Poised, Perfect and Polite: Unpacking Gender Differences in Presidential Debates

| Kate Macrae |

How the Different Candidates’ Language Demonstrate Double Standards for Women

Note to reader: QFLIP is a non-partisan organization. Partisan-based blog posts are written from the perspective of contributors.

Watching the first Presidential debate of 2020, I had a lot of thoughts, worries, and overall confusion like many others. To quote CNN’s Dana Bash, it was a “shit show.”

Current President, Donald Trump was the main contributor to this. He never once let democratic nominee Joe Biden finish a sentence and continuously interrupted him. It got to the point where Biden told President Trump to “shut up, man.” Across social media, news outlets and other platforms, Biden was wildly praised. Everyone was proud of Biden for telling Trump the words they wanted to say.

Thinking back to the 2016 election, where Trump defeated then-Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton, she was never able to speak to Trump the same way Biden has.

In the last four years, little has changed with Trump’s debating style. Then and now he still interrupts the other debater and moderator. But the difference in 2020 is that Biden, according to society, is allowed to tell President Trump to “shut up,” words that Clinton would never be able to utter.

Being a woman in politics is hard, but being a woman running against a misogynist like Trump is even harder.

The United States is a male-centric nation where women are constantly under pressure of a double behavioural standard. This is something Clinton got the chance to experience publicly during her run. Throughout the 2016 campaign, Clinton faced an extreme double standard.  She was scrutinized for everything.

If she didn’t smile, she was a bitch. If her speech was too factual, she was shrew. There was never a chance for her to be seen in the media as somewhat equal to her opponent. It was because she was a woman.  But Clinton is not the first woman to face the double standard.

For centuries women all over the world have experienced this. In the workplace, media, private life—the list goes on. In the workplace, women face the glass ceiling, not being paid equally and pitted against each other as competition. Online and in the media, women are criticized for every action. From something as benign as how they laughed, what they wore, and how they acted. They are expected to be the primary caregiver for children in their private life, cook and clean, and be the perfect nuclear wife.  

That night, Americans praised Biden. He did what no other woman would be able to do. Defeat Trump.

But Clinton did and still does have the same guts and confidence. During their third debate, Trump called Clinton directly a ‘nasty woman,’ and Clinton had to hold her tongue. She knew if she spoke out, it would create a bigger backlash than praise.  Four years later, Trump’s actions have not changed. During the debate, Biden can speak his mind; he can tell Trump to ‘shut up’ but Clinton had to be poised, perfect, and polite.

After the debate, Clinton stated on Twitter that there were times she wanted to say the same. But she couldn’t and still can’t say such ‘crude words’ and criticize a man like that, but it’s 2020.

Nonetheless in this election, the United States has had colossal advancement. They have elected not only their first woman vice president but a woman of colour.

 In Kansas, they have elected the first Indigenous transwoman to a state legislator. Farther north in Delaware state senate, we’re seeing the first Transgender senator.

Down south in Florida, Floridians have elected the first openly Queer Black woman to the state legislator.

Amongst all the trial and error and numerous setbacks, there has been progress. With more representation of these underrepresented groups, we can achieve the justice that we deserve. 

With progress following this trend, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Women will get their equal voice, the voice that has been too long suppressed.

Written by Kate Macrae, third-year political studies major, global development minor