Last presidential election cycle it was conveniently easy to lay the faults of Democratic defeat at the feet of singularly “shrill”, “robotic” and “uninspiring” (but popular-vote winning) Hillary Clinton. This cycle we have an actual handful of diverse female candidates, and strangely enough, they’re all lacking in charisma and that ineffable “it” quality that moves journalists to write fevered paeans to their bold vision and authentic, inevitable leadership.
It’s become harder to pretend that systemic bias doesn’t play a part. As a feminist it’s become practically impossible to not see that the Trump/Clinton dynamic has depressingly become the Beto/Warren dynamic, (or the Buttigieg/Gillibrand, make you your own combination as you please). And Elizabeth Warren, every regretful pundit’s hypothetical favorite when she wasn’t running, has of course morphed into Clinton.
So it’s worth asking: why are we still reading so much about male promise and so little about female excellence? Why are we still being asked to consider female candidates’ “likeability”, as if women were an alien species we’ve not quite made up our minds about yet?
Well, let’s look at who’s doing the writing: 63% of all bylines and TV credits went to men. Social media doesn’t offer an escape from the male media echo-chamber either– in a very telling demonstration of male journalists preferring to listen to, and talk to other men, they retweet their male colleagues three times more than their female colleagues. 92% of their replies are to other men.
It’s men talking to men, citing other men. How can we (still!) be surprised they’re not terribly great at covering female candidates?
We all have buttons that can be pressed, and it’s time that the media, to paint with a broad brush, examined its own. Rebecca Traister made this point excellently in her first book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, back in 2011. It’s not impugning Obama’s personal qualifications, legitimate historical significance and political abilities to point out that he hit a certain segment of male pundits’ sweet spot. It’s not just that he was a man. He was a 40-something man with an elite education and a way with words, skilled in storytelling. Sound like the average member of any profession you can think of? If he isn’t the very model of a modern major journalist, Obama (who was additionally good-looking and cool) is the kind of man that so many journalists wish they were. Then along comes another handsome 40-something with a bass guitar in the closet and a road-trip behind him, handsome but not too handsome, who just loves America, darn it.
And yet most of the other candidates fail to hit that sweet spot: not just many of the men, but mysteriously, all of the women. They even hit the exact wrong spot, by getting pneumonia, by publishing too many boring white papers or by — worst of all — seeming angry, but not in a good way. Even the mere absence of the aspirational feel-good fuzzies (what Chris Matthews called “a thrill going up my leg”) that someone like Beto, Obama or Buttigieg inspire in a certain kind of male journalist, might indicate to that journalist that “well, she just doesn’t have it: that innate, ineffable quality that strangely enough only guys-kind-of-like me seem to possess, in a regrettable twist of coincidence and fate”.
So it’s worth asking, given that both the American voter and American media have a very slight appetite for complicated policy discussions, can a male-dominated media can ever feel, on that gut level that we collectively still prize so highly, that candidates such as Warren or Harris or Gillibrand are their guy? Will they ever prefer a beer with Elizabeth over one with Beto? And if not, how do women navigate this uneven playing field?
Personally I try to counteract the effects of the male media echo chamber by deliberately seeking out excellent female journalists (we are spoiled for choice these days, Traister, Crunk, Fillipovich, etc — insert more]. For long-term deprogramming, there’s always Jacinda Ardern. Her speeches, her demeanor, her steel, calm and kindness — a luminous model of what successful female leadership can look like. I wish America got there first, but I’ll take inspiration where I find it.
It’s a cliche to say that changing all of this takes time. We’re seeing a hint of just how long; it will take not just getting a woman into the White House, but getting more and more of them in into the editor-in-chief’s corner office and, especially, on political beat reporting. With two men to every woman today, an equal shot at that thrill up the leg remains a long way away.