Fighting Words: A Gendered Look at Monday’s Presidential Debate

Josue Pasillas PZ ’17 records a Snapchat during a debate viewing event at Pitzer College on Monday, Sept. 26. (Liam Brooks • The Student Life)

I am not Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton’s biggest fan. Not even close. But, as many of us have noticed, this election is less about voting for the candidate that aligns the most with our views and more about not voting for Donald Trump.

I was intrigued by the presidential debate, but then again, my standards were low. Normally I would watch the debate and be analyzing the differences in policy approaches; I would be listening to how the candidates leverage their different experiences and I would be making calls on which statements, promises, and goals aligned most with my personal beliefs. I didn’t expect that much from this particular debate and instead decided to focus more on the different language each candidate used.

At the end of the day, the specific ways in which the candidates chose to present themselves and their ideas were more interesting than what they were actually saying.

In a panel hosted by The Atlantic and Refinery 29 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the Democratic National Convention, Mayor of the District of Columbia Muriel Bowser argued that the road to political office is different for women than men. Though women are less likely to run, they are more qualified when they finally do run, and they run for different, more community- and change-focused reasons. Women are socialized to believe that they cannot hold political positions. By standing on stage during a presidential debate, Clinton challenges the idea that that women can’t be president. However, the way in which she stands on that stage reaffirms that she has an uphill battle to fight.

Though people may think this election has nothing to do with Clinton’s female identity, we cannot lose sight of the historical context of this political moment. For the first time in American history, we have the ability to elect this woman president. What has become glaringly obvious throughout her campaign and what was especially prominent at the debate, are the specific ways in which Clinton needs to censor her language because of her gender.

Margaret Neale of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, who dedicates her life to educating women on how to best communicate, argues that in order to win this fall’s election, Hillary has to negotiate with the American people. Neale’s research indicates that women are more successful when they frame their proposals or goals in the context of team effort. She has to do the work of convincing us that her plans, visions, and interests are the best for us, as both individual voters and a collective whole.

When Secretary Clinton takes the stage, she has a smile on her face. She uses a smile and eye contact to communicate confidence and warmth. Political analysts criticize Clinton for being shrill and loud throughout her entire campaign. Yet during the debate, she is often the candidate who is seen using reason and policy to answer questions. In fact, we see Clinton calling to the “fact-checkers” and having to state repeatedly that her opponent lives “in [his] own reality” or that the allegations he obnoxiously interrupts her to state are “simply not true.” Her calm demeanor in the face of childish finger pointing and mudslinging is not only to draw attention to Mr. Trump’s explosive behavior, but also to combat the stereotype that women are too emotional to hold executive office.

Hillary didn’t reach for her water. She talked over screaming and disrespectful interludes, but she never had a sip of water. She spoke to the audience, both in the room and across the nation. She told only two unprompted personal stories, one of her granddaughter and one of her father. She stressed her experience in elected office and in foreign relations and used multiple examples where her experience would help the whole nation’s security. She was even held accountable for President Obama’s decisions, even though does not hold current office in his administration. Hillary Clinton, before anything else, was treated like a woman on the stage. She had to counteract rumors and ruling images of her health and emotional ability and even validate her experience as a politician for most of her adult life.

As distracting as Donald Trump’s antics are, his approach is obvious: to take up as much space as possible, drown out the opponent, and max-out on male privilege. According to Twitter analytics, Trump spent 62 percent of the debate talking, while Clinton only spoke for 38 percent. Trump interrupted Clinton three times more than Clinton interrupted him. He has repeatedly objectified, commodified, and spoken less of women. His actions at the debate were just as gendered and intentional as his counterpart.

This isn’t a revolutionary notion, that both Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump would gender their approaches, both in the debate and throughout their campaigns. Even less surprising is that Hillary Clinton would be subjected to gendered judgments of her ability to hold executive office.

The fact of the matter is: this isn’t a fair fight. No race between a man and a woman will be. As long as we are a hierarchical society that prioritizes profit and gain over equality and rights, women will never have the same chance that men do. Until then, we have to learn how to get what we deserve. Secretary Clinton’s campaign, and more specifically her approach in this last debate exemplifies that.

Simone Bishara is a third-year at Pitzer College studying Sociology. She hopes to one day pursue a career in juvenile justice.

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