The insidious, subtle sexism of so-called liberal progressives

Image: Reuters/Jim Young
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On Sunday night, I sat down to watch the seventh Democratic presidential debate with my roommate and her boyfriend. The boyfriend is a fervent Bernie Sanders supporter–complete with a bumper sticker on the back of his car. About midway through the debate, Hillary Clinton answered a question and the boyfriend said, “I feel like she always yells all her answers.”

I stared at him stupidly for a moment. “Are you serious?” I finally replied. “Bernie literally only yells.”

It was an exchange that in many ways encapsulated an important aspect of the Democratic primaries this year. Even among self-proclaimed progressives, there are deep divisions about the way male and female politicians are treated and perceived.

Back in my apartment, I found myself fuming as the debate continued. Why did my roommate’s boyfriend interpret Hillary’s speech as “yelling” and not Bernie’s? When Hillary shows passion about a topic, she’s interpreted as aggressive. Yet Bernie can yell so much that it’s fodder for late-night parody and still be perceived as a righteous revolutionary fighting for the truth.

While the two Democratic presidential contenders have met head-to-head many times by this point, this latest debate was perhaps the best example yet of how male privilege works. Sanders supporters have been arguing for months that criticizing Clinton is not inherently sexist. This is true, of course. But it’s equally true that Sanders has continued to benefit from a set of specific gendered stereotypes. Take this highly covered moment from the debate in which Sanders said, “Excuse me, I’m talking,” as Clinton tried to interject.

Sure, Clinton had tried to interrupt Sanders many times—this is a debate, after all. But something about this interaction was different. I think it comes down to Sanders’ body language. Sanders moves his open palm down and towards her face, as if to say, “Excuse me woman, it’s the man’s turn.” It’s the kind of move befitting a boy who tries to assert his dominance on the playground. He might as well have put his fingers in his ears while Clinton was speaking and said, “La la la, I can’t hear you.”

Other moments of contrast in the treatment of the candidates were evident in questions from CNN’s (male) debate moderators, Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon. The moderators spent several minutes questioning the candidates about the 1994 crime bill. Both candidates have been criticized for supporting the bill. And both were asked about it, but not in the same way.

Clinton, who was First Lady at the time, supported the bill but did not vote for it. Sanders, who was a congressman at the time, did.

Image for article titled The insidious, subtle sexism of so-called liberal progressives
Image for article titled The insidious, subtle sexism of so-called liberal progressives

As you can see in the captions above, both of these questions are what we could call a leading question: the type of question you aren’t supposed to ask as a journalist.

Clinton, whose level of trustworthiness has been a topic of much contention throughout her campaign, got a question that forced her to begin from a defensive position. Sanders was given a pass with a question framework that sets him up to acknowledge that his vote was a simple error of judgment. All he has to do now is answer the question in the affirmative; the audience has already been primed with the idea that he didn’t mean to vote for the crime bill. These questions assume that Clinton is the enemy, while Sanders is a well-intentioned grandpa.

Clinton has dealt with sexism throughout her entire career. But it’s interesting to see the ways in which gendered criticism has been leveled against her in this election cycle. Instead of facing off against conservative men who make their disdain for women’s rights clear from the beginning, Clinton has found herself embroiled in an increasingly bitter fight against a liberal white man who has championed causes ranging from abortion to civil rights. This has given Sanders supporters an automatic defense against accusations of sexism.

The issue, however, is that sexism is inherently complicated and insidious. It feeds off stereotypes that many people may not even know they are facilitating. A study on women in leadership roles notes that women are seen negatively when they present traditionally male stereotypes, the same same traits associated with good leaders. An analysis of performance reviews showed that women received critical feedback 87.9% of the time, while men received critical feedback in only 58.9% of reviews. The criticism was also much more likely to focus on personality when the employee was a woman.

Beyond personality, women still face a tough battle because of the way they speak. Research shows that voters prefer candidates with lower-pitched voices, regardless of the gender of the candidate and that women with lower-pitches voices are perceived as more dominant. Margaret Thatcher famously took lessons to lower the pitch of her voice as she gained political power, or perhaps in order to gain political power.

My roommate’s boyfriend is one case in point. When he said that Clinton was “yelling,” it’s quite possible he didn’t realize the implications of his comment. Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward offers another perfect example of this phenomenon. During a segment on the MSNBC talk show “Morning Joe” in February, Woodward complained to the hosts about Clinton’s speaking style.  ”She shouts,” the Pulitzer-prize winning writer said. “There is something unrelaxed about the way she is communicating.”

In a similar example from Super Saturday on March 5, the day before the debate, an all-male group of MSNBC panelists debated whether Clinton should speak more softly during speeches. Politics USA explains the situation well:

The men decided that when Hillary Clinton is speaking in an interview, she does well. It’s just when she is using a microphone to speak to a crowd that she has issues, apparently, as she speaks up like all public speakers do when they are speaking in front a large crowd. They tried to avoid using the loaded words that hung in the air like “shrill.”

Even Donald Trump has gotten in on the party, declaring at a rally in February that his chief rival “has been shouting very much” over the past few weeks.

It seems that finally men have found something they can agree upon, across party lines: There is something deeply unpleasant about the sound of an ambitious woman trying to make herself heard.