Sexism, Alive and Well in 2016 Presidential Campaign

MANCHESTER, NH - Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stops at Puritan Backroom for Super Bowl food and to meet New Hamp
MANCHESTER, NH - Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stops at Puritan Backroom for Super Bowl food and to meet New Hampshire voters in Manchester, New Hampshire on Sunday evening, February 7, 2016. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As a scholar of Communication Studies and gender, the rhetoric and media coverage of Hillary's speaking style, post Thursday's Prime Time Democratic Debate, came as no surprise. Sexist attitudes and perceptions, regarding men and women's speaking styles, are supported by an abundance of scholarly research.

While men in the political arena who raise their voices are often reported as more presidential, competent and viewed as leaders, women, on the contrary, are depicted as irrational, angry, and emotional. But one doesn't need to enact a literature review in academia to find evidence as to how prevalent a role sexist attitudes play in this presidential election.

Sexism, attached to Hillary, is not a new phenomenon. One needs only to recall the dominant tropes that were attached to her speeches in the last presidential election cycle: "shrill" and "nagging" were a few of the best mainstream zingers. At let's not forget the oldie but goodie of how her menstrual cycle would inevitably affect her Presidential decision-making ability. Another salient example is the media's treatment of Hillary's use of pathos, versus President Barack Obama's. When Hillary cried during her last Presidential run, she was perceived as weak and vulnerable. Conversely, when President Obama cried during his gun control speech, he was lauded as "empathetic" and a "true family man," able to place himself square in the hearts and minds of the families affected by gun violence.

Fast-forward to 2016. What has changed? We can start off with Trump's comment about Hillary's bathroom break: "I know where she went -- it's disgusting, I don't want to talk about it... no, it's too disgusting. Don't say it, it's disgusting." This comment functions to reduce Hillary to her feminine body parts--overt shaming of the female body. This comment was fresh of the heels of Trump's statement that Hillary got "schlonged" by Barack Obama, in 2008. Hillary's vagina is, again, centered and sexualized--and, in this reference, perhaps even violated (not to mention the problematics of equating Obama with an implied hyper-sexualized Black male phallus).

These vile and crass referents from Trump tend to be, by the media and the public, easily dismissed. It is Trump, c'mon! What do you expect? But what happens when we examine the media's treatment of Hillary's rhetoric absent from him and a particular candidate. Let's examine the sexism inherent within her rhetoric proper -- as a candidate. Her speaking style.

After Thursday night's debate, the media's sexist treatment of Hillary's rhetoric is unable to ignore. Journalist Bob Woodward argued that Hillary is having difficulty competing with Bernie because she "shouts too much." MSNBC's "Morning Joe" segment read like a Saturday Night Live parody of women in politics. If only. The commentators described Hillary's communication style as "unnatural," in approach, "screaming" in tone, and "feisty" in pathos. Woodward continued, "She could make a case for herself if she would just kind of lower the temperature and ... get off this screaming stuff." According to the New York Times, Clinton appeared "tense and even angry at times," while Bernie Sanders "largely kept his cool. The Times described Clinton's rhetoric as "vitriol[ic]."

Message received loud and clear: In other words, Hillary, follow your marching orders. No not speak up or act out. Act lady-like, be deferential, embrace non-assertiveness and be amenable to your candidate's positions. In other words, don't act like a Presidential candidate. Imagine if this rhetoric that continues to be attached to Hillary was attached to Bernie, Trump or Cruz? The louder that Trump gets, "[yelling] I will build a great wall!" his polls see a boost. Or Ted Cruz, during his Iowa Victory Speech: "Our rights come from our creator!" these words lauded by his base as reflective of a true conservative. What about Bernie Sanders? Rather than being depicted as irrational or incompetent every time he raises his voice, instead, he is the loving Grandfather figure who speaks through "tough love. Let's not even discuss Chris Cristie's speaking tenor, that one is too obvious.

Regardless of what you think of Hillary's voting record, regardless of what you think about her take on the issues, it is undeniable that in this election, as in 2008, public perceptions of her political persona will undeniably be tainted by the media's role in the perpetuation of double standards and blatant sexism. This fact should matter to all voters.