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How to talk to sexist dudes about Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina at CPAC

Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Donald Trump thinks ‘her face’ isn’t electable—and he’s definitely not alone.

Look at this face. It’s one that a number of men in and out of the Republican Party can’t imagine belonging to a presidential contender. And of surprise to no one, Donald Trump rules amongst those ranks.  

Speaking to Rolling Stone’s Paul Solotaroff for a candidate profile, Trump made off-hand remarks about Fiorina’s face while watching her speak on television, asking, “Would anyone vote for that?” He later insisted that his quip squarely focused on her persona, not her appearance—but anyone with a shred of common sense would know better than to fall for such a tired game of political spin.

If Trump’s campaign thus far is any indication, he’s an intentional talker, unafraid to shoot from the hip with exactly what he’s thinking. It’s part of his appeal to a Republican base, one that supports him in high numbers despite his disparagement of Mexicans, immigrants, women, and many other historically disenfranchised groups in politics. This time, now that Fiorina is gaining in the polls, Trump’s using his media platform to instigate a topic that the only woman running in the GOP field has desperately tried to avoid: how her womanhood colors her candidacy.

Indeed, Trump’s latest jab goes beyond a deplorable attempt to reduce Fiorina’s campaign to her looks, painting her as an unelectable ugly duckling in a manner that he wouldn’t dare attempt with his male counterparts. Since the start of her campaign, Fiorina has made it clear that she detests “identity politics,” emphasizing that it’s not about her gender, but about her ideas. As the Daily Beast’s Sally Kohn notes, Fiorina once accused feminism of being a “left-leaning political ideology where women are pitted against men and used as a political weapon to win elections.” At the same time, she’s walking a fine line between avoiding any direct appeals to “women’s issues,” and scoring political points when she’s attacked because of her gender.  

When it comes to women in politics, many voters in her party’s base may be carbon copies of Donald Trump.

It may be tempting to shame or deride Fiorina for apparently feeling as though she has to downplay her womanhood—deemphasizing it to her potential peril, as the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart highlights. However, Fiorina’s approach to campaigning within the GOP field, for better or for worse, comes with an inconvenient awareness. When it comes to women in politics, many voters in her party’s base may be carbon copies of Donald Trump. Even further, based on polls so far, most women voting Republican support him.

Perhaps that explains the nature of her response to Trump’s “look at her face” quip. When given the opportunity to directly respond in an interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, Fiorina largely sidestepped his remarks, noting that they “speak for themselves.” But while addressing the National Federation of Republican Women just a few days after the Rolling Stone published its profile, Fiorina intently referenced Trump’s remarks while appealing to the women in the Phoenix crowd. “This is the face of a 61-year-old woman—I am proud of every year and every wrinkle. And look at all of your faces… the face of leadership in your communities, in your business, in your places of work and worship,” she said. “Ladies, note to Democrat Party: We are not a special interest group, we are the majority of the nation.”

Fiorina has a point. There’s a limit to what most would describe as “identity politics,” a label typically reserved for when candidates make specific appeals to marginalized voting blocs.

But then, as Jezebel’s Stassa Edwards notes, Fiorina—who didn’t reference Trump by name—pivoted to Clinton’s demerits as a candidate, not soon before expressing disagreement with the framing of “women’s issues,” because “every issue is a woman’s issue.” 

“In a literal sense, of course, Fiorina is right, but realistically reproductive rights and equal pay have a bit more relevance to the lives of women,” Edwards writes. “Refusing to acknowledge that these are gendered and racial issues is truly a disservice to the complexities of those issues.” Even so, Fiorina closed her speech with an appeal for votes, not because she’s a woman, but because “I am the most qualified candidate to win this job and do this job.”

Believe it or not, Fiorina has a point. There’s a limit to what most would describe as “identity politics,” a label typically reserved for when candidates make specific appeals to underrepresented or marginalized voting blocs, such as African-Americans or women.

Just because a candidate shares an identity with a group of voters, it doesn’t mean their ideas directly address the substance of the group’s policy concerns. For example, Ben Carson may be a black man, but he’s recently railed against #BlackLivesMatter—despite recent polling from Pew that shows 86 percent of black people believe more needs to be done in the realm of equal rights for African-Americans. And in Fiorina’s case, her resistance to address issues that directly relate to the lives of women may be hurting her with GOP women voters, as she’s currently drawing just 3 percent of them.

Just because a candidate shares an identity with a group of voters, it doesn’t mean their ideas directly address the substance of the group’s policy concerns.

Beyond that, a candidate’s evaluation can and should run deeper than their race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other identity—because how they’ll do the job, and their qualifications, matter. Even so, as Trump’s remarks about Fiorina’s face prove—along with many other moments such as the “pink nail polish” remark from one reporter in April—no one can pretend that identity is a non-factor in elections.  

Yet when there’s discussion about Fiorina, be it from Trump or on any corner of the Internet, the commentary usually runs contrary to what’s typical for any man in the Republican primary race. Instead, her gender remains front and center, and the remarks sound something like any of the following:

1) We don’t need a woman to do a man’s job

Of course, statements like these typically come from men who have a problem accepting any kind of authority, intelligence, or expertise from a woman, especially when she’s qualified for her role. It’s not only pervasive in everyday employment situations, such as the male-dominated tech sector where Fiorina once worked as an executive, but also in politics—where gender diversity remains a key issue.

Even though women make up roughly 51 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 20 percent of the Senate and 19.3 percent of the House of Representatives—meaning seats in the two major legislative bodies of the federal government remain disproportionately occupied by men. It’s only a man’s job because, historically, women were excluded and even denied voting rights—and as the Nation’s Steven Hill noted, the current (glacial) pace of progress means it will take roughly 500 years before there’s equal representation.

2) Of course we’ll talk about Carly Fiorina’s looks. Men like Donald Trump deal with the same thing, don’t they?

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It’s just not the same. Trump indeed remains vulnerable to memes about his skin tone and hair—even to the point where he asks interviewers and rally attendees to grab his mop and verify it’s real. But these quips aren’t used to make sweeping value judgments about how he’d serve as president, nor are his looks regarded as a potential liability to him getting votes.

However, when Trump says that no one would vote for Fiorina because “look at her face!” it points to a troubling double-standard. Not only are women pressed with being smart and qualified, but male-dominated social and institutional spaces such as politics also render them subject to evaluations based on their attractiveness or sex appeal. Because, for some men, it’s less about whether she can do the job and more about what she could potentially do in bed.

3) I don’t hear her talking about actual policies—all she talks about are women’s issues

Actually, Fiorina continues dodging any direct appeals to specific women’s issues because some otherwise uninformed voters will peg her as the “women’s candidate” based on a few soundbites. It’s a dilemma that unfortunately befalls many candidates from underrepresented groups, while they campaign to champion a broader base of voters. In 2008, many pundits and would-be voters alike questioned whether then-Sen. Barack Obama was “too black,” or “not black enough,” with similar speculation based on the premise of Clinton’s womanhood.

Interestingly enough, no one’s asking whether or not Donald Trump is “too white” or “not white enough” or if he’s “too much of a man” or “not man enough.” There’s an undeniable air of social graces (and privileges) afforded to the members of the most dominant groups in America, whereby their identities are regarded as the default—and others meriting scrutiny and skepticism.

4) Why should we care about women’s issues anyway? Every issue is a women’s issue

Fiorina relays this talking point, although it’s positioned to outline that women care about unemployment figures, taxes, and other issues that aren’t as directly related to gender such as reproductive rights, but also affect women. And she’s right, even if she’s largely avoiding any tailored appeals to “women’s issues.”

However, the “every issue is a women’s issue” line also gets deployed by people who don’t understand why some specific issues matter to women, but may not be on the radar for most men. To do so not only minimizes the importance of how gender affects public policy, it also assumes that a one-size-fits-all approach works best, even if it risks shutting out women’s voices and concerns.

5) When I look at Carly Fiorina, I don’t think of her as a woman. She’s just another politician

She’s running for the highest national office, and she’s indeed a politician. Yet Fiorina’s gender identity is an indisputable part of who she is, a characteristic that’s immediately recognized. It’d be disingenuous to claim Fiorina isn’t seen or understood as a woman, when Trump’s (and others’) remarks make it clear that they regard her in such a manner, even if it’s biased or reductive.

While this approach may seem appealing, or otherwise engender more of an authentic connection with the candidate, it does more harm than good. The notion of “not thinking about” or “not seeing” gender is the textbook definition of so-called gender-blindness, which ignores gender’s unique effect on society, institutions, and history.

If Fiorina’s gender wasn’t a factor, Trump would’ve never posited that she’s not beautiful enough to be electable. And she wouldn’t be at all concerned with whether or not her womanhood works against her in the Republican primary.

Derrick Clifton is the deputy opinion editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture, and social justice. Follow Derrick on Twitter: @DerrickClifton.

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton is an identity and culture reporter and columnist. His work has appeared on NBC News, the Guardian, Vox, the Root, Quartz, MSNBC, HLN, and Mic. He is the communications manager for ProPublica Illinois.