This conversation probably started before 2007 and it’s not going to end anytime soon. One of the “advantages” of having presidential campaigns which consisted entirely of Rich Old White Guys was that people at least pretended to focus on the issues of the day as the election crawled toward the finish line. Now, I understand that the use of the word advantages in the preceding sentence is anathema to social commentators, but modern American political history has shown us that stirring a variety of other demographic tags into the mix seems to wash away even the pretense of an issues driven debate in some cases.
Dr. James Joyner takes a stab at this broader question this week, drawing a few comparisons between how Barack Obama couldn’t run without talking about race and how gender will infuse any discussion regarding Hillary Clinton in the media.
Given the vitriol that was directed at Bill Clinton—who was accused of everything from rape to murder to launching wars to distract from his personal shenanigans—the bar is pretty high for demonstrating that Obama is going through is primarily a function of his race. At the same time, it’s undeniable that there’s both conscious anti-black animus as well as the less conscious effects of white privilege in play.
The same is true of Hillary Clinton. On the one hand, there’s simply no question that, as a woman, she gets more commentary on her hairdo and clothing than she would if she were a man. Of course, male politicians essentially all have the same haircuts and wardrobe, so there’s less to talk about. (What was Ted Cruz thinking going with a medium-gray suit and a sidepart today?!) Still, I’ve referred to her as “frumpy” from time to time; I probably wouldn’t use that term for a male candidate. Of the major potential male presidential contenders, only Chris Christie regularly gets commentary on his appearance—and he’s sufficiently obese to be well outside the norms of American politicians. (I’m actually surprised that Jeb Bush hasn’t drawn more fire along those lines; he’s gotten rather chunky since stepping down as governor of Florida.) So, there’s some element of sexism there.
A couple of points on these gender specific analysis styles. First of all, yes… I agree that people rarely talk about how men dress when going to political events. But if you watch a celebrity event such as the red carpet parade outside the Oscars you get the exact same thing. Unless somebody shows up in a throwback to Liberace or Elton John from the seventies, the guys are all dressed in the uniform of the day. Same thing in politics. There are places for tuxedos and places for suits, generally only seen in a few colors. (Remember the stir when Obama wore a tan suit?) It’s how we dress. Women go through all sorts of variation and contortions in sartorial choices, so it’s worth discussing for the peanut gallery while we wait for them to begin handing out the trophies.
But let’s also remember that if the media was actually treating the political Game of Thrones seriously we wouldn’t be talking about what anyone was wearing anyway. This wasn’t supposed to be a red carpet event… it was supposed to be the way we select the next leader of the free world. Vladimir Putin isn’t going to give a hoot about the cut of your pants suit while deciding whether or not to invade another country. But beyond even that point, why is it “sexist” to talk about how the candidates are dressed? As I noted above, there’s just more material to fill up the cable news vacuum when it comes to women because we guys tend to be rather boring. The same thing could be said about race. The fact that Barack Obama is black only became an issue for the media because they wanted to talk about it. We could have just as easily focused only on the policies which he espoused when compared to those of John McCain or Mitt Romney. (But hey… what fun would that be?)
It would be wonderful if politics could be driven into the post-racial, post-gender, post-religious antipathy society we all claim to desire. Imagine how refreshing it would be to have a candidate stand up at the podium and say something stupid or destructive and be able to call them out on it without being immediately excused for “hating on them” for the color of their skin, the church (if any) they attend or the composition of their genes. But politics is a dirty game which doesn’t lend itself well to such things. With Hillary in the race, the campaign will be about gender because the media is already making it about gender, and there’s not going to be any stopping them.