Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan took a deep dive into Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s fashion sense. Givhan credits Clinton with poking fun at her own famously drab aesthetic—"pantsuit (preferably with matching blouse), blond bob, statement necklace, sensible heels"—as a way to blunt criticism and mockery. It’s harder, after all, to poke fun at someone who’s in on the joke. Givhan goes on to address Clinton's tendency to perform self-deprecating stand-up when discussing her wardrobe:
Clinton is now using her much-discussed and undiminished love of a brightly colored pantsuit as a fundraising device. From her Senate campaign to her first presidential race, she has made cracks about her affection for the practical ensemble. In speeches, she referred to "my sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits." In multiple appearances on "The Late Show with David Letterman," they were reliable fodder for a chuckle. And in informal settings, offhand comments about them served as icebreakers.
To be sure, Clinton is shrewd to use all these "pantsuit" cackles as an opportunity to portray herself as lighthearted and humble. A warmth of personality is something many voters feel Clinton lacks: Only 42 percent of voters in a recent CNN poll found Clinton be a trustworthy candidate. But this obsession over Clinton's appearance underscores something decidedly unfunny: America's inability to let go of our rigid definitions of femininity, even when discussing our female political leaders.
This obsession over Clinton's appearance underscores something decidedly unfunny: America's inability to let go of our rigid definitions of femininity, even when discussing our female political leaders.
Plenty of research supports the idea that voters are most comfortable when their representatives inhabit traditional gender roles.
In 2014, psychologists at Dartmouth College found that people were less likely to vote for women candidates "if there was even a tiny amount of hesitancy assigning their gender. This dynamic was not found for the male politicians," as our own Tom Jacobs wrote in 2014. "[T]he researchers found that women politicians who couldn’t be instantaneously categorized as female received fewer votes."
Last election cycle, this pattern manifested itself in very real remarks over Clinton's (and Sarah Palin's) appearance. In their 2009 analysis, professors Diana Carlin and Kelly Winfrey point out that Clinton faced a constant stream of mockery over her pantsuits, and her role as the "antiseductress who reminded men of the affair gone bad." Clinton stood as the desexualized candidate, according to Carlin and Winfrey's analysis, which often took precedence in front-page discussions, drawing attention away from her proposed policies. As Carlin and Winfrey observe:
Failure to see Clinton as stereotypically attractive was due to her choice of pants over skirts, but it was also a result of her age. After a photo of a tired-looking Clinton appeared in The Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh opined that "as you age—and ... you know women are hardest hit on this ... America loses interest in you." Thus, the question for voters became: "Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?"
It's one thing to joke about Clinton's get-up on Saturday Night Live; but when those jabs take place in the real world, and have a real air of disparagement to them, then there's obviously real sexism rearing its ugly head. So, yes, Clinton's smart to address the pantsuit remarks, but, really, she shouldn't have to.