Who Wears the Skirt in This House?

One of the most enervating aspects of progressivism is the sclerotic and tiresome set of assumptions that undergirds much of progressive political thought. Some of these assumptions are, variously and in no particular order: that communism is a viable model for economic and political order; that things like “systemic racism” or “systematic racism” or “structural racism” or “systemic bias” etc. etc. etc. are mostly if not totally responsible for the plights of American ethnic minorities; that massive, unending infusions of welfare into poor communities will eliminate poverty; that you can separate free speech from the financial means to practice it; and so on and so forth.

Our current political moment, being soaked in wild-eyed gender theory as it is, has ignited a whole other class of assumptions and sub-assumptions regarding sex and gender in American political and societal life. Chief among them is the notion that American women are victims of—you guessed it—“systemic” or “institutional” sexism; that they suffer from a “wage gap” that puts them at a systemic disadvantage relative to men; that they are constantly, ceaselessly in danger of being mugged and raped and murdered; etc.

Another pervasive supposition about women in 21st-century America is that they’re held to different standards compared to the men in their lives: that we demand, overtly or otherwise, that women behave differently than men, specifically that they act less assertive than men, and more demure. Many people believe women are thus “conditioned” by “society” to be effete and ineffectual, in contrast to men who are encouraged to be strong-willed and decisive. This has led to some interesting progressive attempts at societal re-conditioning: witness, for one, Pantene’s commercial that encourages women to be rude and unpleasant.

The 2016 presidential election, which pitted a brash motormouth billionaire against the first viable female candidate for President of the United States, was sure to ignite a great deal of gender-based analysis. And it did. One fairly consistent criticism of the entire process was this: Donald Trump was successfully able to pull off his campaign of loudmouth idiot braggadocio, but if Hillary Clinton tried such a thing, she’s be reviled and hated because—you guessed it—she’s a woman. “Alpha male is hard to pull off if you’re a woman,” wrote Ruth Marcus last year. And: “[I]magine how Trump’s blustery and boastful persona would grate on voters if he were a woman. A female candidate with similar levels of Trumpian self-promotion would alienate droves of voters.”

Leave aside for the moment the glaring fact that Trump’s style of “Trumpian self-promotion” alienated droves of voters in and of itself. It is worth asking: is this assumption—that Trumpism on a woman would turn people off to that woman’s candidacy simply by dint of her being a woman—true?

A recent performance in New York City suggests not. An econ professor and a theater professor put on a show in which they “gender-switched” the roles of the candidates and had them act out clips from the presidential debates, and they went into this project with a set of assumptions you’ll probably find completely unsurprising:

Salvatore says he and Guadalupe began the project assuming that the gender inversion would confirm what they’d each suspected watching the real-life debates: that Trump’s aggression—his tendency to interrupt and attack—would never be tolerated in a woman, and that Clinton’s competence and preparedness would seem even more convincing coming from a man.

But the lessons about gender that emerged in rehearsal turned out to be much less tidy. What was Jonathan Gordon smiling about all the time? And didn’t he seem a little stiff, tethered to rehearsed statements at the podium, while Brenda King, plainspoken and confident, freely roamed the stage? Which one would audiences find more likeable?…

Many [in the audience] were shocked to find that they couldn’t seem to find in Jonathan Gordon what they had admired in Hillary Clinton—or that Brenda King’s clever tactics seemed to shine in moments where they’d remembered Donald Trump flailing or lashing out. For those Clinton voters trying to make sense of the loss, it was by turns bewildering and instructive, raising as many questions about gender performance and effects of sexism as it answered.

It is difficult to see what could possibly be “bewildering” about the results of this exercise, which only seems to verify what many of us had said for a long time: Hillary Clinton is a deeply unlikable and repellent candidate, someone who is transparently incapable of relating to voters in any really meaningful way. Transplanting her wooden and insincere mode of communication into a man doesn’t change its woodenness and insincerity: it confirms it. The same is true (in reverse) for Donald Trump, whose aggressive, shoot-from-the-hip approach to politicking—for all his obvious faults—resonated with people far more deeply than the plastic, grinning, swivel-headed style favored by last year’s presidential loser.

Any attempt to point this out to liberals over the course of the election—that they nominated, by a crooked and back-door-dealing process, the only person who could possibly lose to Donald J. Trump—was invariably met with accusations of (what else?) “SEXISM!” It never seemed to occur to the Left that there might be other, practical reasons to oppose the candidacy of Hillary Clinton; the only possible explanation was “SEXISM!

It is refreshing to see this kind of reflexive political diarrhea confronted with evidence to the contrary—though in fairness it does not seem like progressives are going to draw much meaning from this example. “People felt that the male version of Clinton was feminine,” one of the producers said of the mostly-liberal audience, “and that that was bad.” But this is silly: whatever you want to call it, Clinton’s political methodology—wooden, unpleasant, unappealing, obviously fake—is not feminine in any cultural or evolutionary sense of which I am aware. The only reason you might label Clinton’s performance “feminine” is because she herself is a female—a crude and simpleminded behavioral-biological reductionism that refuses to engage with the embarrassing issue at hand: Democrats nominated an unlikable stiff who suffered the most humiliating political defeat in generations. 

Going forward, this is the question liberals are going to have to confront, process and deal with: not the often-phantom specter of sexism allegedly rampant throughout our society, but rather how any political ideology could have possibly lost an election to Donald Trump. If they want to win the White House in the future, they’re going to have to learn the prime lesson of 2016—not that your candidate has to be like Donald Trump, but that—at a bare minimum, good grief—he or she must not be like Hillary Clinton.

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