Citation: Harp, Dustin, et al. “Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Hearing Coverage: Political Competence, Authenticity, and the Persistence Of the Double Bind.” Women’s Studies In Communication 39.2 (2016): 193-210. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 13 Sept. 2016.

Politicians are subject to constant scrutiny—it’s part of the job description, after all. Female politicians, however, are subject to a more insidious brand of scrutiny than are their male counterparts. Since American women first ran for public office in the 1880s, they have faced what K.H. Jamieson dubs the “double bind” in her book Beyond the double bind: Women and leadership. The double bind is, according to Jamieson, a “rhetorical construct that posits two and only two alternatives, one or both penalizing the person being offered them.” Dustin Harp, Jaime Loke, and Ingrid Bachmann use Jamieson’s definition to assess how the media not only relates, but constructs ideas of gender—especially femininity—in the political sphere.

Using Hillary Clinton as an example—her testimony at the Benghazi hearing in particular—Harp, Loke, and Bachmann identify double binds underlying the rhetorical mechanisms of media discourse with regard to female politicians: “femininity/competency,” “competence/authenticity,” and “womb/brain.” Although they define, identify, and analyze instances of femininity/competency and womb/brain binds in media coverage of Clinton’s testimony, our authors emphasize the pervasiveness of what they call the “new bind,” or the competence/authenticity bind. They posit that the media tends to paint Clinton as either competent or authentic, but rarely both. If her displays of emotion are authentic, then she must be out of control, incompetent as a leader. If she is competent, capable of leadership, then her displays of emotion must be inauthentic—even manipulative.

Our authors provide the context and theoretical framework for traditional versus nontraditional femininity as well as for gendered emotionality. They then explain their methods, which involve aggregating Benghazi articles from the eight most-read news websites, and go on to dissect the ways in and extent to which media coverage is gendered.

I found much of “Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Hearing Coverage” compelling, particularly its discussion of patriarchal language categories and resulting gendered dichotomies (i.e. the “emotional” and “shy” woman as opposed to the “rational” and “assertive” man). I was also encouraged by the observation that the media checks itself, challenging preconceived notions of gender roles from within. The article successfully linked these dichotomies to media rhetoric regarding female politicians in a way that is both useful and enlightening. The authors’ conclusion, that the media largely rejects traditional ideas of femininity while continuing to perpetuate gendered emotionality, is well-supported. It is also easily spotted in today’s political climate.

This line best sums it up, I think:

“Instead of describing Clinton as defiant, fiery, and emotional, writers could have described her as standing her ground, presenting a strong demeanor, and showing determination.”

Given ample evidence from multiple news articles, I am convinced that the media portrays Clinton’s emotions within a traditional, feminine framework. I am left wondering, though, if the majority of media outlets portray Clinton as competent. The authors did not distinguish much between partisan news outlets, some of which (Fox News) seek to demonize her in every capacity. I’m not sure if said distinction would make any difference in their conclusion.

This article also brings me back to some of our guiding questions: How, and to what extent, is the rhetoric surrounding Clinton shaped by the media? In what ways does the rhetoric surrounding Clinton shape her own rhetoric in an effort to combat outdated perceptions/performances of gender? Do you find the article’s examples of gendered emotional rhetoric extreme? Or are most female politicians discussed in a similar fashion?

Thanks for reading!

~ BH

*Picture Credit

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