By the time you read this, it will be official: Hillary Rodham Clinton is a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America.
As I have said before, I view her candidacy with mixed feelings: hope and exhilaration, since I believe she is an unusually well qualified candidate who has the political skills to win and the executive skills to govern the country wisely and well; some misgivings, remembering 2008: if she does not win at least the nomination and probably the general election as well, for whatever reasons, it will be a very long time before another woman is permitted to run for president on a major party ticket. I also worry that her candidacy for the most symbolically powerful position in the world will unleash a torrent of misogyny and regression on gender equality, which could affect all women in unfortunate ways. On the other hand, if she wins and runs the country creditably, her work will be a powerful example of what women are capable of accomplishing.
Her victory is important in so many ways that her supporters must do everything to help her win both the nomination and the election. We cannot fall back on the familiar comfortable assumptions: that the opinion-makers and pundits will on the whole be fair and balanced, that she will be treated with as much respect (or as little) as any other candidate. The specter of a president of a new kind of gender will outweigh a lot of commentators’ intentions to be fair. Even though they were tested and found wanting in 2008, recent observations suggest that the commentariat has not learned a whole lot about how to think, speak, or write about candidates who happen to be female. Gendered remarks, seldom favorable, keep sneaking into the discourse, and biased discourse influences popular opinions and votes. A reasonable person, reviewing the 2008 campaign, would attribute Clinton’s loss to many reasons. True, she did not campaign seriously enough in Iowa. Her staff got tangled in knots. At times she seemed distant and arrogant. But the blame for the loss cannot be placed on Clinton and her staff alone. The fact that many Democrats who should have supported her (because she and Bill Clinton had supported them) threw their support to Obama is unmentioned; the disinclination of too many women (Oprah being just one) to support her for a variety of peculiar reasons (“reminds me of my mother”) is also ignored. So is the fact that Democratic Party regulars did what they could to undermine her – for instance, inducing superdelegates in many states to throw their support to Obama.
Perhaps the major contributing cause was the overt misogyny endemic in the media: from dismissiveness to outright mockery; from framing Clinton as a sex object (“cleavage”) to harping on her purported hyperemotionality (“tearing up” in New Hampshire) to the usual overattention to what she was wearing (pantsuit color). No one wants to be associated with an object of ridicule, and more than a few voters were dissuaded from voting for Clinton because, by the time the election rolled around, she was no longer a person with the gravitas to be president.
It is more than likely that the same thing will happen again, only worse (because she seems even more inevitable, and therefore powerful, and therefore scary). The “normal” rhetorical process that is about to be unleashed must be rendered impossible before it gets started. That is our job.
We must immediately constitute ourselves as a sort of language police, making sure that the discourse about the campaign becomes and remains non-sexist. We must be vigilant; we must know what we are looking for and what it means, and be able to explain the problems to those who can do something actively to change the game: editors, producers, pundits and others. Those who want to play by the same old rules must be shamed out of it – regularly, time after time, as long as it takes. People of good will must be ready for a lot of reading, listening, watching – and writing.
What kinds of problems are we looking for? They will exist at two levels,: lexical and discourse. Both are highly dangerous. The former is fairly easy to spot, describe, and discourage; the latter involves more complexity and abstractness , but is probably the more dangerous and so more necessary to head off.
Lexical and other short and concrete linguistic choices
- Words and phrases that would not be used of a male candidate, for various reasons; words that “genderize” a woman candidate, e.g.:
“Ambitious” (just recently used by Karl Rove about guess-who);
“Bossy” and its relatives like “power-seeking,” “micro-managing.”
- References to family roles that would be ignored in the case of a male (“grandma”).Use of first name rather than (title) + last name. This is so universal in HRC’s case that it is almost certainly unstoppable, but it would be nice to see a woman up for the most important position in the world spoken of like an adult rather than a minor child.
- Repeated and detailed references to dress, hair, makeup – everything extrinsic to content itself: pantsuits, hair color, etc. (Unless Joe Biden runs and equal attention is paid to the success of his hair transplants.) These suggest that there is no “there there,” that her candidacy is without context, that the outside is all that counts.Sexualizing descriptions like references to “cleavage,” whether apparently approving (positively sexual) or disapproving (negatively non-sexual).
- Undue attention to how she looks, generally: “tired”; “weeping”; “old.” (One of the several reasons I hope Bernie Sanders enters the Democratic primary is that he is even older than she is, and that might stifle some of the ageist stuff.)
Discursive decisions and rhetorical rumblings: what people say about each candidate, and how they say it.
- Grudge-holding, e.g. about her Iraq vote in 2002. First of all, people do make mistakes, and should in time be forgiven unless they are really big ones. Many Democrats voted for the war in the post-9/11 patriotic miasma (remember the Patriot Act?). Clinton was at the time an especially prominent member of the Senate (former First Lady, from an important state, presumptive presidential candidate in the near future). In October 2002, no one knew how disastrously our Iraq adventure would end. Suppose she were to be a candidate in 2004, or even 2008 – would voting against the war doom her chances? Barack Obama, whose position on the war is often contrasted with hers, was at the time he made his celebrated anti-war speech, an obscure Illinois state senator with no discernible presidential expectations in the foreseeable future. His choice was a great deal easier than hers must have been.
Moreover, a woman who is perceived as a “dove” loses legitimacy – she’s too womanly – while a man can get away with it. (At the same time, though, a “hawkish” woman can be castigated for that, like HRC. Damned if she does, etc.) Finally and parenthetically, I marched against the war at that time and I don’t resent her vote. Enough already.
- Mansplaining, which in this case is also being enthusiastically performed by women: telling HRC how she should run and how she shouldn’t, what she did wrong last time, what every syllable she utters (or doesn’t) might possibly mean when translated into Late Medieval Uzbek, etc. This rhetorical ploy is as we know a means of control and degradation: she’s not smart enough to know how to do it right, not even smart enough to know what she means, if in fact she means anything. Playing this game also sidelines the affected candidate: she gets shunted aside in favor of the explainers, who take center stage.
- Pushing for the C*A*T*F*I*G*H*T! This is the game of those who keep urging Elizabeth Warren to enter the fray. The hope is that, if she (or another woman) does so, any attempt at rational analysis can be reduced to chitchat about “A dissed B,” “A’s dress was cuter than B’s pantsuit,” “A smiles more than B,” and so on, ad nauseam. (Desires expressed by the commentariat for Warren’s entrance on the grounds that it will move the Democrats to the left make little sense from people who themselves have never been identified with the left.) Warren, Klobuchar, or Gillibrand (or any of several other women) would make terrific candidates and exemplary presidents, and I fervently hope someday they all will. But pitting them against each other is a good way to negate the effectiveness of each of them, allowing a more conventional, and less anxiety-provoking candidate (hello, Martin O’Malley! Hello, Lincoln Chafee) to slither through. In which case we get President Cruz, which would make many Democrats unhappy, but not nearly as unhappy as the undermining of the sense of male supremacy resulting from a woman winning the presidency.
- Overanalysis and overattention to everything Clinton does and says. I have witnessed many presidential campaigns, but never one in which one of the candidates has been subjected to the kind of daily scrutiny to which Clinton has been for many months already. This overexposure tends to diminish the excitement that she can and should legitimately generate – she’s already “old news” through no doing of her own. Continual analysis makes her analysts look superior, and is another form of “mansplaining.”
- The last problem is different because it is not something that people are saying, but rather something they are not saying but should be: the dog that does not bark, the elephant in the room. This is the obvious difference between Clinton and her rivals: she is female. You would think the sages would be opining on this distinction at length, given its importance, but in fact it is seldom mentioned. For instance in Mark Leibovich’s column in the New York Times Magazine of April 12, he speaks at length of her “polarizing” tendencies. But if you consider Clinton’s actual political stands, she is (as he also notes) remarkably cautious and centrist (a common criticism, in fact). He doesn’t explain how you can “polarize” while standing firmly in the center. Here’s how: be a woman going after a man’s job. Some people think that’s OK, others don’t: that’s polarization.
Since gender is the pivot around which the 2016 election will turn, I think we should openly discuss it, rather than hiding behind the euphemism of “polarization.”
The above are just a few of the problems you can expect to face every day when you confront the media. I urge you to become an activist, and better, a real pest; get your friends and relatives to be even bigger pests. Don’t let the bozos win again.