gender, language, politics

Sexing Up 2016



In the February 1 issue of The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza compares-and-contrasts Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in a story as enlightening as it is disturbing. One paragraph describes a Trump rally in Mississippi, noting some of the accouterments sported by Trump’s fan base:


Popular buttons and stickers included ones that say, “If she can’t please her husband, she can’t please the country,” “Bomb the hell out of ISIS,” “Up Yours Hillary,” and “Trump That Bitch.”


We know that Trump’s followers, like their idol, are a loutish lot; that we are engaged in a presidential election campaign; and that in election campaigns, tempers flare, etiquette goes by the boards, and opponents are demonized. From that perspective, the anti-Hillary slogans were hardly worthy of remark. But there was something about them that is different from the usual slams against opponents, and unlike the usual tenor of negative campaign rhetoric: the strikingly sexual nature of the attacks. Cruz may be “disgusting,” Bush “low energy,” and Cruz (gasp) “not nice.” But neither Trump nor anyone else has had anything to say about his male opponents’ sexual prowess or proclivities in bed. Since Clinton is not running for a position in which the victor is expected to perform sexually, why do candidates and voters opposed to Clinton choose to attack her in sexualized rhetoric? Certainly men, even male politicians, are sexual creatures. But politics is public, and sexuality – so we like to believe – is private. Usually prying into a candidate’s intimate life would be considered invasive and inappropriate. Why is the private allowed to invade the public only when a candidate is female?


À bas la différence! There are two problems with this particular différence: the sexualization of the candidate, and the leakage of private into public, and of course they are related. Both are ways of telling us, and the candidate, that she has no business out and about in the public sphere: her business is in the home, ministering to the (sexual and other) needs of her husband. To force voters to see a candidate as a sexual creature primarily is to suggest that she cannot properly play the role she is trying to win. So attacks of this kind directed at Clinton are really attacks on any woman who is playing, or contemplates playing, any kind of unconventional role outside the home, something the women who are “unenthusiastic” about Clinton might want to reflect upon. If she loses, they lose – a lot.


It has been true throughout history that any woman who rose to power found herself and her accomplishments diminished by being sexualized. It was so with Cleopatra, with Elizabeth I, with Catherine the Great (the horse story is mythical), with Marie Antoinette, with Eleanor Roosevelt, and just about any other woman in an analogous position. Because of the double standard, sexualizing a powerful woman brought her low, made her despicable, and gave political enemies an excuse for a coup. This never happens with powerful men: tales of their sexiness only enhance their power. An exception might be Clinton’s husband Bill; but as I argued in The Language War, there are reasons to think of Bill as America’s first woman president (not completely tongue in cheek), and this is one.


But the private/public leakage is about more than sexual behavior – it is about gender (human identity and power) as well as sex. It has to do with everything a woman is or is not supposed to do and be, and any woman who enters public life will automatically be violating those expectations. You may remember a moment in the 2008 election. At a Clinton event on January 7, 2008, a man standing near the stage from which she was speaking interrupted her speech by shouting, over and over, “Iron my shirt!,” holding up a large sign to the same effect. A couple of other yahoos standing around proceeded to join in the yelling. She good-humoredly dismissed it by off-handedly remarking, with a smile, “Ooh, sexism still seems to be alive!”


She took it good-humoredly because she had to. Otherwise she would have been depicted as a humorless feminazi. Imagine if her opponent, Barack Obama, had been accosted with a similarly racist jibe. My guess is that (1) no one would have dared to do so; (2) if someone had, the audience would have set upon him and beaten him to a pulp; (3) Mr. Obama could legitimately have answered not with a smile, but in anger, and no one would have criticized him for that. Racism is bad, but misogyny is just fine.


Or imagine the scene in reverse: male (white) candidate, woman heckler shouting and waving a sign reading: TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE! The two episodes would appear to be equivalent in meaning and function. But their deeper meanings and interactional functions are entirely different. In fact, the imaginary case could not have happened, in 2008 or now. It just wouldn’t make any sense at all, and the woman would have looked crazy, rather than a mere purveyor of good-natured misogyny.


These examples, then, are in part a message to women about their proper role in this society, and in part a reminder that they live to serve males, especially sexually. But wait! There’s more! Both of these stories (2008 and 2016) have at their core men telling women how to behave (and how not to), and threatening penalties (including, covertly, rape) for misbehavior. It has always been men’s business to tell women what to do and threaten punishment for doing otherwise. The fact that “Iron my shirt!,” a direct imperative, evoked so little anger from women in response shows that many women (as well of course as men) believe that they can and should be ordered around by men. (This is what male strangers’ ordering women to smile is about.) So a woman who is trying to achieve a position of power – where she would make the interpretations and give the orders – is a double threat to insecure men like these. She would not only have the actual power of the Oval Office, but the symbolic power to tell guys to iron their own damn shirts. Scary!


But Clinton’s problems do not end with frightened guys. Women are bothered too. Ruth Wodak forwards an article from the Guardian about how women – in particular, younger women – are unenthusiastic about Clinton because she isn’t “exciting.” You know, like Trump. Now that’s exciting!


An article by Gail Sheehy in the New York Times’s “Sunday Review” on January 31 reiterates the point. Boomer women find Clinton “inauthentic” when she is not “unexciting.” She is not, they opine, “true to herself.”


Trump bears some responsibility for the excitement gap, at least. He has undermined not just the 2016 election but the democratic process by upping our expectations about how campaigns should run: now they have to be endlessly thrilling and fun, and not at all informative. Yes, Mario Cuomo said that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose; but even the greatest poetry is not completely and endlessly thrilling. And since Trump has occupied a huge (I mean, YUUGE) amount of media time, to the near-exclusion of everyone else involved, his omnipresence has caused us all to expect to be excited by every candidate at every moment. But excitement isn’t, or should not be, what elections are about. Candidates are not running to keep Americans amused; they are there to audition for the role of president – which requires above all a classy prose style.


But that’s just part of the problem that Clinton’s female critics are overlooking when they are not creating. A man who thunders, speaks hyperbolically, repeats himself ad infinitum, and ups the rhetorical ante at every turn is “exciting.” A woman who does the same is “hysterical.” If Clinton were to do what young women claim they want, would they then be happy with her performance? Probably not: she would make them uneasy; she would become an object of mirth. Clinton is too exciting (sexualized) for men, but not exciting enough for women.


Why does Clinton have to be “true to herself” and why are her youthful critics so concerned about her general “untruthfulness”? Perhaps those boomers are still wet behind the ears. They have not seen a whole lot of realpolitik. They actually expect politicians to be authentic and truthful all the time. Well, the fact is that none of us achieves that. Show me a person who has never said the thing that was not and I will show you a truly dangerous member of our social species. Show me someone who is unfailingly authentic and I will show you a saint. Saints make poor leaders. And politicians of all genders may seem less truthful and authentic than the rest of us, because they have to be so careful to avoid being “parsed” out of context and out of office.


It seems unfair to juxtapose Clinton, who has been in our sights endlessly for a quarter century, to Bernie Sanders, who has sprung into view only in the last year. We have had twenty-five plus years to look at and listen to Clinton; sometimes, over that period, she has been less than forthright. Then too, for eight of those years she and her husband were under continual, unremitting attacks by Republicans and, too often, Democrats as well. Tell me you would remain absolutely true to yourself for 25 years under those conditions, and I will tell you that you are untruthful or insane. We expect Clinton to be infinitely better than human beings can be, even while she has been treated infinitely worse.


All of the foregoing is evidence that we don’t know how to listen to a woman in Clinton’s position; that we are using antiquated sexual and gender stereotypes to evaluate her; and that she (and all other women trying to function in new kinds of roles) must run twice as fast as her opponents to stay in the same place. Such expectations are a hurdle for Clinton, one that media commentators never mention. But they are problems for anyone who wants to live in a world where one’s possibilities are not governed by one’s chromosomes.