Over the past six years, America’s conversation about race has shifted in response to the election of President Obama. Meanwhile, national conversations about sexism, which sprung up most recently during Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, have sometimes taken a backseat. But with poll after poll showing that Clinton would be a strong frontrunner for the 2016 presidential race, critics and media analysts alike are already struggling to cover the former secretary of state without falling into sexist tropes.
Just this week, the Chicago Sun-Times‘ new political website Early & Often ran a profile on her “many facial expressions,” many of them intended to be comical or absurd; it’s hard to imagine a male politician getting the same treatment.
A potential Clinton run could serve as a catalyst to expose sexists for all to see and may finally force us to confront sexist thinking. While sexism toward Clinton is nothing new—she’s been a frontrunner before—2016 will likely be different because at this point she has a clear path to the oval office, even more so than before the 2008 cycle.
President Obama’s candidacy and tenure have sparked many high-profile conversations about race and privilege. From the “beer summit” after the arrest of professor Skip Gates to the president saying “if I had a son he’d look like Trayvon,” Americans are talking about race, if not always in productive ways. Obama’s presidency has also prompted a backlash fueled by partisan obstruction and racialized rhetoric.
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After Obama won in 2008, the media inaccurately declared that America was “post-racial” and yet what we saw was even more overt racialized rhetoric in mainstream politics than ever before. An explicit attempt to cast President Obama as an “other” and the Obama presidency as illegitimate launched in earnest and continues to this day.
Similarly, closet sexists will come to the forefront should Clinton win. In fact, Clinton has already sparked sexist behavior and she is not even officially running yet. Take, for example, Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul dredging up her husband’s misdeeds with Monica Lewinsky from decades ago.
Of course, there’s a long history of sexist media coverage of Hillary Clinton. In a 2008 New York Times article about how the Clinton camp and the media were at war over claims of sexism, the paper even cited its own coverage of Clinton’s “cackle”-style laugh as an example of sexist coverage. Rebecca Traister’s book Big Girls Don’t Cry documents much of the sexism during that campaign, including being compared to Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction during a segment on CNN because she wouldn’t drop out of the race during the lengthy democratic primary process. There was also an analysis of her cleavage in the Washington Post.
In an early example of the latest round of Clinton-directed sexism, TIME published a cover image of Clinton in a pant suit and pumps with a miniature man hanging from her shoe—part of a photo genre that feminist writer Jessica Valenti has dubbed “Mean Feminists With Shoes and Poor Emasculated Dudes.” This style of image is often meant to convey the idea that ambitious and career-driven women crush men like mincemeat on their journey to the top.
Of course, in reality, women are paid less than men for the same work, discriminated against in the workplace because of longstanding gender norms, and socialized to get along instead of raising a ruckus, resulting in a wage gap and well-documented structural inequality. If the average woman can stand to make nearly a quarter of a million dollars less over the course of a lifetime than her male counterparts, then surely women writ large, including Hillary Clinton, aren’t crushing men on their way to the top.
With only 20 women in a Senate chamber that has 100 seats, you’d be hard-pressed to make the argument that men are somehow on the decline or victimized by all of these powerful women taking over. In fact, the progress of women and their increased access to opportunity may be making the playing field more equitable for everyone.
Clinton was also recently featured on the cover of the New York Times magazine, not as a giant woman crushing all of the men in her path, but as a floating head in a far-off universe. The paper depicted a former first lady, senator, and secretary of state as an inanimate object, essentially making her a mystical figure as opposed to an accomplished human being.
National magazines have long struggled to depict women in politics; either they are objects, like the Clinton image, or they’re Sarah Palin in running shorts. Wendy Davis, who is running for governor of Texas, has also been featured on a New York Times magazine cover, with the headline “Can Wendy Davis Have it All?”; the article discussed “motherhood” and “mythmaking,” referring to the controversy over facts listed in her biography, rather than focusing on her policy positions or vision of leadership. The focus on Davis’ ability to “have it all” references the age-old question about career women and yet also plays into the oldest tropes. Men running for office are rarely, if ever, framed in this way and not so surprisingly “having it all” is not a question that is posed to her Republican challenger Greg Abbott. Often when male politicians are depicted on national magazines, it’s framed in a much more serious and professional way. For example, Al Gore was depicted on a 2009 cover of Newsweek under the headline “The Thinking Man’s Thinking Man.”
And when women aren’t covered in a detached and sexist way, they are simply ignored. Many readers might be shocked to learn that House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has never been featured on the cover of a major American magazine (Ms. Magazine notwithstanding). This, despite the fact that she is arguably the most successful speaker of the house in the nation’s history.
The buzz around Clinton’s potential candidacy is loud and persistent, and her critics are already throwing sexist attacks her way. If she wins, the closet sexists will come out into the open, like those with hidden racial prejudices have over the past six years. The Obama years have taught us that conversations about race, while messy, nuanced, and difficult, are absolutely necessary. In order for America to make progress in the fight for equality of the sexes, we must face the coming conversations a second Hillary presidential run will bring head on even if that means Rush Limbaugh loses it.