Or: We Can dance if we want to.
I’ve written before about the double-bind facing female political candidates, which is well-established in the rhetorical and political science scholarship. In the United States, leaders are expected to be decisive, rational, and independent, traits stereotypically associated with men. When women would-be leaders enact these traits, they are often dismissed as cold, calculating, or even bitchy. And so, the highest glass ceiling remains.
As the 2020 presidential campaign gears up with Elizabeth Warren’s announcement that she will seek the Democratic nomination, the debate over “likeability” of female candidates has re-ignited. It is, of course, not a new debate. One need not look further than Clinton’s two-presidential runs to see it established. “Here we go again,” notes Ashton Pittman on NBC News in the wake of Warren’s declaration. Pittman continues:
“There are many reasons why likability is a flawed metric for political candidates, men and women alike. But there is something particularly pernicious about the recent trend of evaluating women this way. Research has shown again and again that powerful women are held to different standards than men. The hypocrisy of the likability metric becomes even more clear when you compare the way Warren the potential 2020 candidate is being described with Warren the (less threatening) senator from Massachusetts.”
In short, while Warren used to be likable, her mere declaration of seeking the most powerful office in the land renders her unlikable. As the satirical blog McSweeney’s points out, “I don’t hate women political candidates—I just hated Hillary and coincidentally I’m starting to hate Elizabeth Warren.” This writer notes, using the standard trope, “[Warren] just rubs me the wrong way.” Twitter has taken up the gendered divide in likability as well, with some commentators arguing against the excuse that it was Clinton specifically who was unlikable.
My point is not to defend Clinton as a presidential candidate but instead to point out how likability has been figured as a character trait that is apparently necessary for political candidates, but most necessary for women. And that men seeking power do not automatically forfeit their likability as women seem to.
As a result, likability becomes a prominent method for character assassination of female candidates. As one final note, I do not wish to imply that a steady temperament, willingness to seek compromise, and a friendly demeanor are not important traits for politicians. I wish to argue instead that women seeking power seem to automatically forfeit these traits regardless of if they were seen to possess them in the past.
It is also true that attacks on disarmingly charismatic freshmen representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (about whom I have written before), especially regarding a video of her joyfully dancing in college, have largely backfired. Here’s her response to the video leak. It will be interesting to see if young women like this can fight the “unlikable” charge or if, as they seek more power, they too will be limited by this word.