By Martha Strautman
This past week saw one of the greatest upsets in our country’s political history. In the presidential race, Donald Trump, a former reality star and businessman, managed to defeat Hillary Clinton, a former Senator and Secretary of State, on a platform that consisted mostly of racist and xenophobic policies. Everywhere, people were shocked—especially people in media, who had been overly confident in Clinton’s victory. On various news stations and talk shows, commentators discussed the anger at the Washington establishment, frustration with economic inequality, and outright racism that propelled people to vote for Trump. On CNN, Van Jones poignantly described the support for Trump as a “whitelash” against our country’s first black president and recent tendency towards inclusivity and openness. On his show, John Oliver similarly lamented the racism at the root of many white voters’ support of Trump. I agree with both of them, but I have to ask—what about sexism? Not one of the commentators I watched touched upon the fact that Hillary Clinton was criticized more harshly and hated more viciously in large part because she was a woman.
Although many strides have been made towards gender equality, gender roles and stereotypes remain deeply entrenched in our culture. It has become more acceptable for women to have “masculine” jobs, but it is still not acceptable for women to be masculine. As a society, we still view woman as the homemaker—someone who is supposed to rely on her husband and focus on raising a family. Rather than allow women access to masculinity, we have allowed women access to the masculine sphere of the professional world while still asserting their intrinsic feminine qualities.
Women who defy traditional gender roles were and continue to be rejected by our society. From the beginning of the feminist movement, conservatives attacked feminists for this defiance, portraying feminists as overly aggressive and angry. These labels were designed to undermine the legitimacy of these feminists and their political goals through highlighting their failure to conform to appropriate gender roles and subsequent social undesirability.
A perfect example of someone who causes discomfort because of her defiance of gender norms is Hillary Clinton. She does not fit many of the gender stereotypes about how women should look, dress, and act that are clearly still deeply entrenched in our society. In many ways, she embodies the characteristics that we view as more “masculine”—she is ambitious, confident, competitive, and assertive. In many media channels, and in the minds of many Americans, however, she is portrayed as the negative versions of these characteristics—as ruthless, calculating, selfish, and dishonest. These derogatory characterizations are clearly a product of bias—bias against women who behave in confident, competitive, and assertive ways and therefore do not conform to traditional female stereotypes.
Although women have been able to more freely enter the public sphere, they are still expected to be warm, caring, and nurturing—all qualities which the public image of Hillary does not embody. The most common criticism of Hillary was that she is “cold”; this is at least part of the reason, whether acknowledged or not, why many people dislike her. Much of this characterization comes from her poised, reserved public persona—characteristics which if displayed in a man would not be perceived as being “cold” but rather judged as admirable self-control and private nature.
As a society, we also continue to expect all women to fulfill some sexual purpose and display some level of sexual attractiveness. To provide an obvious example, consider the different appearances of women and men newscasters. Although certainly some male newscasters are attractive, it is not a pre-requisite—there are plenty of men providing commentary on TV who are not perfectly made-up and sexually desirable. On the other hand, however, almost all female newscasters are very attractive, with their makeup, hair, and wardrobe overly done.
The public persona of Hillary, however, is not sexually attractive. Both in her attitude and through her pantsuit-dominated wardrobe, she presents herself as a serious professional. This serious, seemingly asexual persona has hurt her reception with many people—both men and women. Consider the difference between how she and Sarah Palin were perceived during the 2008 election season. Hillary was seen as a cold, calculating bitch, while Sarah Palin was seen as a warm, attractive “babe.” Conservative male commentators were fixated on Palin’s looks—not to criticize, but because she was sexually attractive, a “heartthrob.” While judgments of Palin could get similarly negative—accusing her of being a diva and a narcissist—no one ever called her cold and calculating. This difference clearly illustrates how Hillary’s lack of expressed sexuality harmed her public perception and lead to her characterization as a cold bitch.
Additionally, the disapproval of Hillary’s lack of expressed sexual appeal is clear in the blame that many place on her for her husband’s discretions. In many of the opinion pieces written against Hillary denouncing her right to the presidency, the authors focus on her complicity in her husband’s extramarital affairs. Although many of these opinion pieces are clearly not well thought-out or grounded in legitimate fact, it is interesting that they all emphasize that she enabled her husband’s adultery. They blame her for staying with a husband who cheated on her, or question, “why has she allowed that kind of behavior from a husband to continue is she’s such a feminist example?” This illustrates the clear double standard in accountability between women and men whose partners cheat on them—women are judged much more harshly and accused for allowing or enabling the affair. In focusing on Hillary’s culpability over Bill’s, there is underlying blame placed on Hillary, as with other women whose partners cheat, for failing in her “wifely duties.” Her husband’s sexual pleasure and satisfaction is seen as her responsibility, and she is therefore viciously blamed for acts committed by him, even though he is a completely different agential being.
Many judgments of Hillary, whether their authors realize it or not, are colored by gender bias. She is held to a certain standard and set of expectations because she is a woman—and because she deviates from these by emulating traditional male characteristics, she is condemned. These perceived “male” characteristics, however, are not intrinsically male; rather, they are characteristics that are necessary and beneficial to any professional trying to succeed in their field. However, those qualities continue to be associated with men, which creates an impossible conundrum for professional woman—the characteristics necessary to succeed in the professional world are at odds with the values that they are supposed to embody as women.
We need to deconstruct these gendered characteristics and identities if we are ever to achieve equality between women and men—and not just in the professional worlds, but in all worlds that we occupy as humans. We must get to a place where masculine symbols aren’t necessarily masculine and female symbols aren’t necessarily female; they are all simply symbols that either and all genders can embody without judgment and bias. This change is necessary not just in the rhetoric of critics but also supporters—for example, rather than denying Hillary’s assertive nature through testimonies of her likability and warmth, we need to reject the negative connotation of assertiveness in women. Hillary should be allowed to be competitive and authoritative—it should not be necessary for her to always be warm and understanding. However, the arguments in her defense have largely been based on proving her “femininity,” rather than declaring that her stereotypical male traits are acceptable and admirable. This change in thinking is necessary if women and men are ever to have full equality, because gender stereotyping will continue to occur both ways unless it does. If Hillary Clinton’s career has shown us anything, it is that sexism and gender stereotyping are not dead—they are both very much alive, and continue to color all of our judgments, both as women and men.