From the outside looking in, we seem to be in a golden age of powerful women taking over the public consciousness. From Beyonce’s “Black is King” film, which recently hit Disney+; to Rihanna’s Fenty beauty, skin and lingerie empire; to Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, powerful women of color are succeeding as they have never before.
But unfortunately, as is almost always the case when any woman shows ambition for anything beyond the home, there’s also been a backlash.
Politico recently reported on disparaging remarks made by former Sen. Chris Dodd towards Kamala Harris. According to the report, Dodd was talking to a “longtime Biden supporter and donor” about a recent exchange with the Harris regarding her “ambush” of Biden during the first Democratic debate last year. Allegedly, Dodd confronted Harris and was taken-aback by her response: “She laughed and said, ‘That’s politics.'”
Dodd described Harris as having “no remorse” for her statements during the debate. “Dodd felt it was a gimmick, that it was cheap,” the donor said. This exchange, says Dodd, is apparently what lost Harris a chance at the vice presidential ticket.
Here’s a question: Would this exchange have been any different if Kamala Harris was a man? Short answer: most likely, yes.
This is because women in U.S. society are expected to apologize for speaking out, even when in the right—as if our existence and basic humanity is something to apologize for.
Harris is far from the only female political player to face this type of backlash from peers and colleagues. A few weeks ago, a reporter overheard a heated exchanged between Florida Rep. Ted Yoho (R) and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D). Yoho, 65, accused the 30-year-old lawmaker of being “out of your freaking mind” and “disgusting” for implying that poverty and unemployment are fueling an uptick in crime in New York City during the coronavirus pandemic, according to The Hill. Ocasio-Cortez responded by saying that he was “being rude” before Yoho called her a “fucking bitch.”
The Hill published the report on the heated confrontation on July 21, one day after the exchange took place. Colorado Newsline editor Quentin Young tweeted it out the very same day, and minutes later, Ocasio-Cortez herself quote-tweeted Young with a statement of her own, stating that she had never spoken to Yoho “before he decided to accost me.” According to her, she “usually gets along fine [with] my GOP colleagues” and that “we know how to leave our legislative sparring at the … door”. She then capped the tweet off with a simple, yet savage: “But hey, ‘b*tches’ get stuff done.”
In a statement to CBS News, Yoho said he only had a “brief member-to-member conversation” and that “these types of conversations happen frequently when the House is in session.” He also denied calling Ocasio-Cortez “what has been reported in the Hill or any name for that matter.”
Straying further into sexist territory, Yoho’s team also accused both Ocasio-Cortez and The Hill newspaper of being attention-seeking:
“It sounds better for the Hill newspaper and gets more media attention to say he called her a name—which he did not do. It is unfortunate that Representative Ocasio-Cortez is using this exchange to gain personal attention.”
Regardless, the double standard between a woman speaking her mind and a man who does the exact same thing is crystal clear.
Driving this point home, fellow representatives Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) pointed out they had never experienced anything close to what she had, despite being similarly vocal about the exact same issue.
That men and women are treated differently for speaking their minds is no surprise. What makes what happened to Harris and Ocasio-Cortez different from other cases of sexism is not just the fact they are women, but that they are women of color.
Harris is biracial Indian-Jamaican and Ocasio-Cortez is Latina, of Puerto Rican-descent. As a result, they experience the intertwined effects of both sexism and racism on a regular basis. And these effects are only made worse if a Black woman or non-Black WOC shows any sort of confidence or ambition.
Outside of the political sphere, our culture has a clear mindset of what a “woman” is: what she looks like, how she behaves, how she talks. From patronizing onesies that identify girls as “princesses” and boys as “superheroes,” to dolls and makeup kits for girls and action figures and tool boxes for boys, our culture pushes a specific narrative of what women can and should be. So, when these little “princesses” grow up and decide they want to be “superheroes” too, the backlash is immediate.
In 2014, Verizon released an ad called “Inspire Her Mind,” telling the story of a young girl who has long had a strong interest in science, but is swayed by her family from doing so—from discouraging her exploring outside because she might “get [her] dress dirty,” to telling her to let her brother handle her space project, all culminating in her even deciding against entering her school’s science fair.
The story of that young girl is not uncommon in real life. So many girls grow up internalizing this narrative, and believe they must strive for the same goal: find a man, get married, have kids, stay home, be quiet, don’t go out alone, dress “modestly,” and always do as told by men.
When women strive for anything more, they are labeled as “bitches,” “sluts,” and “whores,” who are “selfishly” “seeking personal attention.” Meanwhile, when men do the exact same thing, they are praised and celebrated for being “The Man.”
Earlier this year, singer/songwriter Taylor Swift, who had long faced media backlash for everything from her dating life during her late teens and early 20s to speaking out against her former label, Big Machine Records for not giving her a chance to personally buy her own master recordings, released the music video for her song “The Man.” Her video imagines a world where she was “Tyler Swift,” doing everything men in society have always had the luxury of doing without hesitation.
The video—recently nominated for MTV’s Video Music Awards for Video of the Year, Video for Good and Best Direction—marks a career milestone for the artist: her debut as sole-director, sole-writer and star of her own music video.
Yet, despite earning her the love of music critics and fans, Swift received backlash from others—sprinkled with the heaping dose of sexism that nearly every woman with a media presence receives.
In December, Swift talked about her experience being a successful woman in music:
“As a woman in this industry, some people will always have slight reservations about you. Whether you deserve to be there, whether your male producer or co-writer is the reason for your success, or whether it was a savvy record label…People love to explain away a woman’s success in the music industry…
“When ‘Fearless’ won Album of the Year at the Grammys [in 2010] and I [became] the youngest solo artist to ever win the award [at age 20], with that win came criticism and backlash … All of a sudden, people had doubts about my singing voice, ‘was it strong enough?’, ‘was it a little bit pitchy?’…They weren’t sure if I was the one writing the songs…
“At that time, I couldn’t understand why this wave of harsh criticism had hit me so hard … Now I realize that this is what happens to a woman in music when she achieves success or power beyond people’s comfort level. I now have come to expect that, with good news, comes some sort of pushback.”
Swift also opened up about the double standard she and other successful women in music experience:
“In the last 10 years, I have watched as women in this industry are criticized and measured up to each other and picked at for their bodies, their romantic lives, their fashion, or have you ever heard someone say about a male artist, ‘I really like his songs, but I don’t know what it is, there’s just something about him that I don’t like’? No. That criticism is reserved for us”
In every industry and career path, women face a backlash for succeeding. This negative response to our success is something men will never experience. But, as women, we can’t let society break us. As Swift herself sings:
“If I was a man, then I’d be The Man.”