In this edition of On the Bias, we highlight reminders of the dominance of masculinity in expectations for and evaluations of presidential candidates, including references to candidate sexuality. We review the ways in which questions about integrity may affect women differently than men, and analyze commentary of this cycle’s female candidates that paint them as protectors or victims.
A Man’s Game
In addressing Senator Mark Kirk’s (R-IL) characterization of Republican candidate Lindsay Graham as a “bro with no ho” last month, another Republican candidate – Rick Santorum – told reporters: “Guys will be guys,” adding, “Look, people — this is locker-room conversation” that should not be held against anyone. Regardless of his – or anyone’s – position on Kirk’s comments, the comfort with which we accept sexism as simply “guys being guys” acts as a reminder of the dominance of masculinity and transference of masculine power across all spaces – from locker rooms to congressional committee rooms. It’s in these spaces that women are often unwanted or unwelcome – as a May New Yorker cover made so vividly clear.
Sexuality and “Swimsuit Competitions”
Research, including an evaluation of the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns by Dr. Susan Carroll and me, shows that female candidates are often subjected to more blatant evaluations of sexuality than men. While sexuality tropes and stereotypes are often evident in coverage of and commentary on candidate appearance, a recent episode of Rush Limbaugh provided a more literal evaluation of Hillary Clinton’s sexuality. On the show, Limbaugh cued previous rumors that Clinton is a lesbian by telling his listeners that Huma Abedin, Clinton’s long-time assistant, would be moving into the White House with her, should she be successful in 2016. He said: “They’ve already got Huma in the same bedroom that Eleanor Roosevelt’s ‘intimate companion’ slept in,” drawing implicit parallels between both rumored relationships. This scrutiny of sexuality is not new to Clinton, who has repeatedly been characterized as lacking feminine sexuality – supposedly justifying (or explaining) her husband’s infidelity, explaining her wardrobe choices, and/or allowing her to be taken seriously as a tough executive.
If Clinton’s appearance has cued androgyny for some, a recent Washington Post piece on Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley cued masculinity by physical fitness. Centered around a 2011 photo of O’Malley shirtless and emerging for the Polar Bear Plunge, Paul Schwartzman’s commentary indicates that the candidate has not yet found a niche role in the 2016 campaign, but “may command at least one category: the swimsuit competition.” He goes on, “There he was wading into the ocean at a 2012 charity event, then a beaming 49-year-old with taut abs and sculpted biceps. There he was in a swimming pool juggling beach balls, his buff physique the envy of any middle-aged stooge.” O’Malley’s physique affirms the masculinity expected of executive leaders in the most visible way, contrary to the physical attributes that cue femininity and contrast norms of presidential contenders to date. However, just as we’ve noted about focusing on female candidates’ legs or hair, raising a male candidate’s “taut abs” as his highest credential for office detracts from the substance of his candidacy and the seriousness with which it is taken. O’Malley’s (female) spokesperson, Haley Morris, subtly flagged the unfortunate stray from substance, telling the reporter, “It appears you’ve given these photos much more thought than we have,” and instead plugging her boss’s “progressive values and record.”
Writing for The Hill, contributor Eddie Zipperer makes the case for “Why Carly Fiorina can’t lose,” explaining, “Whatever GOP man is at the top of the ticket, he will need a woman on the ticket to protect him. That’s right: He will need a woman to protect him.” While he goes on to note that Fiorina “has loads more to offer” than her gender, Zipperer explains that having a visible woman on the ticket is necessary to overcome the “manshaming” of male candidates and the “gender angle” attacks by media on Republican candidates. Interestingly, Zipperer does not put the onus on the male candidates to avoid such attacks through their own behavior, characterizing gender claims as strategic instead of substantive. Moreover, his own strategy of employing a female protector assumes voters view all women in the same way, despite much evidence that shows the implications of voters’ gender stereotypes differ by party and voters are more influenced by candidate ideology than gender.
Or Female Victim?
Hillary Clinton’s first interview of the election cycle addressed many issues, not the least of which was voters’ trust in her. CNN reporter Brianna Keilar wondered why the public might question her honesty, asking if Clinton felt that she played an active role in raising doubts that she could be trusted. Some commentators claimed that Clinton’s defensive response was evidence of her “playing the victim.” However, her frustration may have had some merit. Keilar’s questioning was not only interesting in its persistence, but in its foundation; the May CNN/ORC poll to which she referred did show a potential hurdle for Clinton in voters’ perceptions of her as honest and trustworthy (42% of all respondents said those traits applied to Clinton), but had no comparison to evaluations of other 2016 presidential contenders because the question was asked only about Clinton (or, at least, the results were reported only for her). Moreover, the 42% evaluation may be misleading, as 73% of Democrats – on whom Clinton will rely for her nomination – evaluated her as honest and trustworthy.
Beyond this oversight, the attention paid to Clinton’s integrity might also be informed by gender expectations, with effects of this emphasis inflated by gendered stereotypes that both associate women with honesty and value that honesty as an asset of their leadership. As pollster Celinda Lake noted in a 2012 post with Barbara Lee, opponents are quick to eliminate the honesty advantage of female candidates by working to knock women off of their pedestals early. Few would claim that Clinton began this race on any female pedestal, but recent scrutiny leads some to wonder whether or not falling from that pedestal may hurt more for her than her male counterparts.
Watching for future polls that evaluate voter perceptions of honesty and trustworthiness among all candidates, especially one whose home newspaper warned the nation “he lies,” will help to better distinguish the sources of and impact of these perceptions on the 2016 election.