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How The Media Perpetuates Sexism in Politics: The Hillary Clinton Double Standard

September 25, 2010

I am stunned that given all the important issues discussed at the U.N. General Assembly this week, some in the media are still harping on Secretary Clinton’s hair clip. I wrote about this last week but then I ran across this post and what struck me about it was a) it appears in Forbes (as opposed to, say, the NY Daily News or E Online, b) It’s written by a woman and c) it totally misses the point.

Here are some excerpts:

Now, a meeting of the world’s leaders doesn’t typically inspire much wardrobe analysis, unless Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi or some another eccentrically dressed despot shows up. But the sartorial critics’ claws came out when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived to the General Assembly Monday wearing a vibrant cobalt blue suit and–quelle horreur–a plastic butterfly clip in her hair.

“Oh Hillary, that hairstyle just doesn’t cut it,” bemoaned the U.K.’s Daily Mail. “The secretary of state’s chic coif was nowhere to be seen as she arrived at the United Nations over the weekend with her hair clipped back,” opined The Daily News. The Daily Mirror compared Clinton’s hairdo to soccer player David Beckham’s. One blog headline perhaps summed it up best: “Hillary Clinton’s Hair Clip Fail.”

Is Clinton’s hair clip really that offensive? Should we care about what a politician or leader wears? And would we ever have such a media uproar over a male’s outfit?

The answers are actually much more complex than appears on the surface. Yes, comparing Clinton to Beckham and making fun of her “lank locks” is unnecessarily catty, and the fact that much of the snide comments appeared in right-leaning publications makes them seem even more mean-spirited. But arguing that she has better things to do than worry about her hair or that such discussions about her appearance are sexist–while no doubt true–misses the big picture.

Clinton is a public figure, and as with any public figure she must dress the part–and dress professionally. She was meeting with many important global leaders to speak about very important issues such as offering support to Pakistan and Haiti. Her less-than-perfect hair was not the issue, it was that she adorned it with a a silver butterfly clip–an accessory most commonly worn by middle- and high-school girls. The accessory lacked the gravitas required of the event and of the topics Clinton was there to discuss. Can you imagine if President Barack Obama showed up for a meeting with a clip-on bowtie? Or with brightly colored sneakers? [emphasis added]

Actually, that’s almost the entire commentary. Where to begin? How about we begin with the fact that the author seems to think that by wearing a hair clip some didn’t like, Secretary Clinton’s message regarding the state of world affairs was somehow diminished. That’s ridiculous. Am I really supposed to believe that a woman’s hairstyle is more important than the work she does, or her competence etc.? I think that we all understand that for better or worse, appearances matter, but the notion that Secretary Clinton does not look 100% professional all the time just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, hair clip or no hair clip.

Secretary Clinton always looks professional. The addition of one accessory some people don’t like does not alter that. To compare Secretary Clinton’s outfit to President Obama showing up at the UN with brightly colored sneakers is ridiculous. And for the record, who the hell cares if someone wears a clip-on bow tie? That women politicians are held to a totally different standard regarding what they wear and how they look is an issue that the author ignores altogether- her only quasi-attempt is the ridiculous example about Obama and sneakers that I just highlighted. She also doesn’t address the fact that for some reason, the media reaction to Hillary Clinton’s hair and clothes has been an unhealthy obsession for over a decade now. Why is that? The author doesn’t tell us.

The fact of the matter is that we largely don’t care what male politicians wear, unless the media believes that the men in question don’t conform with our rigid gender norms- for example John Edwards’ obsessing over his hair. Clearly the media thought that Edwards was being just a bit too feminine although some commentators tried to couch it in terms of cost, but that rationale doesn’t really fly given a lot of wealthy male politicians probably spend tons of money on suits, hair cuts etc.

Here is another example. My Congressional representative is the wonderful Barney Frank. I like Frank a lot and I agree with him on a lot of issues. Have you ever noticed that on any given day Barney Frank looks like he slept in his suit and just rolled out of bed and went to work? Who cares? Not me. It’s sort of his trademark. The only person that apparently cares is his sister Ann Lewis, who chastised him prior to his speech at the No Limits event last year for not tucking in his shirt tails. But have the media ever alleged that Frank’s sometimes disheveled look diminishes his work or overall message? Of course not. Have they ever called him unprofessional? No.

Another example- unfortunately, my new Senator is Scott Brown. Can you imagine if a woman had posed almost completely naked for a magazine prior to running for office? Now granted, he has not posed naked for a magazine since becoming Senator- at least not yet, but when the media discussed Brown’s centerfold spread prior to his election to office, it was almost like they admired him for it. Had it been a woman do you really think they would have taken her seriously as a candidate? Personally, I don’t give a damn about the centerfold myself- I care more about where he stands on issues- but I think there is a glaring double standard at work here.

Nope, nothing sexist here, move along...


Look at how Michelle Obama is treated regarding her clothes. I will defend any First Lady, Republican or Democrat, against the media’s sexist scrutiny because lets be honest, they go after any First Lady who doesn’t conform with their idea of what a Good Presidential Wife should look, act or sound like. We saw that with Hillary Clinton in the 90’s. We saw it again when mostly male members of the media and the conservative blogospherefelt threatened by were aghast that Michelle Obama had well-toned triceps and biceps. Don’t even get me started on that. I can’t believe there hasn’t been a lesbian rumor yet- but I guess it’s still early or maybe it’s because her focus has been on child obesity and nutrition which makes them feel more comfortable. Or maybe they are just trying to figure out who they will decide her eventual female suitor will be. With Hillary as First Lady they selected Huma as her secret girlfriend. They must be very sad Huma got married- to a man! Apparently if you are a female politician or First Lady who speaks your mind (example, Ann Richards), is willing to play hardball, doesn’t just sit quietly by gazing up lovingly at the husband and PARTICULARLY if you happen to have a former job in a traditionally [way back when] male profession such as law or medicine, you are a lesbian. Welcome! Your toaster is in the mail.


Ok, back to that stupid commentary above. The author of the commentary doesn’t seem to understand is that if anything was a distraction this week it wasn’t Secretary Clinton’s hair clip, it was the media’s incessant need to focus on shit that just doesn’t matter in order to generate controversy, “buzz” and headlines (and thus traffic to their websites). We would be a much more informed electorate if the media, instead of criticizing Secretary Clinton’s hair, focused on the daily work she does to advance U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy. But then again, maybe the media doesn’t want a more informed electorate, after all, it would make their job all the more difficult.

ps. If you haven’t seen this, it’s was an interesting father daughter correspondence regarding the media sexism used against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. What makes it interesting is the father is a media commentator and his daughter is a lawyer who was upset at how dismissive her father was about the media’s sexism during the campaign and her father’s role in perpetuating it.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. Lulu permalink
    September 25, 2010 11:00 am

    Sing it, sister!

  2. AmericanPatriot permalink
    September 25, 2010 11:54 am

    Oh give me a break cry me a river. Hillary lost because she ran a terrible campaign. I love how you LIBERATED women always want to play the victim instead of taking responsibility. I can’t stand Obambi but Billary would have been just as bad and anyone who thinks different is on delusional.

    It wasn’t just MEN who thought Hillary was a dyke it was other women too but nice try pinning it on all men. It’s a bit sexist of you to play the lesbian card don’t you think? You’re a hypocrit though so I’m not surprised.

    You do your stupid photo bombs which are totally sexist.

    • Thain permalink
      September 25, 2010 12:21 pm

      Beat it, Troll.

    • TomK permalink
      September 25, 2010 3:14 pm

      AmericanPatriot- you are way off base. You seemed to totally miss the gist of the whole post and you actually reinforce the point she was trying to make. You clearly have Clinton Derangement Syndrome and it clouds your thinking.

  3. Susan permalink
    September 25, 2010 12:20 pm

    Thanks for writing this Stacy. It’s important to remind people that the oh-so enlightened media elites are anything but enlightened.

    Could the woman who wrote that commentary in Forbes be any more condescending? It’s a hair clip for Christ’s sake! It’s not like Hillary showed up wearing a beach shirt and shorts. So some people didn’t like the hair piece? I don’t see the big deal. The other thing this commentator doesn’t address is that even when she doesn’t wear a hair clip the media is all over her looks. She has decided to grow her hair long and the Washington Post did some story on what is acceptable hair style for older women. It wasn’t a negative piece over all because they weren’t calling her unprofessional but the fact that they felt the need to even discuss it shows they still have issues.

  4. discourseincsharpminor permalink
    September 25, 2010 12:25 pm

    Honestly, does Forbes have nothing better to do? Seriously!

    I really think that, while no one can argue that the bar has been set quite a bit higher for women as far as being considered someone to be taken seriously in any sort of professional capacity, I think many people have a special kind of distain for Hillary Clinton. There are things that have been said about her that no one would say about Michelle Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Michele Bachmann, or even Sarah Palin and I don’t see that changing any time soon no matter what she manages to accomplish. The country is okay with hearing her referenced in ways that would appall them if it were anyone else. I’m too young to remember exactly where that began, but it has persisted for nearly two decades.

    Oh, by the way, I loved your ‘toaster’ comment.

    • September 25, 2010 12:33 pm

      What I found annoying is that the author of the article felt the need to tell us something we already know- that if you are a “professional” woman you are to dress professionally. We get that. When I would would into the Federal courthouse to argue a case I wore a suit and dressed professionally. But if had chosen to put my hair up in a ponytail would that have made me unprofessional?

      I just think claiming that a hair clip renders the whole outfit unprofessional is silly. They went nuts when she wore a hairband too.

      I agree with you that Hillary Clinton is singled out for extra scrutiny which is why I blogged about it. Given everything that happened during the 2008 primary with respect to media coverage and given how the media takes no responsibility for their flagrant sexism, I think it’s worth pointing out when it rears its ugly head again and again.

      Oh, and I’m glad you got the toaster reference😉

    • Thain permalink
      September 25, 2010 12:35 pm

      LOL. I cracked up when I got to the toaster comment! Too funny!

    • September 25, 2010 7:21 pm

      Honestly, does Forbes have nothing better to do? Seriously!

      This is the second oddly tabloid-type article I have seen from Forbes is the past few weeks. I wish I could remember what the first one was. It was a week or two ago, and it jolted me so that it came from Forbes that I posted it on Facebook. Forbes bears watching.

      I think many people have a special kind of distain for Hillary Clinton. There are things that have been said about her that no one would say about Michelle Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Michele Bachmann, or even Sarah Palin

      I think you’re right about that – well I know you are since I don’t think anyone has ever accused any of them of murder. And Hillary must be one swingin’ Babe if she’s a dyke AND had Vince Foster killed* because of the affair she was having with him. Lordy! How does she EVER get any work done?

      *Watch Christine O’Donnell – she is one who has said this – right in keeoing with the theme here of women sniping at women.

      • discourseincsharpminor permalink
        September 25, 2010 9:16 pm

        Wasn’t she also supposedly sleeping with George Stephanopoulos and Al Gore as well according to the tabloid rumors of the nineties? That’s a lot to schedule in.

        As to Ms. O’Donnell, she takes things one step farther by dismissing every issue raised about her – about possible financial missteps and violations of election laws – as merely evidence of sexism. ‘Crying wolf’ does nothing to make sexism less of a problem and she is doing present as well as future female candidates no favors.

      • Thain permalink
        September 25, 2010 9:26 pm

        Christine O’Donnell has said what? Something nasty about Hillary?

        It’s really hard to take O’Donnell seriously because when I listen to her speak I feel like I am watching an SNL skit and it has nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with the fact that she seems to have nothing to offer but silly quips. I mean, come on, dabbling in witchcraft is fine with me but she crossed a line when she said masturbation is a form of adultery. I can’t vote for someone who thinks that!🙂

      • September 25, 2010 9:28 pm

        Hillary: Wow! Had not heard those! Just validates the bogusness of the spew about her.

        O’Donnell: Well, since she has officially cut herself off from the national media, I do not expect to be hearing anything from/about her. She says the craziest things.

  5. HillaryFan permalink
    September 25, 2010 2:38 pm

    This is why I LOVE this site. Keepin’ the MSM media honest!

    I can’t believe that was an actual article in Forbes. Actually, now that I think about it, I can believe it.

  6. TomK permalink
    September 25, 2010 3:11 pm

    I really enjoy this site. Very smart commentary.

    One of the reasons Obama won is because the media was clearly in the tank for him. The media have tremendous power and act as kingmakers. Only now are some of them realizing they may have picked the wrong candidate but the question is, do they realize its not their job to pick ANY candidate but rather just report the news and ask tough questions of anyone running for public office?

    • tiffy permalink
      September 25, 2010 11:08 pm

      Unfortunately, the media wouldn’t admit their bias, and deny influence on the election. But we all know, given the closeness of the primary, any bias would alter the outcome. The media was at least 80% pro-Obama. If they’re more neutral, let say 60% pro-Obama, I think Hillary would still win.

  7. GOPer permalink
    September 26, 2010 10:23 am

    You liberals always find someone to blame. It couldn’t just be that Clinton lost because she failed to get enough delegates because her brain dead advisers including that Jabba the Hut loser Mark Penn, didn’t understand the delegate system, something which they later admitted? Hillary had a totally dysfunctional campaign team and it raises serious questions about how she would have governed. People were afraid to tell her things she didn’t want to hear for fear “momma would get mad” what the hell kind of leader is that? That’s not leadership that’s entitled egomania.

  8. Carolyn-Rodham permalink
    September 29, 2010 3:45 pm

    Great link, stacy, to the dialogue between Jeff Greenfield (CNN commentator) and his daughter (a lawyer and Clintonista back in 2008) — I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the debate about sexism in the media coverage of the 2008 Democratic nomination. Greenfield (father) offers a lot of bogus arguments that his daughter successfully and eloquently parries, one by one. But she doesn’t call him on a key point. After allowing that a few scattered remarks were out-of-line (Tucker Carlson’s, Chris Matthews’), Greenfield insists such media sexism really has no impact on an election. I believe a previous poster provided a link that refutes that claim (haven’t read it yet), but you can’t tell me that media coverage had no role in shaping public perceptions after Matthews gleefully declared (the night of the Iowa caucuses — where three candidates each got roughly a third of the vote — that Hillary’s candidacy had “gone from inevitable to
    improbable over night,” while simultaneously shivering with excitement about Obama’s
    “decisive” win and how it would reverberate around the world? And, less than two weeks later, when he linked her surprise victory in New Hampshire — indeed, her entire political career — to public sympathy for her in the aftermath of the Lewinsky scandal? Media played no role in shaping the narrative that Bill and Hillary were racists ( while they gave a pass to Obama about the memo his staff circulated to the media making that outrageous claim)? Fanning the flames of the story that Hillary cleverly insinuated Obama was a closet Muslim in her 60 Minutes interview (in which she specifically denied or denounced the claim no fewer than 7 times)? Trumpeting the story that Geraldine
    Ferraro’s comment was racist but Father “whaa-
    whaaa” Pfleger’s histrionics weren’t sexist?
    The nedia coverage wasn’t just sexist in many instanxes, it was transparently biased — against Hillary and for Obama. Is that why she lost? It certainly wasn’t the only reason, but when two candidates are separated by a razor thin margin of delegates, and when we all know it’s going to come down to the superdelegates decidibg who will be more “electable,” media bias matters. It matters big time.

    • September 29, 2010 7:12 pm

      @Carolyn- Oh, I think the media played a huge role in the outcome- it wasn’t the only thing, but shaping public perception is half the battle.

      The media no longer report the news these days, they make the news up and I think they covet their role as Kingmakers in elections. They define the issues and they define the candidates. It drives me crazy how they never provide coverage of third party candidates because in the media’s view, they won’t win anyway- that is NOT for them to decide! They also ignore the candidates who are long-shots, making it even more likely that those candidates will get their message out.

      The media bias in 2008 was not liberal vs. conservative, but instead (in my view) based upon the media’s long-held bias against not only Hillary but also President Clinton and what they referred to as “the Clinton Machine” (which in itself was quite a negative way of referring to the Clintons and their campaign). It was obvious that many considered her little more than an overly-driven, do-anything-to-win carpetbagger and focused more on that than her actual policies. They made it clear they didn’t trust her and so she was constantly being accused of being insincere- like when she had tears in her eyes- they couldn’t even take it at face value but instead had to infer that she was being insincere. She was in a lose-lose position- she would get criticized for not being personable enough and then when she was they said it was fake.

      The media drives me crazy.

      • Carolyn-Rodham permalink
        September 30, 2010 4:32 am

        In an interesting reversal of his own argument that media “sexism” doesn’t affect elections, Jeff Greenfield suggests that the “positive” media coverage of Hillary’s “emotional moment” in New Hampshire helped her win there, i.e. his daughter couldn’t complain the media attention was all bad for Hillary. Funny, that’s not how I remember the coverage. The two themes I remember — never mind that they were sort of mutually exclusive — were “Is she stable enough to be Commander-in-Chief?” (perhaps not stated quite so bluntly but the message was unmistakable) and “She’s so desperate to eek out a win in NH, she squeezed out phony tears and used the oldest feminine wiles in the book to garner sympathy — she has some nerve claiming to be a champion of feminism!” If the media played any role in influencing the outcome of the NH primary, it was by ganging up on Hillary, just as Obama and Edwards ganged up on her in the NH debate. I think disgust about the media circus that ensued when Hillary teared over momentarily drove women (and some men) to thr polls in protest, and Obama’s 12-point advantage disappeared overnight. It was then that team Obama — alarmed that she might really rebound — decided it was time to rally the black
        vote and circulated the infamous memo to the media suggesting Hillary’s remark about LBJ making MLK’s dream a reality was racist.

  9. September 30, 2010 5:52 am

    @Carolyn- goodness, what are you doing up so early?!?

    The claim of racism was a particularly low blow given that such a claim is preposterous as applied to either Hillary or Bill. I’ve read pretty much every book that has come out on the 2008 election, including “The Battle for America” by Balz and Johnson- which by the way, was probably the best of them, the others were just gossip (ie. Game Change) and there is very little criticism of the Obama campaign in these books- I think that is in part because he won and people were hesitant to come out and give the inside story for fear of being shut out of his circle (and that includes the media), but now that some time has passed and the media (and others) are starting to see that Obama is a mere mortal like the rest of us, we may start to hear more of an objective accounting of what went really went on within the Obama campaign in terms of strategy.

    I think many people were appalled at how the media treated Clinton, particularly after New Hampshire. The behind the scenes accounts about how Edwards and Obama ganged up on Hillary during the debates made my skin crawl. I think there was definitely a backlash against Obama and the media for a time. The sexist attitudes and the biased attacks definitely helped shape voter opinion- just like negative attack ads do- everyone says they oppose attack ads and negative campaigning but they are the mainstay of political discourse during elections because they work.

  10. April 24, 2013 11:18 am

    The media makes us think or believe whatever they want.

  11. June 22, 2013 1:16 pm

    It’s funny how we never hear about things being sexual towards men.

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