During the 2016 campaign, almost every story written about Hillary Clinton included the assertion that she was a “flawed candidate.” Even stories that were generally supportive felt obliged to begin with the proposition that she was a “flawed candidate” before going on to note, for example, that she won her debate, gave a good speech, had a well-thought-out policy to address some issue, or was the most experienced and well-prepared presidential candidate in many years.
Most often, there was no discussion of what it was that made her “flawed,” — the fact was apparently so obvious as to need no explanation. When pushed, her “flaw” generally involved some complaint that she wasn’t “as good a communicator” as Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. That’s an odd basis for a widely-accepted characterization of a candidate as “flawed.” We’ll leave aside the fact that those two gentlemen are some of the most gifted orators ever. And we’ll leave aside the fact that our expectations for how presidential candidates are supposed to sound involves entirely male ways of communicating. (Thus, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump who yell a lot and wave their arms around sounded fine, but when Hillary raised her voice to be heard, people complained about how much they didn’t like to listen to “all of her yelling.”) Or she was “just somehow” false, or insincere, or “too calculated.” The trope that women are deceitful goes back to Genesis.
And it’s interesting to compare the nearly-universal characterization of Hillary as “flawed” with the ways that male candidates are described. Let’s look at Joe Biden. It may have happened, but I haven’t seen anyone describe Biden as a “flawed candidate.” It’s certainly not the regular and expected way we speak about him.
Yet, Biden is a flawed candidate. He choked in several primaries over the years. He regularly misspeaks/makes mistakes about the facts. His view of the world (where he and his friends, the nice Republicans, can work things out, where African American parents need to play the record player for their children, where it’s OK for Biden to grope women, etc.) is outdated. Further, Biden comes with a lot of baggage, not the least of which was his terrible handling of Anita Hill. And, of course, compared to Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, Biden isn’t as effective a communicator. But that’s apparently not enough for him to be regularly labeled “flawed.” Occasionally, he might be described as “gaff-prone,” but we’re all used to the trope that nice old men just make harmless mistakes all the time. (Research shows that women’s mistakes are judged more harshly and remembered longer than men’s mistakes.)
What explains the different treatment of these two candidates? To a very large extent, it’s unconscious sexism. People who would never say, “I don’t think women are as fit to be president as a man,” still somehow find the female candidate “flawed” but don’t describe a male candidate that way or hold him up to the same standards. That’s unconscious sexism and it has real-world results. Women are angry about it and we’re not going to stop being angry until the situation changes.
Hat tip to Sia for picture.