Donald Trump’s sexist comments in and since last Thursday’s debate are enough to fill this week’s On the Bias post. However, while Trump’s behavior (which we will analyze in greater detail in a forthcoming post) is a clear reminder that we are not operating in a “gender-neutral” world, his comments are not the only evidence of gender dynamics at play in the 2016 race.
Those Crazy Women
Trump’s thinly-veiled comments about Fox host Megyn Kelly’s “bleeding” reincarnated a well-established trope used to undermine women’s seriousness, implying that women’s hormones – instead of their intellects – guide their behavior. As Carly Fiorina rightly told Jake Tapper on Sunday’s State of the Union, this is not a new type of attack on women, especially those in powerful positions. In 1972, Dr. Edgar F. Berman, a member of the Democratic Party’s Committee on National Priorities, argued that women’s “raging hormonal imbalance” made them unfit to hold top executive positions. In 2008, author and Fox News pundit Marc Rudov’s initial response to Bill O’Reilly’s question about the “downside of having a woman become president of the United States,” was, “You mean besides the PMS and the mood swings, right?” And let’s not forget G. Gordon Liddy’s concerns about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination: “Let’s hope that the key conferences aren’t when she’s menstruating or something, or just before she’s going to menstruate. That would really be bad. Lord knows what we would get then,” he quipped on his radio show in May 2009.
Beyond overt mentions of women’s menstruation have been characterizations of female candidates as crazy or unstable, drawing upon the same stereotypes that paint men as serious and women as emotional or irrational. Just last week, USA Today posted a column titled “Hillary Clinton’s Personality Deficit Disorder,” cuing the “crazy” caricature that can demean a candidacy. Michele Bachmann faced similar characterizations as the “crazy” candidate in her 2012 bid for president, from Newsweek’s cover calling her “The Queen of Rage” to Matt Taibbi’s (Rolling Stone) characterization of her as, “completely batshit crazy … grandiose crazy … crazy in the sense that she’s living completely inside her own mind.”
Women candidates are not the only victims of these characterizations. In his reporting on Donald Trump, MSNBC host Chris Matthews argued that the Republican women who support him must be crazy. On Friday’s Hardball, he asked guest Stephanie Schriock, “Are there women out there that like, in the old school, they would be the ones making the sandwiches for the guys’ poker game? Are there women who just like macho guys, even this kind of rough behavior? I guess there must be some…” While Matthews’ question about how Trump retains women’s support in spite of his sexist comments is a legitimate one, the collective dismissal of women’s positions as evidence of preferred subordination rings eerily similar to long-held claims that irrational women must depend on rational men to guide them in politics and in life.
The Labor of Listening to Ladies
In retaliation to her denunciation of his comments about Megyn Kelly, Donald Trump took to Twitter on Sunday to ridicule Carly Fiorina, writing, “I just realized that if you listen to Carly Fiorina for more than ten minutes straight, you develop a massive headache.” Trump’s tweet raises yet another line of attack often weighed against women – that their voices are grating. A May 2015 piece in The New Republic analyzed 2016 candidates’ voices with linguistic professor Carmen Fought, wherein she explained, “There’s an idea that men and women talk differently, that men are from Mars, women are from Venus. That’s really misleading. The biggest difference is in how men and women are perceived, and our ideas about how women should talk and how men should talk.” Men, the article claims, are supposed to be assertive, loud, and competitive, while women are supposed to be soft-spoken, cooperative, and helpful. As Frought concludes, “No matter who’s saying something, a man or a woman, they’re being judged on their language via their gender.”
Frought notes that the scrutiny of women’s voices is especially high – as has been evident in recent debates over women’s vocal tendencies – and top female candidates face particular scrutiny of the way they speak. Like Trump’s jab at Fiorina, Hillary Clinton has been ridiculed for her “cackle,” “shrill” vocal tone, and changing accent. In another Fox News segment in 2008, Marc Rudov explained, “When Barack Obama speaks, men hear, ‘Take off for the future.’ And when Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, ‘Take out the garbage.’” Rudov’s comments focused on her tone, but Marco Rubio’s claims in last Thursday’s debate that Hillary Clinton can’t “lecture” him on living paycheck to paycheck may have evoked a similar sentiment that paints Clinton as a “nagging wife” or “shrill mother.” While recent debates over “policing” women’s voices have addressed women across generations and sectors, the policing of political women’s voices reflects another way in which gender shapes treatment and perceptions of presidential candidates.
Leveling – or Lowering – the Playing Field?
Women and politics research has shown that voters and media often pay more attention to women candidates’ hair and hemlines than they do to male candidates’ appearance. Moreover, that attention is particularly damaging to voter evaluations of women candidates’ qualifications for office, according to research from Name It. Change It. So does leveling the playing field for men and women candidates mean ridding of appearance coverage overall, or subjecting both men and women candidates to it? Within the past few weeks, there have been multiple examples of appearance coverage of the women in the presidential race, from Page Six’s breaking news of Hillary Clinton’s haircut to the Washington Post’s claims that Fiorina’s wardrobe selections (“sundresses over suits, pink over black”) are meant to “play up her femininity.” But Clinton and Fiorina are not alone in media analysis of their style choices. The Daily Beast posted a “makeover montage” of all Republican candidates, criticizing the majority of conservative contenders for looking “too drab” and tying their style faux pas to their capacity to lead. Bustle also analyzed candidates’ appearance, male and female, ranking all candidates by their hair. While neither piece claims to be a serious analysis of candidate credentials, the extension of appearance coverage to all 2016 contenders raises both questions and concerns over whether “leveling the playing field” for men and women on this dimension is actually lowering the quality of coverage. Moreover, while these pieces allow media and pundits to argue that there is no gender bias in the degree to which candidates’ appearances are scrutinized, the Name It. Change It. research provides an important reminder that the effects of appearance coverage are substantively different – and more damaging – to women.
Finally, focusing on a woman’s appearance easily blurs into sexualizing her in ways that detract from the seriousness of her candidacy. When David Webb Show host David Webb asked the audience during an interview with Carly Fiorina, “How many of you know what her Twitter handle is?” a Republican National Committee member yelled, “Hot babe?!” Fiorina quickly replied, “I can’t believe you just said that!” Unfortunately, many observers and scholars of women and politics, and women candidates themselves, can believe it. Stereotypical expectations of women’s femininity are frequently tied to sexuality and attractiveness, measures by which male candidates are less frequently evaluated (though not immune from) as candidates for office.
The goal of any campaign is to prove that you are the best candidate for the job and, second, to prove that your opponents are unfit to serve. As a result, discounting candidates’ experience is a common tactic of any campaign. However, both the ways and degree to which a candidate’s qualifications are undermined often reveal gender dynamics at play. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) faced some backlash last week for the way in which it criticized Carly Fiorina’s credentials for the presidency. In a tweet during the Republican debate, the DNC argued that Hewlett Packard’s losses under Fiorina’s leadership undermine her claims that her business experience has prepared her for the presidency. That claim alone would not have evoked much of a response had it not been paired with a GIF of a pig-tailed little girl in a pink jacket (at the same time that Fiorina wore a pink suit) expressing confusion or disbelief. Fiorina supporters quickly painted the tweet as sexist, and its attempt to infantilize Fiorina stands at the root of those claims. If the DNC’s tweet evidences how the way in which experience is questioned can be gendered, Scott Walker’s repeated talking point about Hillary Clinton’s lack of experience provides evidence of how the degree to which qualifications are undermined can rely upon and reinforce gender expectations. Walker has repeatedly asked audiences on the stump, “For all of her notoriety, what has [Clinton] accomplished?” Discounting a decades-long resume in one fell swoop, Walker’s comments may not be particularly gendered in intent, but might be in effect. Women candidates (and the political strategists who work for them) often describe the need to credential themselves more than their male counterparts – to prove they are qualified for the job, especially in positions like the presidency, where there is no precedent for women’s officeholding. When their opponents exaggerate or emphasize their inexperience, they mine a gendered vein of attack that works to simultaneously discredit and raise doubts about women’s capacity to lead.