The Media’s Election 2016 Gender-Role Sideshow Has Begun. Let’s Ignore It.

This weekend Maureen Dowd wrote a typically spirited column about Sarah Palin that ended up being a sly sideways dig at Hillary Clinton. “Sarah Palin Saves Feminism” is a title that’s sure to provoke, and the column did: Sarah Palin is such a mess, Dowd’s thesis went, that she negates all the hype around Clinton’s chance for a historic victory, a first female president. “Hillary Clinton is presenting herself as the embodiment of women, an American Marianne, pushing her gender in an all-for-one-one-for-all, now-or-never way,” writes Dowd, who goes on to suggest that Clinton is arguing that “Women should support her because if she founders, it will be bad for women. But Palin has done us a favor by proving that a woman can stumble, babble incoherently on stage and spew snide garbage, and it isn’t a blot on the female copybook.”

Dowd’s one-note joke is mildly funny, but also irrelevant; even SNL knows there’s a big difference between Clinton’s and Palin’s versions of what female leadership would look like. Yet with Palin back on the national stage and would-be frontrunner Clinton facing an insurgency from a grassroots candidate who she previously discounted, there’s a lot about 2016 that looks like 2008, and the media will grab onto that narrative and hold fast.

That’s something to be wary of. Tina Fey is back on SNL, doing her fabled Palin impression, while Dowd’s — and the rest of the mainstream media’s — obsession with Hillary’s gender presentation, from her pantsuits to her tone of voice, is also creeping back. It’s a tired old playbook, but it delights election watchers, particularly those obsessed with the “horse race” and candidates’ “images.” In 2008, Dowd thought Clinton, who emphasized her hawkish credentials, was running too “masculine” a campaign. Now, she finds herself equally disgusted that Hillary is embracing feminism (which many felt she should have done far earlier in 2008). Rather than acknowledge this internal contradiction, Dowd flips it and blames Clinton: “After running as a man last time around, Hillary Clinton is now running as a woman,” she wrote in another recent column, attributing her theory  to Matthew Dowd (no relation) , a strategist for George W. Bush. “She should have run as a woman in 2008, when she was beating back a feminized antiwar candidate. And she should have run as a man this time, when Americans feel beleaguered and scared.”

OK, then. Maureen Dowd is known for using elementary gender stereotypes in her analysis. Democratic men are “feminized” (she used to call Obama “Obambi” and went after Al Gore and John Edwards with similar complaints) and Republican men are locked in Shakespearean battles with their dads, while women like Clinton are often portrayed in her writing as too masculine and threatening. She throws around dated and retrograde stereotypes as though she’s being ironic and postmodern, but in fact the points she hammers home are rather, well, basic.

Media Matters studied Dowd’s Clinton-related columns over a period of more than two decades (that’s over 200 columns) and crunched the numbers to show just how obsessed Dowd is with the Clintons and gender:

  • 159 columns (75%) were negative
  • 53 columns (25%) were neutral or positive
  • 61 columns (29%) have accused Clinton of being power hungry
  • 37 columns (17%) accused Clinton of betraying feminism
  • 15 columns (7%) said Clinton was not likable
  • 47 columns (22%) characterized Clinton as a phony
  • 44 columns (21%) performed psychoanalysis of the Clinton marriage
Even the Times public editor critiqued Dowd at the close of the 2008 election season for “assailing Clinton in gender-heavy terms in column after column.”
Clearly this chastisement had little effect, as her most recent columns show. Dowd’s singular obsession isn’t unique to her newspaper inches, though: the bigger issue is the way the gendered fixations of a few media elites (Chris Matthews and Tucker Carlson are others) end up actually affecting the topics of discussion during the election. Take the last debate, for instance: “There was a question, directed at Hillary, about the role her husband, former president Bill Clinton, would play in her administration, and one directed at Bernie about what he thought about Bill Clinton’s past sexual indiscretions,” Rebecca Traister noted after the candidates tangled in South Carolina. “If you include the previous debate’s question about whether Hillary would have her husband do flower-arranging as First Gentleman, that makes three questions in four debates that somehow relate to the masculinity of a guy who wasn’t even on the stage” — and, on the gender policy front, a grand total of zero questions about reproductive rights.
Diversions like this are a shame, because one of the best things to come out of the primary race between Clinton and Sanders has been the focus that the latter has brought — and the former has welcomed — on actual policy. Whether it’s reparations for slavery or single-payer health care, repealing the Hyde Amendment or tuition breaks for college, there’s a genuine discussion happening about which policies actually make sense, are feasible, and are morally correct. The very involved tango over healthcare policy in the 2008 primary probably ended up sharpening the Obama administration’s fairly successful approach to healthcare; hashing out both the practical and the theoretical is good for the party and the electorate. Hashing out who is more manly or womanly is not.
It’s inevitable that, as the race heats up on both sides, the media is going to return to some of these gender issues that have long permeated election narratives like cheap perfume, and it’s up to the public to resist them. (The cheers when Bernie Sanders dismisses these topics as non-germane show that many people already desire more substantive discussion.)
Furthermore, any future schoolyard-level gendered analysis of this race will be playing right into Donald Trump’s hands, and Democrats and the press should avoid that at all costs. This is the man who will undoubtedly go hard after the Clintons’ marriage, who has already made awful comments about Hillary Clinton’s bathroom breaks, who calls his male opponents names that suggests he thinks they are little girls. Media figures like to hold themselves above Trump, but the reality is that grade-school insults, whether explicit like Trump’s or under a veneer of faux-sophistication like Dowd’s, stick. This is only the beginning; it’s up to all of us to refuse to take the bait.