Why Bernie’s Finger Wagging Matters

Sometimes, a presidential candidate says something, and it’s immediately clear that gender dynamics are at play. And no, I’m not going to go through all of the examples Donald Trump has provided us with (but here’s a list from Huffington Post, just in case you need one).

bernie-fingerSometimes, however, it’s less clear. At Sunday night’s Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, Bernie Sanders said to Hillary Clinton: “Excuse me, I’m talking.” Was that remark inherently sexist? Well, there’s a lot of disagreement about that, aptly summed up by Margaret Hartmann at New York Magazine.

Words matter. A lot. But images matter too. If someone glanced at the TV while the debate was on mute, they would have seen Sanders pointing his finger at Clinton and seemingly invading her personal space. Is that image fraught with gender dynamics? You bet.

Some say that is just Sanders’s style, and his interaction would have been the same if Clinton were a man. While it may be true that Sanders would act the same, regardless opponent, the gender dynamics of the situation would have been different. Women are taught to be consistently aware of their personal space. Even when invasions of that personal space are innocent, or slight, or accidental, there is a power dynamic at play.

Research shows that women tend to occupy less space in public, while men are “more likely to have their legs spread at a 10- to 15-degree angle and keep their arms 5 to 10 degrees away from their bodies.” Turns out that “manspreading” is real. In other words, women have less space to begin with. And, as any woman who has taken public transit, tried to work her way through a crowd, or gone toe-to-toe with a man in a meeting knows, it feels as though women’s personal boundaries consistently receive less respect than men’s do.

Does Sanders know about the gender dynamic at play? He should. After all, Rick Lazio was criticized for invading Clinton’s personal space almost 16 years ago. As the Washington Post’s Janell Ross points out, Sanders “has almost certainly had the same advice and information that every male candidate gets about the need to be constantly mindful about coming across like a chauvinist or a bully when on a debate stage facing a female competition.”

So, did the podium placement and camera angles matter in this case? Of course. But we can’t blame it all on CNN.