Campaigns/Elections

The Media's Gender Bender

Is Hillary Clinton really playing the gender card?

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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.