The Political is Personal: Our Sexist Search for “The Real Hillary”

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Hillary Clinton has had a long, highly visible career in politics. So it’s no surprise that the nominee inspires strong—and strongly diverging—opinions in voters. Ezra Klein’s recent article for Vox, “Understanding Hillary: Why the Clinton America Sees Isn’t the Clinton Colleagues Know,” joins a litany of articles covering the gap between these opinions. As Klein reports, those who have worked closely with her remain loyal to her because “she listens.” Her other reputations include: greedy, calculating opportunist; hilarious, down-to-earth Game Boy maven; and hawkish interventionist.

The American people aren’t only obsessed with Clinton’s voting record, however. For decades, journalists have attempted to unearth the Holy Grail of Hillary Tidbits—the one factoid that will finally reveal which Hillary is “The Real Hillary Clinton.” This continuing search is almost explained by Clinton’s celebrity and Americans’ general preoccupation with politicians’ private lives. But there’s no media quest to discover “The Real Donald Trump.” Why?

The answer is simple: sexism. Consciously or unconsciously, many of us still don’t believe a woman is fit to be POTUS.

Pundits, reporters, and celebrities alike have noted sexist differences in the words used to describe Hillary versus those used to describe Trump. Janell Ross of The Washington Post dove into this phenomenon via an analysis of the Twitter hashtag, #WordsThatDontDescribeHillary. Ross notes that there are plenty of references to “Clinton’s ethics, her ties to Wall Street, her email issues,” and other relevant topics associated with this hashtag. But there were also “repeated references to Clinton’s looks and her alleged failure to embody Twitter users’ notions of what a woman should be.”

Words that “don’t describe Hillary Clinton” include: feminine, attractive, pretty, beautiful, pleasant to look at, fashionable, innocent, warm, thin-ankled, genteel, and able to satisfy husband. Aaron Blake, also of WaPo, remarks that ambitious and calculating are two words people almost unilaterally attribute to Clinton (but not Trump). How dare Clinton be a woman as well as ambitious and rational (rather than emotional)?

Research has long established that people focus disproportionately on the clothing worn by powerful women as well as on behaviors that are viewed to be unbecoming of a woman. Our concerns about male politicians tend to be more closely tied to their stated positions. A prominent example of Hillary’s “unflattering masculinity,” often harped on in the media, is her voice: her tendency to be loud in both the literal and metaphorical senses.

As Willa Frej of The Huffington Post argued, voters don’t often consider shouting “a liability for male candidates.” Certainly, there are examples of men being criticized for their aggressive tones in public fora. The “Howard Dean Scream” ignominiously discredited this candidate in 2004. But he was an exception—not the rule. Women’s tone, volume, and more are frequently criticized in ways that are reflective of a double-bind; women are damned if they are too aggressive, and damned if they are too “soft.” Bob Woodward, longtime WaPo reporter, linked Hillary’s shouting to her purported insecurity: “There is something here where Hillary Clinton suggests that she’s almost not comfortable with herself.”

Women in the workforce always face this double-bind: they are punished not only for behaving in ways that we expect women to behave (being insecure), but also for exhibiting behavior that we expect from men (speaking assertively). As language and gender expert Deborah Tannen writes:

Women running for office, as with all women in authority, are subject to these two demands: Be a good leader! Be a good woman! While the qualities expected of a good leader (be forceful, confident and, at times, angry) are similar to those we expect of a good man, they are the opposite of what we expect of a good woman (be gentle, self-deprecating and emotional, but not angry). Hence the double bind: If a candidate—or manager—talks or acts in ways expected of women, she risks being seen as underconfident or even incompetent. But if she talks or acts in ways expected of leaders, she is likely to be seen as too aggressive and will be subject to innumerable other negative judgments—and epithets—that apply only to women.

Left-leaning journalists and media outlets are hardly immune to putting Clinton in this untenable position. Lena Dunham, a writer and actress who has been the target of much vituperative criticism herself, said that she “wanted to make a list that we hand to media outlets that says, ‘these are the words you can’t use when describing a female candidate.’” Her list would include words like: shrill, inaccessible, difficult, frumpy, and plastic.

Of course, there are valid criticisms of Clinton’s campaign, and of what voters may infer of her moral fiber from her prior political acts. But again, these critiques are often couched in bigoted terms. Would American liberals upbraid an “inaccessible” male nominee? The Democratic primaries indicate that the answer is, “no.” Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s opposition for Democratic nominee, was hardly a picture of emotional warmth over studied intellectualism. Yet, he gained a fervent following, with some of his advocates still avowing that he was robbed of the nomination.

“But Hillary flip-flops!” cry her detractors. Certainly, Clinton’s changing views on issues like gay marriage raise an eyebrow for some. The truth of the sexism inherent in our public analyses of Clinton lies in comparisons between how we talk about her and how we talk about other politicians. We’ve just spent eight years with a POTUS who changed his stated take on gay marriage. So why is Clinton branded as a rabidly shifty candidate while Obama was largely lauded for his “introspection” on this and other issues? Jeb Lund of the Rolling Stone wrote:

 Take Clinton’s recent opposition to the Keystone Pipeline […]. It’s almost a certainty that she always opposed it, and it’s almost a certainty that finally saying what she really thought will be dismissed as conniving opportunism anyway. It’s a far cry from the adulation that Barack Obama received when Diamond Joe Biden forced his hand and made him endorse gay marriage.

 Obama claimed an evolution on the issue that had always been transparently political hogwash, but he got a pass on it because Obama never labored as poorly as Clinton to convey his identity. His books and his best speeches played off — and celebrated — the difficulty of coming to understand who he was in this world. Obama put himself through the trials of identity before anyone else could…It’s a lot easier to pick and choose when to be partially full of shit when people can walk away still convinced of who you are.

Hillary is not so lucky. Even if we were to stipulate that Hillary Clinton is merely an awkward candidate who keeps accidentally obscuring a wonderful human being yearning to be a great statesman, who cares?

Therein lies the rub. Hillary has been eviscerated for not apologizing enough about the political mistakes she’s made. People hate that she doesn’t make a show of having been wrong, of having struggled to make her decisions, or of changing her mind. Lund seems to believe that she could if she wanted to—if only she were more like Obama. Few, if any, women in the spotlight have attempted to emulate Obama’s pre-emptive approach to criticism. Why? Because such women are shackled by the double-binds of contemporary sexism.

In this situation, Clinton will once again be berated if she does and berated if she doesn’t. Research indicates that she’ll be expected to apologize more simply because she’s a woman. And if she does grandstand her contrition, she’ll likely be perceived as weak—or “insecure,” as Woodward insisted—and what is less presidential than insecurity?

The fact is this: men in positions of power have license to equivocate, and women don’t. To sum it up in a phrase? Let’s use one of Clinton’s: “The double standard is alive and well.” Back in 2014, Clinton elaborated to the NYT as follows:

Clinton recalled that as a young lawyer she had read an advice column in an Arkansas newspaper advising male professionals to decorate their office with family pictures to show they were a “responsible, reliable family man,” while suggesting that women should not, because visitors would think “you won’t be able to concentrate on your work.”

Let’s return, then, to the initial assertion: the obsessive search for The Real Hillary Clinton is sexist. Over the course of a decades-long career in politics, Clinton has made statements and decisions that are not consistent with each other; whether you call it “evolution” or “flip-flopping,” this kind of inconsistency would be expected of most career politicians. But, unlike with Obama, this inconsistency seems to disbar her from being viewed as “authentic.” From being “real” at all. Authenticity is only achievable when the public is happy to forgive you for the error of your ways, and the jury of public opinion differentially doles out such forgiveness to men. As a result, our search for Clinton’s realness is actually a quest to fit her to a sexist image of authenticity.

The current tide of anti-Clinton rhetoric is only one example of the high premium voters place on this kind of authenticity. What about our assertion during the 2004 election that we’d still love to have a beer with G.W. Bush (even if we hated his war policies)? Perhaps an even more impressive example is Republican and Democratic voters’ shared love of Bill Clinton—before and after his impeachment.

Focus groups conducted during the primary for the 1992 presidential election showed that voters characterized Clinton as a potentially untrustworthy womanizer. Still, he won the nomination as well as the Presidency. Even after intimate details of his sexual encounters were made public during his second term, Clinton was still supported for “coming clean” and “facing the consequences of his actions.” These are things a “good guy” does (even if he’s not a personal role model). The big thanks for his indiscretions? Bill left office with one of the highest approval ratings in modern history.

To boot, that’s the same Bill Clinton who first warned us in his 1998 State of the Union Address that Iraq was building an arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. It’s also the same Bill Clinton who signed the Iraqi Liberation Act, which later paved the way for the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq. Perhaps Hillary Clinton’s “cold, calculating” hawkishness wasn’t single-handedly responsible for the bloodshed in Iraq, after all.

It’s not that Clinton never expresses regret over this invasion and other issues. As Ezra Klein wrote in the aforementioned article, “She justified her vote by saying she had listened to President Bush and she would trust him—’I will take the president at his word that he will try hard to pass a UN resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible’—and there is probably no sentence she has uttered that she regrets so bitterly.”

The difficulty is that when Clinton apologizes, she often does so while contextualizing why she made her original decisions. To many, this kind of apology is equivalent to a person saying, “I’m sorry, but if you’d just give me a moment to explain…” instead of, “I’m sorry I acted inappropriately.” They believe Hillary is trying to explain away the circumstances that led to her decisions rather than taking any responsibility for them. But if this is true, it’s because Clinton is a product of the patriarchy. Rather than playing directly into the sexist expectation that women must apologize more and more profusely, Clinton tries to give a little ground while avoiding further accusations as to her “insecurity.” This linguistic dance is a result of patriarchy’s double-binds for powerful women, not Clinton’s supposed shiftiness or robotic lack of remorse. Clinton’s public persona is only what we’ve made it to be.

Furthermore, while Clinton may have been compelled to “explain away” certain mistakes when her husband was the one doing notable misdeeds, this behavior is no longer befitting of her current political status. That is, Clinton’s tendency to say, “yes, but…” when she or someone close to her makes a mistake was, at one time, strategic. But when granted a position of undeniable power—like that of the Secretary of State, or the POTUS—one is no longer expected to make excuses for one’s behavior. She must adapt to her changing status, as the rest of us must adapt to new images of a POTUS that are less defined by patriarchal values.

Political offices in the U.S. are still held by an alarmingly male majority: at various levels of government, the highest percentage of representation women receive is ~25%. In this environment, there is no room for a public identity that is not partially defined by what it means to “be a man.” Like G.W. Bush, our Good Ole Boy politicians may be savvy, but they are never sly or conniving. We know what they do in office, and we know what they do outside of it. But how could we ever predict what a female POTUS would do during her downtime? If you were to poll a cross-section of Americans about how an “authentic,” “trustworthy” woman spends her time, the answers probably wouldn’t include “serve as Secretary of State.” And there’d definitely be a marriage to a man who didn’t cheat on her somewhere in the picture.

The fundamental problem with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is one that most will never admit: you won’t elect her because you wouldn’t marry her. Or want her as a mother. She’d outshine you at dinner parties and give you the cold shoulder to work on her career.

To be clear, these sexist views are alive and well in women just as much as in men. In an article early this year, Gail Sheehy of the NYT interviewed older female Democrats who were reluctant to support Clinton. One interviewee commented, “We’re worried that Hillary is not true to herself…A lot of women vote from a compassionate, nurturing place, and those are not qualities you feel from her.” It’s not only women who vote “with their hearts.” Many people do. Hillary’s 2016 listening tour and the age-old “Hillary I Know” campaign are direct responses to these sexist perceptions of her. They’re counter-spin. But in a democracy where officials are elected to represent their constituents, they’re also good politics.

It’s true that Americans have a long history of being obsessed with politicians’ private lives. As with celebrities, we want to humanize our presidents—we want to see them acting just like us: eating Cheetos and taking their dogs to the park. We want to see them playing GameBoy. That is, we paradoxically want them to be perfect and to be relatable. To both represent us and be more than us: smarter, better-read, with a stronger moral compass in the face of wailing dissent.

These contradictory desires for the POTUS are understandable if and only if we stop couching what it means to be a “perfect” president and a “relatable” one in male terms. Remember the Second Wave Feminist mantra, “The Personal is Political”? Women have largely been relegated to the private sphere throughout history, and men have dominated the public sphere. As women move increasingly into the public sphere, their private lives remain disproportionately scrutinized. So maybe it’s time we stop making politics of female candidates’ personal lives—unless we’re ready to do the same with men.

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