Above is a recent New Yorker cartoon that I really liked. I think it’s a pretty thinly veiled jab at Donald Trump and his supporters, but what it got me mostly thinking about (in large part because of this class) was less Trump than Hillary, whose widely perceived reluctance to “tell it like it is” has been a recurring theme throughout her 30-odd-year career in public service.
We’ve touched on authenticity in a few of our readings, particularly in the journal article, “Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Hearing Coverage: Political Competence, Authenticity, and the Persistence of the Double Bind” and in Bella’s accompanying comment thread. We’ve also begun to touch on humor in a number of posts including “Hillary’s First 100 Days,” an article from The Onion, and an interview on “Between Two Ferns.” The question I’m interested in exploring here is sort of a synthesis of these concerns: authenticity, competence, and humor. What are the relationships between authenticity, competence, and humor in terms of how we view political rhetors and how do those relationships change based on the gender of the rhetor?
Bella’s journal article touched on three double binds: femininity vs. competency, competency vs. authenticity, and womb vs. brain. The first and third seem equally gendered, but the second one, on its face, appears fairly gender neutral. I think it’s that middle one, competency vs. authenticity, the “new” double bind, that I am simultaneously fascinated and perplexed by. Why should these characteristics be in conflict with each other? Doesn’t competence demand the perception of authenticity? How often are people who are perceived as inauthentic and insincere accomplishing much, particularly in a realm like politics that requires constantly negotiating relationships with a modicum of trust?
I’m inclined to agree that it’s a double bind faced only by female rhetors and that it stems from the more explicitly gendered double bind that pits femininity against competency. If the dominant perception and narrative is that authentic femininity is in conflict with competence, then it follows that for any female rhetor authenticity would be in conflict with competence. And in an effort to deny her femininity, the female rhetor is forced into being “inauthentic” in the hopes of projecting competence.
Looking at Hillary Clinton, a denial of femininity has also entailed a kind of denial of humor. It’s hinted at in her performance on “Between Two Ferns,” where Hillary’s default expression is equal parts guarded, withering, and bemused. It’s like a one-way mirror where all that the outside sees is humorlessness while Hillary’s insides are finding the exchanges intensely funny.
Hillary’s simultaneous private humor and public humorlessness get some attention in Ezra Klein’s article on “The Gap.” I’m inclined to believe that this gap, the gap in her public and private humor, is as forced a “choice” as all her other “choices” as a female politician. Humor speaks of authenticity, of unguarded moments, of sincere and involuntary emotional responses, of femininity. And because femininity is conceived of as being incompatible with competence, the humor of a female rhetor is conceived of as being incompatible with competence. To laugh out loud, to be an authentic, feeling, tickled person is to be a woman and to sacrifice the perception of competence.
Why is it that the opposite feels true for male rhetors? That our most heroic and beloved male politicians have been praised for their senses of humor, for their folksy storytelling, for their ability to connect in private and in public with a joke? Male rhetors seem to benefit from not double binds, but feedback loops in which competence and authenticity are mutually reinforcing and humor suggests mature perspective rather than emotional flightiness or “girlishness.” My overwhelming sense is that these relationships — among authenticity, competence, and humor — exist in a kind of gendered ecosystem, in which conditions radically differ from other ecosystems.
Might Hillary Clinton’s “choices” change as an elected public servant instead of a candidate? It seems possible. The bully pulpit, I think, places a higher premium on authenticity, on the ability to make cases to the American people. Could we see Hillary come into her own on the rope line, as citizens are assured of her competence by the pomp of her office? Could we hear Hillary laugh and make us laugh? Ezra Klein seems to be saying she’s fully capable of both. It’ll be fun to see if her old “choices” become true choices and what were formerly double binds become the reinforcing strengths that male politicians enjoy, where authenticity, competence, and humor build off of each other rather than detract from each other.