President Barack Obama recently commented that in 2008 Hillary Clinton had to do everything he did, but she had to get up earlier to have her hair done. This contrast, which applies in today’s campaign as well, is the metaphoric tip of a multifaceted iceberg of challenges facing Clinton because she’s a woman. Obama went on to note that the media unfairly “called her out” for being tough, while ignoring similar toughness on his side. That, too, can be traced to the double bind that confronts all women in positions of authority. These forces combine to explain why so many people see Bernie Sanders as more authentic and Clinton as less trustworthy.
Let’s start where Obama did: the burden placed on women by the focus on their appearance. Yes, Clinton must take time to have her hair styled, and even more time having it dyed and applying makeup. She also has to shop for, and then select from, a closetful of outfits—carefully! Sanders, like all male candidates, has only to make sure he has a dark suit, clean shirt and reasonable tie handy. He could easily wear the same suit and tie day after day, but she must wear a different outfit at each debate, while wearing shoes that are less comfortable and harder on her back. The real dilemma, though, is that the range of options from which a woman must choose—styles, colors, lengths, how much skin to expose—is so vast, that any choice she makes will strike many viewers as not the best, providing fodder for criticism and ridicule.
Which brings us to Obama’s second point, the press. All public figures are subject to criticism and attack, but Clinton has been subject to more, and Sanders to less, than most. For one thing, she is widely expected to be the Democratic nominee, so why bother wasting effort scrutinizing him? That Sanders has a son whose mother he never married has received so little attention that most people don’t even know about it. This is as it should be. But what are the chances that a woman would be given a pass under similar circumstances?
Clinton has been in the public eye for so long, journalists have long since formulated a storyline about her, as former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis recently observed. Their view—and portrayal—of her as “remote and programmed,” he said, is “nonsense” and impervious to accounts by those who know or meet her that she is actually warm, smart and funny. Political opponents have had decades to dredge up (or fabricate) accusations, with a smoke-there’s-fire (you might say blame-the-victim) result. Whitewater! Benghazi! Email! After endless investigations, each accusation has turned out to be groundless. Yet the impression remains: she’s been the object of so many accusations and investigations, she must be doing something wrong. Hence the impression she’s not trustworthy.
There is also a self-fulfilling prophecy element to Clinton’s long history with the press. Part of the reason that they see, and depict, her as stiff and measured (and therefore inauthentic) surely is what she herself said recently: she’s not a natural politician—something that is as ironic as it is obvious, since her being a seasoned politician is one of the main criticisms raised against her. But another part of it, no doubt, is that she has had so much experience having her words and actions turned against her, it’s no wonder she might be cautious in choosing them. And this, too, started with her hair.
When Clinton first appeared on the national stage back in 1992, the young wife of the Arkansas governor running for president, she kept her natural-brown hair off her face with a headband. This sparked an avalanche of criticism, so she colored her hair and had it styled, which led to a new round of accusations: she was nefariously manipulating her image! Other damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t attacks were also particular to her as a woman.
All these forces have played a role in Clinton being seen as inauthentic and untrustworthy. And they are all related to the double bind that confronts women in positions of authority, as I recently wrote in the Washington Post. A double bind means you must obey two commands, but anything you do to fulfill one violates the other. While the requirements of a good leader and a good man are similar, the requirements of a good leader and a good woman are mutually exclusive. A good leader must be tough, but a good woman must not be. A good woman must be self-deprecating, but a good leader must not be.
Sanders is appealing when he comes across as tough by railing against Wall Street and corporations, and as comfortingly homey and authentic with his rumpled clothes and hair and down-home Brooklyn accent. When Clinton is tough, a characteristic many see as unfeminine, it doesn’t feel right, so she must not be authentic. And a disheveled appearance would pretty much rule her out as an acceptable woman. As Robin Lakoff, the linguist who first wrote about the double bind confronting women, put it, male candidates can have it both ways but Clinton can have it no ways.
The most difficult aspect of the double bind is that it is invisible; we think we are just reacting to the candidates as individuals. Yet even the words we use to talk about women, as compared to men, come drenched in gender. This is as true for journalists as for voters in conversation. [After Clinton’s electoral success this past Tuesday, two male journalists, Brit Hume and Howard Kurtz at Fox News, and Joe Scarborough at MSNBC, each criticized her in tweets for failing to smile when she made her victory speech.-Esco]
There is probably no such thing as a level playing field in political campaigns. But the field on which Hillary Clinton is playing is far bumpier than Bernie Sanders’ because she’s a woman.
The criticism is the same as in 2008: She doesn’t connect. She isn’t likeable. She doesn’t inspire. She seems shrill. “She shouts,” Bob Woodward said on MSNBC this month, also suggesting she “get off this screaming stuff.”
Joe Scarborough, the host, agreed: “Has nobody told her that the microphone works?”
At that, Clinton supporters hollered — about the double standard that condemns her but not Sanders, who bellows at the top of his lungs. The episode was part of a constant stream of commentators (generally men) taking issue with Clinton’s demeanor and conduct — “She’s got to become herself,” David Gergen advised on CNN before Thursday night’s debate — in a way they don’t do with Sanders.
At a Clinton rally last week in New Hampshire, I discussed the decibel dilemma with Jay Newton-Small of Time magazine. “It’s very hard for a woman to telegraph passion,” she explained. “When Bernie yells, it shows his dedication to the cause. When she yells, it’s interpreted in a very different way: She’s yelling at you.”
This is the essence of Clinton’s trouble: If she can’t plausibly offer pie in the sky, and she can’t raise her voice, how does she inspire people? This hurts particularly with young voters — the same segment that shunned Clinton in 2008….Clinton’s “likeability” problem also has something to do with her lack of a Y chromosome. It’s a direct consequence of the imperative that she demonstrate her toughness. Men can be tough and warm at the same time — think Ronald Reagan — but for women, it’s a trade-off….It’s also hard to imagine a male candidate being faulted for his wife’s misbehavior the way Clinton is blamed for her husband’s.
“Women in general are better listeners, are more collegial, more open to new ideas and how to make things work in a way that looks for win-win outcomes,” Clinton told Newton-Small in “Broad Influence.”
Now that’s something worth shouting about.
Robin Lakoff is Professor Emerita of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. She is an expert on language and gender, the politics of language, sociolinguistics and pragmatics. She is the author of about 100 scholarly essays and journal articles and numerous books.
Compare HRC with that epitome of macho toughness, Donald Trump. In his explicit utterances Trump is the toughest human on the planet. He will build a wall and make them pay for it; he willdeport anyone whoever they may be, of whom he disapproves; he will punish reporters who don’t speak of or to him “nicely”; he will sue those responsible for his non-functioning microphone. And so on. He projects himself as someone to be feared and not to be crossed, because he is so very very tough and hence so exceedingly manly.
And yet, if you look not at his words, but the way he says them (i.e., style vs. content), you might sense another, mute inglorious Trump, a softie if not quite a nicey. The truly tough don’t care if you insult them – sticks and stones, you know. But Trump cares a lot, and shows it.
More importantly, Trump’s discourse style is not that of a truly tough guy (like Ted Cruz, who is tough as nails, which may be why everyone hates him). Cruz’s discursive style is that of the archetypal Aristotelian rhetor, the orator who alone is in possession of the truth and will tell it to you in his way, in the only proper order, with no interruptions and no role for the audience but to listen and be persuaded: A, therefore B, hence C, which leads to D, which is why you have to E, or else F. This is what Cruz learned in his debate clubs and at Harvard Law School, and this is a stereotypically masculine way of communicating with groups. I am the boss, I tell it like it is, you listen, I am in control.
But Trump’s way is very different. His discursive style is an amalgam of conversation and the Baptist preacher’s call-and-response. He, unlike Cruz, needs his audience to respond, with cheers, laughter, and applause, to the points he is making. So he uses many rhetorical questions; he ends a lot of his arguments with “I don’t know” (as Linda Coleman points out), flailing his arms around plaintively: “be with me, please!”; he ends his sentences not with falling, but steady, intonation, making them not quite assertions; his sentences are often fragments, leaving hearers to finish his thought. So a Trump audience comes away empowered:We helped him make his points; he needs us almost as much as we need him; we have a part to play in his success. This is very attractive to hearers, especially those who are otherwise feeling scared and anxious. So in a way Trump succeeds by being overtly tough but covertly nice-ish; thus he does not abandon the macho stereotype but at the same time he is comfy enough for the American audience. He has it both ways.
Clinton, on the other hand, has it no ways.