On Emotion, Character, and Gender

According to various reports, Hillary Clinton did not cry the night she lost the presidency to Donald Trump in 2016. Yet, one of her communication consultants noted in the wake of the defeat that Clinton should have “nodded less and cried more” to authentically communicate her strong emotions. Eight years earlier, at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Clinton’s tears became headline news. When asked how she kept it all together and appeared so strong despite her public failures and challenges, she choked up and stuttered, “It’s not easy.” Clinton’s tears were simultaneously painted as a genuine expression of intense emotion and a calculated move to improve her likeability numbers.

The simple point I’d like to make in this blog post is that emotion and character often become linked in perceptions of public figures. As Sara McKinnon has pointed out in rhetorical research, displaying emotion in a publicly expected manner is associated with perceptions of authenticity. Authenticity is a central component of character, as I’ve argued before. So, in situations where we expect someone to be sad, tears are proxy for a “normal” character and emotional disposition. When Clinton failed to cry after losing the election, she was once again smeared as a power-hungry, political robot.

Of course, this feeds a particularly vicious double-bind for female political candidates. As Hendrik Hertzberg reminds us in the New Yorker, many male presidents have wept publicly. When Barack Obama cried remembering the children shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, he was largely seen as having a deep, personal investment in the issue of gun control. Yet, often when women cry they are perceived as too emotional and volatile to hold the nation’s highest office. In fact, women’s alleged emotional nature has long been a reason that they have been prevented from holding positions of political power. President Donald Trump’s comments about women confirm this week after week.

The double-bind facing women in power is not new, of course. Clinton has always faced it particularly harshly. In the United States, the public largely expects women to be soft and caring and emotional and then turns those same ideals against them, believing that our leaders should be decisive, independent, and strong. When women are seen as decisive and policy-minded, as Clinton was, they are smeared as masculine and unlikeable.

It’s tough to know what advice to give women seeking office. Many have responded by emphasizing their roles in their families as a way to play up the caring side of their personalities and provide another credential for why they would be an effective leader. Indeed, in the 2016 election, Clinton ran ads that characterized her as a grandmother. Yet, insofar as the link between emotion, authenticity, and character remains intact, women will always struggle with the emotional double-bind. The wave of female victors in the 2018 midterm election, however, might offer some hope that negotiation is possible.

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