On the Bias 11.17.15

There has been no shortage of gender bias in news, commentary, and candidate remarks over the past few weeks. In this installment of On the Bias, we talk about expectations of being a lady, the double standards that gender and party/ideology impose, and the gender lens through which we view anger and aggressive behavior.

“Little Lady” and Lady Candidates

At a Carly Fiorina campaign event in New Hampshire, a male member of the audience posed a hypothetical to the GOP’s only female candidate: “This little lady in the red dress goes to the White House, and you have this entrenched bureaucracy. How do you break it apart?” Responding with a smirk, Fiorina told him, “Don’t you worry, this little lady’s plenty tough,” before moving on to a substantive answer. This encounter, little reported in media (included in the middle of a Concord Monitor candidate profile), is a reminder of the differences by which voters perceive men and women candidates. It’s not only the unnecessary reference to Fiorina’s appearance that matters, but, more importantly, the traits that the term “little lady” connotes – traditional (cue “appropriate”) femininity, weakness, and a lack of seriousness – all traits that contrast with those credentials demanded of executive candidates.

CNN reporter Dana Bash also reminded voters that Fiorina and Clinton were the ladies in the race when she asked Republican candidate Lindsay Graham to play a tamer version of the game “F***, Marry, Kill.” To the (understandable) shock of some other reporters in the room, Bash asked Graham to choose which woman he would date, marry, or make vanish among Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, and Sarah Palin. Reducing accomplished women candidates to potential love interests – or worse, victims — reinforces traditional gender role expectations that position men as dominant and women as subordinate. Interestingly, Bash’s choice to pose this question to Graham also reminds us of our discomfort with single men – urging them to prove their (heterosexual) masculinity by expressing a clear interest in having a female partner.

Double Standards?

The fact that a female reporter perpetuated these gender norms may surprise some who either assume women are incapable of sexism or hold women to higher standards in promoting a more gender equal world. But the truth is that sexism is neither perpetuated only by men nor targeted only to women. Male candidates for president, for example, have been subject to claims that they are not manly enough to be commander-in-chief, or that their weakness blights their masculine credentials for the job. In some cases, women have been the ones to tell their male counterparts to “man up,” and – elsewhere – women have reinforced gendered rules of the game that work to the disadvantage of women candidates.

Another recent example in the 2016 race came when the women of The View criticized Carly Fiorina in the last Republican debate, saying she looked “demented” and comparing her face to a Halloween mask. The comments were called out by other women in media and, eventually, by Fiorina herself. However, even when Carly Fiorina confronted the co-hosts directly when she appeared on the program a week later, Whoopi Goldberg opted not to apologize and instead asked Fiorina when she was going to “steel her skin” to these sorts of attacks.

Fiorina and others have noted that the backlash to this incident was tempered by her partisanship, assuming there would be much more made of similar remarks if they targeted Hillary Clinton. This may very well be true, if history with women like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann is any guide. But I would argue that there might be another double standard evident in this event: male commentators or candidates criticizing Carly Fiorina’s looks would evoke a different response, especially if they doubled down the way that The View’s co-hosts did. We would talk about men reducing women to appearances and note their patriarchal tendencies. But men and women both play by gendered rules of the game and are equally capable of the types of gender policing that work most often to women’s disadvantage.

Interestingly, it was another View co-host, Joy Behar, who vocalized this point after another attack on Carly Fiorina last week. Reflecting on Hillary Clinton’s response to a male audience member who claimed that he wants to “strangle” Fiorina when he sees her on screen, Behar explained, “Let’s be fair. If somebody had said that to Donald Trump and he had laughed, we would be ripping him a new one and [Clinton] did not — she should have stood up to him. I’m sorry, I have to say that.” (She makes a strong point – recall that when Tucker Carlson said he “involuntarily” closes his legs when he sees Clinton on screen, Media Matters immediately called him out and the clip lived on post-election). Behar was not the only one to criticize Clinton for laughing off the man’s comment. Carly Fiorina told FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly that the lack of media coverage of the comment exemplified the “clear double standard” in media, arguing, “If this happened with the conservative candidate, the liberal media would be all over and asking to apologize and all the rest of it.” Would the response of media, supporters, and feminist advocates have also been different if the comment and response occurred at a Bernie Sanders event? Probably so.

“Shouting” and Sexism

Another recent flap reflects this particular sensitivity to men’s inattentiveness to the gender binds that women often face. Bernie Sanders derided people for “shouting about guns” soon after Hillary Clinton criticized him on the issue in the Democratic debate. While Sanders was not speaking directly to or about Clinton, Clinton added a thinly-veiled reference to it in her stump speech, telling audiences, “I’ve been told to stop, and, I quote, ‘shouting about gun violence.’ Well, first of all, I’m not shouting. It’s just, when women talk, some people think we’re shouting.” Much of the debate around these comments has been to ask whether or not Sanders was being sexist, but Emily Crockett at Vox provides the important nuance by which to analyze this case. She writes that asking whether Sanders was sexist is the wrong question, instead explaining: “The flap between Clinton and Sanders is about something different from the outright sexism that Sanders swears he didn’t intend. What Clinton was pointing out was a subtler, more pervasive kind of discrimination — and the disbelieving response of both the Sanders campaign and the media shows why she was right to bring it up.”

That subtler, more pervasive kind of discrimination toward women includes criticism of aggression and hearing women’s voices differently than we hear men’s. It was evident in the strategy Clinton employed at last month’s Benghazi hearing, when “not losing her cool” was a mark of her success not just because of the setting, but also because a response deemed too emotional or aggressive would easily be labeled unstable and irrational. But don’t take my word for it – a new research experiment by Dr. Jessica Salerno finds that in the context of debate, men tend to gain influence as they become angry, while women tend to lose it. Salerno opts for a more optimistic take on the findings: “The message here is that we should all be very aware of the biases we express without meaning to. I don’t think women should have to change how women speak about things. … I would definitely not advise women to temper their anger when they’re talking about something they’re passionate about, especially when men can do it at no cost.” However, women running for office have had to temper their emotion – whether anger or otherwise – in order to navigate the biases that shape their path to political office. So Bernie’s comments probably weren’t sexist, but he was sure able to shout them in a tone that few women could employ without critique or penalty.

Yes, we are hair again.

In case you thought we might have moved beyond critiques of Hillary Clinton’s hair, Matt Drudge took this “debate” to a new level last week when he made it the topic of his site’s front page. Drudge claimed that Clinton must be wearing wigs, posting a series of tweets and posts perpetuating his theory. Don’t worry – Donald Trump weighed in with his thoughts as well. It’s easy to roll your eyes and move on after seeing these remarks, but the research shows that promoting attention to women’s appearance can have real negative effects on voter perceptions of her seriousness and qualifications to lead. And, really, are we here again? (see a brief history of “public fascination with Hillary’s hair” in this recent TIME piece)