Trump, Clinton, the Media and Sexism

Watching the Presidential election campaign from three thousand miles away is undoubtedly very different to being in America in the midst of it all. But from here, I have to say, it’s the strangest battle I have ever witnessed. It seems to me that the candidates are being judged on radically different criteria. If Clinton came out with one of the extraordinary statements that Trump makes on a regular basis, she’d be torn to shreds by the media, but Trump seems to be bullet-proof. And whilst Clinton is digging out every tax statement she’s ever made, and even opening her medical records for scrutiny (which surely ought to be prohibited on basic privacy laws), Trump blithely fudges all similar demands. The only way I can square this is by assuming the race pits a Good Girl against a Bad Boy, with all the stereotypical reactions this engenders. If Clinton is caught out in a lie then that’s a terrible crime, as Good Girls never lie. But Trump can say whatever outrageous thing he likes, because that’s wholly in keeping with what Bad Boys do.

But what’s happening also seems to go beyond sexism and into all kinds of stranger cultural territories. I have interpretations, which may or may not be right, it’s impossible to say. But I share them with you, for what it’s worth. As Brexit has so clearly shown us, we do get the political situation we deserve, rather than the one we need.

Let’s begin with the strangeness that was Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia. Not that it was strange for her to get pneumonia – that was the only reasonable bit. People do fall ill. And I would have thought that being a bit stressed, a bit tired, and meeting thousands of people, a percentage of whom are likely to be contagious, is a good way of catching something. Clinton’s pneumonia elicited a wave of anti-compassion that must at least say something about the weird relationship we have to illness, but let’s leave that to one side. I heard it described as ‘a poor campaign strategy’, which raised my eyebrows by a few inches. And then apparently the problem was that Clinton had tried to cover up her illness and not admit to it. So she lied, and this is all kinds of wrong.

Which, if nothing else, does indicate that the reality of being Hillary Clinton in the here and now is something no media pundit wants to take into account. I mean, just think about it. There you are, running for President of America with a massive schedule lined up, and you start to get ill. What’s the first thing you’re going to do? Hold a press conference? Of course not; you’ll do what anyone does in those circumstances. You’ll try to push through, make the least of it, look as normal as you possibly can and not breathe a word of complaint. You’ll do it for as long as you can because you don’t want to let anyone down, and anyway, tomorrow you may feel better.

That’s real, right? That’s what real people do. I can’t shake the feeling that if Trump had done that, he’d be hailed as a hero. But women live by different rules, and women really aren’t allowed to get sick. There used to be an advert on telly here in the UK for a painkiller or something, that featured two women, pushing kids in buggies, who meet in the street. They hail each other and stop to chat, discussing their busy day in prospect. It’s clear they both have stinking colds. Then they ask about each other’s husbands, who of course have the same cold but are both home in bed. See, this is what women do: they push through cheerfully and determinedly. There are no other acceptable options. This is the fantasy about female strength, and women are relied upon to make that fantasy real.

It’s no coincidence that the women on the advert are mothers. When children are little, they require their mothers not to be real. They badly need a wholly reliable presence: normal, calm, reassuring, focused entirely upon them. Good mothers do not bring their personal worries, problems and fears into the mothering realm. And I fear that the consequence of this selfless mothering is that women are forever more forbidden a chunk of their reality. They are not real people first and foremost; they are functions first and foremost.

I think it’s also a hangover from all those centuries of women being primarily wives and mothers, or else ornaments and trophies. That objectification joins up with the relationship we all had as small beings to our mothers, and the reality of being female, which includes, say, menstruation, illness, ageing, and feeling totally used by our families, becomes obscene, rather distasteful and best screened off from view. If Hillary Clinton lets slip her reality, shows her human weakness, then it’s more distressing and appalling than if Trump does it. There’s something wrong about a woman not fulfilling her function flawlessly, whereas men are allowed to be real people first, and we admire how they overcome their reality in their achievements. I think this is why men get made such a fuss of if they change a nappy or feed a baby. That man, with his important personal concerns and interests, actually took time out of his real life to do a menial chore! How amazing!

What gets more depressing is how women climb onto the objectification bandwagon in this way. There is a strong tendency for women to fight and compete over their functionality. Again, motherhood is an excellent example for this. It has become completely hamstrung by a complex and impossibly demanding set of rules, and women will be the first to call other women out on not abiding by them. In fact, there’s a tendency for women to have rules for other women in just about every situation, and to judge very harshly other women whose rules may be different. If there is a third wave of feminism that is in any way effective, it will have to tackle the brutality that can arise between women whose rules and opinions do not cohere. Note the way that men back each other up, note the basic fraternity that always means they forgive each other every flaw and petty crime. They have terrific compassion for other men involved in the business of being men. Women could learn from this.

It does go some way towards explaining the extraordinarily kind attitude that seems to prevail towards Trump and his little ways. Every time I switch the radio on or turn to the internet, it seems that Trump is getting publicity for something terrible and untrue that he has said. But the whole tenor of the reporting is genial amazement. Is it that Trump goes so far beyond the boundaries of truth and acceptability that no one knows what to make of him? No one can find the words to describe what he is doing and so he can’t be called out on it?

Well I’m prepared to give that a try. Between you and me, I think that Donald Trump may actually be mentally unbalanced. Not as a joke, but as something that it might be a good idea to worry about. And I say this on the basis that he seems incapable of distinguishing inner reality from outer reality, which is the prime factor in all psychosis. For instance (there are a wealth of examples), his recent claim that Barack Obama is the co-founder of ISIS alongside Hillary Clinton. Even when clearly directed by his campaign managers to claim this statement was somehow sarcastic or a joke, he could not stop himself from endorsing the reality of it (as he sees it) again.

Freud was the first person to identify the disparity that exists between our inner psychic reality and the world out there. The two are not the same, because our subjective perspectives, an amalgam of hopes, fears, memories, associations and prejudices, colour everything we look at. So, for example, I remember watching an encounter between a graduate student and the Head of Department in a corridor at the Modern Languages Faculty. They stopped and spoke to each other for a moment, then moved on. The graduate came up  to me and said: ‘Well I am SO glad you were here to witness that! Did you see the way she laid into me! I can’t believe she just did that!’ And the honest answer from me would have been, no I did not see that happen at all. It looked like a perfectly ordinary and featureless meeting to me. But the graduate was unshakeable in her convictions. Her hopes and fears had got in the way.

And inner reality is a very emotional place. Nothing is stored inside our heads without some sort of emotion attached to it. We don’t even know that clouds bring rain without some sort of tagging system saying #goodthing or #badthing. It’s a terrifically complex system. But at our most sane, we are aware that some events trigger us more than others, that mood affects our judgement, that we have sacred cows and terrible fears and a stealthy tendency towards crazy thinking. However. We are deeply protective of the crazy parts (probably because they carry very tender emotions along with them) and so if that crazy thinking gets validated out in the real world, it has an unusual force to it. That graduate student longed for me to say, ‘Oh yes! My God! What outrageous behaviour by our Head of Department!’. Similarly when the apocalypse comes in the specific form of our private fantasy of apocalypse, we will be packing our bags to move to higher ground while repeating on a loop, ‘YES! I knew I was right to worry about that! Didn’t I say so? Haven’t I been saying so all along? I am justified at last!’

This is what the media has been doing for donkey’s years now. It plays on our crazy thoughts. It encourages and validates them. It blows on the embers of hatred, prejudice and envy. And politicians, seeing how effective this is, how much it makes people pay attention and feel engaged, have jumped on that bandwagon for all they are worth.

So to my mind, the media don’t know how to tackle Trump because he is their creature. He is a walking manifestation of every item of media hysteria and paranoia that has festered in an anxious mind. Donald Trump is what happens when tabloid newspapers have an orgy.

I imagine all the journalists out there, watching Trump go to work and thinking to themselves, if this guy becomes President, I’ll never have a slow day again. On Monday, he’ll create new laws that mean any woman not matching his criteria of physical acceptability must remain on house arrest. On Tuesday he’ll drop a nuclear bomb on North Korea. On Wednesday he’ll say that anyone with Hispanic ancestors within the previous century has to be deported. My career will be made!

What we wish for is as dangerous as what we fear. When will we learn that we are terrible at knowing what is good for us? It’s a good thing that outer reality is not the same as inner reality – life would be unliveable if it weren’t! It’s a relief that our fears come to nothing so regularly; moderation, good sense and reason are our salvation. Why do we not hold men up to the image of the Good Father the way we demand women be Good Mothers? The Good Father is a steady, calm reality check. He thinks before he reacts. He encourages fairness, justice, and honor, even when they go against powerful emotions. He is courteous and understanding. Wouldn’t it be good to expect a male President to embody the best of masculinity? Wouldn’t that be reasonable?

I suppose my ultimate point here is that we hold men and women to very different standards, and that is more than mere sexism – it arises from deeply-held archetypes that promote extreme reactions. Isn’t it about time we looked long and hard at that disparity?


[I am so sorry to have been away yet again – more issues with my eyes, I’m afraid. Anyway, that’s a long story for another day! In the meantime, I just had to get the above off my chest…]

19 thoughts on “Trump, Clinton, the Media and Sexism

  1. Love this – although my definition of “sexism” absolutely encompasses the deeply-held archetypes you talk about. For me, sexism includes that profundity of expectations we have about mothers, fathers, men, women, those things we want to see from people without even realizing what it is that we want.

  2. Whether you are here or there, it is still a very strange battle.
    I’ve tried to make some people who say they are talking about “politics” when they criticize Clinton (who I plan to vote for) realize that the personal is political–if they’re going to make stupid remarks about her pantsuits or her inability to completely triumph over her illness, that’s taking a swing at any woman who tries to do a paid job along with all the other jobs women end up holding down.

    “Donald Trump is what happens when tabloid newspapers have an orgy.” That’s as good an explanation as I’ve heard.

  3. Very thoughtful writing Victoria, really excellent indeed. I would take issue with men forgiving every petty flaw and crime, but as I am now involved, in my university, in issues of support and career progression and especially gender issues relating to that, I do recognise your comment that women are often much less supportive of other women than men are of women and that puzzles and concerns me.

    Peter x

  4. Brava! Yes, there is a HUGE double-standard going on in this campaign. You hit the Bad Boy–Good Girl phenomenon squarely on its head–thank you for that! What a salient, snappy way to phrase this unbelievable (Is it really 2016?) dichotomy–I mean–Circus.

    As an American, it makes me physically ill to see the media people lapping it all up like a triple-scoop ice cream cone on a 90-degree-day. They are so excited, and god knows, the advertisers are ecstatic, especially when tonight’s debate, according to their puppets (the media folks), “will have more viewers than the Super Bowl!” They are so certain of what is at best a crystal ball gazer’s fuzzy image, and the advertisers go into ecstasy all over again.

    The “It’s a virtual dead heat!” statements being shouted from the rooftops today are total nonsense. It is a “censored” fact (known in U.S. political science scholarly books and articles) that the media, under their advertisers’ thumbs, manipulate the pollsters’ results to maximize the number of viewers at specific times in the campaign. But few people are aware of this.

    I’m 63 now, I voted for George McGovern over Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election, during the Vietnam War, when I was 19, and I have been “watching” ever since. Not a pretty sight, even in the best of times.

    For the first time in 44 years, I have had to beg my husband to silence the television “news,” which has become nothing but political entertainment.

    Thank you for writing so well and so critically about this topic.
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

  5. I loved this post and will be forwarding it on…I’m an American and absolutely sickened and embarrassed by Trump and what is going on here this election year…everything you said about sexism in the media (and elsewhere) is so true and then some…nothing ever seems to really change. Your analysis of our current political climate is spot-on and one can only hope for the best and vote for the only viable choice which just happens, this time around, to be a woman. America is truly veering to the dark side as never before…please keep us in your thoughts and prayers.

  6. Eloquent and articulate post as ever, Victoria. I’m afraid I have to echo your comments about women’s judgemental attitudes towards each other, something I have never understood. I began watching the Trump phenomenon with incredulity but have become increasingly worried and now fearful. It feels like Brexit all over again. My partner asked what I wanted for my birthday recently and I suggested a very large delivery of sand to bury my head in.

  7. Amen to all that you said. I’m one of those viewers who can’t bear to watch but I can’t bear the possibility that Trump might win so I’m sort of hooked. And I live even further away so not sure why it scares me so.

  8. Thank you for a wonderful post and such a thoughtful examination of the forces at work in this mad, bad, reality television election. Even the New York Times cannot resist giving more copy to Trump than Clinton. This election is about bread and circuses for many people. Most Americans are in deep distress and incapable of understanding that it is precisely people like Donald Trump who plays by the system that deprives them. How can he boast about paying no taxes when he admits that we need a better infrastructure in this benighted country?

  9. Your post just nails it. I hope that Americans will have the courage and wisdom not to vote for Trump (and go vote, altogether), but I did hope for British people to vote against Brexit, and here we are. So I should probably say nothing at all.

  10. So sorry about your eyes acting up again! I hope you feel better soon.

    As for the election, there is definitely a double standard going on. I don’t think Trump is mentally unbalanced though. I think he is an expert at media manipulation and “reality TV” moments. I think he is a bully, a pompous a**, and a 2-year-old in a grown man’s body. I will be so glad when the election is over and I hope with all my being he doesn’t win and then drops into obscurity.

  11. I also think that Trump is mentally unbalanced. But what upsets me the most is that the idea of having a female candidate doesn’t cheer me up because it’s Hillary Clinton. I can’t shake the feeling she’s a fake democrat or rather a Republican faking to be a Democrat. I find her to be a total phony. And this is so troubling. If one of the biggest, most influential candidates hasn’t anything better to offer than a mad man and a hypocrite. Makes me shudder. Nonetheless, she is, of course, the lesser evil. And I found her very articulate and professional in the debate while he sounded so crazy.

  12. I don’t know what you’ve been reading or listening to, Litlove, but the opposite about the media and Trump seems true to me. The media basically gives Hillary a very large pass. I think they call it “in the tank.” The media that I’ve seen/heard is trying in every way possible to see that Trump is unsuccessful in his bid because (and many reporters have actually admitted it) they believe he is very dangerous (they may be right about that) and that therefore it is their duty to set aside journalistic impartiality. Hillary’s pneumonia was only news because she was caught on video passing out. For any presidential candidate that would be news. At the time, and for hours later, all anyone knew was that the person who would probably be the next President was seen stumbling and passing out. It was only natural to wonder what the heck was going on. Trump seems to be called out all the time by the media; Hillary – who has been proven to be inept, untruthful and most likely corrupt – well, pretty much crickets. Many of us voters are left with a dilemma, therefore. Who do I fear/detest the most? When I figure that one out, I’ll vote for the other dope. Either way, this whole thing stinks.

  13. I’m so sorry that you’re still having trouble with your eyes – a truly horrible affliction especially if it’s limiting your ability to read. I do hope you are better soon.

    I can’t say I’ve seen enough media coverage of the presidential campaign to judge how biased it is or not, but I do think that some outlets got carried away by Trump’s entertainment value and then belatedly realised with horror that they had helped him to a position of great power. I like your Good Girl/Bad Boy dichotomy. But I read a very interesting piece somewhere (John Scalzi?) which argued that the Republican Party itself should take responsibility, not just for supporting Trump (because really, how could they not have noticed before October how horrible and mad-sounding his views are?), but also for spending decades stoking the prejudices that fuel many of his supporters and which they now see reflected back at them in force and dislike.

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