Women should be able to be comfortable in their own feminine culture when they run for the Oval Office. Maybe the reason we have yet to elect a woman president is because voters aren’t comfortable with that.
“I love a man in a uniform.”
Those were lyrics by a 1980’s band called The Gang of Four and they remind us of a primal feeling we have about men and protection. Even in the age of post-modern feminism, many of us here in the United States are still old fashioned when it comes to women and political leadership. Yes, even the feminists. The uniform is the visual reminder of male power.
As each presidential election passes we collectively try to ignore an embarrassing fact: the United States falls behind many other countries in terms of political equality for women. Can we close that gap? Yes, but first we have to figuratively recast an internal script that tells us only men are powerful leaders. Then, we have to change the symbolic power uniform if we are to literally see women as powerful.
Recently, a post by Joanne Bamberger raised the question as to why German Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t get the typical criticism of likability as does Hillary Clinton in press coverage. And it’s true. Donald Trump can insult people, Bernie Sanders can scowl and shake his fist, but Hillary Clinton does neither of these things and surprisingly the specter of “likability” envelopes her like a darkened cloak.
The likability question has dogged Clinton since the 2008 primary election and it isn’t just because she’s female. If that were the only reason then Angela Merkel and even Senator Elizabeth Warren would face similar scrutiny, but they do not.
I believe that “Is Hillary likable” is a stand-in phrase for an uncomfortable feeling we get about women in presidential politics. We have yet to fully define this feeling and when we do we will probably be quite near to closing the presidential gender gap. To inch our awareness forward in this direction try this exercise next time you see a woman running for president, be it Clinton, Carly Fiorina, or anyone else, replace the word likable with the word “presidential.”
Now if I simply add Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to the “likability” mix we can start to see patterns.
I can break this conundrum into four areas: clothing, hair, make-up and facial expressions.
Men’s suits have remained essentially the same since the 1800s when they were first created. Suit pants fall all the way to the ankle which prevent people from viewing men’s ankles. Furthermore, their collars and ties hide the inevitable aging skin of their necks. Suits are fabric cocoons that cover male sexuality.
When men run for president there is no where else to look but their faces unless men choose to show body parts such as the traditional photo op of a male candidate swimming or exercising in order to show male virility.
Women haven’t had such a fashionable safe zone; we have been corseted, bustled and exposed throughout the centuries in order to look sexually appealing to men. Hemlines and necklines rise and fall, and fabrics cling to the female form. We view women as sexual beings in a way we don’t with men.
There is not a standard suit for the female politician running for commander in chief while she talks about policy issues. Women simply have not had that part of American power. As explored in the essay by Deb Rox in the new book Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, If a woman wants a suit to protect her from sexist remarks about her body, she has to invent it herself.
Hillary Clinton started wearing pantsuits when she became a U.S. senator. Most recently, at the last Democratic debate her suit resembled those of Merkel, replacing a more tailored blazer with a longer tunic jacket.
I guess if it works for Angela it might work for Hillary. Merkel has been wearing what I call the “Merkel jacket” since her start in politics and likability hasn’t been an issue for her, as far as I can tell. If Merkel has a female body shape, we wouldn’t know it. Merkel, like men, escapes being sexualized. You have no choice but to watch her face as she talks and judge her on the words coming out of her mouth. Is she likable? It doesn’t matter. Merkel passed the male garment test.
What does Senator Warren wear? Do we even notice? No we don’t, because each suit jacket of Warren’s is a nondescript plain color. Warren does not follow any fashion, she wears her own version of the suit. Warren’s likability factor is nonexistent.
Of all of our national female candidates Palin has been the most sexually objectified and she is also the most feminine in her appearance. From her triumphant entrance into national politics in 2008 until now, Palin has sported a feminine figure cut in various types of clothing – fitted skirts, high heels, form-fitting jackets and most recently motorcycle leather and tight black pants.
People were surprised to see an attractive and vital Palin in 2008, and instead of focusing on her policy issues such has her successful fight against Big Oil, the media coverage focused on her appearance. I am sure this was welcomed by a nervous Democratic party. After all, she had traditional liberal successes notched into her governor’s belt; she fought Republican corruption in Alaska and successfully picked a fight with Big Oil for the benefit of the people of Alaska. It was one of the reasons why she had that 85 percent approval rating in her home state.
But forget about all those pesky facts because it was her high heels that really got under people’s skin. The writer Joe McGuinness said that watching Palin was like a “cheap thrill of watching a clown in high heels on a flying trapeze.” He objectified her by her shoes and equated the high heels with being a buffoon who was only fit for watching in a circus. Now that’s misogyny.
Clinton’s ankles, often seen when she wore dresses, were objects of ridicule in media coverage. In 2008, comedian George Lopez interviewed the fashion guru Tim Gunn and Gunn said of Hillary’s clothing, “If the pant of the pantsuit didn’t stop an inch above her ankle, you could hide the cankle.”
It’s not unusual for people to focus on women’s body parts. In a study from University of Lincoln in Nebraska called, “Seeing Women as Objects: The Sexual Body Part Recognition Bias,” the authors conclude that both men and women see women first as body parts rather than as a whole person.
In the study, people were were shown images of both women and men. First the images showed the person as whole and then the images were cut to show just the sexual body parts of these people. The conclusion was sobering; people recognized the women solely by just the body parts, whereas they saw the men as whole people.
Merkel and Warren’s conservative non-feminine dress hides their body parts. We have no choice but to see them as whole beings. Warren and Merkel also escape the likability test.
If you are wondering why the United States has never had a female president or vice president try to look at your perceptions of men and women and leadership. Body parts don’t lead nations, whole people do.
With women, pay attention to the hair
With the exception of a few stylistic changes such as Beatles Mop Tops and Caesar haircuts, men’s hair has rarely changed, ever. Men’s hair is short and often parted on the side. Many men choose to shave their heads as they grow old rather than have people watch them grow bald. Women have no such choice, yet.
Clinton’s hair has changed with the fashion and has been primary topic of critique for years. Similar to Palin, Clinton’s hair has been short, long, pulled back, decorated with headbands and she has even sported bangs.
In fact, Clinton’s hair has changed so much that in 2008 a playful poster of her hair styles quipped: “Pay attention to your hair because everyone else will.” Despite the fact that the 1960s saw men with long hair, women still dominate the fashion of wearing hair long and it is associated with femininity. Palin and Clinton have that one down.
But what about our two women who don’t get the likability criticism? Both Warren and Merkel have had the same hairstyle for decades. In fact, the styles are mannish. Don’t believe me? Look here at Warren in the 1980s and here at Warren in 2015. The hair hasn’t changed much. And here is an array of Merkel pictures through the years.
Both Warren and Merkel sport the men’s hair fashion: it never changes and it is rather masculine. When it comes to hair these two women are desexualized and therefore they don’t need to be likable.
Many women wear make-up including feminist women. Our presidential candidates also wear make-up, but some wear less than others. Bright red lipstick is iconographic for women’s sexuality and dates back to the 1950s. Both Clinton and Palin have boldly worn red on their lips. Palin famously drew attention to it by joking that the difference between a hockey mom and a soccer mom is lipstick. Clearly, Palin is the red lipstick wearing hockey mom and to many, she was not fit for the presidency.
Warren and Chancellor Merkel wear very little make up and it often seems they wear none at all. Furthermore, both Clinton and Palin tend to be expressive and certainly flash a big smile quite frequently. Warren and Merkel are more subdued with their expressions. The pattern persists.
Smiling is a feminist issue
Men and women have different relationships to smiling and women smile more than men. No big surprise.
Clinton and Palin express themselves through big smiles and laughter. Take the Google image tour again and compare all four women. Warren and Merkel barely crack a smile and when they do it is a toned down Kim Kardashian smile (she doesn’t smile too big because she doesn’t want wrinkles). I seriously don’t think Merkel or Warren care about wrinkles, but I do think their smile is just who they are.
Smiling women sends a primal message to all of us; warmth and acceptance.
Dr. Marianne LaFrance from Yale University and author of the book Lip Service has studied smiling and gender differences. Of the three theories that exist about women and smiling, one theory is that women smile more because they are expected to give emotionally to others. Another theory posits that women are nurturers and smile more to comfort others.
La France leans to the third theory: Smiling in women is a sign that women are in a lower social order.
Women have not held the same type of political power as men have throughout history. I agree with the third theory of smiling and I interpret it to mean that women smile to ingratiate themselves.
Change the Uniform
Both Clinton and Palin have helped change the uniform for women running for the Oval Office, but not without a lot of ridicule. I am suggesting that women should keep moving in the Clinton/Palin direction of being themselves; being feminine. We can’t mold and change ourselves as women to fit into a primal mold of maleness and power – we’d never fit.
Changing our questions about how women look will change the uniform. Instead of asking “Is she likable?” let’s change it to “Is she presidential?” This forces us to examine our prejudices of how women should look and behave when they run for president.
Recently Hillary was seen wearing a Merkel-style jacket, but this one wasn’t plain; it was embroidered with flowers and was distinctly feminine. The jacket has a history that begins with Hillary as a senator. She purchased it in Afghanistan in 2003. She wore it this Christmas on an outing with her family and granddaughter, and immediately people were talking about the coat rather than her campaign.
Is she likable in this photo? Yes, of course; she is smiling and she is with her family. I am reminded she is a grandmother and that role is very likable. But is she presidential in this photo, at least in terms of how we view presidential today? Now I had to think. I looked at her smiling face in a floral jacket and then I looked at everyone else in the picture and came back to Hillary a second time. Her jacket was clearly not a uniform. Not yet.
The image says to me that Hillary is a woman and a grandmother who, when she is president, will have a powerful reach to the women of Afghanistan, where the coat was made, as well as women all over the world.
There is no male suit that can say that.
Recently Staff Sargent Cherie Wright changed the uniform for the U.S. Marines in terms of hair for African American women. Wright talked about the difficulties for female African American Marines to keep their hair neat for the uniform because the rules catered to straight hair. As a result female Marines who did not have naturally straight hair were forced to straighten their hair or wear wigs. In other words, they were trying to fit into a mold that was not theirs.
Wright introduced two new hairstyles to the Marine Corps and suggested they adopt them for the female troops. They did and it’s a major change for the Marines. The new rule allows African American women to adopt a “culturally liberating” hairstyle for their uniform.
Similarly, women should be able to be comfortable in their own feminine culture when they run for the Oval Office.
Of course, as always, this is a Catch 22. We have to first elect a female president in order to see the new uniform. However, we can lay the groundwork now. We can accept women for who they are and how they dress. We can change our perceptions of what is presidential. As all women campaign in the future, they will change the uniform and for me, that’s likable.
Jennifer Hall Lee is a filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles. She has spent many years working on Hollywood films, in visual effects, and used her free time (when she had it!) making her own films. Her latest film, “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation” is being distributed nationally and she has public screenings scheduled through 2016. Jennifer was named Global Ambassador for the Global Media Monitoring Project. To schedule an interview with Jennifer or book her as a speaker, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jennifer is also a contributor to the new Amazon bestseller, Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox (She Writes Press).