The Presidential Gender Gap

The role of gender in real and fictional debates.

by Sarah Tipton

Television shows have explored the idea of a female President of the U.S. in recent years, but America has only glimpsed this possibility thus far in primary debates. For the first time, there is a serious female candidate: Hillary Clinton. In primary debates, the candidates answer questions that are meant to assist the public and party loyalists decide who they will vote for as the party’s nominee. These questions in debates and their subsequent responses provide a picture of each candidate’s capabilities. For this reason, which questions are posed to which candidate becomes an important determinate of party nominees. Unfortunately, the questions that moderators ask of political candidates are gendered, and undermine a female candidate’s skills and power.

There is a large gender gap in U.S. politics. Despite the growth in the number of women in U.S. politics, they only made up 17% of both the Senate and House of Representatives in 2012.1 Additionally, female legislators are more likely to vote for “women’s interest legislation.” Since the 1980s, the gender gap in elected offices has produced a change in voice for women in U.S. politics.5 Women in politics are more likely to favor an activist role for the government, oppose U.S. military intervention in foreign countries, be more supportive of health care and programs that serve basic human needs, support affirmative action and racial equality.5 Additionally, women in high political offices such as cabinet positions are often in positions “generally perceived to be the natural/innate areas of the gender, such as the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services.” 12A

On the other hand, the Presidency is a symbolically patriarchal position due to institutionalized gender characteristics and qualities that fit the “male” issues concerning the position of Commander in Chief such as “war, diplomacy, states, statesman, and high-level economic negotiations.” 12A

Presidential primary debates have large following by the media, political junkies and the general public. As Stewart points out, televised debates draw a large audience.11 Political positions hold a significant weight in voter decisions, but personal performance is held especially high in voter decisions. This is especially true in primary debates that highlight personality and character.

Women in politics are more likely to favor activist government policies on health care and racial equality.

In order for candidates to gain public support and approval, the main focuses of primary debates are candidates’ assertiveness, politeness, facial displays, body language, and vocal behavior for viewer assessment. Sclafani argues that presidential primary debates afford candidates “the opportunity to put forward a unique self that is tailored to the specific audience, the spatiotemporal context, and the political context of the event at hand.”7A Presidential candidates must show that they are “relatable” in order to earn public favor, so they focus on their ability to be family men/women. Candidates create their “presidential selves” for nationally televised primary debates.

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In order to differentiate themselves from their same-party competition, candidates will often use humor in their responses. Humor often defines and conveys the qualities of presidential candidates for themselves, the media and their competitors.10 When the candidate is being humorous purposefully and receives audience laughter, it is a sign of support and cohesion.10 For example, Clinton made a self-deprecating remark in order to “humanize” herself when New Hampshire polls found that she was well respected, but not as well liked as Obama during the 2008 election, saying, “I don’t think I’m that bad.” Debate moderators also have a large role in Presidential primary debate humor because their responses and questions lead to the quips a candidate can make.

Politics has become the focus of several recent television series, with shows such as Parks and Recreation (NBC) and Veep (HBO) rising in public popularity. Parks “embodies” the cliche that “all politics is local” by steering clear of substantive issues and the omitting political parties.4A Poniewozik remarks that the tumultuous production of the show with the constant threat of being shut down every year is much like the federal government. He calls Parks an “optimistic story” concerning government, which seems to be rare where political television is concerned, yet it can still maintain its humorous jokes about bureaucracy and politics because it has government officials who love doing their jobs as best as they can.4 On the other hand, modern political television shows draw dramatic storylines and characters from the cynicism concerning politics in the U.S. This is evident in House of Cards, which thrives on representations of political corruption. Shivani concludes that the series is popular amongst audiences because “it is completely in sync with the cynicism toward Washington many of us hold today as a matter of creed.” 9A Nevertheless, the show focuses on each character’s flaws and corrupt tendencies, rather than the government’s failures. The morally admirable characters are the ones that tend to fall in the show, while the corrupt rise in power. It is interesting that Shivani points out the importance of characters in the success of the show, since that is what truly garners interest in politics; the character of each politician.9

Heldman concludes that popular culture “furthers stereotypes that act as barriers for women seeking the White House.” 3A For example, female politicians are often referred informally on a first name basis as compared to their male counterparts, such as “Hillary” for Hillary Clinton, rather than “Secretary Clinton”, and “Condi” for Condoleezza Rice, who is actually “Dr. Rice.” Heldman describes this as “gendered language,” and while it is not purposefully disrespected, it does “delegitimize” the knowledge, experience, and leadership of women.

Given these facts and trends, it is important to take stock of the political landscape for women in American politics. Is the difference of treatment based on gender so evident in society that it even pervades the questions moderators ask the female presidential candidates in primary debates? Are the questions asked of women candidates more likely to be gendered female?

In order to answer those questions, it is interesting to analyze questions asked of Democratic female presidential candidates from three different samples, one real and two fictional. The first sample will be the Democratic primary debate that took place October 13, 2015. The next sample consists of debate questions from a fictionalized sitcom, the eighth episode of the third season of HBO’s Veep entitled “Debate.” Finally, the eleventh episode of the third season of Netflix’s House of Cards, “Chapter 37,” will round out the sample with questions from a presidential debate in a scripted drama.

Hillary_Gender in Presidential Politics

Several scholars find that the political issues associated with women are: health care, women’s reproductive rights, children, education, domestic policy, and gun control.8, 5 For men, the gendered issues are: foreign policy, STEM, military, economy, taxes, and gun rights. These two distinct groupings will serve as a tool to analyze whether questions in presidential primary debates real and fictional are gendered. This study will focus on the balance between gendered and non-gendered questions asked of female presidential candidates.

The textual analysis will also analyze how the female candidate is addressed in questions, as female candidates’ experience is often downplayed through informal titles or nicknames. I will determine whether the questions are posed negatively or positively, such as the moderator asking a question to a female candidate based off of her failure in the field, or her success.

There are two female presidential candidates in this fictional depiction of Democratic primary debates who are competing against the protagonist Frank Underwood; Heather Dunbar, who is the U.S. Solicitor General, and Jackie Sharpe, the House Minority Whip and Representative from California. Each female candidate is only asked one question by the debate moderator in the script, since the majority of the debate scene is focused on Underwood’s manipulation of the debate to pit the women against one another. Despite the small number of questions asked of the female candidates, the questions are clearly gendered based on their informality, gendered topics and the negative tone.

Characters in political dramas showcase the gendered divides of current American political life.

The first question the moderator asks is posed to Heather Dunbar. He says, “Ms. Dunbar, let me bring this question to you. You’re critical of the president. You say it’s indefensible, what he has done in the Jordan Valley. But specifically, what would you do differently?”

It is important to note that the moderator begins his question by addressing Heather Dunbar, who is the acting Solicitor General in the show, as just “Ms. Dunbar.” This address downplays her experience in Washington because she could have easily been addressed as “Madame Solicitor General,” her appropriate title in this format. The moderator’s question focuses upon what President Underwood has “done in the Jordan Valley” and what she would do “differently.” Since the question is about the Jordan Valley, it is a foreign policy issue, which is attributed as male-gendered. The question is posed in a negative way, since it is not focused directly on what Heather Dunbar would have done exclusively, but rather what she would have done differently from Frank Underwood. This type of question further undermines her authority in the debate by placing the male figure and his actions as the a priori consideration.

The next, and final, question the moderator asks a female candidate is directed toward Jackie Sharpe. He says, “The domestic agenda. And the first question goes to you, Congresswoman. The president speaks of America Works. Ms. Dunbar wants to raise the minimum wage. Talks about regulating executive pay. But a lot of people aren’t quite clear about your economic policy. What specifically, I underscore “specifically,” would you do if elected President?” While in this question, the title is more respectful but the negative tone is unchanged. The question opens with comments about where the other candidates’ stand on domestic issues, but the moderator highlights that “people aren’t quite clear” about her stance on economic policy. This type of question points out her flaws as a politician; that she is not clear enough about her policies. Another verbal punch: “I underscore ‘specifically’” concerning what she would do if elected President. This type of demanded specificity appears hard on the candidate, stressing her failures on an issue typically geared toward her gender. It also implies she has been vague in the past and does not understand enough about economics—a male issue—to make specific comments. Furthermore, the president was not addressed in the opposite manner.

There was only one question asked of each of the female candidates (both of which were clearly gendered), while Underwood was asked at least four questions by the moderator. While the gendered nature of the question undoubtedly adds tension in this episode, it also demonstrates an unsettling trend in modern politics concerning female candidates. The gendered questions, when coupled with the fact that Underwood is able to evade responsibility for his actions (which is enabled by the moderator), represents masculinity in the media.

In the show Veep, the character of Selina Meyer, the current vice president of the U.S., is running a campaign to become the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. In this particular episode she is the only female candidate and is surrounded by three male candidates in one of the primary debates. Since each episode of the TV show is thirty minutes, there are only a few questions asked by the debate moderator.

The first question asked was about her personal life, specifically her personal trainer who she had a secret relationship with until he said some untoward remarks concerning obesity. The female moderator asks, “Your personal trainer caused some controversy recently and had to be dismissed. What do you say to the accusation that you care too much about image and aren’t making a real difference to America?” The personal aspect of the question, specifically the dismissal of her personal trainer and the accusation that Selina “cares too much about image,” not only makes the question a female-gendered issue (since it deals with the looks of the candidate and their personal life), but also a female-gendered question. Since the moderator brings up the accusations that Selina cares too much about her image, and immediately follows by implying that she is not “making a real difference to America,” Selina’s experience in government is downplayed and her personal choices viewed negatively.

In contrast, the next question asked is more gender neutral. The moderator poses, “We have 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the US today. What do we do about them? Madame Vice President?” Domestic issues are usually identified as being a more feminine topic, but since immigration is a balance between domestic and foreign policy, the question is not particularly gendered. In addition, Selina Meyer is properly addressed as “Madame Vice President,” which is her formal title. This allots Selina Meyer the depth of her power in U.S. government and the implied expertise that comes with the title. Also, the question is posed in a more positive light, since it does not deal with any political failures of Selina’s career. For being a scripted comedy, the even split between gendered and non-gendered is a little heartening, even if it is due to a small sample of questions that could be fit into thirty minutes.

Hillary Clinton was the only female candidate out of the group of five candidates at the October 13, 2015 Democratic Primary debate. Secretary Clinton had the most air time, with over three minutes more time than the next leading opponent Bernie Sanders, and was asked the most questions by Cooper (“The CNN Democratic Debate Transcript, Annotated”).

When Secretary Clinton didn’t provide Cooper with a definitive answer regarding her ideology, Cooper said, “Secretary Clinton, though, with all due respect, the question is really about political expediency. Just in July, New Hampshire, you told the crowd you’d, quote, “take a back seat to no one when it comes to progressive values.” Last month in Ohio, you said you plead guilty to, quote, “being kind of moderate and center.” Do you change your political identity based on who you’re talking to?”

Negativity pervades. By saying, “with all due respect,” Cooper is clearly speaking down to Secretary Clinton, not really showing respect at all. He continues to do so by reciting her own quotes back to her and ending the question with a rude accusation that she changes “her political identity” based off who she is talking at the time. While Cooper does address Secretary Clinton with her proper title as a former U.S. Secretary of State, it does not diminish the demeaning aspects of the questions. Finally, since the question is about Secretary Clinton’s personal political stances and beliefs, it can be determined as a gendered issue, along with the accusation that Secretary Clinton often changes her stances, which is deemed as a feminine characteristic in politics since it is a stereotype that women cannot make up their minds.

The questions moderators ask to female candidates exhibit expectations of male-dominated society.

Cooper delves into Secretary Clinton’s experience in foreign policy and national security when he brings up the breach in her email server concerning Benghazi, and this question is also posed in a very negative tone. Cooper asks, “Secretary Clinton, you are going to be testifying before Congress next week about your e-mails. For the last eight months, you haven’t been able to put this issue behind you. You dismissed it; you joked about it; you called it a mistake. What does that say about your ability to handle far more challenging crises as president?” With Cooper bringing up the fact that Secretary Clinton is facing potential legal action and her inability to but the issue “behind” her, it is clear that he is attempting to show her failures in dealing with national security and foreign policy, which are masculine gendered issues. Also, by focusing on such a minute issue and assuming that it would be important demeans the Secretary’s four years of work in the position and the elected office she held over many other year.

Secretary Clinton’s personal life is brought into one of the debate questions when the topic turns to being about finances and taxes. Cooper asks, “Secretary Clinton, how would you address this issue? In all candor, you and your husband are part of the one percent. How can you credibly represent the views of the middle class?” Cooper purposefully connected Secretary Clinton with her husband Bill Clinton, when he could have just stated that Secretary Clinton was part of the one percent financially. It was unnecessary to bring her marriage into the question about financial inequality, which not only highlights Secretary Clinton’s gender, but also hints at her inability to be financially independent and relatable. Despite the question being about a masculine gendered issue, the inclusion of her marriage and her lack of representation of the middle class, when also coupled with the negative tone of the question, makes the question gendered.

Some of the questions that were asked of Secretary Clinton were not gendered, but they tended to be questions that were extended to all of the candidates. For instance,Cooper asked, “Secretary Clinton, what is the greatest national security threat?” In the question, Cooper addresses Clinton properly and the content is concerning a masculine issue, but without any negative tone concerning Secretary Clinton’s experience.

Secretary Clinton also answered a non-gendered question that concerned a social justice issue, specifically about race. Cooper asked, “Secretary Clinton, what would you do for African Americans in this country that President Obama couldn’t?” Racial issues are a relatively non-gendered issue, being neither explicitly viewed as feminine or masculine. In addition to the issue being non-gendered, it is posed in a positive way, since it is asking how Secretary Clinton could improve the life of American citizens that the current President could not do. This type of question allows for Secretary Clinton to showcase her knowledge and ideas for the country without having to defend her previous actions or stances.

Only 13 of 29 questions asked of Secretary Clinton could be classified as non-gendered. Four of these questions were asked of other candidates as well as Secretary Clinton, meaning that over half of the questions asked of the only female presidential candidate in the Democratic primary debate were preconditioned on her gender.

Despite the increase in presence of female Presidential candidates in numerous television shows and the rise of female candidates in current politics, there is a high prevalence of female-gendered questions that are only geared toward the women. The questions affect polling numbers and ability to properly debate. The number of these questions delegitimizes female candidates, and perpetuates masculinity present in American political life and campaigns. C

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