On the Bias 10.23.15

Over the past two weeks, some political commentators have made comments that demonstrate persistent gender bias, from caricatures of women candidates to the supposed “chickification” of political news. Candidates  have revealed bias in comments on the trail, while voters’ post-debate comments may reflect the different standards to which men and women candidates are held. At the same time, the reflection on and backlash to perceived sexism may evidence evolution in our expectations of gender and politics.

(White, Older) Male Privilege

In last week’s Washington Post Style section, Paul Farhi bucks trends in appearance coverage of candidates by focusing on the men – and one man, in particular – in the presidential race. Asking “Why does Bernie Sanders dress like that?” Farhi answers, “Because he can.” His analysis moves beyond surface coverage of Sanders’ hair or wardrobe to explain that media and voters’ attention to appearance is often guided by expectations of gender, age, and race. Comparing Sanders to British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, Farhi writes, “Their age and gender (and perhaps their race) give them cover to flout expectations. Older men get a pass largely because we don’t place the same value on their physical being.” In contrast, women candidates are well-accustomed to heightened scrutiny of their appearance. As Farhi concludes, “An ‘older’ female candidate practically needs to seem regal to stand a chance.” This analysis speaks to the different standards to which political men and women are held.

In another astute analysis of voter reactions to the top candidates in the Democratic debate, Dara Lind highlights how female candidates can suffer from the types of “tone policing” that are rarely applied to men. She reviews three news outlets’ focus groups and concludes that participants perceived Clinton as too “tame” and Sanders as “strong.” Delving deeper, Lind relies on existing research to explain how women candidates – and women leaders more generally – are often cautioned to temper their tone to avoid characterizations as angry or shrill, while men’s aggressive tones are often perceived as signs of assertiveness and strength. Saturday Night Live even referenced this reality for women like Clinton in their parody of the Democratic debate, with Kate McKinnon – as Clinton – telling Larry David’s Sanders, “God it must be fun to scream and cuss in public. I have to do all mine into tiny little jars.” Policing women’s tone cuts to the heart of gender stereotypes and expectations that, again, set different standards for men and women’s behavior, particularly on the public stages on which campaigns are contended.

Characterizing Clinton

All political candidates are vulnerable to being reduced to caricatures of themselves by opponents or observers. In many cases, these caricatures rely upon or amplify existing stereotypes. Hillary Clinton is not new to this reality, but some recent analyses have reflected how caricatures of her are heightened by underlying gender assumptions. First, a soon-to-be-released book from Roger Stone titled The Clintons’ War on Women includes claims that Hillary Clinton has “beaten Bill, hit him with hard objects, scratched and clawed him, and made him bleed,” in addition to “terrorizing” her staff and Secret Service. This characterization of Clinton continues in a line of coverage and commentary that paints her as emasculating to the men around her, a charge frequently made against women in positions of power by those who associate women’s power with men’s loss of it.

In a recent interview on Fox News, Sheriff David Clarke characterized Clinton’s behavior in a different light, evoking sexualizing tropes to argue that she “is willing to prostitute herself to secure the Black vote.” In 2008, Clinton faced a similar charge when MSNBC’s David Shuster implied that her daughter Chelsea was “sort of being pimped out” by her campaign.


Gender bias comes in many forms and takes many targets. Aside from characterizations of women candidates, the past weeks’ news has evidenced gender bias in the ways in which commentators and candidates have spoken to and about women on the campaign trail. Most obviously, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh criticized a recent story in Politico that noted the dominant presence of women reporters in the Clinton campaign press corps, derisively calling it the “chickification” of the news – a phenomenon that he holds responsible for lax scrutiny of candidate Clinton. The condescending tone of Limbaugh’s comments was mirrored, in at least some observers’ perceptions, by Republican candidate Jeb Bush’s assertion at a recent forum that the newly-cast Supergirl is “kinda hot.” (See our last On the Bias for a discussion of how female candidates can also fall into traps of objectifying the opposite sex.) Finally, at a campaign stop in Virginia, Republican candidate John Kasich demonstrated how not to speak to women, calling on an 18-year old woman and pre-empting her question by saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any Taylor Swift tickets.” Reducing women – whether candidates, reporters, or voters – to chicks, bodies, or Swifties contributes to perceptions that male commentators or candidates are either overtly condescending or implicitly biased toward women in ways that do little to help them win over women.

Ready for a Woman

Rapper T.I. received swift and harsh blowback for his comments about the potential for a woman president, in which he claimed, “It’s kinda like, I just know that women make rash decisions emotionally. They make very permanent, cemented decisions – and then later, it’s kind of like it didn’t happen, or they didn’t mean for it to happen. And I sure would hate to just set off a nuke. [Other world leaders won’t be able to negotiate] foreign policy; the world ain’t ready yet. I think you might be able to the Loch Ness Monster elected before you could [get a woman elected].” While widely rebuked, these comments are consistent with a history of questioning women’s capacity to act as Commander-in-Chief (remember when vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro was asked on Meet the Press if she was “strong enough push the nuclear button”). Moreover, they evoke the most frequently-used stereotypes of femininity that work to women leaders’ disadvantage, including that of women’s emotional fragility.

Despite the many polls that show the American public is nearly universally prepared to vote for a woman for president, comments like these demonstrate that implicit biases against women leaders still exist. And while T.I. is just a single case in the news, it’s unlikely that he’s the only person to have doubts about a women’s capacity to lead. That said, the strong rebuttals against him also demonstrate that there is little tolerance among the American public for such overt bias, possibly indicating the evolution of public opinion and the ways in which it has influenced, or has been influenced by, the advancement of women at all levels of political leadership.