Carly Fiorina’s Feminist Crusade?

shutterstock_334556987With the presidential election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you a series presented in conjunction with Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!

When the women of The View debriefed about last week’s Republican debate, they followed a formula too familiar to female candidates. In commenting on Carly Fiorina’s performance, they shifted from substance to appearance, characterizing Fiorina’s face as “demented” and “like a Halloween mask.” Ironically enough, they made these comments in response to Fiorina’s rebuke of pundits who had similarly criticized her appearance, arguing that she should have smiled more in the previous debate. That criticism followed Donald Trump’s comments on Fiorina’s face ahead of the second GOP debate, when he told Rolling Stone, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!’

Fiorina’s face may be earning more media coverage than her candidacy. Unfortunately, this is not new to women running for office. One of the most consistent—and persistent—findings of research on media coverage of women candidates is that the media pay more attention to women’s hair, hemlines and husbands (or appearance, personality and family) than they do to men’s. These findings are particularly strong at the presidential level, where women candidates have been subject to sexist coverage that has emphasized style over substance and held women to gender stereotypical standards.

Despite Fiorina’s doubts that the women of The View would make similar remarks about Hillary Clinton (calling it a “double standard” for Republican women), scrutiny over Clinton’s appearance has been ubiquitous since her earliest days in the public eye—from our obsession with her hairstyles and pantsuits to commentary on her cleavage and “cankles” in the 2008 race. Clinton’s face has also been the topic of much discussion and speculation, with some pundits describing her “haggard” looks and others, ironically, investigating whether she secretly had plastic surgery.

This disparity in the quantity of appearance coverage does not just aggravate advocates for gender equality—research demonstrates that it also negatively influences voters’ evaluations of women candidates. According to a 2010 study, neutral, positive and negative descriptions of women candidates’ appearance had detrimental effects on voters’ perceptions that they were in touch, likable, confident, effective and qualified. And while women candidates also paid a price in voters’ likelihood of voting for them after being exposed to appearance coverage, male candidates paid no similar price in voter evaluation or vote choice when attention was paid to their looks.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton rarely addressed sexist media coverage. However, both Clinton and Fiorina have taken sexist commentary head-on in the 2016 race. Perhaps these women (and their campaigns) have read research conducted by Lake Research Partners in 2010 that demonstrates that the most effective response to sexist media treatment for women candidates is to acknowledge and respond to it. Clinton’s campaign has deployed humor to deflect attention to her appearance, posting a photo of her pantsuits before the campaign’s official launch and frequently joking about her hair color on the campaign trail. Fiorina has used humor, as she did in the last debate, but has also taken a more aggressive stance against comments over her appearance. In response to Trump’s comments in September, Fiorina told an audience of women supporters, “Ladies, look at this face…This is the face of a 61-year-old woman. I am proud of every year and every wrinkle.” Her comments were featured in a CARLY for America video (“Faces”) that went viral within feminist circles, allowing Fiorina to state simply but poignantly in the second GOP debate that, “Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” when asked to respond to his comments.

This week, Carly Fiorina has again taken a more aggressive approach to rebutting The View co-hosts’ commentary, telling (former co-host) Elisabeth Hasselback,

I think what this points out is liberals, and that includes liberal women, when they don’t like the message they attack the messenger. My message to the ladies of The View is man up. If you want to debate me on policies, the Obama administration has been bad for women. Planned Parenthood is harvesting baby parts. Don’t sink to talking about my face.

This response echoes Fiorina’s previous claims that feminism is unaccepting of conservative women, prompting her to call for redefining feminism to be inclusive of ideological differences. Even more concretely, Fiorina calls for what many feminists have demanded from the media—a focus on policy differences over physical attributes or appearance. In doing so, Fiorina seeks to disrupt gender dynamics that yield different realities for women and men in presidential elections. But her approach is not entirely empowering to women.

Fiorina’s call on the co-hosts to “man up” employs the type of masculine rhetoric that has upheld the masculinity of political institutions. It is that masculine dominance that makes women candidates’ gender particularly salient when campaigning, contributing to the gendered coverage that Fiorina seeks to combat. Fiorina’s comments imply that “manning up” means being direct and forthright and associate the bad behavior of The View’s co-hosts with stereotypical expectations of catty women.

Women candidates have fallen into the same trap of preserving a masculine ideal in previous elections. In fact, 2010 U.S. Senate candidates Sharron Angle (R-NV) and Robin Carnahan (D-MO) each called on their male opponents to “man up” on policy issues in debates held on the very same night in October 2010. Whether targeted to men or women, this rhetoric poses dangers to women candidates who employ it. As political communications scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson commented in 2010, “The danger is it will be heard as being glib and unaccountable, a sly means of trying to accomplish something without providing evidence you meet the same standard.” For women candidates, meeting that “manly” standard often means proving you are “man enough” for the job. Playing that gender card does little to yield progress for women navigating political terrain that has long been dominated by men and masculinity.

Fiorina is slated to return to The View this Friday and her strategy toward sexism to date indicates that she is likely to confront the co-hosts head-on. For some, Fiorina’s appearance will represent a feminist crusade—calling out sexism and calling for substantive debate. For others, Fiorina’s crusade will be rooted in partisanship and ideology, as she is likely to reaffirm her claims of the show’s liberal bias and double standard for Republican women. Whatever her motives, Fiorina’s—and all candidates’, for that matter—response to sexism is equally important as the sexism itself, as the rationale employed and rhetoric used can shape the degree to which the gender dynamics of political campaigns are either disrupted or maintained. As you sit down to “take a little time to enjoy The View” on Friday, take some additional time to consider the implications of that conversation for women candidates, media commentary and campaign strategy, both in the remainder of this race and in campaigns to come.

Photo via Shutterstock


Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar.