Why Bernie’s Finger Wagging Matters

With 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!

Sometimes, a presidential candidate says something and it’s immediately clear that gender dynamics are at play. And no, I’m not going to go through all of the examples Donald Trump has provided for us (but here’s a list from The Huffington Post in case you need one).

Other times, however, the sexism is less clear. At Sunday night’s Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, for instance, Bernie Sanders said to Hillary Clinton, “Excuse me, I’m talking,” upon being interrupted by his challenger. There’s been a lot of disagreement about whether or not the remark was sexist—aptly summed up by Margaret Hartmann at New York magazine—but his words aren’t what struck me most.

Yes, words matter. A lot. But images matter, too. And if someone glanced at the TV while the debate was on mute, they would have seen Sanders pointing his finger at Clinton and seemingly invading her personal space. Is that image fraught with gender dynamics? You bet.

Some say it’s just Sanders’ style, and his interaction would have been the same if Clinton were a man. While that may be true, the gender dynamics of the situation would have been different. Women are taught to be constantly small and aware of the space they occupy, so even when invasions of their personal space are innocent, slight or accidental, there is a power dynamic at play.

Research shows that women tend to occupy less space in public than men. Men are “more likely to have their legs spread at a 10- to 15-degree angle and keep their arms 5 to 10 degrees away from their bodies.” Yes, manspreading is real, which means women have less space to begin with. And, as any woman who has taken public transit, tried to work her way through a crowd, or gone toe-to-toe with a man in a meeting knows, it feels as though women’s personal boundaries consistently receive less respect than men’s do.

Does Sanders know about the gender dynamic at play? He should. After all, former Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) was criticized for invading Clinton’s personal space during a debate almost 16 years ago, after marching over to her podium and demanding she sign a pledge. As The Washington Post’s Janell Ross points out, Sanders “has almost certainly had the same advice and information that every male candidate gets about the need to be constantly mindful about coming across like a chauvinist or a bully when on a debate stage facing a female competition.”

So, did the podium placement and camera angles matter in this case? Of course. But we can’t blame it all on CNN.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user AFGE licensed under Creative Commons 2.0




Adrienne Kimmell is the chief research and communications officer at NARAL Pro-Choice America.