Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Not Necessarily Sexist

The 2008 Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was just as ugly as this year's - if not more so. Then, as now, some slung accusations of sexism with abandon. Many charges were perfectly justified, many were absolutely outlandish, and many were ... fascinatingly arguable. You could make a solid case either way. These arguments reflected how rapidly the terrain was changing.

This is a good thing. Progress is messy and the key to understanding this is beer. Bear with me a bit.

Take the 2008 claim that it was sexist to call Hillary Clinton simply "Hillary." Remember that? It sounds odd now because her PAC for this year's campaign is "Ready for Hillary," but it caused a fuss before. Indeed, she was on a first name basis on her campaign swag in 2008 too - some buttons just said "Hillary for President." Hypocrisy? Not quite. To be fair, the complaint was directed at the media which has different standards than campaigns. In the quest to be festive, campaigns do all kinds of informal, familiar things (the 1964 Goldwater campaign's "Go Goldwater" novelty glasses spring to mind) but the press should be more formal and professional. Of course, reporters were just trying to be efficient and shared last names posed a problem. If you wrote a story mentioning both Bill and Hillary Clinton, you could not call either simply "Clinton" after the lead paragraph. So you were forced to be cumbersome to avoid being confusing. It was even worse for stories mentioning both George Bushes - father and son.

You don't need to read feminist theory to grasp why this became a thing because men have similar issues. Politicians have always been ambivalent about informality. This year, when Ted Cruz refused to wear a cheese head hat in Wisconsin, political cartoonist Ann Telnaes enjoyed a field day with all the candidates. Yes, many politicians embrace informality, but they rarely rise above local office. Candidates with nick names like "Skip" and "Bud" (always with quotes on their road signs) are fine for county sheriff, but they are rarer at the federal level. Or, at least they were - we seem to be coming full circle. The last truly informal-named president we had was Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton found a Third Way on this issue: He did not go by William but he did not answer to Billy either. Can you imagine calling him "Billy Clinton"?

This ambivalence reflects that going informal is a trade-off. It's folksy and friendly, but you lose gravitas to get it. In our society, men can take that hit more easily, but it was still difficult for Bill Clinton. He knew his boyish looks were a double-edged sword. In 1992, he was still called "the boy governor" by some and his staffers were dismissed as inexperienced "kids." In short, he initially had trouble being taken seriously. Needless to say, this balancing act would be significantly more difficult for Hillary Rodham Clinton who had already weathered considerable flack for incorporating her maiden name (since dropped). "What's in a name?" became a loaded question, a kind of minefield for her. Therefore, it was not unreasonable for Senator Clinton's supporters to be sensitive to perceived slights. Looking back, everyone had valid points.

This year's charges of sexism were similarly mixed. Some were righteous and some were ridiculous. But some only needed slight tweaking to shift them from obviously wrong to indisputably true.

One of the more forgivable reflexes was conflating things that were inherently sexist with things that are not but are nevertheless magnified by sexism. These are things both sexes experience but do not experience equally because they are exponentially worse for women. Sentences that began with the words "No male candidate would get criticized for _____" heralded many easily debunked claims.

Take hair for example. No male candidate would get criticized for his hair? Please. We make fun of Donald Trump's fake hair and Bernie Sanders' crazy hair. In high school, I made fun of Ronald Reagan's Grecian Formula pompadour. I am a sometime political cartoonist. We mock male politician's appearance all the time. Trump's orange complexion is fair game. Ditto with his tiny hands. That's politics. Is it worse for women? No doubt.(1) And that is what you should say instead: Patriarchy makes everything harder.

Incidentally, Bernie Sanders emphatically agrees that it is "absolutely wrong" that women are criticized more than men for their appearance. He has no patience for trivial questions about appearance in general. Of course, some twisted his take into sexism just the same. But I digress.

Likability is another example. It is absolutely bonkers to insist that nobody cares about the likability of male candidates. On "Full Frontal," Samantha Bee did a devastating segment on how Ted Cruz was so loathed by his colleagues that even fellow conservatives cannot stand to be in the same room with him. Personality has always been a topic of political discourse. We talked about how Al Gore, John Kerry, and Mitt Romney were "wooden" or how Richard Nixon, like Ted Cruz, was widely despised in his own party.

We also remember that Ronald Reagan was pretty popular even though his politics were not. There was a cognitive disconnect between Ronnie's genial personality and his callous policies - which thereby enabled those policies.(2) Centrist Democrats love trotting out the conservative conceit that voters were "tired of big government" in the 1980s, but there was actually nothing ideological about Republican presidential wins during that decade. Both polls and congressional elections showed no shift in political attitudes: Reagan benefited only from his personality and the economy.

By contrast, Bob Dole was so caustic and off-putting that a colleague once called him a "hatchetman who couldn't sell beer on a troop ship." As a result, the 1996 presidential election pitted the same personalities against each other as the 1960 one. Bob Dole played Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton's John F. Kennedy - a scowling, jowly face against a charismatic, sunny one. Indeed, Dole publicly identified with Nixon just as much as Clinton did with Kennedy. I think personality had an impact.

In short, we certainly notice when candidates have or lack looks or charm. John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama had/have both. Others not so much. And people are going to comment either way. No, we do not expect all our male presidents to look like matinee idols or have charisma, but candidates who do indisputably have a leg up over their competition in elections.

Is likability relevant to doing the job of being president? Well, it helps. It's definitely something you want in your tool box. After all, corralling votes for important legislation is a little harder than selling beer. Now, I am not saying it guarantees anything. President Barack Obama woefully overestimated its power to surmount Republican obstruction. Beer summits don't solve everything. But they help.

Of course, most voters are not thinking in those practical terms. They just want to like their leader - which means that likability aids elect-ability. No, we should not elect people on the basis of whether we think we would "enjoy having a beer with them" (on a troop ship or otherwise) but we do. It may be stupid, shallow, and irresponsible - but it is not necessarily sexist.

They key word here is "necessarily." It is not necessarily sexist unless the topic of likability is a) eclipsing talk of policy or b) using gendered language like "shrill," "bitchy," etc. Then it is unquestionably sexist and we have in fact seen both. Moreover, there is also a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't dynamic that women leaders have to deal with. Male candidates individually may have to either soften their image or toughen it up, but they are given ample room to move either way. By contrast, women walk a tightrope where leaning in either direction is dangerous. But here again, it is a question of degree: Male candidates can also be seen as weak if they are "too nice" - think of Jimmy Carter or Michael Dukakis. But it is much worse for women. Similar dynamic, completely different degree.

But that is not an argument for taking the topics of appearance or likability off the table entirely. Instead, we should discuss them more carefully. Unfortunately, some Clinton partisans have, consciously or not, used these real issues to shut down any discussion of Hillary Clinton's deficits as a candidate. When not calling these inconvenient and therefore verboten topics "sexist," these self-declared "realists" actually say that "popularity doesn't matter." Their naïveté is terrifying.

For the record, I hate this superficial appearance shit. But it would be dishonest to deny it is an important factor. We all have a responsibility to acknowledge this. We trusted Ronald Reagan with nuclear launch codes because he seemed nice. Roll that around in your noggin for a moment. Let the horror wash over you. Then reflect that George W. Bush got into the Oval Office in part for the same reason. Al Gore was not just wooden: He seemed smug. And that gave his earnest nincompoop opponent a boost. Seriously, if you have not heard that politics can often be a popularity contest, you probably should not discuss politics.

I hope this doesn't sound like concern trolling, because it is not. I am not offering any advice for next time (sincere or otherwise) because "next time" is now. We are in the general election and Donald Trump is so ostentatiously sexist that even a poorly-worded accusation would be accurate - by accident, if nothing else. The next "next time" is four years into the future and hopefully the terrain will have significantly changed by then. No, I am not saying that sexism will be conquered by then: Electing Clinton will not vanquish sexism anymore than electing Obama erased racism. But with luck, some of these issues will then seem as quaint and distant as the 2008 name dust-up does today and we will wonder what the confusion was.

Granted, getting to that point will require discussions and making many mistakes. Of course, I'd rather everyone wrote more carefully to begin with: It would save time. But, realistically, that's probably not going to happen. Again, progress is sloppy - that's part of the process.

So, have a beer. This is going to be a very drinky election year.


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(1) Admittedly, there are few actual examples of this, but I still believe it. This scarcity is easily explained. In The Complete Book of Caricature, it was posited that the profession has traditionally been kinder when depicting women. The spectacularly sexist explanation was that women are thin-skinned so chivalric restraint is required. But the real reason was there were far fewer women in politics in 1991 when the book was published. In turn, this meant that most caricatures of women were penned for the entertainment industry where light ribbing is the norm. You obviously do not go for the jugular when you are doing a TV Guide cover or a Broadway actor sketch. You play nice. We even see this in Mad Magazine parodies of movies and TV shows. The text might be brutal, but the art is softball because the artists still want to get jobs from TV Guide. (Movie posters and comedy albums are other gigs you can get if you pull your punches.) Politics is different. You don't play nice in politics. Accordingly, the book included a Gerald Scarfe caricature of Margaret Thatcher that literally depicted her as a bitch shitting herself. In his defense, Thatcher was pretty terrible. Alas, I can easily imagine someone saying "No male politician would be caricatured so vulgarly." They would be wrong. Politics lends itself to toilet humor regardless of gender. But there is no denying that such imagery hits women far harder.

(2) Leslie Stahl discovered this dynamic quite dramatically. In her book, Reporting Live, she recalled a 1984 incident which illustrated how visuals trump facts. She did a piece on Ronald Reagan contrasting cheery footage of him visiting the Special Olympics with her own voice over talking about his pressuring Congress to cut funds for the handicapped. Ditto with the Gipper's visits to nursing homes and trying to slash Social Security. To her shock and horror, the White House loved it. They knew viewers would absorb the visuals and ignore her voice over thereby missing the irony entirely. "You guys in Televisionland haven’t figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you." Yes, this is a story about visuals rather than personality. But the visuals would not have landed if Reagan were not already perceived as likable. I don't think this would have worked out for Nixon. As an artist, I am biased to believe in the power of images. It flatters me. But I must admit that having an established narrative to reinforce helped. Ultimately, this anecdote is about style over substance and therefore relevant to the issue of likability.

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