The Hillary Clinton nutcracker.
“Hillary Clinton reminds everyone of their first wife.”
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“You’re likeable enough.”
The 2008 Democratic primary race provided ample evidence of sexism in electoral politics by candidates and the mainstream media. The 2016 campaign is proving to be no different. Yet while the brunt of sexist remarks is being launched toward Hillary Clinton, the campaigns have resorted to sexism in many other cases as well.
The most egregious uses of sexism in the campaign have come from Donald Trump. The former reality TV star and real estate mogul has many years of experience that he brought to the race. Media critic Jennifer L. Pozner summed up his sexist ways on “The Apprentice” in a 2015 article at Politico, writing, “Female candidates’ business experience was often underemphasized compared with their male counterparts, and scenes showing men devising effective moneymaking strategies were juxtaposed with scenes of women wasting time with petty ‘cat-fights’ and insecure second-guessing.”
And then there was the time Trump suggested a female contestant perform oral sex on him, as noted by GOP debate moderator Megyn Kelly. Trump has a black belt in sexism and wields that skill at will.
Trump has been tossing around sexist remarks – including accusations of Clinton playing the “gender card” – as if they were candies at a parade. Most recently he decried, “She’s playing that woman’s card left and right, and women are more upset about it than anybody else, including most men,” when remarking on Clinton’s responses to the sexist insults that Trump had directed toward her.
The GOP men know how to toss the sexism ball around amongst themselves.
What is insulting about accusations of Clinton playing the gender card is that these allegations are tossed at her whenever she dares to mention that she is a woman, has worked on women’s issues or is discussing women’s issues, as well as whenever she accurately describes Trump’s and others’ sexist comments toward her as sexist. When you spend your whole career working on behalf of women and girls, you are going to refer to them when discussing your accomplishments. And that shouldn’t be dismissed as “playing the gender card.”
But the campaign trail is littered with sexism that is not directed toward Clinton. Staying with Trump for a moment, we can see the breadth of his sexist ways in his attacks on Carly Fiorina. Trump’s gross comments about Fiorina’s looks played well into the well-documented bias against women candidates. Research shows that voters look for women candidates to be pretty, “likeable” and damn near perfect. Asking voters, “Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!” was a cheap way to trigger voters’ subconscious preference to vote for conventionally attractive candidates.
Candidates have always talked about the office of the president in gendered ways. The office – and, by extension, those who could potentially occupy it – must fit a very specific masculinist framework. One suspects this masculinist line of thought is what propels Clinton to advocate for hawkish stances despite her lifetime of work on behalf of women and girls. Anyone who has worked on women and girls’ issues, especially internationally, understands that they are the most harmed during armed conflict.
This masculinist view of the presidency also puts constraints on the men in the race, requiring them to prove their own hawkishness. It also leads them into lines of attack that question each other’s manliness. The heterosexist media is so puzzled by Lindsey Graham’s status as a single dude and by having women in the race that Dana Bash of CNN actually asked Graham “to choose which woman he would date, marry or make vanish among Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina and Sarah Palin.”
Donald Trump, when not lobbing sexist remarks at Clinton and Fiorina, has also focused on bullying Jeb Bush and questioning his manliness. Trump prefers to call Bush “weak.” In fact, “weak” seems to be Trumps main offense against his GOP rivals. He has called Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Graham and Rand Paul “weak” when it comes to their stances on national defense and immigration.
That said, the other GOP men also know how to toss the sexism ball around amongst themselves.
When GOP candidates cry out about the gender card, they are attempting to distract voters from their poor records.
Christie was chastised for reproducing sexist stereotypes in his framing of family duties, describing moms worrying about kids and dads heading off to work. One could also suggest that he played his own “gender card” when rebuking a former employee during the Bridgegate scandal for being emotional and suggesting that’s why things fell apart. Christie also fails basic debate 101 guidelines by starting a response to Fiorina with, “Carly, listen …” Any decent debate coach will tell you that starting a sentence directed at a woman with the word “listen” will be seen as sexist and paternalistic. Then of course there was the time he suggested a woman at a rally perform oral sex after she called him out on the state of employment in New Jersey.
Then there is the age-old, tried and true sexism of making fun of one’s wife. Mike Huckabee did just that and made people laugh when he said that he was quite familiar with Janet Yellen because his wife’s name is Janet. Get it? Janet … yelling? That bit of marital sexism was almost as cute as the time he said he would put his wife’s face on the new $10 bill so she could finally spend her own money. Get this guy on a 1970s Dean Martin roast!
Marco Rubio probably liked that joke. He made a similar statement about his wife’s lack of financial know-how, saying he had a hard time explaining to her why a woman named Sallie Mae kept taking money out of their bank account. What an awkward and sexist way to discuss the real crisis of student loans.
Dr. Ben Carson also makes sure that he gets in some sexist comments to offend women and make himself look manly. Carson’s most manly moment seems to be wrapped up in his alleged death match from his youth. Questions still remain about his recollection of a long-ago knife fight in which he attempted to stab a bully but was thwarted by a belt buckle. What kind of belt buckle was it? A Texas-sized one? Then he blamed “inner-city violence” on the “women’s liberation” movement. He seems to want to join Huckabee in the 1970s with that terminology.
But back to the sexist attacks directed at Hillary Clinton. Jeb Bush commented that, “Hillary Clinton’s life revolves around her political ambitions,” adding, “I think she’s a little bitter” about losing in 2008. This coming from a man who has a family built on political ambitions and whose own mother has publicly told him to essentially not run for president. But since he is his own man, he can run for office if he wants to and then sling sexist remarks at a women who owns her political ambitions.
And that brings us back to Carly Fiorina.
The political pundit Sally Kohn describes how the GOP men seek to use Fiorina to prove to their voters that they can handle Clinton “without being chauvinist oafs.” Of course on any given day they show how they are failing at that goal with the remarks about her looks. One outlet compared Fiorina to Clinton, referring to her as a “Hillaryesque bitch on wheels.” In late 2015, she was accused by the Cruz campaign of “playing the gender card” by reminding the viewers of the GOP debate that she was a woman.
But Fiorina is trying to have things both ways. She consistently calls out Clinton for “playing the gender card,” while simultaneously reminding voters that she is a woman. Fiorina likes to remind voters and the media that “there are a whole set of things [Clinton] won’t be able to talk about” because they are both women.
By playing the role of the “cool girl” who dudes can drink beer with and tell dirty jokes around, Fiorina is trying to be “that woman.” She refuses to name a woman she would select for the $10 bill and will not acknowledge any aspect of the GOP war on women.
Let’s imagine that Trump is correct when he says “women are more upset” at what he describes as Clinton’s use of the “gender card,” shall we? He has a 60-point favorability rating among GOP women. In a December poll, 27 percent of GOP women said they would vote for Trump. These are women who may fall into the anti-feminist camp or even call themselves feminists but don’t want – as fellow GOP candidate Carly Fiorina has stated – to be thought of as the woman candidate/doctor/engineer so much that they dislike women who embrace those labels. Internal misogyny is strong among conservative women.
Conservative women’s internalization of misogyny and the general acceptability of sexism in many spheres of US life have emboldened Trump to freely use sophomoric words like “schlonged” and comment on Clinton and Fiorina’s looks without real consequence. It is a way to remind everyone that Clinton and Fiorina’s womanhood makes them fundamentally different from all past US presidents and from all of the other current candidates. Trump understands that not only does he win points for attacking Clinton, but also he wins extra credit points when Clinton’s supporters respond with a charge of sexism. The situation is a win-win for Trump. It is akin to reality TV producers who purposely craft anti-women plots in order to draw attention via feminist organizations calling for boycotts (see Reality Bites Back by Jennifer L. Pozner). Trump knows better than anyone that all media is good media, as exhibited by how little money he has spent on ads.
Trump also understands that some women resent Hillary for staying with Bill. “Standing by her man” was a let down for many. Reminding us of this decision pays off for Trump. He escalated his strategy by not only dragging Monica Lewinsky into his campaign plans but also labeling many of Bill’s exploits as violent acts. Let that sink in: A man who is three-times married, has been accused of marital rape and sexually harasses contestants on his reality TV show is calling into question Hillary Clinton’s commitment to feminism and women’s rights because she stays married to Bill Clinton.
The phrase “war on women” and its use against the GOP over the past few years have genuinely put the Republican Party on the offensive. The Republicans recognize that there are women voters who will not be won over by fear – unlike the so-called security moms following the 9/11 terrorist attacks – and that they will need to discuss issues of concern to women.
For the most part, when GOP candidates cry out about the gender card, they are attempting to distract voters from their poor records on topics traditionally deemed “women’s issues,” such as equal pay and family leave. When Clinton points out their poor records on women’s issues, they complain about the so-called gender card. Clinton is correct to point out the inaccuracy of the GOP’s dismissing of the war on women as mere liberal rhetoric (a claim made by Fiorina). Women voters cited economics as a top issue when they voted in 2012. What could be a more women-centric economics issue than pay equity? Considering the importance of the gender gap to the 2016 election, reminders of the war on women will continue to be a theme in 2016 – as will the sexist attempts to rewrite history.