If you're one of the estimated 100 million viewers planning on tuning in to the first presidential debate of the 2016 election season tonight, you might be bracing yourself for pretty much anything to happen — though both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are reported to be catering to "skeptical" voters in this debate, what that might specifically entail is still anyone's guess. However, no matter who ends up viewed as the "winner," there's a history-making element to tonight's televised presidential debate: it marks the first time that a female candidate has participated in one. Many of us are eagerly anticipating this evening for this exact reason — while also bracing ourselves for the possibility that Clinton will be subject to sexist interruptions, misogynist criticism, and other gender-focused attacks that will make Matt Lauer cutting her off while she was speaking at an NBC presidential forum last month look like a walk in the extremely egalitarian park.
But even if Trump steers clear of attacks that specifically relate to Clinton's gender (which, given his past track record of sexist remarks both on and off the debate stage, is a bit difficult to imagine), it's still almost certain that Clinton will have to deal with sexist conduct tonight — because, in addition to the sexist treatment they often receive at the hands of the media or members of the general public, female politicians also have to deal with the often more subtle (but still impactful) sexism that arises when they publicly debate male politicians.
While it can be tempting to believe that gender is no longer a factor in electoral politics, and that any seeming sexism in debate interactions between male and female politicians is simply due to different debate styles, an examination of the events of this election cycle — as well as polls that show that 22 percent of Americans think that “most of the people they know” wouldn't “vote for a presidential candidate who is a woman” — shows that we're far from a gender-neutral political battlefield.
And while a May 2016 Rasmussen poll showed that 90 percent of Americans surveyed want male political candidates to "treat [female political opponents] just the same way he would treat another man," this rarely ends up being the case, due to a wide variety of factors.
While female politicians are subject to overt displays of sexism, like being critiqued harshly for their looks in a way male politicians aren't (who can imagine RNC chairman Reince Priebus tweeting criticism about how President Obama didn't smile enough during an event?), they're also often treated with quieter sexism by their male opponents, who not only often feel comfortable using sexist techniques (like cutting them off while they're speaking) to silence them, but who are able to benefit from a culture that focuses on sexist hang-ups about women in general.
I asked several experts in fields like gender, linguistics, and political theory to weigh in on the ways in which male politicians treat female politicians differently — and why we should all be paying attention.
Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and bestselling author of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation , as well as a number of other books about how gender informs the ways we communicate, noted that many male politicians utilize two techniques while debating female politicians that many men use to undermine women in day-to-day life: interruption and dismissiveness.
"In debates, as in all public and private contexts, women tend to be interrupted more than men," Tannen told Bustle, "as many commentators noticed that Matt Lauer interrupted Hillary Clinton way more often than he did Donald Trump. Interruption is a verbal analogue to the physical intrusion into women's space that is common in private interactions — and that played a role in a 2000 debate, when Clinton's opponent Rick Lazio left his podium to approach hers. The resulting audience gasp — and negative impact on his candidacy — is evidence that verbal intrusion is less obvious and easier to get away with." This sexist belief in a man's inherent right to decide when a woman should speak also showed up in the Republican primary debates, where Trump criticized Republican candidate Carly Fiorina for "interrupting everyone."
As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote on the phenomenon of women being silenced in the workplace in the New York Times, a study that "found that male senators with more power (as measured by tenure, leadership positions and track record of legislation passed) spoke more on the Senate floor than their junior colleagues. But for female senators, power was not linked to significantly more speaking time." Even at the highest echelons of power in the country, women are expected to speak less than their male counterparts — and, as Sandberg and Grant wrote, their careers are often impacted negatively when they do speak up.
But while many male politicians don't pull such brazenly sexist moves as interrupting female candidates, the ways that they speak to female politicians — and the way they speak themselves — often serves the purpose of shutting female politicians down and calling into question their ability to lead.
Tannen notes that while some male politicians may have not gone as far as openly cutting female opponents off mid-speech, they may engage in "the subtle dismissiveness that can creep into the way women are spoken to." For examples, you can just think back through Clinton's previous debate experiences — "many observers saw this in Bernie Sanders' hand-waving gestures toward Clinton when he wanted to make a point or wrest the floor," says Tannen, "and, in 2008, in Barack Obama's much-criticized quip, 'You're likable enough, Hillary.' His off-handed tone, use of her first name, and, worst of all, that he didn't even bother to look at her when he spoke, together made his remark feel dismissive, even as the content of what he said was, on the surface, positive. "
Irene Mata: "If the debate were taking place between two white male politicians, the lack of experience and incendiary rhetoric masquerading as policy recommendations by Trump would be more clearly challenged. Instead, we will have to sit through countless commentaries on Clinton's mannerisms, clothing, and likability."
Elizabeth Markovits, an associate professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College and author of The Politics of Sincerity: Frank Speech, Plato, and Democratic Judgment , pointed out to Bustle that sexism can inform not only how male politicians speak to female politicians, but also how male and female politicians sound in comparison during debates.
Markovits noted that Trump utilizes a mode of communication that she calls "hyper-sincerity" — a folksy, "frank"-seeming style of speech which makes his comments appear off-the-cuff, and thus read as trustworthy by many voters, who then in turn perceive Clinton's practiced public speaking style as dishonest.
According to Politifact, 57 statements Clinton has made are rated as "true," with 71 statements rated "mostly true" and 27 statements rated "false" — compared with Trump, who had 11 of his statements rated "true," 29 rated "mostly true," and 89 rated "false." Yet Clinton is the one who is perceived to be struggling with issues of being perceived as honest and trustworthy in this election. Markovits ties this to Clinton’s seeming hyper-preparedness — “like Hermoine” — which makes people think she’s less trustworthy. She attributes the idea that Hillary is dishonest not to the facts but to this difference in style — because "she doesn’t have access to that hyper-sincere mode that Trump does…he talks in that folksy, uncensored way."
Female politicians can utilize a hyper-sincere style, of course — but they risk being called a "bimbo," Markovits says, as Sarah Palin, who utilized this style, was often labelled during the 2012 election. Embracing hyper-sincerity seems to lead to women's intellects being questioned more often than their male counterparts.
But the costs of how male politicians interact with female politicians isn't limited to the candidates and their campaigns; the sexism present in how we perceive candidates can actually shift the entire focus of the election. Irene Mata, associate professor of women's and gender studies at Wellesley College, noted that the criticism our culture sees fit to pile on to female candidates actually serves to not just keep specific female candidates down, but can also keep the entire culture from examining real pressing issues.
Mata told Bustle that Clinton's "policies are not taken seriously and her experience as a public servant and leader dismissed and held to a different level of scrutiny because of her gender. No matter how many military high ranking officials, former government officials, and national leaders reference the imbalance in experience between the candidates, Clinton's ability to lead is consistency called into question....As a highly educated white woman, Clinton's privilege will not inoculate her from the gender bias through which the mainstream views her."
This focus on sexist non-issues can actually change the way the campaign is covered: "If the debate were taking place between two white male politicians," says Mata, "the lack of experience and incendiary rhetoric masquerading as policy recommendations by Trump would be more clearly challenged. Instead, we will have to sit through countless commentaries on Clinton's mannerisms, clothing, and likability."
Odds are, we'll see all these issue and more play out on the debate stage tonight — but whether they'll help illuminate the sexist treatment female politicians have to deal with remains a question.
Image: Dawn Foster/ Bustle