Remember the good old days when women might have opposed a Republican presidential candidate because they did not agree with his positions on women’s issues? What are we to do with one who won’t take women seriously at all? There’s no time to talk about real issues when we have to fight through the sexism that pervades every speech, debate, and hot mic accident. (Mitt Romney, with his “binders full of women,” seems sort of sweetly naïve by comparison to Trump, as does Arnold Schwarzenegger, with his misplaced Hollywood bravado that led him to call his opponents “girlie men.”) The bias against women is implicit, explicit, and altogether startling. Although Donald Trump has insisted that “no one respects women more” than he does, his statements, actions, and record speak volumes to the contrary.
Trump v. Clinton: The Gendered Debates
It should not be surprising that the first presidential election with a female, major-party candidate would raise some gender issues. Hillary Clinton is always doing a balancing act by acting male enough to be seen as a leader, but female enough to be liked. After the first presidential debate, in which Hillary Clinton emerged (by most accounts) the decisive winner, some commentators linked the victory to Clinton finally finding “the balance on gender that has bedeviled her throughout her career.” That balance, according to CNN journalist Maeve Reston, requires her to “[d]emonstrate power, command of the issues and the ability to shred your opponent—all while seeming (just) likeable enough.” Reston quoted commentators who stressed her skillful—even “fascinating”—gender performance in that high stakes debate. On the one hand, Clinton bested Trump by demonstrating leadership qualities traditionally seen as masculine: substantive knowledge of the issues, extensive political experience, self-confidence, control, and strength. On the other, she successfully channeled qualities associated with femininity: her clothing (a suit in a power color—red—but with a feminine, not severe cut), her self-identification as a grandmother, her frequent smiles, and even her widely reported “debate winning shoulder shimmy,” as she geared up to respond to Trump’s claim that he had the better judgment and temperament to be president. The shimmy, according to Elite Daily, is the new ‘Bye Felicia,’ the ultimate millennial kiss off.
By comparison, Trump put on quite a manly show. He interrupted Clinton anywhere from 3 to 51 times, depending on the news source and its definition of an “interruption,” but it was noticeable enough that everyone was discussing it during and after the debate. He talked over Clinton and seemed to many to be cocky and overly confident, despite a pretty stark lack of political experience, and seemed out of control. Many women watching this performance saw their bosses in his testosterone-fused style. Deborah Tannen, a linguistics scholar who writes about men, women, and language, told a reporter that this sort of behavior is “frustrating in women’s lives,” and “to see it up there in a dramatic way, it’s a little bit of PTSD. You’re seeing the things you suffered from. It brings it back.”
But Trump did not just put on a masculine performance. He suggested outright that masculine traits are essential to the Oval Office. “She doesn’t have the look. She doesn’t have the stamina.” What does a president look like? The Washington Post did a not-to-be-missed riff on this with style and beauty pointers from every president throughout history. She could get the look with any number of features like ivory teeth (Washington), “the face of a sad cat that has just been turned into a human being” (Adams), a sleep-deprived vampire (Madison), a “disembodied head” (Harrison), or a beard in which a bird could sleep (Grant). Of course, all of the presidential looks in history belong to men.
When Trump says she doesn’t have “the look,” he means, simply, that she’s not a man. Nor does she have the qualities that men possess. Trump’s personal physician praised his strength and stamina. And when Trump looks in the mirror, as he told Dr. Oz, he doesn’t see a 70-year-old man, but a man half that age and one who frequently golfs with 39-year-old NFL quarterback Tom Brady. Trump took the comparison to its logical conclusion: “I’m with him, and I feel the same age as him.” (This is more polished, at least, than his blunt reference during a primary debate to his sexual prowess, made defensively in response to a critique of his unusually small hands.)
So while Trump apparently has the strength and stamina of a professional football player in his 30s, Clinton, he suggested, is flat out weak. She had the nerve to get pneumonia while campaigning for president. She doesn’t have the strength to fight ISIS (he seems to imagine a robust round of fisticuffs that he, but not she, would win). Trump mocked Clinton during the debate for being at home resting rather than campaigning, and during a campaign event, he imitated her stumbling to her car while battling pneumonia. “Here’s a woman,” he told a cheering crowd, “She’s supposed to fight all of these different things, and she can’t make it fifteen feet to her car. Give me a break. . . . We need stamina. We need energy.”
Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, chimed in with implicitly sexist arguments in the one and only vice-presidential debate, exhorting the importance of “broad-shouldered leadership.” (In what was almost certainly an unwittingly mixed gender metaphor, Pence urged that we “lean in” with “broad-shouldered” leadership.)
They both might as well just say outright that women are the weaker sex. That was the rap that kept women out of many aspects of public and private life for decades and even centuries. Women were excluded from higher education, jobs across the occupational spectrum, religious leadership positions, political office, juries, and the ballot box. And they were subordinated to their husbands in virtually every way, by law, by force, and by social norm. Sex equality law has revolved around eliminating laws, policies, and practices that rely on stereotypes such as this one. Yet, in this most important of elections, we see stereotypes about women in full color.
Beyond the Debate Stage: Can a Woman Be President?
Trump has criticized Clinton not only for what he perceives as weakness, but for her voice (too shrill—gives him a “headache”), her pantsuits (too frumpy), and her attempt (god forbid) to “play the woman card” and use gender to her advantage. If not for her gender, Trump suggested, she couldn’t be elected as dogcatcher and would garner at most five percent of the popular vote. Trump is not alone in these sexist ploys. During Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, she was frequently criticized for her “shouts,” “shrieks,” and “screams.” (But when men shout, they are confident and authoritiative.) Glenn Beck said Clinton could not be president because “there’s something about her vocal range . . . it’s not what she says, it’s how she says it.” Her laugh is also a target, as it was in 2008; she “cackles.” Her smile is also a problem. Trump’s supporters and some political commentators fault Clinton for not smiling enough—violating norms of expected feminine behavior—but also for smiling too much, as in the first debate.
Some gender analysts have linked this defying of gender conventions to the decades old pastime of “hating Hillary.” Against this backdrop, then, let’s revisit Clinton’s successful navigation of gender in the first debate: she appeared “likeable (enough)” while also showing substantive command of the issues. By walking that tightrope, she won the first debate.
That victory is notable, given that, even when Clinton displays qualities that are routinely praised in male candidates, she is criticized. For her entire career in public life, including while First Lady of Arkansas, Clinton’s rhetorical style has defied conventions of “feminine” style: a self-described policy wonk, she delivers speeches more like an advocate’s brief or a public policy address. Instead of being lauded for her expertise and experience, Clinton is criticized in debates for being over-prepared and “robotic” and too loaded down with policy details. (Never mind that her mastery of the details allows her to fact-check Trump in real time during debates.) Trump, in contrast, is praised for being more human and authentic. He tells it like it is and speaks from the heart (even though he almost never answers the question posed). This latter contrast is telling, given the recent disclosures about Trump’s attitudes about and behaviors toward women, which he and his spokespeople disavow as “not who he really is”!
But Trump is also walking a tightrope – not always successfully, but more successfully than one might predict. He claims she lacks stamina and is too weak to be presidential and, yet, also attributes to her amazing influence and power (e.g., that the media is part of her machine and that she is a dangerously powerful woman). He routinely demeans her decades of public service and political experience (a trait generally coded masculine) by arguing that she has accomplished—and will, as president, accomplish nothing. But then out of the other side of his mouth, he attributes to her responsibility for and overwhelming influence over governmental policy even though she is longer a government official. And when the last question was asked by a town hall attendee (no, not the famous Ken Bone) asked the candidates during the second debate to offer a word of praise for the other—they did a refreshing gender swap. He praised her for being a “fighter” who “does fight hard” and “doesn’t quit” or “give up;” she praised him for raising good children.
The Second Debate: Gender Redux
Trump entered the second debate amid an inflammatory scandal—the leaking of a video tape in which he talks in very explicit terms about how he uses his power to force himself on women (this will be the subject of a separate column). But rather than scale back his full-frontal masculinity, he amped it up. He continued to interrupt her frequently. He complained that the moderators weren’t giving him fair time, yet timers showed that he spoke for a minute more than she did (40 to her 39). He used authoritarian language (suggesting, among other threats, that she will end up in jail if he’s elected) and patronizing language (telling her more than once that he was “ashamed” of her and “disappointed” in her). He loomed behind her on stage while she spoke, employing body language that some experts and viewers read as “stalking” and attempting to establish “dominance.” Indeed, his earlier warning that Muslims should only be allowed to stay in this country if they take responsibility for reporting suspicious conduct provoked the single best debate tweet (by Moustafa Bayoumi): “I’m a Muslim, and I would like to report a crazy man threatening a woman on a stage in Missouri.”
When asked about the video in which he appeared both to condone and brag about sexual assault, he dismissed it as “locker room talk” and repeated his claim that no one respects women like he does. It is a sign of how despicable people deemed his behavior that the comparison seemed demeaning to locker rooms. That rationalization and trivialization prompted many professional athletes to counter that “no one talks like Trump in locker rooms.”
The unique dynamic in the Clinton/Trump race is that for the first time in U.S. history, a woman is the nominee of one of the two major political parties. We thus shouldn’t be surprised to see gender at the fore. The quest for the highest office will raise questions for some about whether women are suitable political leaders; that’s a new twist on the usual contest over which of two men is the more manly (read: suitable) candidate.
The fact that Hillary is female does not mean that she can’t be criticized—she’s running for president and deserves to be scrutinized, fact-checked, and refuted like anyone else in her position. But perhaps we could try to leave gender out of it, which might, given the freedom and fluidity with which we all traffic in sex stereotypes, take some conscious effort. The Academe Blog offers a helpful guide to criticizing Hillary Clinton without, in the blog’s words, “being a sexist jerk.” Ceasing all talk about the octave of her voice would be a good start.
That commentators had to assess whether Clinton finally got “gender” right or found the right balance between power/authority and likeability shows the continuing salience of gender—and gender bias—in political campaigns and in public opinion about political leadership. But maybe there’s hope in the fact that when Donald Trump claimed “I am a gentleman,” the audience, who had been instructed to remain completely silent throughout the second debate, burst into laughter.