There has been no shortage of gender bias in the presidential race since our last installment. Donald Trump’s attacks on women (and men) in the race continue to evoke gender tropes and sexist tone. But Trump’s comments are not alone in their reliance on, or reinforcement of, gender stereotypes. In fact, in responding to Trump, some candidates and commentators fall into the same traps of gendered rhetoric.
Trump Doubles (and Triples) Down on Gender Bias
For those looking for evidence of sexism in the presidential contest, Donald Trump continues to provide it. Over the past few weeks, Trump has employed gendered attacks on (at least) Carly Fiorina, Hillary Clinton, Ben Carson, and Jeb Bush. The most publicized attack came in Trump’s interview with Rolling Stone, when he said of Fiorina, “’Look at that face!’ he cries. ‘Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!’” Trump’s commentary on Fiorina’s attractiveness exemplifies a challenge for female candidates, who are subject to greater scrutiny of appearance to the detriment of being taken seriously as candidates for office. However, to Fiorina’s benefit, the response was swift and strong against Trump’s comments. While Rush Limbaugh told his listeners not to “feel bad for Carly,” many prominent politicians came to her defense.
Most importantly, and consistent with research finding the most effective responses to sexism are immediate ones, Fiorina responded quickly and effectively herself and through her PAC. In a speech to the Federation of Republican Women in Arizona, Fiorina told the crowd, “This is the face of a 61-year-old woman. I am proud of every year and every wrinkle.” That comment, which evoked huge cheers and a sense of female camaraderie, was clipped in a highly effective and much shared video produced by CARLY for America PAC called “Look at This Face.” In some media interviews, Fiorina also used humor to respond to Trump’s comments that Trump may just be flirting with her. Fiorina won the greatest praise – from women and men alike – for her response to Trump’s comments in last week’s GOP debate. When CNN’s Jake Tapper raised the issue, Fiorina succinctly stated, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” She quickly pivoted back to policy, undermining attempts to shift the focus of the debate, ensuring that she was not accused of “playing the victim,” and refusing to engage directly with Trump as he (and the moderators) would have liked.
Trump’s rebuttal only further reflected his willingness to reduce women to their appearance, as he said of Fiorina, “I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman.” In a similar substitute for an apology to Jeb Bush’s wife Columba, Trump said that he hears “she’s a lovely woman.” Trump’s continued inability to praise – or critique – women on substance over style was noted by many commentators, as well as Hillary Clinton, and exemplifies the patronizing and dismissive tone that attempts to undermine perceptions of women’s capacity to take on leadership roles. Fiorina may have summarized the problem most clearly in her recent interview with People, explaining, “The point is, whether a man thinks you’re homely or a man thinks you’re beautiful, it’s not a topic of conversation when a woman is trying to do a job – whether it’s president of the United States or secretary or anything else.”
While some may have thought Trump would learn a lesson from the backlash to his comments on Fiorina’s appearance (and earlier comments attacking commentator Megyn Kelly), he continued to take on the women in the race with stereotypical slights in the past week. On ABC’s This Week, he complained that listening to Carly Fiorina for more than five minutes gives him a headache. Similarly, he described Hillary Clinton’s voice as “shrill” to a South Carolina crowd on Wednesday. Though Trump argued that he is just as likely to refer to men as “shrill,” the reality is that he has not done so to date – and these types of attacks are far more commonly waged on women, whose higher-pitched voices are denigrated in a context where masculine authority is communicated through vocal tones and styles most associated with men. By arguing that he simply can’t listen to women, Trump (and others) ignore and diminish the content of women’s comments and, thus, the substance of their campaigns.
Is there a Double Standard?
Some commentators have defended Trump, arguing that the responses to his comments are evidence of a double standard whereby similar comments by women do not yield equal levels of outrage. For example, while not excusing Trump’s behavior, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow reminded readers that Carly Fiorina was caught making derogatory comments about opponent Barbara Boxer’s hair in her 2010 Senate campaign. Trump has used the same story to attack Fiorina’s hypocrisy for arguing that focusing on women’s appearance is degrading while doing the same. Trump and others are not without a valid point here, as the impact of sexist attacks on women candidates does not discriminate by the gender of the attacker. However, it is worth noting that Fiorina’s hot-mic comments were not intended to be public, while Trump’s comments were on-the-record, and his defense of them only demonstrated his willingness to “double down.”
A double standard is also worth exploring in considering the target of attacks. Trump has noted that focus on his appearance, especially his hair, is ubiquitous in news media and opponent comments. Just last week, for example, Hillary Clinton compared Trump’s hair to “soft serve at Dairy Queen” in her Tonight Show appearance. Are these attacks sexist? And could they have similarly detrimental effects on Trump’s candidacy? Research shows that focusing on a woman candidate’s appearance damages voter evaluations of her qualifications for office in a way dissimilar to men, who are not damaged by appearance coverage. The gender stereotypes through which we perceive candidates and digest campaign information may help to explain this finding; expectations of femininity are explicitly tied to beauty, while masculinity is more commonly associated with strength (physical or otherwise) than attractiveness. Though the effects of commentary on candidates’ hair, looks, or voices may be different for women and men, these claims of a double standard are worth examining and push us to better understand the many – and divergent – ways in which gender dynamics function for both women and men in political campaigns.
Men are also Subject to Sexism
Like women, men are subject to gender stereotypes and, thus, sexist attacks. One way in which critics or opponents have sought to undermine male candidates has been to question their masculinity. In the Republican contest to date, proving you are “man enough” for the job has been a clear goal among all candidates, including Carly Fiorina. Donald Trump, however, has gone further in raising doubts about the masculinity of his opponents in subtle but persistent ways. For example, he has repeatedly criticized Jeb Bush and Ben Carson for their lack of energy, even posting a video to Instagram that claimed listening to Bush would act as a sleep aid. While these attacks may not appear overtly gendered, they question the strength and virility of male candidates that is essential to the heroic masculinity of executive, and presidential, office.
Trump has also been a target of claims against his masculinity, with pundit Rich Lowry claiming that “Carly cut his balls off” in the last GOP debate. This comment perpetuates stereotypes that masculine strength and virility are necessary credentials for presidential success and, moreover, that women’s successful competition is emasculating to their male opponents.