While America has taken great steps in recent decades toward gender equality, this progress seems lacking in politics. No elected legislative body in the U.S. has ever come close to being half female—the proportion we would expect if it were truly representative of the populace. R.W. Connell argues patriarchy is replicated and reinforced partially through our individual gender practices that cumulatively make social institutions operate. In daily life, all men and women are socially pressured to embody the gender traits prescribed for their sex.
Kathleen Hall Jameson argues the ways we judge others’ masculine and feminine selves creates a double bind dilemma for women in leadership; a problem that is especially salient in politics, where winning is contingent upon candidates being both personally liked and thought of as competent leaders. Men have no problem being respected both personally and as leaders because acting strong, confident, and in-charge is expected of both males and authority figures. However, when women present themselves as leaders by acting dominant, they are likely to be judged as overly harsh, or even “bitchy.” Yet when women act feminine, they are often judged as unfit for authority because they lack leadership qualities. In electoral politics, it is very difficult for women to walk the tightrope between being a competent leader and also connecting with voters personally.
We can see the double-bind at work in Saturday Night Live’s now famous, or infamous, parodies of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin during the 2008 Presidential campaigns. Tina Fey’s Grammy-winning depiction of Sarah Palin exaggerates femininity, often portraying the former Alaska governor as if she is competing in a beauty pageant. Amy Poehler’s masculine portrayal of Hillary Clinton as overly-aggressive, combative, and filled with anger exemplifies the other side of the double bind dilemma. One skit bringing these characters together to speak out against sexism in the campaign is especially revealing:
Fey presents Palin as accommodating, saying “I was so excited when I was told Senator Clinton and I would be addressing you tonight,” to which Poehler-as-Clinton uncooperatively says, “I was told I would be addressing you alone.” Similarly, a capitulating Palin says “Hillary and I don’t agree on everything,” to which Clinton combats “we don’t agree on anything.” Later in the skit, Poehler-as-Clinton takes firm policy stances while Fey-as-Palin gives ‘pageant’ answers. After Clinton speaks out against the Bush Doctrine, Fey as Palin claims “I don’t know what that is.” Clinton says “I believe diplomacy should be the cornerstone of any foreign policy;” Palin responds “and I can see Russia from my house.” In the SNL skit, Palin tells political pundits to quit using words “that diminish us like pretty, attractive, beautiful …” while Clinton interrupts, “harpy, shrew, boner-shrinker.” Throughout the skit Clinton becomes increasingly agitated and then rips apart the podium in anger. Poehler’s masculine portrayal becomes literal when she says “I invite the media to grow a pair, and if you can’t, I will lend you mine.”
The overly-effeminate portrayal of Palin reflects one side of the double-bind where many people judge feminine women as lacking the appropriate characteristics for leadership. On the other side of the double-bind, the unfeminine portrayal of Clinton illustrates how women who act powerful and confident are subject to character attacks. However, because leadership qualities are expected of men, male politicians are not subject to this critique when they act like leaders. For example, Poehler as Clinton describes her “road to the White House” as “I scratched, and I clawed,”—words with negative connotations which would never be used to describe competitive men with ambition.
While political comedy depicting our leaders as inept has been a mainstay of our electoral process since our country’s founding; we should be cognizant that parodies of female politicians often draw upon very real aspects of gender that make it difficult for women to achieve positions of leadership.
Jason Eastman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University who researches how culture and identity influence social inequalities.
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