The Media's Gender Bender

Is Hillary Clinton really playing the gender card?


It's been a week now since Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton broke down and asked America to take pity on her feminine vulnerability. Crushed—hysterical—after a sorry debate performance, Clinton fired the first shot in a gender war by demanding that election law be amended to favor female candidates. Immune to logic and rationality, beset by hormonal imbalances, she wept uncontrollably, complained of the vapors, and promptly fainted into the outstretched arms of the nearest Romney brother.

That none of this actually happened is of no import; the least interesting thing about the insistence that Hillary Clinton is "playing the victim" is the lack of evidence at the core of the claim. What matters, as with all celebrity gossip, is the way it was received, and the victimhood flap gained traction and invoked more condemnation with every repetition. This was a story people very much wanted to believe. Fact or fiction, the "gender card" was a demon that had to be conjured up to be publicly exorcized, a voodoo doll that had to be stitched together so as to be impaled.

It's undeniable that the Clinton campaign released a video showing the other Democratic candidates, who happen to be men, attacking Hillary Clinton, who happens to be a woman. It's not clear why the video signals gender war any more than any interaction Clinton has had with the men she is competing against, and the video seems more calculated to show a candidate running on the "politics of hope" engaging in some unpleasant partisan bickering.

Other evidence for Clinton's newfound victimhood includes telling an audience at Wellesley that her education helped her compete in "the all-boy's club of politics," a statement as obvious and bland as any she has made in an aggressively obvious and bland candidacy, and comments made by her campaign on a conference call she did not attend. At its most damning, evidence like this amounts to Clinton's daring to notice that there is a woman running for president this year.

But the conversation was never really about whether Clinton had asked American to pity her; the question was whether should she be condemned for it. And the answer, for anyone watching the talk shows, was yes.

"Can Senator Clinton successfully have this both ways, sometimes the tough guy and sometimes the victim?" Chris Wallace asked Brit Hume, in a conversation that barely touched the question of what she had done. Maureen Dowd bemoaned what she called the "don't hit me, I'm a girl strategy." Chris Matthews stepped it up a notch, asking "Is Hillary out of line for painting herself as a victimized woman every time her male rivals criticize her? Do we want a president who plays the gender card every time her opponents attack her?" adding, incredibly, "Tough questions."

Peggy Noonan embraced Matthews' improbable narrative and wrote her own ending, congratulating Americans for forcefully rejecting an argument no one had actually made. "It's all kind of wonderful, isn't it?," she writes in the Wall Street Journal. "Someone indulged in special pleading and America didn't buy it. It's as if the country this week made it official: We now formally declare that the woman who uses the fact of her sex to manipulate circumstances is a jerk."

Never mind the lack of fact checking: This is odd stuff coming from a noted supporter of Ronald Reagan, who wasn't one to shrink from using his masculinity to perceived political advantage, and George W. Bush, who will be remembered in a flight suit and crash helmet. Guiliani's campaign has more than its share of machismo, and no one blinks. Mitt Romney's wife campaigns for him by blogging a recipe for "Welsh skillet cakes," and no one tells her to stop playing the "housewife card." We've yet to elect an androgynous president.

But talking about gender is rather more dangerous, and Clinton lost control of the narrative of her candidacy as a woman. The moment her campaign hinted toward explicit treatment of gender, a plausibly useful strategy, she was slammed for playing the victim, which provoked only bile and contempt. Maureen Dowd saw "I'm a girl," and thought "I'm a girl, don't hit me." The conversation was shut down; in the bloodsport of politics, talking about the fact that you have two X chromosomes is apparently foul play.

There's no mystery as to why pundits seized so willingly on this story; the establishment candidate, ahead in the polls, was making the whole game boring. But Clinton, though less likely to broach the topic of her gender, is still ahead. And now that the most interesting facet of this race is the one the frontrunner isn't allowed to talk about, the game is sure to be less interesting still.

Kerry Howley
is a senior editor at Reason.

NEXT: The Green Fairy Gets a Green Card

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Sorry, but this article seems to be more discussion about whether we should have a discussion to discuss what is being talked about. If it is a non-issue, drop it. If it is an issue, lets get into it a bit more than talking about what Brit Hume had to say.

  2. dangerman, ditto.

    I don’t give a rat’s ass about gender. My fear and loathing of HRC is all about the socialism.

  3. Bill said it best.

    Yeah, that Bill.

  4. Well, I think the article was worthwhile. I wanted to know if Hillary is really playing the gender card, and I think the article attempted to answer that question for me. It sounds like people are anticipating her playing that card.

    A woman in a powerful position being needlessly criticized about her gender? Never heard of it!

  5. It’s certainly worth knowing if people are billing Bob’s Handy Teacup Tempestettes as the real McCoy. It seems that there are so many reasons not to vote for HRC that we wouldn’t need to make up false ones. It’s all about the socialism and the warmongering.

  6. The other Democrats aren’t beating up on HRC because of her gender, they’re taking swings at her because she’s the frontrunner. If HRC had 10% in the polls, they’d be taking swings at Barack instead, and pundits would be implying it was racism.

  7. She is being criticized about a tactic she is alleged to have engaged it.

    I think this is all a bit silly. Whatever people feel about HRC, it is rarely sympathy.

    A bit like Margeret Thatcher, whatever their other differences.

  8. I *wish* we could get a Margaret Thatcher in this country! I’d vote for her in a second.

    So nobody here thinks power is sexy? Not one of you finds power sexy?

  9. “It’s all about the socialism and the warmongering.”

    And the corruption.

  10. So nobody here thinks power is sexy? Not one of you finds power sexy?

    It would take a lot of power to make HRC sexy. Luckily, she seeks that much power anyway, so…

  11. Sorry, that last line I wrote was a quote from Cleveland on Family Guy:

  12. Janet Reno:
    The epitome of power and seduction.

  13. The epitome of power and seduction

    I understand Reno’s coming out with her own line of fancy perfumes.
    “Waco” should be hot.

  14. I am a Democrat who doesn’t even like Hillary Clinton and I have to say that(although it will not get me to vote for her in the primaries) this relentless attack by the media against Clinton seems pretty ridiculous and in some cases outrageous…it is becoming reminicent of the gang-tackle of Howard Dean in 2004…attack the front-runner and make it competitive. It is also reminicent of the over-the-top treatment of Al Gore (Did he really claim to have invented the internet? Ummm…NO) but the media in this country is awful…I mean really really awful in every conceivable way so I am not surprised.

  15. Chris Matthews has some weird gender issues. Ever see him go off on what he thinks Republican candidates smell like up close? Eek.

    Based on the complete absence of card-playing that Clinton actually engaged in, I’ve gotta conclude that these pundits had the “Hillary’s Playing the Gender Card!” stories in the can months ago, and were getting impatient to run them, so they broke them out without any good reason.

  16. Chris Matthews love the smell of an Aqua Velva Man…

  17. This is a much more important issue concerning Billary Clinton than, say, her idiotic staff planting questions at campaign events.

    And sure…she didn’t know anything about it. Right.

  18. It does seem like an important issue..however and this should not be a newsflash…Every campaign plants questions, every campaign choses people they know to ask softball questions, I mean during the run-up to the Iraq war Bush intentionally didn’t call on reporters who he knew would ask confrontational questions and you had to sign a loyalty oath just to get into a Bush re-election event…not to mention the fake town halls he would have. This is all strategy, I think it was proved by Howard Dean. If you have an unscripted moment and mess up in some way you will be crucified.

  19. Let’s keep…the use of ellipsis…down…to…a bare…minimum…no need…to…string…your…thoughts together…that…way…makes you sound…as if…you are speaking…parseltongue.

    Well, James, even if your assertion that “everybody” does it is true, which I don’t think it is, we should collectively frown on such a practice. Citizens seeking public office should be able to think, and speak, on their feet without sounding like an idiot. Yes, W has failed miserably in that regard, but he’s not running for anything anymore.

  20. “it is becoming reminicent of the gang-tackle of Howard Dean in 2004”

    There may be a connection here. When the leftist press realized how easy it would be for Bush to defeat Dean, they started to knock him down to get him out of the race. They may be doing the same thing with Hillary now. Lots of Democrats are concerned that Hillary has too much baggage to win the general election.

  21. “There may be a connection here. When the leftist press realized how easy it would be for Bush to defeat Dean, they started to knock him down to get him out of the race.”

    Well other than the absurd notion that we have some kind of leftist press in the United States…I tend to think that usually the media (outside of Foxnews/Talk Radio which are tabloid quality) is sort of easily led and usually fooled…like a baby or animal when something sparkly is waved in front of them.

  22. Kerry Howley pursues irrelevancies. Who cares about Hillary complaining or being complained about. Did Hills make sense in the debate? NO. Report on that.

    and Rattlesnake…I think the press is just doing what they do best – playing with their food and then eating it. Dean, Clinton, Bush it makes no difference, eventually the press has more to gain by going negative than reporting the news. Scandal/bitching sells.

  23. this relentless attack by the media against Clinton seems pretty ridiculous and in some cases outrageous

    Welcome to the front runner slot. If you can’t take the heat, etc.

  24. I understand Reno’s coming out with her own line of fancy perfumes.
    “Waco” should be hot.

    Actually, I think they’re going to call it “Immolation.”

    VERY hot.

  25. Kerry Howley pursues irrelevancies.

    I wish. I’m irrelevant.

  26. Welcome to the front runner slot.

    Yup, everyone attacks the frontrunner, the frontrunner tries to garner sympathy and/or points to the attacks as proof that they’re the frontrunner, lather rinse repeat.

    If you can’t take the heat, etc. Anyone seen any evidence she can’t take the heat?

  27. Again… ask Rick Lazio, who had the “don’t hit me”/gender card played against him. It was the jump-the-shark moment for the Hildabeast; it helped cement her unfortunate Senate victory.

  28. Except Hillary and her campaign didn’t play that card.

    People saw Lazio’s behavior and didn’t like him for it. Sort of like the Bush/Gore debate where Gore got all up in his grill.

    Did Bush play a gender card then? No, people just didn’t like the opponent’s rude behavior.

  29. Ms. Howley hasn’t been paying attention – to Geradine Ferraro screaming ” It’s sexism!’, to the ” Politics of pile-on”, to “six men against one woman” and old Slick Willy himself today, ” The boys are being tough on her”. Of course she is playing the victim card – it’s worked for her before. Past time someone called her on it. It’s a contact sport, baby.

  30. What’s interesting to me is that the same tactic (even if performed by Hillary’s various lackeys) is having the opposite effect now than it did against Lazio. Everyone knew that the “poor defenseless woman” thing was going to happen sooner or later. I think perhaps it happened too soon for Hillary, and the negative reaction she’s received for it is telling.

    Fact is, she’s terrible at retail politics, and all of the gender stuff won’t cover that up over the grueling march of a presidential campaign. She’s just lucky that she’s running against Tweedledum and Tweedledummer.

  31. “People saw Lazio’s behavior and didn’t like him for it.”

    And *I* didn’t like the way Hillary reacted to it, the way she feigned like he was about to physically attack her, on live TV, in front of hundreds of people.

    I suspect I’m not the only one who thinks this way about that incident. Was Lazio rude? Sure. But the way his “victim” reverse-sucker punched him, was even lower behavior.

  32. Well, your perception seems to be the minority one.

  33. “Was Lazio rude?”

    It probably would not have been considered rude if his opponent was male. It seems Hillary can have it both ways. She can criticize her opponents to her hearts content, but don’t let anybody criticize her. If they do, they’re violating her space. If Hillary had gone over to Lazio and challenged him to sign something, people would have said, “go get him, girl!”

  34. Good points, Jake.

    joe, if you have the “perception” that I wouldn’t vote for a female Presidential candidate… I’d ask you to rethink that. I’ve heard such nonsense so many times, it’s almost a mantra. In fact, it IS a mantra.

    Fact being, I would vote for a qualified, sane, free-market & limited-government female Presidential candidate. Hillary doesn’t fit any of those parameters, however; let’s be honest, she’s the antithesis of those parameters.

    Now… go ye forth, and have a government-approved day, joe. 😉

  35. “It’s all about the socialism and the warmongering.”

    And the corruption.

    I figured that corruption was part of both socialism and warmongering.

  36. It probably would not have been considered rude if his opponent was male.

    I’ll point you to Al Gore’s little invasion of George Bush’s personal space in a presidential debate.

    Libertarian Guy (I’m sorry, THE Libertarian Guy. Like Ohio State. But not like Batman),

    You misunderstood – I meant your perception that Clinton was feigning victimhood after the Lazio debate, not anything having to do with your voting preferences.

  37. “It’s all about the socialism and the warmongering.”

    “And the corruption.”

    “I figured that corruption was part of both socialism and warmongering”

    By corruption, I meant all the scandals.

  38. Come ON, joe… Missus Clinton didn’t play the Victim Card *after* the Lazio debate… she played it DURING the Lazio debate. It’s what put her over the top, not that she wasn’t going to weasel her way in as One of One Hundred anyway.

    Now, she wants to be Borg Queen. And you seem to think that’s just peachy, unless I’m reading you wrong.

    As for my voting preferences… straight-ticket Libertarian, with the occasional foray into Brand X territory if one of ours isn’t on the ballot. Not that it matters… we’ll just wind up with a schmuck from either Party R or Party D, and our slide into socialism and irrelevance will continue unabated.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.