On July 28th, 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential candidate officially nominated by a major political party. This achievement moves the country into unchartered territory as voters compare/contrast the merits of Clinton and her male opponent, Donald Trump. Unsurprisingly, patriarchy has disadvantaged the Clinton campaign in subtle ways largely ignored by the media. Specifically, gender essentialism has undermined Clinton’s candidacy by positing women as inherently unfit for office, punishing Clinton for exhibiting “masculine” traits associated with the presidency, and imposing double standards that afford Trump unfair advantages to assert competency/legitimacy during public appearances.
To begin, widespread cultural representations of gender in the United States have shaped the organization of our social institutions. Gender essentialism denotes a belief system that attributes masculinity and femininity to fixed biological origins. Essentialists flippantly argue, “Men are from Mars. Women are Venus.” This implies women possess natural proclivities for empathy, nurturement, passivity, and subordination while men are organically predisposed toward detachment, aggression, assertiveness, and domination. This arbitrarily construed gender binary, though obviously contradicted by casual empirical observation, has been traditionally expressed as patriarchal “gender roles” that relegate women to disempowered social positions that foster dependency upon men.
The presidency, as an organizational role, is inextricably tied to gendered expectations that unfairly privilege male candidates. The president elect is expected to be stoic, invincible, omnipotent, assertive, uncompromising, principled, strategic, cautious, ambitious, omniscient, and, yet, relatable to “everyday” citizens. From an essentialist point of view, a natural congruence exists between these role expectations and masculinity. The predominance of this theoretical framework implies most Americans perceive men as naturally predisposed for the highest office. Consequently, the presence of such traits are expected and immediately bolster a male candidate’s legitimacy.
It goes without saying, this gender bias marginalizes women by dissociating femininity from traits indispensable to the presidency. In the presence of such attributes, Hillary Clinton has been publicly goaded to justify perceived masculinity. Possessing proper credentials and personal demeanor for the position, she is largely criticized as detached, unemotional, unfamiliar, and overly ambitious. Critics suggest, either consciously or unconsciously, that women are naturally unfit to be president and should aspire for nothing greater than submission to male authority, their biological constituted raison d’etre. This implies the very act of a woman pursuing the presidency is, by definition, “overly ambitious” because this gross display of assertiveness disrupts the perceived natural order by placing a woman in an organizational role supposedly designed for men. Hence, Clinton is posited as a self-centered, untrustworthy, and unqualified to lead due to her selfish pursuits.
This rhetorical trap clearly punishes Clinton for her personal achievements. As the public examines her curriculum vitae, it is oddly suggested that Clinton’s public service renders her suspicious rather than qualified for the presidency. In contrast, Donald Trump’s self-interestedbusiness pursuits are commonly thought to bolster rather than undermine his credentials for presidency. This example clearly illustrates a double standard in which personal ambition acquires meaning through reference to a candidate’s gender identity. These divergent interpretations afford an unearned advantage to the male candidate who is not confronted with the same legitimacy crisis confronting his female counterpart. Instead, it is assumed that his actions align with biological predispositions and vice versa.
Inducing a gender-based legitimacy crisis disrupts a female candidate’s public performances while giving her opponent an invaluable opportunity to advance their position in the horse race. All presidential candidates are vetted during public performances in which they are expected to display the proper demeanor associated with their desired position. These self-presentations are closely scrutinized by the media and used by candidates to defame their opponents. The recent scrutiny of Clinton’s body demonstrated the gendered dimension of these performances. For weeks, conservative commentators promoted conspiracy theories related to Clinton’s mental and physical condition in effort to position her as inherently weaker than Trump. This discussion culminated when Clinton collapsed from pneumonia during the 9/11 memorial event. Immediately, armchair theorists flooded online comment threads with a variety of diagnoses including Parkinson’s disease and repeatedly insisted Clinton is going to die at any moment. Undoubtedly, under these circumstances, Clinton felt compelled to hide her sickness and attend the scheduled event lest she be criticized as unpatriotic. Without acknowledging the gendered paradox constructed by her opponent, the media criticized her failed performance as discrediting evidence of untrustworthiness and illegitimacy. In the meantime, Trump, a 70-year-old, clinically obese man that admittedly eats fast food and doesn’t exercise, escaped media scrutiny and utilized the situation to justify his legitimacy.
In short, patriarchal assumptions generate self-fulfilling prophesies that affirm underlying presumptions of inherent gender difference, segregation, and inequality. In the context of the current campaign cycle, this process is observed in discourses that delegitimize the Clinton candidacy on the basis of her gender identity, promote double standards that devalue her accomplishments relative to her male opponent, and impose conditions that discredit her by hindering public performances. The first step to addressing this issue is recognizing the existence of a problem. Unfortunately, the aforementioned gendered biases are rendered invisible by their normality and, consequently, unconsciously guide our perception/decision-making processes. In effort to level the playing field, Americans must sensitize themselves to their gendered assumptions by carefully analyzing the operation of gender during this election cycle, identify instances in which these biases influence interpretation, question personal expectations attributed to presidential candidates, and hold the media accountable to double standards. As the primary audience, we have the ability to set norms of conduct that regulate presidential election cycles. By standing up to blatant sexism, we can enhance the integrity of the electoral process and increase access to everyone regardless of gender identity.