On the Bias 10.9.15

There is no strict formula for identifying and evaluating gender bias. In fact, the elusive nature of bias is what makes it so pernicious. However some questions can help to measure whether the political playing field is equal to the men and women who run. One of the most basic: would we treat (or react to) a behavior in the same way if it was performed by a male or female candidate? If not, it merits additional evaluation to determine whether the gender difference in response or reaction is rooted in gender stereotypes.

Funny or Nay?

In her recent interview with Hillary Clinton, Lena Dunham mentions musician Lenny Kravitz’s recent wardrobe malfunction, where he accidentally exposed himself on stage. In the clip posted on Funny or Die, Clinton tells Dunham she “missed that,” but adds, “Do you think I could get that on YouTube?” Dunham says yes, and Clinton says, “Good, I’ll look for that.” While some commentators saw the exchange as harmless banter and others saw it as another attempt by Clinton to humanize herself, still others – like Fox’s Megyn Kelly – criticized the exchange as unpresidential. Viewing the exchange through a gender lens, however, yields a slightly different response. If a male candidate had made a similar joke about a woman’s breasts, he almost certainly would have been accused of sexism – at least by some. Whether fair or not, the standards by which we would have evaluated similar behavior would likely be different, whether due to the persistent objectification and sexualization of women or due to the different degrees to which we perceive men and women as motivated by sex. If two men joked about a woman’s exposure, the characterization of their conversation would not likely be a “pajama party,” as Frank Bruni described the Clinton-Dunham exchange; more likely, it would evoke the locker room talk often assumed among men.

Calculating Authenticity

Commenting on reports that Joe Biden leaked his final conversation with his dying son Beau to the New York Times, Andrew Prokop asks his readers to “imagine how the press would react if Hillary Clinton did what Joe Biden just did.” While his analysis focuses on the contrast of characters, with Clinton perceived as calculating and Biden as authentic, his commentary alludes to potential gender bias in these evaluations. Being perceived as authentic, a concept earning much attention thus far in the 2016 race, can present distinctive challenges to women and men, whether due to the axes by which that authenticity is measured or the standards by which it is earned. For women candidates, the pressure to prove professional and political credentials can present hurdles to humanization. Authenticity is also tied to gender expression, whereby being authentically male is most associated with meeting the expectations of executive office, but masculine behavior is assumed inherently inauthentic for women candidates.

Prokop’s claim that Clinton would have been called calculating (or worse) for the same behavior attributed to Biden is likely true and clearly tied to Clinton’s history and persona. But that history and her persona cannot be entirely detached from her gender, which has long informed the expectations to which she is held and the lens through which she is evaluated by voters and pundits alike. (See also this piece by Michelle Goldberg on why Clinton’s gender prevents her from matching Biden on likability.)

Spousal Scrutiny

Candidates are not the only campaign actors who face gender differences in expectations and evaluation. As previous posts have noted, candidates’ spouses frequently face stereotypical role expectations that assume dominant, masculine candidates and dependent, feminine wives. Most obviously, this leaves female candidates and male spouses as abnormal inhabitants of the presidential partnership. Speculation about Bill Clinton’s discomfort in a secondary role, connected to commentary like this claiming that Hillary Clinton would find a woman to fit the role of first lady, assume that no man would take on the “helpmate” role expected of female spouses. While the scrutiny of a potential first gentleman focuses on his capacity (or willingness) to do the job, the female spouses of some 2016 presidential candidates are exposed to the surface – and sometimes sexist – treatment that remains more common to women. Take last week’s New York Times profile of Melania Trump, which opened by setting a scene where she was posing, bikini-clad, on a seal of the Oval Office (“Lying prone on a rug adorned with the Great Seal of the United States, the woman who might someday be first lady is wearing high-heeled sandals and a crimson bikini.”) From the start, the profile focuses on Trump’s appearance and profession (as a model) as contributing to her unlikely profile for a presidential spouse. That focus on style over substance was even more blatant in the proliferation of social media memes that have criticized Candy Carson, Ben Carson’s wife, for her wardrobe and appearance, comparing her to Michelle Obama. Even in calling out this unfair treatment, The Root’s Demetria Lucas D’Oyley fell into the trap of accepting that there is an ideal image of our potential first lady, writing “Are there sexist and, in this case, racist underpinnings that make appearance matter more in certain circumstances? Absolutely. But until those “isms” are dismantled, women absolutely need to look as if they at least tried, especially when they’re up for a role they really want.”

While these commentaries on spouses’ appearance conform to gendered tropes of attractiveness, another commentator praised Candy Carson for her adherence to traditional gender roles. Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin called Carson the “anti-Michelle Obama,” arguing that Carson “revels in her role as family matriarch and life partner in her husband’s endeavors,” while Obama is overly critical and outwardly uncomfortable in a support role. Malkin’s contrast assumes that the appropriate role for wives is a secondary one, ceding to – and bolstering – the desires of her husband. That assumption, and the gender role stereotypes to which it is tied, contributes to the ease by which we discount the seriousness and substance of candidates’ spouses and focus instead on appearance and adherence to gender and familial norms.