The Gendered Roots of the “Hillary Is Untrustworthy” Meme
If you ask average people on the street about Hillary Clinton, odds are you’ll get one overwhelmingly common opinion: She’s untrustworthy. This idea is extremely culturally pervasive, and unusually for a simple smear, it crosses party lines: Many self-identified democrats and progressives will also happily repeat the uncritically accepted fact that you can’t trust Clinton.
This idea is also a carefully constructed narrative.
Whichever outrage du jour is being trotted out to prove her untrustworthiness is immaterial; the narrative (over 20 years old) preceded all the evidence given to support it, and the only reason anyone has any evidence that Clinton is untrustworthy is because there have been decades of witch hunts trawling her record for any detail that could be used to support that narrative. It’s a kind of aggressive scrutiny rarely, if ever, leveled against a male politician, and utterly out of proportion with her actual track record.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there’s a gendered element here. There’s a faction who vehemently hates the presence of a woman in politics and will do anything possible to discredit her—and there’s a much larger faction who are quite convinced there’s no gender bias to their thinking, but who will happily and uncritically believe any negative rumor they hear about Clinton. This article is mainly for the latter.
To be clear, this isn’t to say that Clinton has never done anything untrustworthy or that there are no factors that influence how people view Clinton other than the gendered media narrative. Every narrative has true facts that are used as evidence for it. But those are post-hoc justifications; the narrative exists separate from her actions and it would exist whether she had actually done anything that might support it or not.
Nor is it to suggest that you’re not allowed to personally think she’s untrustworthy or that everyone who thinks so is just uncritically swallowing the media narrative. It might be possible to independently come to the conclusion that Clinton is untrustworthy. But, given the long, adamant campaign to convince American voters to think that, it’s about as likely as independently coming to the conclusion that Miller Lite tastes great and is less filling. When someone puts this much effort into trying to make you believe an idea, it’s smart to look very hard at why.
There are many ways Clinton has been singled out and treated differently than other politicians, and specifically treated as particularly deceptive or untrustworthy regardless of the actual facts. Many people will attempt to argue away every example given below as completely explicable due to other factors and therefore unrelated to gender and not an example of Clinton being treated differently, just as many people will staunchly insist that all kinds of unfair treatment women have nothing to do with gender. Indeed, a lot of people who readily acknowledge the pervasive effects of sexism on the rest of society nevertheless believe it doesn’t apply to Clinton. But to anyone who’s serious about gender analysis, the evidence is compelling:
- There’s a pervasive assumption that Clinton is just in it for money and power, as if other politicians weren’t in it for money and power. Note particularly how other politicians can defend themselves against this charge through words and actions, but anything Clinton says or does to the contrary just shows she’s not being honest about her motives and becomes further evidence of her deceptiveness. This paradigm therefore makes it literally impossible for Clinton to disprove the narrative.
- Like Clinton, John Kerry held complex foreign-policy views that he changed as new information became available. But Kerry was labeled a “flip-flopper,” a fairly harmless epithet that suggests nothing worse than an inability to make up his mind. Clinton, on the other hand, is treated as though every policy change is a cynically calculated move by someone who knew everything all along. Also, many Democrats noted that Kerry’s flip-flopping is actually a beneficial trait (the ability to revise one’s views based on new information), whereas Clinton is not extended this same courtesy.
- George W. Bush was an incredibly untrustworthy person, but even his enemies generally only labeled him stupid and incompetent, not willfully deceptive. He was given the benefit of the doubt and even people who hated him were usually willing to extend him the courtesy that he’d made bad decisions due to ignorance or incompetence rather than malice. But even people with far less cause to dislike Clinton happily label her as malicious.
- The Benghazi hearings, an obvious witch hunt by Republicans with the stated intent of jeopardizing her political campaign, are a perfect example of how little Clinton’s actual behavior affects the narrative: They were convened on the assumption of wrongdoing, they found no wrongdoing, and now they’re used as evidence of wrongdoing. Notice that there was no similar witch hunt against George W. Bush (or Colin Powell) after 9/11, for instance, despite it being a much larger disaster in which there was at least as much evidence of misconduct.
- Clinton’s email scandal should have been obvious proof of how watertight her campaign actually is, since it’s clearly a trivial issue of the sort that all politicians probably have in the closet, with no actual bearing on the country. But it was blown into a huge issue that many progressives also latched onto as evidence of her untrustworthiness. Meanwhile, other minor, dubious actions, such as Sanders inappropriately accessing campaign data or the odd case where his staffers impersonated union members, are treated as the trivialities they are and not turned into scandal material.
- Democrats have allowed the Sanders campaign to define the Democratic primary as a purity test specifically along the axes he promotes most strongly, casting him as an ironclad progressive and Clinton as inherently questionable and needing to prove herself. Issues where Clinton leans right (foreign policy) are taken as proof that she’s not a real progressive, while issues where she’s left of Sanders (women’s rights) are ignored; meanwhile, issues where Sanders leans left (economic policy) are taken as proof positive of his progressive credentials while issues where he is right of Clinton (gun control) are ignored. Indeed, progressivism is increasingly defined as strictly dem
- Clinton’s associations are taken as reflections on her character and agenda more than other politicians’. Clinton ally Deborah Wasserman Schultz’s attacks on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are taken as proof positive that Clinton will attempt to destroy the CFPB; Clinton’s own statements in support of the CFPB then become proof of her untrustworthiness. But, for instance, when Obama employed the relentlessly skeevy Rahm Emanuel, that wasn’t taken as proof of Obama’s “real” agenda.* And sketchy Sanders associates like Jeff Weaver actually exonerate Sanders, because anything negative that comes out of his campaign can be attributed to them rather than him.
- The typical attacks on her personality as cold, bitchy, conniving, or even (paradoxically) overemotional feed into the interpretation of her as a person you wouldn’t trust if you knew her. Male candidates, on the other hand, are much more commonly seen as affable and trustworthy. But if anyone who has met Clinton says she’s friendly and affable (or, conversely, that Sanders is unpleasant), the narrative instantly flips and friendliness becomes evidence of cynical charisma she uses to manipulate people.
- Clinton is still blamed for her husband’s actions in office and even for his infidelity. When her policies differ from the 1992-2000 Clinton administration, it’s taken as proof of her inconsistency (again, always assumed to be a cynical political move and not simply an evolving opinion). Male candidates are never judged against their wives’ actions.
- Serious problems and mismanagement during the Arizona Democratic primary have been labeled as Clinton-masterminded electoral fraud, even though Arizona is helmed by anti-Clinton Republicans and key Clinton demographics like seniors and minorities suffer the most from electoral fraud. Meanwhile, similar problems in Sanders-supporting states like Utah have gone unmentioned (as has the increasing ubiquity of these problems in all elections)…as, for the most part, has Sanders’ attempt to actually steal Nevada, which Clinton won by five points.
And these are only the biggest and most quantifiable examples. There are a host of smaller microaggressions that, just like the microaggressions ordinary women face every day, can’t be provably linked to gender but add up to a distinct pattern. Campaign finance is always a big deal, but the scrutiny Clinton has undergone, especially for her speaking fees, has a distinct undertone that a woman doesn’t deserve so much money. And then there’s the vague feeling that you just don’t like her, don’t trust her, get a better vibe from the other guy. Sure, you could react to any candidate that way, but it’s the woman–and the blowback extends down-ballot to other invariably female politicians, like Barbara Boxer, Kamala Harris, and even Elizabeth Warren. And the people who distrust Clinton are vastly more male than female.
Across the board, Clinton’s every action has been interpreted as proof that she’s a cynical mastermind manipulating everything for her own gain, and the burden of proof has been on her and her supporters to disprove that assumption again and again for each individual claim, whereas male candidates have been given the benefit of the doubt even when evidence points to actual wrongdoing. Obviously there’s a strong gender bias at work. But what are the narratives underlying it?
Don’t Bother Your Pretty Little Head
The first sexist narrative casting women as untrustworthy is that women are silly, flighty creatures who can’t be trusted to make decisions because they’re not rational enough to use their brains rather than their feelings. This is the narrative of benevolent sexism, which seeks to cast decision-making as a process much too difficult for women, and is one of the key reasons women were denied access to politics in the first place. The idea that women will vote (or hire, promote, etc) based on a candidate’s attractiveness or other “irrational” reasons comes from this narrative (the male tendency to vote for the candidate they’d like to have a beer with never counts against their rationality, for some reason). It’s also the narrative of Sarah Palin, Megyn Kelly, and other influential women who deliberately present themselves as unintelligent in order to appear non-threatening and acceptable to men.
But this narrative has relatively little to do with Hillary Clinton. Men certainly resent her for not being an airhead and many of the demeaning attacks about her femininity have a lot to do with that, but I doubt many people think Clinton is untrustworthy because she’s just a silly woman.
The Femme Fatale
Another common sexist narrative about women is the seductress. She occupies the other side of the madonna/whore dichotomy from the silly woman: She’s shrewd and capable, and she uses her wits—and her body—to manipulate men to get her way. The basic idea is that a woman taking charge of her life, especially her sex life, is a deliberately aggressive act against men. Aside from being a common Hollywood plot, this is the narrative of every harasser, stalker, and rapist who insists the victim was “leading him on” or “asking for it.” It’s the narrative of every man who rants about his crazy ex-girlfriend (sometimes how every girlfriend he ever had was, against all odds, crazy) and who paradoxically calls a woman a slut for rejecting him. Note that it doesn’t matter whether the woman was actually having sex or not: Refusing sex can equally well be interpreted as a way to manipulate men.
In politics, this narrative most often comes up when sex is involved, and it’s always personal. Women who discuss contraception get called sluts. For Clinton, it’s usually about her husband. She’s the cold career woman who drove her husband to cheat and her choice to stay with him was a cynical act of political manipulation.
Still, this has little to do with her current political career; her relentlessly professional image meant that she was rarely, if ever, interpreted as a seductive figure at any point, certainly not now that she’s pushing 70. That said, the ambient sense that women in general are always manipulating men hasn’t done her any favors.
The Old Boys’ Club
The third sexist narrative at work here doesn’t directly cast women as untrustworthy. Instead, it casts men as particularly trustworthy. The narrative is that men obviously belong in traditionally-male spheres and have no need to justify themselves, but women don’t belong and their presence is inherently suspect. People are used to seeing men in certain contexts, so a man’s presence—say, a male doctor or a male pilot—relaxes them. A woman’s presence, on the other hand, confuses them and makes them uncomfortable, and they rush to construct narratives to explain her incongruous presence. This is the narrative of every grandpa who just feels like that male mechanic will do a better job fixing his car, every Silicon Valley company that decides that every woman who ever applies just doesn’t fit in with their culture, every professor who assumes the boys in the pre-law program will become lawyers but the girls are probably just there to meet boys.
And that’s just the baseline. When you add in real-life experiences, they don’t disprove this narrative, they actually reinforce it. Since men have huge majorities in male-coded spheres, they can network and build relationships and personal credibility. For ordinary people, Joe’s dad always used to fix my car, so I know I can trust him. For political elites, Joe was in Skull and Bones with me, so I know I can trust him. Without the benefit of those long-standing connections, any woman who enters a male sphere is inherently suspect. Why is she there? What does she want? How do we know she’s trustworthy if she didn’t go through the sanctioned male-specific channels?
Notice how little this has to do with the woman herself or any trait within her control. She must prove her right to be in that sphere, while a man is assumed to belong unless he proves otherwise. In this air of suspicion, even a woman’s qualifications may be taken as evidence against her. Impressive credentials may raise the question of why she isn’t in a higher position and whether she has dirt in her past. Strong connections are evidence that she only got the job because of Daddy or that she slept her way to the top. Even plain friendliness may be taken as an act and evidence of an agenda, whereas a friendly man is simply being friendly.**
This, then, is the main narrative behind the idea that Clinton is untrustworthy. She’s present in a field where she isn’t supposed to be, and that makes whatever she does suspect. Things that would normally be assets, like political experience, become liabilities. Each of her actions is attributed to the worst possible motivation, while male candidates are given the benefit of the doubt. The witch hunts begin, scrutinizing her record for the big scandal that must be there somewhere, because she can’t simply be a competent, qualified female politician, and if she appears to be, that’s only proof of how deceptive she is and how well she’s suppressing her dirty secrets (despite the relentless negative press about her).
*Like most of the notable differences in attitudes towards Obama and Clinton, this one cuts strictly along race/gender perception lines. Obama was closely scrutinized for his personal associations and what they said about his character, the implication being that he was un-American and “other.” Clinton is closely scrutinized for her political associations and what they say about her agenda, the implication being that she’s untrustworthy and “up to something.”
**Since this narrative is about the in group versus the out group, it also works intersectionally. Obama’s presence in politics was initially so suspicious that it spawned the birther movement. He also faced the same paradox where traits that were seen as positive in white male politicians were seen as liabilities for him. For instance, Obama’s short political career meant that he was inexperienced, while the white male candidates were more seasoned and thus better choices. So did Sarah Palin’s. Now, Clinton’s long political career means that she’s an establishment candidate, while the white male candidates are outsiders and thus better choices, and the fact that Rubio had the same small amount of experience as Obama was practically never mentioned.