Why Hillary Clinton Won't Win the Presidential Debate
We don’t like women’s voices for a lot of reasons. They’re not low enough. They’re not intimidating enough. They’re not powerful enough. They’re not even processed by the same parts of our brain. But even if a woman makes it to a platform where her voice is heard (literally), that platform is already slanted against her.
We police women’s voices until we can hardly hear what they have to say. Take vocal fry, the “epidemic” sweeping over millennial women and NPR podcasters alike. Those who spoke with vocal fry were thought to be less authoritative and intelligent, while the Ira Glasses’ of the world continued to be heard without listener complaint, vocal fry and all. Despite what we like to think about our progress, our expectations of how people should talk are surprisingly gendered and still put women, especially powerful ones, in an impossible bind.
For the first time in history, these expectations are playing out on a grand stage in the 2016 presidential election. For the first time there is a woman nominee, and on September 24, that woman nominee will debate yet another male nominee, and our unconscious biases could mean a hell of a lot more than liking a podcaster.
So what do we expect out of Hillary and Trump?
On the surface, our expectations aren’t surprising. We expect women to communicate gently, emotionally, warmly. We expect men to communicate forcefully, confidently, and (if necessary) angrily. Hillary has got to be relatable, whatever the hell that means, while Trump simply has to seem powerful. And when they break these communication expectations? We hate them for it. If Trump speaks in a way that conveys too much ~feminine~ emotion (like remorse, compassion, understanding), we might read him as weak, as unfit for such a role as commander-in-chief. If Hillary speaks too confidently, too forcefully, or with any ounce of anger, we see her as untrustworthy and calculating.
The strange media coverage of the election seems to work largely on this point. Hillary’s big fuck up, her e-mails, keeps coming back despite various reports, sources, and committees who have found that she did nothing unlawful. People fault her for not being apologetic enough. More than a year after her initial statement of apology she issued the following statement: “… there are no excuses. I want people to know that the decision to have a single account was mine. I take responsibility for it. I apologize for it.” This still has not satisfied those out for some real remorse from Clinton. Meanwhile, Trump continues to make claims that are so outrageous that we can’t even tell if he said it or Kanye West. To account for some of his offensive missteps he’s said: “Sometimes, in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that……” The “apology” that he issued isn’t an apology at all but an evasion of the remorse that Clinton takes on and, even worse, he continues by ordering to the listener to move on to the issues that have more “at stake.”
These are the biases we are well aware of. So why are we still listening to Trump? There's more at play.
His speech has a clear and well worn avenue of communication. People get that when he’s angry, it’s for a good reason (in his eyes). People get that even though he makes mistakes, he is still (somehow) a viable choice for the presidency. Hillary does not have that privilege. She’s got to prove that any sliver of anger is justified. She’s got to apologize for her mistakes and for her husband’s. She’s got to prove she’s a viable choice for the presidency because people just don’t trust her.
Even if you’re not in the basket of deplorables, you are unconsciously judging Hillary and Trump based on their gender.
The way we are socialized from a very young age plays into this. Kick-ass linguist and personal hero, Deborah Tannen, conducted research with elementary aged groups of boys and girls and found that they use language for very different purposes. (You can find a good video of her talking about it here.) In her study, the groups of girls talked to each other in ways that emphasized their connection, some even going so far as to mimic her friends incorrect syntax. She found that the groups of boys used their language to convey status. The boys continually one up each other until the round is “won” by one of the speakers. Men are coming to the same conversation “looking at a different axis.” But this axis is the one we’ve used to build our world, including the models for governing it.
If you watched any of the primaries, you know that a debate with 12 people on stage is essentially a yelling match, and the fact that you get time to respond if someone says your name makes it so, if people are trying to take you down a peg, you have air time to bring yourself back up. The axis that these rules are made on favor the model of speaking the boys in Tannen’s research used.
In these upcoming debates, the odds are stacked against Hillary. This isn’t because of her experience, her demeanor, or even her basic speaking ability. The odds are stacked against her because she wasn’t socialized to use language in the same way the boys were and we aren’t socialized to listen to her even if she did.
Think about it this way: Trump talks like a grumpy, temperamental dad. At worst, he’s bigoted, incoherent, racist, sexist, etc. So maybe he is a really drunk, temperamental dad. But we’ve had all kinds of dads as our president. We’ve had the cool dad that let’s you smoke pot when you’re 18. We’ve had the ignorant dad who doesn’t realize you’re sneaking out of the house and hates all your boyfriends. We’ve had the dad who’s into younger women. Trump gets a leg up because he is like our presidents in ways that Hillary never can be. Trump doesn’t have to say anything intelligent, he just has to sound like the other dudes who said intelligent stuff before him. But we’ve never heard a woman speak on this level before.
Hillary can’t “win” this debate in the way that other candidates have won debates. Other candidates have “won” by following the rules of a debate: top the other candidate until the round is won. This is how a presidency is eventually won. But girls have never been allowed to play by these rules. Until now, they weren’t even allowed in the game.
Hillary’s presence on the debate stage isn’t just a novelty, it is a questioning of some of our most inner biases. The rules of the game aren’t changing before the debates start, but the spectators can try and listen a little closer.