Does Hillary Fail to Connect Emotionally?
In this Presidential election season, it is especially important to recognize how the rhetoric of the Bible still shapes our religious and political imagination and the American political discourse. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman to have secured the nomination as a major party presidential candidate in US history, is consistently characterized as untrustworthy by the press and called “crooked” by her opponent. It is obvious why: She does not conform to the image of the “white lady, ” a feminine stereotype which was developed in tandem with Western colonization, philosophical romanticism and black slavery in the U.S. This image projects Christian elite white women/ladies as paradigms of civilized and cultured womanhood. Clinton has made attempts to better fit this stereotype. She has dropped her own name Rodham, which caused her so many problems in the previous election cycle, in favor of that of her husband. The convention invoked her motherhood and care-taking.
Yet in the minds of some, she still does not qualify as a presidential candidate. For instance, after the 2016 Democratic Convention, which celebrated the U.S. as a country of rich diversity and made history by confirming Hillary Clinton as its candidate for president, I happened to listen to the PBS News Hour’s pundits Mark Shields and David Brooks comparing the two Conventions [July 29, 2016]. Both male journalists agreed that the DNC was more successful than the RNC, yet at the same time, they bemoaned Clinton’s failure “to emotionally connect” at a moment that would be easy “to show emotions.” While a male candidate would be censured for showing emotions, a female candidate is criticized for not doing so. Since it is important for a president to connect emotionally, something Obama allegedly is also not able to do well, they argued, Trump will be the dominant personality in this presidential campaign.
Deborah Tannen, a feminist scholar of linguistics, has pointed to the “double bind” that makes a woman presidential candidate like Hillary Clinton appear as inauthentic and not trustworthy. To quote her:
A double bind means you must obey two commands, but anything you do to fulfill one violates the other. While the requirements of a good leader and a good man are similar, the requirements of a good leader and a good woman are mutually exclusive…Male candidates can have it both ways but Clinton can have it no ways… .The most difficult aspect of the double bind is that it is invisible; we think we are just reacting to the candidates as individuals. Yet, even the words to talk about women are drenched in gender. [“The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Disliking Hillary Clinton,” Time March 15, 2016]
This is why if Clinton “shows emotion,” it is interpreted differently than when Trump shows emotion. There is a gender bias built into the presidential election process.
The cultural roots of this “double bind” are found in Christian Scriptures and traditions. Both the imperial language of subordination and its violence as well as the democratic language of communal love are encoded in Christian Scriptures. They have shaped not only religious but also cultural self-understandings and ethos throughout the centuries and still do so today. However, in the course of history, they have also become genderized and racialized. Since allusions to Christian Scriptures are still used in public discourse today, the language of domination continues to be encoded in Western democratic political understandings of masculinity, while the language of mutuality and community has become privatized as feminine and religious. For more on these connections, see my forthcoming book, Congress of Wo/men, Religion, Gender, and Kyriarchal Power (Cambridge, Mass.: FSRBooks, 2016).
Moreover, right-wing religious movements around the globe have insisted in the past decades on the figuration of emancipated wo/men1 as signifiers of modern atheistic secularism and have presented “masculine” power as the expression of divine power. The interconnection between religious antidemocratic arguments and the debate with regard to wo/men’s citizen rights, place, and role in church, home and society is not accidental. Nor is it merely a matter of intra-religious significance.
We are slotted by birth into the group categories feminine or masculine, black or white, “American” or another nationality, belonging to the upper crust of society or to the serving poor. These categories assign us identity slots according to group membership and shape the public discourse. We find ourselves members of a gender or racial group, which we often experience as a natural “given,” rather than as historically and socially constructed. Individuals cannot simply opt out of group identities because social constructs such as sex, gender, race, class, and ethnicity are “common sense,” “naturalized,” and inscribed on the body. Such are the roots of Clinton’s “failure to connect.” Hence, she is not trustworthy!
By wanting not only to become president, but also by aligning herself as a “white lady” with a black president, Clinton cannot “win” because she does not conform to the cultural-political ethos of subordination and emotionality shaped by Christian traditions and cultural ideals of white femininity. Claiming her Christian faith as inspiration for her work, even clothed in white, introduced as a mother and grandmother, she could not win the symbolic argument. It is not enough to give personal Christian testimony or to resort to the motherly role as long as the presidency is clothed either in aggressive warrior masculinity or the benevolent father role! To replace this image with feminine service and motherly housekeeping does not suffice.
Rather, those moments at the Democratic Convention when the spirit of love, courage, diversity, debate, and mutuality found public expression, not as feminine or masculine, but as communal and political, need to be built upon by the campaign. The accusation that Hillary fails to connect emotionally and is not trustworthy can only become obvious as a gender stereotype, if at the same time the language of mutuality and community becomes public-political language. The convention was a successful step in this direction.
1 I write the term wo/men with a slash in order to use the term in a generic, inclusive way; wo/men includes men, s/he includes he and fe/male includes male!