Hillary Clinton Versus The Perfection Myth
In a recent debate, a male Republican candidate publicly defended his manhood on stage. His opponent, another male candidate, brought up the fact that the frontrunner has “small hands.” “And you know what they say about men with small hands?” the opponent continued. “You can’t trust them.” Rather than dismissing the comment as “vulgar” or pointing out that the men were supposed to be discussing public policy, the candidate showed off his hands to the crowd: “Look at those hands, are they small hands?” Having made his point with the apparent enormity of his digits, he concluded, “I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.”
If you did not watch this incident unfold, you likely heard about it. You laughed about it. Maybe you even tweeted about it. But in the days since, something curious has (or has not) happened: The much-discussed gaffe has hurt neither man in the race. The frontrunner, Donald Trump, has remained so. He’s ahead by 14 points in the polls, dropping just 1.5 in the past week. That’s well within the margin of error. The same is true for his rival, Sen. Marco Rubio, who is still hovering around 18 points. Rubio is in third place, the same spot as when he went after Trump’s member.
If any quality appears to mark Donald Trump’s campaign, it’s that he is imperfect—very, very imperfect. In fact, this is what his supporters like about him. For Trump voters, his appeal is two-fold: 1) He’s a businessman and an outsider who won’t be bought by the political system (because he has enough money that he can buy the entire race) and 2) He speaks his mind, even when what’s on his mind isn’t right. “I don’t care what his actual positions are,” Dallas Mavericks CEO Mark Cuban once argued. “I don’t care if he says the wrong thing. … He gives honest answers rather than prepared answers. This is more important than anything any candidate has done in years.”
Former Senator Hillary Clinton, however, faces an opposite reality. If Trump’s base supports him because he’s exactly the kind of man who would issue a disclaimer about his Johnson before a national audience, Clinton is endlessly scrutinized for every stray comment she makes—and how she makes it. As DailyKos’ Laura Clawson pointed out, the Democratic frontrunner is often described as “tense” during televised debates; her points are made with “ferocity” and “vitriol.” Meanwhile, during February’s MSNBC Democratic debate, the New York Times wrote that her opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, “largely kept his cool.”
While one could say that Hillary Clinton is “up against” Bernie Sanders in the race, it’s intended as no disrespect to Mr. Sanders to say that is not entirely accurate. Clinton is instead running against the “perfection myth”—the idea that women, especially those in public life, have to seamlessly conform to contradictory gendered expectations of their behavior. They have to be at once commanding and authoritative leaders while being relatable and personable; for women in power, these qualities are in opposition to one another. You can be powerful, outspoken, and a woman, but you have to only pick two of those three things.
As law professor Ann C. McGinley wrote in The Conversation, power is gendered in a way that inherently punishes women—whether it’s seeking the highest political office in America or nabbing a promotion at work. “Women in leadership roles are judged incompetent for job performances that are comparable to those of their male colleagues who are praised for their leadership,” she writes. “But even when a female leader is considered competent, her peers judge her as unlikable.”
These contradictions aren’t limited to likability. While women are punished for taking up too much space, it’s the exact opposite for men: They are penalized when they don’t speak enough or contribute enough to the conversation, even when what they say is blatantly incorrect or inflammatory. In their book, The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman found that the more senior a man is, the more likely he is to be loquacious. Male bosses or authority figures who do not speak up will be seen as weaker. In contrast, powerful women are expected to be mostly silent (think Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada).
Perhaps this is why there’s been such attention focused on Hillary Clinton’s voice—from the candidate’s shifting accents over the years to her perceived tone. In a 2008 interview with Sean Hannity, self-proclaimed “public opinion guru” Frank Luntz argued that “her voice turns people off… because they feel like they’re being lectured.” Around the same time, Glenn Beck famously compared her voice to an “ice pick in your ear” and said that it makes you “envy the deaf.” He continued, “She could be saying, ‘All right, Glenn, I want to give Glenn Beck $1 million,’ and all I’d hear is, ‘Take out the garbage.’”
That might appear a relic of the 2008 elections, but it’s not. During a speech the former Secretary of State made earlier this year in Detroit, MSNBC actually paused the broadcast to chastise her speaking manner. According to the channel’s Lawrence O’Donnell, Clinton was speaking too loudly. Former chair of the Republican National Convention Michael Steele agreed: “When you’re going up every octave with every word, people are like, I have to get some popcorn and get away from this.” Bob Cusack, the editor-in-chief for the Hill, put it even more plainly in a tweet: “When Hillary Clinton raises her voice, she loses.”
Back in 2008, a CBS News poll found that majority of Americans agreed that Clinton was being treated more harshly because of her gender. This is still accurate, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The basic issue with Hillary Clinton’s campaign is that a great deal of voters in both political parties (sexism isn’t solely a Republican issue) don’t want to hear her speak at all; meanwhile, Trump can advocate the expulsion of all Latino immigrants from the United States and still be asked to host Saturday Night Live. If male candidates like Trump have it much easier than women do, it’s because a female candidate’s difficulty setting is set to “impossible.”
Our obsession with what Hillary Clinton says not only punishes her disproportionately for the fact of being female, it also masks what other candidates actually do. A great deal of attention has been paid in recent weeks to disturbing and reprehensible remarks she made back in 1996 in support of her husband, Bill Clinton’s, proposed tough-on-crime bill at New Hampshire’s Keene State College. She referred to the “gangs of kids” that the bill targeted as “superpredators—no conscience, no empathy.” But what has less been focused on is that Bernie Sanders actually voted for that bill, whereas Clinton—as the First Lady—had no legislative power. She should apologize, but we should be holding others to the same accountability.
Hillary Clinton is not a flawless candidate, and she never will be. As a former First Lady, Secretary of State, and Senator, she has too long a track record in public life to adhere to anyone’s definition of perfection. Remember that time that her website was nailed for Hispandering after a listicle that compared her to an “abuela”? What about her big fat fib about being attacked by sniper fire in Bosnia? Or the fact that she still won’t release the transcripts of speeches she made to Goldman Sachs? But as author Deborah Kalb reminds us in an interview with Forward, “perfection is a standard that has never been used to judge any male candidates.”
There’s an old saying that we should treat others as we’d want to be treated, but that doesn’t quite apply to political leaders seeking office. Instead, the next time that Donald Trump halts a debate to defend his member or interrupts a debate to insult another candidate onstage, use a different Golden Rule: Treat him as you would Hillary Clinton. Can you ever imagine Ms. Clinton saying something about someone’s private parts onstage? If you cannot fathom such a thing, perhaps it’s time to consider that there’s a reason for that.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon,Rolling Stone, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Advocate, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions and the co-editor of the best-selling BOYS anthology series.