IN DUBBING HILLARY CLINTON runner-up Person of the Year last month, Time claimed — as fact — that the election “didn’t hinge on gender,” and that “the race between the first plausible female presidential candidate and a man who bragged about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’ did not boil down to gender.” This presumes that sending an avowed sexual predator to the Oval Office was not a gendered choice, while ignoring how stereotypes and essentialist news frames endured by women leaders are never applied to male politicians.
A year earlier, before Clinton secured the Democratic nomination, Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, a collection of essays edited by Joanne C. Bamberger, was already tackling this muddled media logic. Though contributors disagreed on everything from Clinton’s policies to her personality, they were prescient: Clinton’s presidential hopes would rest primarily with women voters. This turned out to be correct (94 percent of black women and 68 percent of Latinas supported Clinton, yet 53 percent of white women broke for Donald Trump) and incorrect (since other factors, including James Comey’s letter and hacking by foreign parties, were arguably just as decisive).
In the first presidential election after the Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Rights Act, Trump nabbed the Electoral College victory despite Clinton garnering nearly three million more votes. Why did this happen, what does it mean for our political future, and how can we move forward? I spoke with Bamberger, as well as Love Her, Love Her Not contributors Veronica I. Arreola, Nancy Giles, and Sally Kohn, for an Election 2016 post-mortem.
JENNIFER L. POZNER: While Love Her, Love Her Not dissected many Americans’ reflexive Hillary hatred, why do you think white women voted against their own safety/interests in electing a sexually violent, misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, gaslighting, unqualified, narcissistic mogul, rather than a highly qualified, centrist former secretary of state, senator, and first lady? How can we stake an effective claim for both women’s leadership and the informed power of women voters with a female voting block starkly divided between conservative whites and liberal women of color?
JOANNE C. BAMBERGER: That “reflexive hatred” for Hillary has been cultivated by Republicans over decades. So many lies and misperceptions about Clinton were parroted throughout the media — by the same cable news networks that normalized Trump. Studies have already shown that negative coverage of Hillary was much greater than that of any of her opponents.
Many people in the United States aren’t ready for a woman president. Many women — including some of our contributors — still find it hard to forgive Hillary for not leaving Bill, making her seem too ambitious or inauthentic. Yet they voted for Trump, a documented serial cheater. Hillary’s qualifications didn’t even seem to play into their or younger voters’ thought processes. The key to embracing women’s leadership is time. It’s a generational issue that won’t truly be resolved until women no longer face double standards.
NANCY GILES: Write this down: Women don’t all think alike. Some women are just more comfortable with male authority figures, period. And some women didn’t trust Hillary as much as they trusted Donald Trump or Bill Clinton, which I don’t understand. Some younger voters just weren’t excited by Hillary, who was painted — by both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump — as a political insider whose years of public service meant little compared to her opponents’ broad-stroke pronouncements.
SALLY KOHN: It’s too simple to say people who voted for Trump voted “against their interests.” Voting is complicated. Yes, gender definitely was part of the dynamic in this race — both sexism against Hillary and Trump’s active stoking of misogyny. At the same time, this election pitted populism against the establishment. And while Hillary’s establishment credentials might have otherwise helped to counteract society’s sexism, ironically they did her in when it came to this other dynamic. Throw in Russian tampering and the FBI director’s undermining and, frankly, it’s astonishing that Hillary did as well as she did.
VERONICA I. ARREOLA: I keep coming back to Luvvie Ajayi [author of I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual], who said to Trump’s white women voters: “You didn’t trust HRC to lead because you don’t trust yourself to lead.” Yes, we need to examine how white supremacy weaves its way into the lives of white women, even liberals. But Luvvie was onto something when she pointed to women’s own self-insecurity to lead, and that perhaps they projected some of their own insecurities onto Hillary. When she rejects those projections, as she has for 20 years, she’s perceived as arrogant. I’m grappling with the intersection of white supremacy and internal misogyny.
As a media critic, I’ve written, spoken about, and done media literacy education on gendered double standards in coverage of female politicians, so I was glad that Love Her, Love Her Not repeatedly addressed how media colored perceptions of Clinton from the 1990s through her 2008 presidential run. How did these journalistic biases shape voters’ ideas about Clinton, Trump, and the concept of leadership itself? And if you were suddenly editor-in-chief of The New York Times or CNN’s managing director, what would you change about coverage of electoral politics, including but not limited to representation of women leaders?
KOHN: Of course this election had everything to do with gender, not just in how Hillary was seen and scrutinized, but perhaps even more so in how Trump was not. It’s hard to imagine a woman candidate with no experience, bad hair, and a weight problem getting away with one-10th of the crap he spewed on the regular. His basic pitch to voters was pure machismo; he even bragged about his testosterone levels in his medical report and his penis size during a debate. So much needs to be dissected more broadly.
But on gender specifically, part of the problem is that we have a national framework fed by a media industry that understands sexism as only something explicit and egregious — the male boss patting the female secretary on the ass and telling her if she wants a raise she has to show more cleavage. Our common cultural understanding of sexism doesn’t get much more nuanced than that. As long as Trump or voters weren’t saying, “Hillary isn’t qualified to be president because she’s a woman,” it was hard for all of us — including the media — to unpack more subtle forms of sexism.
BAMBERGER: I think “media coverage” is very different from actual journalism, which was sorely missing during Election 2016. Media coverage has become about ratings and money; the stories aired 24/7 are those that bring in viewers. The Washington Post addressed CNN’s financial windfall since Jeff Zucker took over and turned the network into an entertainment destination. Cable news outlets covered many more Trump rallies and events live than Hillary’s. The more people saw Trump delivering speeches — even when his comments were racist, anti-immigrant, et cetera — the more he seemed to look like a leader.
If I were to take over CNN or The New York Times, I would immediately address the question of false equivalencies — the idea that for something to be balanced, one must always have a voice from two sides of an issue, even if one side is demonstrably lying.
ARREOLA: I had a long talk with my 13-year-old daughter about how journalists like to adhere to the balance rule: for every minute you give to a candidate, you give the other candidate a minute. This past cycle, corporate media spent as much time talking about Hillary’s emails as all of Trump’s long list of scandals; that false equivalency was gendered. Would Comey’s “October surprise” announcement have weighed as heavily if the media had critically, consistently dealt with Trump’s failed business dealings, stiffing contractors, or ongoing spreading of false news?
In the future, I’d like journalists to weigh whether a particular controversy is legitimately meaningful to public debate before covering it or ignoring it. I’d like more outlets doing media education, as NPR did recently in a story on anonymous CIA sources: they made it clear that the CIA can’t discuss things officially so they leak things anonymously, this is how they’ve always communicated with the public. They seem to be addressing public distrust of “the media” head on. Don’t treat readers and listeners as stupid, just unfamiliar with the process of creating media. Take a moment to do some education. It may create stronger trust.
GILES: Trump is a reality-TV star, and NBC’s The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice helped build his celebrity brand. The Trump character on TV was a brilliant businessman with power and authority. The truth was far more complicated, but NBC hid the fact that his business lost nearly a billion dollars in a single year. When he began campaigning, people remembered his Trump/business/tough guy image from the franchise. That familiarity helped sell him as presidential.
If I headed a newsroom, I’d have fewer pundits and more simple presentation of properly researched and confirmed facts. There’s a place for opinions and commentary, but the line between fact and opinion has gotten blurred. Instead of a sensational 24-hour news cycle, outlets should report on the underrepresented. More women and people of color are needed as executive producers and managing editors, in positions to determine what’s newsworthy.
It’s hard to think of many constituencies not under direct threat in a Trump administration. His cabinet picks want to abolish the departments he has tapped them to lead. He hands the phone to his (unelected) daughter when asked by Nancy Pelosi about women’s rights, and reportedly plans to give Ivanka a First Lady–esque role, complete with White House office space. Black Lives Matter activists are being referred to as terrorists, while a transition team seeks names of government employees who’ve attended climate change meetings, and who have worked on gender-related staffing, programming, and funding. How can feminists and progressives most effectively resist the coming threats to gender, racial, economic, sexual, and environmental justice? With Democrats hand-wringing over how “identity politics” supposedly lost the election as a euphemism for “people of color and women make too many demands,” what steps do you want to see progressives and feminists take, looking to the 2018 midterms and the 2020 election?
ARREOLA: We need to stay strong at the intersection of all these issues. We need to push back on every pundit and politician who separates the racist and sexist manner in which our economy is discussed, and how electoral blame is doled out. Rural white voters were not Trump’s only champions — really rich white voters were at his side, too.
I wish I could say Trump’s voters were tricked by him, but in reality there has been a decades-long war on people of color by politicians and conservative pundits to make people think undocumented immigrants cause low wages. Um, no, wages are low because owners refuse to pay more. Whenever we broach raising the minimum wage, business owners threaten to reduce hours to preserve profits. Yet many of these same owners ask their governors to provide corporate welfare to stay in state or even in the country. Say, “Enough!” We must demand that women and our work (and free birth control, tax-free tampons, and subsidized childcare) be as central to our economic discussions as our work is to holding up this economy.
KOHN: Identity politics helped create the advances for women and communities of color and LGBT folks that in no small part led to the backlash that drove Trump’s election. We should be proud of those accomplishments and defend them, not feel regretful because part of the country is still coming around to embracing positive change. We should also remember that without a doubt identity politics helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. Not to mention that even in this election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote — by a significant margin. Let’s blame Donald Trump’s no-holds-barred willingness to say anything to get elected. Let’s not blame the ideas and values that make us proud progressives in the first place.
GILES: I’d like progressives to never make perfection the enemy of the good again. Just before the 2010 midterms, I watched MSNBC as [documentary filmmaker] Michael Moore critiqued the Affordable Care Act lacking the public option. He encouraged Americans to — I’m paraphrasing — teach Obama a lesson by not voting. Many people did just that, opening the door for the Tea Party takeover. I’ll never forget that shortsighted destructiveness. I want to see a real understanding of the long game, people making the connection between marches and their own participation in the process of making change.
Those who talk the talk but do nothing, including not voting, frustrate me. Go to a town meeting. Volunteer in a cause you care about. Get involved. It takes real action and effort, beyond posting, retweeting, or sad-faced emojis on Facebook. It’s tedious. It’s frustrating. It takes time, paperwork, meetings, compromise, false starts, and mistakes. We all need to step up our game.
BAMBERGER: To make any inroads in coming elections, take a page from the Republican playbook. Pay attention to politics at the local and state level to reverse the damage of gerrymandering and redistricting. State legislatures are overwhelmingly Republican and state lawmakers are not only in charge of drawing electoral districts that favor them, they’re also trying to limit voting rights in as many ways as possible. We need more Democrats taking charge at the state level to be able to draw districts that firmly represent voters, and to introduce and pass legislation to ensure all voters have access to the polls. Only then can we elect Democrats nationally to move things forward on important issues like fair pay, immigration, et cetera.
Women voters’ intellectual and political agency was regularly sidelined throughout the election. Those who supported Clinton were accused of doing so only because they wanted to see a woman in the White House, not out of investment in her campaign promises, legislative agenda, or her 20-plus year record as a public servant. Likewise, progressive women who opposed Clinton were unilaterally dismissed as naïvely wanting an impossibly “perfect” candidate, rather than having policy concerns about her Senate votes for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, her Wall Street ties, and her active role in stumping for conservative-leaning policies during her husband’s administration. Yet women’s leadership matters for more than symbolic reasons. What substantive policy agenda items do you want to see from women politicians — or any candidate regardless of gender?
GILES: Public education support. Women’s health decisions and privacy protected. Unions and living wage supported. Equal pay for equal work. Marriage equality and civil rights protections for all. Affordable health care and prescription drugs. Voting rights and protections supported. The elimination of the Electoral College. And a lot more!
ARREOLA: Hillary was the best (on big-tent women’s issues such as equal pay and child care) and the worst (on issues disproportionately impacting women of color, such as welfare reform and incarceration) we could ask for in a major party’s first woman nominee for the presidency. She learned the game in the 1970s, but had to play it in 2016; the playing field changed faster than she did. I believe progressives were so critical of her not because she was an “imperfect woman” but because she wrapped her campaign around feminism … but what kind of feminism? We were reluctant to reduce feminism to simply “cheering for the girl.”
For women’s leadership to matter, it has to be rooted in intersectional feminism. I’m not so idealistic as to think that a pacifist can be elected president, but hopefully someone who can look at our foreign policy and see where we’re harming rather than helping women and girls. Someone who can think in terms as complex as the world we live in.
BAMBERGER: We need more women leaders. I felt that, as a woman, Hillary would make a higher priority of issues important to me than a male candidate would. I think until we have a president — male or female — who has personally lived through the complications of juggling career and child care/elder care, or was impacted by a lack of paid family leave, paid sick leave, or equal pay, these issues won’t make it to the top of a presidential agenda. I think we’ll have a difficult time electing a woman president because of the perfection issue. Many times I faced criticism from Sanders supporters because a position of Hillary’s seemed at odds with their values; if I tried to raise a similar issue with Sanders’s record, like his votes against the Brady Bill, they’d say, “Stop trying to make it about him!” No candidate is perfect, yet Sanders’s imperfections were often sidelined as unimportant, while Hillary’s were disqualifiers.
KOHN: We need women leaders — and frankly more men, too — who can articulate how gender equality connects to economic and racial justice. These things aren’t separate, they’re not boxes to check or bones to throw to one group of voters versus another. We need to show the connections. When low-income working mothers of color do well in the United States, so do white working-class men. A strong living wage and paid family leave and safety protections on the job and affordable healthcare help everyone.
What the right has succeeded in doing, though, is telling white working-class voters that rights and opportunity for women, people of color, and immigrants somehow hurt them. It’s just not true, but we definitely know now that perception can seem more salient than truth. Democrats and progressives in general, hopefully led by women, people of color, immigrants, and LGBT leaders, must emphasize how everyone does better when everyone does better.
Jennifer L. Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, is a New York–based media critic, media literacy speaker and workshop facilitator, and director of Women in Media & News. She is planning her next book on media complicity in Donald Trump’s rise to power.