race and ethnic groups (Coles & Pasek, 2017; Donovan, 2011; Goff, Thomas, & Jackson, 2008). Consistent with the idea of representational intersectionality, this difference can be traced to cultural representations of women (e.g., Ginorio, Gutiérrez, Cauce, & Acosta, 1995). When this work compares the stereotypes associated with single categories—for example, Men, Women, Black, White, Asian—to composite categories—for example, Black Woman, White Man—researchers find considerably more overlap between the profiles of a race-only group (e.g., Black) and the men in that group (e.g., Black Men) compared to the women in that group (e.g., Black Women).2 This suggests that when people make racial category inferences in isolation, they think primarily of the male members of the group. Alternatively, when people make gender inferences absent racial cues, stereotypes are more closely associated with white men and women than with men and women from other racial or ethnic groups (Ghavami & Peplau, 2013; Purdie-Vaughns & Eibach, 2008; Sue, 2004). These findings point to the importance of attending to category intersections and the ramifications treating distinct categories like race and gender as if they are severable from one another. The implications are that most of the existing scholarship on gender stereotypes is affected by implicit racial stereotype assumptions (i.e., whiteness) and that existing scholarship on racial stereotypes in affected by implicit assumptions about gender (i.e., maleness).

Another example of work that seeks to unpack the content of group-based stereotypes is the widely cited Stereotype Content Model (SCM) (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002). Although the SCM does not engage directly with the intersectionality literature reviewed here, the approach engages in “intersectionality-like thinking” (Hancock, 2016), in the sense that it considers evaluations of social groups defined by both single and composite categories. For instance, in their analysis of where groups fall on two primary dimensions of evaluation—warmth and competence—Fiske and colleagues find divergence in the spatial location of blacks when class distinctions are made. Evaluations of black professionals differ significantly from poor blacks. This insight about heterogeneity in attitudes toward subgroups of blacks based on a second categorical descriptor is an intersectional insight, though the model itself and the work supporting it are largely ecumenical about category composition and not self-reflective about the dangers of relying on single categories in isolation.

Stereotype Functions

In addition to unpacking stereotype content, work on intersectional stereotyping has also coincided with a greater focus on the functional role stereotypes play in political cognition and in the maintenance of social hierarchy and structural inequality. Early work on stereotyping was primarily concerned with its social function. For example, Allport’s (1954) seminal work, The Nature of Prejudice, explains that “whether favorable or unfavorable, a stereotype is an exaggerated belief associated with a category. Its function is to justify (rationalize) our conduct in relation to that category” (p. 191). Subsequent work on stereotyping in the social cognitive tradition moved toward a conceptualization of stereotypes as an individual-level phenomenon, and less attention was granted to their functions and origins. In the late 1990s, there was renewed interested in the broader social functions of stereotyping processes, given their connection to burgeoning system justification theories of social inequality. For instance, Augoustinos and Walker (1998) argued that “stereotypes are not the product of individual cognitive activity alone, but are also social and collective products which function ideologically by justifying and legitimizing existing social and power relations within a society.” They called for “an integrative social psychological theory of stereotyping which links the cognitive and psychological analyses of stereotyping to more social, structural, and discursive analysis” (p. 629).

From this viewpoint, people hold essentialist beliefs about social groups not just because of information processing demands or because they are cognitive misers, but because they are driven to rationalize the state of the world and to explain inequality (Jost & Banaji, 1994; Sidanius, Pratto, & Rabinowitz, 1994; Yzerbyt, Rocher, & Schadron, 1997). Group stereotypes play an important role in this ideological rationalization process, mainly by creating perceptions of distance between groups (e.g., Fiske, Dupree, Nicolas, & Swencionis, 2016; MaGee & Smith, 2013). For instance, work from the SCM perspective notes that class stereotypes are cultural products that support gaps between high- and low-income people (Durante, Bearns Tablante, & Fiske, 2017) and that stereotypes about blacks as less competent than whites (Bergsieker, Leslie, Constantine, & Fiske, 2012; Fiske et al., 2002; Krueger, 1996; Swencionis, Dupree, & Fiske, 2017) align predictably with perceptions of blacks’ low social status relative to whites’ (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2008; Durante et al., 2017), given how these stereotypes engage with core values like individualism and meritocracy (Fiske, 2015).

Linking this functional aspect of stereotype processes back to representational intersectionality, Collins and Bilge (2016) note that cultural representations of groups “manufacture messages that playing fields are level, that all competitions are fair, and that any resulting patterns of winners and losers have been fairly accomplished.” This is communicated through “shared scripts of gender, race, and nation that work together and influence one another” (p. 11). Ultimately, these rationalizations linked to stereotypes seek to normalize inequality and the status quo. Thus, stereotype processes are clearly implicated in the kinds of intersectional power dynamics central to the broader intersectional conceptualization of structural inequality when we attend to the functions they play.

An important task for intersectional research on stereotyping is to gain an improved understanding of both the content and functions of group stereotypes. Ultimately, there are concrete differences in material outcomes linked to intersectional stereotypes, controlling images, and dominant representations of social groups. Work focusing on the intersectional disadvantage experienced by black women shows that common cultural depictions contribute to a sense that black women aren’t viewed as credible victims in sexual assault cases (Crenshaw, 1991) and receive differential treatment in classrooms (Epstein, Blake, & Gonzalez, 2017; Razack, 1998), as well as to a host of material differences in health and well-being (Kang & Bodenhausen, 2015), income, and educational attainment (for a review, see Fisher, 2015; Major & O’Brien, 2005; Pager & Shepard, 2008; Sidanius & Veniegas, 2000). These representations of intersectionally situated groups also constrain efforts to address these problems through government action. Negative social constructions and stereotypes of beneficiary groups often feature prominently in opposition to policies aimed at reducing inequality—that is, the welfare queen and welfare reform policy (Hancock, 2004; Schneider & Ingram, 1993). They can also constrain efforts to elect descriptive representatives to government, by influencing voters’ perceptions of intersectionally situated candidates. Thus, intersectional stereotypes contribute to the creation and to perpetuation of group-based inequality through their effects on policy preferences and electoral behavior.

Intersectional Stereotyping in Campaigns and Elections

Voters often make stereotype inferences about political candidates during campaigns. Research shows that voters stereotype candidates on the basis of visible characteristics like their gender (e.g., Huddy & Terkildsen, 1993; Sanbonmatsu, 2002; Sanbonmatsu & Dolan, 2009), race, or ethnicity (e.g., Bejarano, 2013; Cargile, 2016; Sigelman, Sigelman, Walkosz, & Nitz, 1995; Sriram, 2016); but also on the basis of potentially less visible characteristics like religiosity (e.g., Berinsky & Mendelberg, 2005; Campbell, Green, & Layman, 2011; McDermott, 2007, 2009), and sexual orientation (e.g., Doan & Haider-Markel, 2010; Golebiowska, 2001).3 Stereotypes typically center on candidates’ personal traits and their ideological profiles, policy priorities, and policy strengths. For instance, women and African American candidates are often stereotyped as being more ideologically liberal than their white male counterparts (McDermott, 1997, 1998). Female candidates are also considered to have more feminine traits, like warmth, compassion, and cooperation, compared to male candidates, whereas men are seen to have an advantage on traits like strength, leadership, and independence (Huddy & Terkildsen, 1993; Schneider & Bos, 2014). Across studies, research also suggests that candidates described as other than white or male are stereotyped as championing particularized issue agendas and are viewed as more narrowly focused on policy issues designed to benefit their own group (e.g., Cargile, 2016; Schneider & Bos, 2011, 2014).

Much of this research as focused on stereotypes associated with a single candidate characteristic in isolation (i.e., gender or race, but not both) and is thus subject to an intersectional critique. That is, when only a single category is specified, people naturally make category inferences about the unspecified characteristics of the candidate (Ghavami & Peplau, 2013; Purdie-Vaughns & Eibach, 2008). As a result, most of the research on stereotypes of women candidates likely applies primarily to white women candidates, whereas work on racial stereotypes of candidates largely reflects stereotypes of men in those groups. However, research on stereotyping in campaigns and elections is increasingly adopting a more intersectional approach and investigating more complex, intersectional stereotype profiles, including subgroups and subtypes. Subgroups have stereotypes that largely overlap with the more general or superordinate group while also incorporating a few additional stereotypes. Subtypes, however, are seen as more distinctive from the superordinate and have distinctive stereotype profiles that overlap only modestly with the larger group, if at all (Richards & Hewstone, 2001; Schneider & Bos, 2011, 2014). Much of this subgroup and subtype research has focused on the intersection of gender with race or with sexual orientation, to highlight the importance of stereotype subtypes on voter evaluations of intersectionally situated political candidates. The sections that follow provide an overview of research on candidates at each of these intersections.

Candidate Race and Gender

The stereotypes associated with subtypes of women based on their race and ethnicity have distinct consequences for how they are perceived as leaders (Carew, 2016). Research finds that leadership hurdles are higher for women of color than for white women and men (Eagly & Carli, 2007; Sanchez-Hucles & Davis, 2010). For example, Rosette and Livingston (2012) find that black female leaders who made mistakes on the job are penalized more severely than either black male or white female leaders. They argue that black women are two degrees removed from the leadership prototype. Black men and white women fare better, as they can still rely on the advantage associated with maleness and whiteness, respectively. Others find that stereotypes about black women’s assertiveness are problematic because they conflict with general stereotypes about femininity, which are passive and more communal (Eagly & Karau, 2002). Black women and Latina political candidates also face disadvantages in terms of the content, tenor, and frequency of media attention, which has negative consequences for how these minority women are evaluated by voters (Gershon, 2012, 2013). Collectively, this work emphasizes the intersectional disadvantage facing minority women leaders, painting a rather dismal portrait of obstacles they face.

However, emerging scholarship on political candidates at race-gender intersections suggests these candidates are not universally disadvantaged, but that various locations at race-gender intersections convey a predictable mix advantages and disadvantages. For example, Philpot and Walton (2007) leverage both observational and experimental data to explore the viability of black women candidates and find “candidates belonging to two marginalized groups need not be doubly disadvantaged . . . Voters do not necessarily use one identity at the expense of the other when making political decisions. Rather, multiple identities can interact to create a separate single identity that can be used to evaluate candidates” (p. 49; see also Smooth, 2006). Although this work does not include direct measures of stereotypes, other research finds that black female candidates are stereotyped positively as competent, sophisticated, and knowledgeable about civil rights issues (Gordon & Miller, 2005). Black women candidates are also seen as more hard-working than white women, more trustworthy than white candidates regardless of their gender, and more ethical than white men, but also as more bossy and emotional than other candidate race-gender combinations (Carew, 2016). Thus, their stereotype profiles include both assets and vulnerabilities.

These stereotypes are not always applied consistently. Stereotype attribution is moderated by colorism, or the relative darkness of one’s complexion (Brown, 2014; Russell-Cole, Wilson, & Hall, 2013; Weaver, 2012). In experimental work on colorism and stereotyping, darker complexioned black women fared better on many trait evaluations but perform poorly in a hypothetical election contest, particularly when running against a white opponent (Carew, 2016). Stereotypes were moderated by skin color, with darker candidate complexions conveying a stronger racial cue, thus more strongly activating these stereotypes. Lighter skinned opponents are seen as less distinctive from white opponents on trait measures, meaning that stereotype attribution is conditional on candidate appearance (for more on candidate appearance, see Carpinella, Hehman, Freeman, & Johnson, 2016). Other visible identity markers that may influence perceptions of women in public life and their experiences of discrimination include wearing the hijab for Muslim women (Dana, Lajevardi, Oskooii, & Walker, 2018).

Research on agentic trait inferences also offers insight into the intersectional stereotyping of political candidates and its consequences. Agentic traits are central to perceptions of leadership ability (Eagly & Karau, 2002) but seem to place women in a double bind. Women leaders are discounted when they have agentic deficiencies (i.e., when they are perceived as insufficiently agentic for a leadership position) but also face an agentic penalty when they come across as excessively agentic (i.e., when they are perceived as too agentic for one’s prescribed gender role) (Rudman, Moss-Racusin, Phelan, & Nauts, 2012). Thus, generally, female candidates must simultaneously avoid displaying too much or too little agency. Race-gender intersections complicate this pattern. Black women possess more agentic and dominant stereotypes than other groups of women, and this provides an advantage in avoiding perceptions of agentic deficiency (Galinsky, Hall, & Cuddy, 2013; Rosette, Zhou Koval, & Livingston, 2016). In addition, because there is a widespread stereotypic expectation surrounding black women’s agency, they do not experience the same backlash as other groups of women when expressing agentic qualities (Livingston, Rosette, & Washington, 2012; Rosette et al., 2016). Thus, the stereotypic double bind surrounding agency seems to apply more to white women’s leadership than to black women’s leadership.

Asian American women are an interesting counterpoint to the agentic stereotypes of white and black women because they are seen as agentic, but primarily in terms of competence rather than dominance (see also the model minority stereotype, Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000; Lin, Kwan, Cheung, & Fiske, 2005). As a result, Asian American women are stereotyped with high leadership potential and often need to provide less evidence of competence than white women to be recognized in the workplace (Williams, 2014). However, because Asian American women’s agency is tied to the competence dimension of agency rather than the dominance dimension of agency, they are often seen as deficient on interpersonal skills. Their agentic advantage is context dependent—the stereotypes that might advantage Asian woman leaders in professional positions in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) or related professions (Sy et al., 2010) may be problematic for political careers that require strong interpersonal skills and charisma. Also, because Asian women are expected to be more meek or submissive, they are susceptive to an agentic penalty or backlash when trying to address this deficiency by expressing more interpersonal dominance (Berdahl & Min, 2012; Ono & Pham, 2009; Williams, 2014). Collectively, this work highlights how much race matters when trying to understand stereotypes associated with women leaders (for a review, see Rosette et al., 2016).

Although this work on agentic trait attributions did not include Latinas, other work suggests an intersectional framework is also useful for understanding voters’ perceptions of Latina candidates. Much of this work focuses on strategic intersectionality—or how Latinas can leverage their more positive stereotypes to their electoral advantage. Although Latinas are rated poorly in terms of their performance on masculine policy issues (Cargile, 2016), they can leverage their stereotypic competence on feminine policy issues, their political experience, and their strong community ties into electoral success—particularly when running in racially diverse areas and against white men (Bajarano, 2013; Lavariega Monforti & Gershon, 2016). Latinas may also have advantages over their male co-ethnics, in that their “multiple identity advantage” allows them to more readily form cross-group coalitions, and their “gender inclusive advantage” affords them the opportunity to deflect racism with gender-based appeals (Fraga et al., 2006).

Much of the scholarship reviewed in this section is motivated by observations that women candidates of color are often more successful than their male co-ethnics when pursuing higher office (e.g., Bajarano, 2013; Philpot & Walton, 2007; Smooth, 2006). Work on the subordinated male target hypothesis (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999) and the theory of gendered prejudice (McDonald, Navarrete, & Sidanius, 2011) might account for this discrepancy, as both perspectives argue that black men face discrimination of greater severity and intensity than black women. Thus, a key insight from this work is that theories of double jeopardy and double disadvantage are not an inevitable obstacle for intersectionally situated candidates. There is no neat hierarchy of advantage or disadvantage. This work recognizes that minority stereotypes do not apply equally to all minorities, but depend on other category memberships, aspects of a candidate’s appearance, and aspects of the electoral contest itself—such as the characteristics of one’s opponents (Philpot & Walton, 2007) or the electoral district (Bejarano, 2013). Understanding how intersectional stereotypes can be leveraged to achieve political goals is an important step in gaining a more rounded perspective on both voter biases and candidate viability based on candidate characteristics.

Candidate Gender and Sexual Orientation

Intersectional stereotyping research has also explored the intersection of candidate gender and sexual orientation. Voters generally express less willingness to vote for gay candidates relative to straight candidates (Doan & Haider-Markel, 2010; Golebiowska, 2001; Herrick & Thomas, 1999). Work in this area has predominately compared gay and lesbian candidates to heterosexual candidates, though scholars have identified the need to better address diversity based on candidates’ gender identity and sexual orientation in order to learn more about how the stereotype influences the electoral prospects of bisexual, transgender, other queer, or nonbinary candidates (Haider-Markel et al., 2017; Kluttz, 2014). Gay men and lesbians are typically stereotyped as possessing the traits of opposite-sex heterosexuals (Kite & Deaux, 1987), with female stereotypes associated with gay men and male stereotypes associated with lesbian women. This same pattern is true of political candidates: lesbian candidates are rated more favorably in terms of their ability to handle stereotypically masculine issues, consistent with the idea that lesbians are viewed as more masculine than heterosexual women. Gay male candidates are viewed as less competent on stereotypically masculine issues (Doan & Haider-Markel, 2010). This suggests stereotypes linked to sexual orientation are inherently intersectional; they depend on sexual orientation and gender simultaneously.

Golebiowska (2001) finds that the prototypicality of gay candidates also influences how they are viewed by voters. Using reactions to actors delivering a campaign speech, she finds that stereotypic gay male candidates face a greater penalty among voters than stereotypic lesbian candidates in terms of viability and leadership capacity, which seems to reflect a generalized preference for masculinity. However, the picture is more complicated when comparing evaluations of male and female survey participants. Men discounted candidates who violated gender role expectations, meaning both stereotypic gay and lesbian candidates. Women preferred the non-stereotypic (i.e., masculine) gay candidate and the stereotypic (i.e., masculine) lesbian candidate. This study raises an interesting question about how group stereotypes might resonate differently with different types of voters—one that applies broadly to scholarship on intersectional stereotyping.

Research on gay candidates suggests that stereotypes are not just natural inferential processes, but are invoked intentionally in negative campaigning. For instance, in a series of interviews with gay male political candidates and officeholders, Golebiowska (2000) finds that political opponents play on stereotypes of gay men in both subtle and explicit ways in negative campaigning. For instance, asking “Would you want this man to kiss your baby?” or arguing that a gay candidate is “inappropriate to serve on a school board” or a poor role model for children is intended to activate negative stereotypes casting gay men (but not lesbians) as sexually predatory and deviant (Golebiowska, 2002, pp. 597–598). This suggests that group-based stereotypes can be sources of vulnerability for candidates who are purposively targeted by their opponents. Future work topic must attend to the conditions and contexts under which stereotypes are more and less salient, and thus more or less likely to influence voter decision-making.

Implications—When Do Stereotypes Influence Election Outcomes?

It is worth noting that scholars are divided as to how much stereotypes influence candidate evaluations and vote choice. This disagreement is often attributed to methodological differences between studies. However, there are examples of both observational and experimental work on both sides of the debate over whether stereotypes matter. For example, in the scholarship on female candidates, Dolan’s (2014) observational work and Brooks (2013) experimental work both suggest that women candidates are not disadvantaged by gender stereotypes. Alternatively, work by Nichole Bauer (2015) uses both experimental and observational data to show that gender stereotypes can be activated under certain conditions, and work to disadvantage female candidates. Similarly, Holman, Merolla, and Zechmeister (2016) find that terrorism primes can activate voters’ use of gender stereotypes in evaluating elected officials. Thus, disagreement in this literature does not stem from a particular methodological orientation per se, but instead from divergent expectations about the application of stereotypes: Are stereotypes consistently applied to women candidates, or is their application more contextualized, depending on their salience or activation in particular campaigns or broader political contexts?

Work on stereotyping in social psychology takes a more contingent perspective on stereotyping, in line with the idea that stereotypes must be activated by contextual factors in order to influence candidate evaluations. For example, in a review article on stereotyping and system justification, Augoustinos and Walker (1998) write that the body of research “does not suggest that a stereotype is always applied, consistently and in every context, but that it is a particular kind of ‘cognitive resource,’ or even an ‘interpretive repertoire’ which is relatively stable, shared, and identifiable” (p. 642). Instead, both contextual and individual level factors influence the activation and application of stereotypes. These contextual factors might include the use of stereotypes by the media and in campaigning (e.g., Bauer, 2015; Cassese & Holman, 2017; Holman & Schneider, 2018) or the level office being contested (e.g., executive and national offices voters prefer masculine traits and issue competences [Fox & Oxley, 2003; Smith, Paul, & Paul, 2007; but see Dolan & Lynch, 2016]). Group-based stereotypes are thought to be especially powerful in low-information contests, where little individuating information about candidates is available (Matson & Fine, 2006; McDermott, 1997, 1998; Koch, 2000) or where voter motivation is relatively low (Popkin, 1994).

Ultimately, a richer understanding of stereotype processes informed by intersectionality research may afford greater insights into issues surrounding descriptive representation—the idea that citizens desire representation from an elected official that shares one or more of their politically relevant attributes (Pitkin, 1967). Descriptive representation has often been linked to positive outcomes for minority citizens, including higher levels of political engagement and reduced political alienation (Banducci, Donovan, & Karp, 2004; Barreto, Segura, & Woods, 2004; Bobo & Gilliam, 1990; Mansbridge, 1999, 2003; Pantoja & Segura, 2003), more favorable evaluations of one’s representatives in Congress (Branton, Cassese, & Jones, 2012), and beneficial policy outcomes (Reingold & Smith, 2012). Many Americans lack descriptive representation, and work on intersectional stereotyping may afford new insights into obstacles facing intersectionally situated candidates and raise different strategic considerations for candidates based on their race, gender, and sexual orientation.


Intersectional stereotyping is a fledgling interdisciplinary subfield that has offered significant advances into our understanding of political cognition. Extant work in this area shows the utility of applying an intersectional lens to an established field of inquiry. Much of the work on stereotypes in the political science and social psychology literatures has explored one group stereotype in isolation, ignoring the other category inferences made implicitly and automatically by survey respondents in this highly artificial circumstance. Some work has explored stereotypes associated with composite categories (e.g., comparing “poor blacks” to “black professionals” [Fiske et al., 2002]), but this work has not necessarily been systematic about theorizing at category intersections.

Work on intersectional stereotyping is rectifying this oversight and offering new insights into the stereotype profiles of intersectionally situated groups. One key insight here is that stereotype profiles are not simply additive (e.g., the stereotypes associated with black women include stereotypes of blacks plus stereotypes of women), but are qualitatively distinct from the stereotypes associated with any single category in isolation. This is consistent with intersectional scholarship—that what occurs at intersections follows an interactive, multiplicative, or synergistic mechanism rather than an additive one, in which individual category memberships can be separated and later reconstituted (Dhamoon, 2011; Weldon, 2006). A second key insight is that intersectional stereotyping is not inherently disadvantageous but that under some circumstances intersectional stereotypes can be leveraged strategically to a candidate’s advantage (e.g., Bejarano, 2013). This finding highlights the importance of thinking about privilege and disadvantage simultaneously, and how group members navigate the more and less privileged aspects of their category memberships (e.g., Hancock, 2009; Levine-Rasky, 2009). This insight is helpful in thinking though the contingent and contextualized nature of stereotypes and their political consequences.

Although this article focused on intersectional stereotyping in a single domain, this work has a wide range of applications for the study of voter behavior, public opinion, and policy debates. For example, stereotypes of voters are often intersectional. Smooth (2006) notes this in her development of “the new back voter” as a bloc of highly mobilized black women voters. Prior blocs of women voters are similarly intersectional; for example, “soccer moms” in the 1996 election were characterized as “the suburban, middle class, white mother of school age children” (Smooth, 2006, p. 407). “Security moms” and “Nascar dads” are also social constructions of voters that are gendered, raced, and classed. These stereotypes may not be accurate (e.g., Elder & Greene, 2007), but they likely have implications for how appeals to groups of voters are constructed and whether these appeals resonate. Social constructions of social program beneficiaries often reflect important intersections between race, class, and gender; and stereotypes of these recipient groups condition program support across a wide range of policy areas (Hankivsky & Corimer, 2011; Schneider & Ingram, 1993; Steinbugler, Press, & Johnson Dias, 2006). For instance, characterizations of welfare recipients as “welfare queens” in welfare reform narratives drives down support for welfare programs (Foster, 2008; Hancock, 2004). And support for pay equity policy and government-subsidized childcare programs also depend on the race and class of women characterized as program beneficiaries (Cassese, Barnes, & Branton, 2015; Cassese & Barnes, 2017). Intersectional stereotypes also have implications for how the public views protestors and condition popular support for social movements and their political objectives (McConnaughy, 2017).

Given that work on intersectional stereotyping is in its early stages, there is still much to be done and many new insights to be gained. Future work should take care to engage directly with the intersectionality literature and consciously theorize around category intersections. Part of this theorizing should acknowledge that intersectionality is more than just exploring manifestations of identity politics, and also involves using these social categories as analytic concepts for interrogating structural power dynamics associated with category membership. For instance, Hancock (2009) cautions that “mobilization of intersectionality as an analytic framework is more than the usage of multiple categories in the analysis of campaigns, elections or candidates” (p. 99). Perhaps her intention here is to encourage us to think more broadly about the system justifying functions of stereotypes and how they relate to hierarchies of power (as Jost & Benaji, 1994; Sidanius, Pratto, & Rabinowitz, 1994, and others would also suggest). Stereotypes are inherently tied up in hierarchical thinking, and people make power and status evaluations relatively automatically. As Van Berkel, Crandall, Eidelman, and Blanchar (2015) note, “Hierarchy may have a psychological advantage over equality in that it is familiar, rehearsed, socially efficient” (p. 44). As a result, it is important to attend to the broader issues underlying these intersectional stereotypes—both in terms of their origins in cultural representations of groups and the social hierarchies they bolster.


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  • 1. This has benefits and also drawbacks, namely conflation of intersectionality with identity politics and a diminished conceptual clarity surrounding the intersectional framework (Hancock, 2016). The term “identity politics” refers to the centrality of one’s group identities, along with the meaning and significance they personally attribute to them, for their political thinking and behavior. Intersectionality, by contrast, takes a broader perspective that relates group-based identities to power imbalances and inequalities, emphasizing the structural factors that contribute to these imbalances and inequalities.

  • 2. This was true for all of the racial and ethnic groups examined by Ghavami and Peplau (2013), with the exception of Asian Americans (see also Schug, Alt, & Klauer, 2015, who find Asian American women are considered more typical of their race than Asian American men).

  • 3. Some of this literature has focused on the stage at which a candidate comes out to the public; candidates who come out at the outset of their campaigns typically face more stereotypic inferences based on their sexuality (e.g., Kluttz, 2014).