In American politics, female candidates are not only expected to be both good leaders and good women, but they are also expected to dress and look a certain way . The role of gender plays a big part in political rhetoric, especially when looking at Hillary Clinton and her male counterparts (i.e. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama). Paired together, her visual rhetoric and delivery causes a gap between the Hillary we see on the trail to presidency and the Hillary her colleagues have come to know.
In Ezra Klein’s interview with Hillary Clinton, Understanding Hillary: Why the Clinton America Sees Isn’t the Clinton Colleagues Know, Hillary tries to explain the gap and why she comes across the way she does: “’It’s always amusing to me that when I have a job, I have really high approval ratings,” Clinton said. “When I’m actually doing the work, I get reelected with 67 percent of the vote running for reelection in the Senate. When I’m secretary of state, I have a 66 percent approval rating’” (Klein). While Kline does not still believe that Hillary is telling the truth, he interviews her colleagues and they all are consistent in saying that she is “brilliant, funny, thoughtful, effective. She inspires a rare loyalty in ex-staff, and an unusual protectiveness even among former foes” and tries to make sense of the person they say she is versus the person that the press makes her out to be “careful, calculated, cautious.”
The gap suggests that Hillary Clinton’s persona changes when she is campaigning for president and when she is on the job, showing that the showing that the rise of media and its growing influence is critical to how the public responds to people in the public eye . Keeping with the example of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, two of our former presidents are seen as good and amiable speakers, earning themselves higher approval ratings than Hillary. While they can naturally deliver a good speech, Hillary can listen. This trait of hers does not come out while she is campaigning, causing her to come off as stiff, masculine, and too executive. However, when she is on the job Hillary can successfully listen and respond to the needs of her colleagues and people around her at ease.
This delivery ties into her visual rhetoric – Hillary Clinton’s dress and body language. Humans of New York (HONY) creator Brandon Stanton sat down with Hillary where she defended why she is the way she is, and how she became that way. Just looking at her body language and what she is wearing compared to her usual campaign wear and stance, makes her come off as warmer. In a soft green pantsuit and sitting in a comfortable setting, Hillary defends herself saying, “I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions…you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’. I don’t view myself as cold or unemotional.”
With this, Hillary comes off as a softer person and as more relatable (especially to women), and we see where her colleagues would see her as more of a listener. In contrast, when we listen to Hillary speak and see her on TV, we see a Hillary that is dressed in bright and bold colors, standing tall and speaking firmly trying to compete with her male counterparts. This is the Hillary that America sees, that comes off as masculine and a little more unnatural to us. This shows how leadership can be gendered through clothing.
She also wears simpler jewelry as a presidential candidate than as she did as first lady. Hillary Clinton uses jewelry to appear relatable and not overly extravagant, to send a message and be seen in a certain light. For example she went from wearing the jewelry of a first lady (diamonds and gold earrings) to smaller and simpler jewelry as a presidential candidate trying to be relatable to the American People.
Looking further into the gap, it also suggests that people see Hillary Clinton’s persona differently, especially by those that were on the fence about her, when her running mate, Donald Trump, verbally attacks her. Since Trump’s lovely outburst during the Third Presidential Debate, the “nasty woman” phrase spread like wildfire, launching the hashtag #IamANastyWoman as part of a feminist movement. This says that this is what makes Hillary more relatable to female voters. Women everywhere have – at one point, in some form – been the victim of a sexist attack, and this one toward Clinton had more women voters empathizing with her (even if they were on the fence about her before).
Watching Trump show his blatant disrespect toward his opponent sparked a lot of emotion in me, first in shock that Trump had said such a thing, and then in empathy and admiration for Hillary and how she handled the situation. Clinton remained the most composed and continued through her time as if nothing happened. I think that her visual and verbal rhetoric response to Trump’s shows the strength Clinton has and will continue to have as a leader, and it stands as a powerful symbol for women everywhere. I side with the writer in that this sexist attack helped Clinton and may have unleashed the feminist in every woman.
These things, the characteristics that cause “the gap”, are all due to society’s gender roles. Women are still seen as unable to hold men’s roles (i.e. being President) causing women like Hillary to come off as masculine. Men are seen as being able to put their emotions aside better than women, making them seemingly better diplomatic speakers and leaders As Hillary stated in the HONY, she had to learn to be “walled off” and control her emotions, which is more unnatural for a women, so it makes her come off as cold and stiff. While still waiting for the gap to close, it is important to recognize that gender plays a role in delivery and visual rhetoric, especially as more women join the public sector.