Sexuality and Style

In previous posts, we have elaborated on the research that shows persistent gender disparities in coverage of candidate appearance. Women candidates frequently face greater attention to their hair and hemlines than do their male opponents, and the negative implications of that coverage on voter perceptions of candidate qualifications for office are real. That coverage is – most often implicitly – tied to stereotypical expectations of sexuality; do women candidates meet traditional standards of feminine beauty and do male candidates display traditional indicators of masculinity in physical strength or stature?

Responding to Marco Rubio’s “bootgate” of a few weeks back, Duke historian Reeve Houston emphasized the historic and continued centrality of masculinity to self-presentation in politics. He told Salon of attacks on Rubio’s “high-heeled” boots, “The implication is he’s not manly enough to be president. … One implication: Can a man who wears boots like that be trusted to stand up to the Russians?”

For women, commentary on their appearance is often focused on attractiveness. Commenting on Governor Nikki Haley’s GOP response to the State of the Union address, Congressman Steve King told an Associated Press reporter that she proved not to be a “principled conservative,” but added, “I think she’s beautiful so I’d be happy if she’s the face of the party.” Hillary Clinton’s attractiveness has also been fodder for much commentary and discussion, especially among her detractors. In a recent interview, Esquire writer Tom Junod looked back on over 15 years of covering Clinton by noting his “complete bafflement that men would hate her on the level they do.” He argued, “It’s deeply, deeply sexual. People hate each other politically all the time, and I get that, but the added complication that men seem to hate her physically is just a head-scratcher to me. Because I’ve seen her, I’ve spent time with her, and she’s an attractive person. And I don’t mean to sound patronizing. She’s an attractive human being.”

As Junod makes clear, attention to Clinton’s appearance is not new, but a recent article in Slate caused an uproar when it argued “Hillary Clinton isn’t a lesbian, but she dresses like one.” While author Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart uses the piece to commend Hillary Clinton’s style as an active choice to avoid the male gaze that objectifies women (see King’s comment above), the association of style with sexuality caused many to criticize Urquhart’s column. Others expressed frustration at focusing on Hillary Clinton’s clothes…again, arguing that everyone (supportive or not) should move on. Urquhart’s commentary and the response to it raised much ire, but it also opened the door to pushing for a more nuanced and informed gender dialogue in this campaign – above and beyond appearance.

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