Marisa Wright: Stop talking about female candidates' likability

Wednesday, January 9, 2019 - 8:50pm

The most basic problem with thinking about candidates in terms of likability is that it prioritizes charisma over a candidate’s policies, temperament, experience, values and vision for the country. It creates a horse race version of politics in which everyone becomes a pundit choosing candidates based on who they think other people will like instead of based on who inspires them or presents the most thoughtful policy platforms. More importantly, likability is deeply gendered and racialized.

Likability is prejudicial, not preferential. No one just happens to like Barack Obama, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden more than they like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, Gretchen Whitmer, Elizabeth Warren and Stacey Abrams. Likability is not innate, it is shaped by our social world. What we see influences what we value. What we have seen is 44 men and zero women elected president. Because we have never seen what one female president looks like, much less a broad and diverse array of them, it is much harder to imagine how a female president might govern. Our image of leadership is entirely defined by traditionally masculine traits, so we expect the command of a booming voice, the authority of broad shoulders and the power of a firm handshake. It’s no wonder that when a woman shows traditionally feminine leadership traits, threatening the system created to uphold male minority rule, she is cast off as “unlikeable.” 

Even in progressive circles, these issues persist. In 2016, countless men, the majority of which were "Bernie Bros," insisted they would vote for a woman but just not that woman. That woman, who was arguably the most experienced candidate to ever run for president, who offered progressive policies, who would have been infinitely better than the current occupant of the White House. No, not that woman. As recently as November 2018, I heard claims they “couldn’t define it” but “there is just something about her I don’t like.” What these men, and some women, fail to recognize is that who they do and do not consider likable is fundamentally tied to their own internalization of cultural messages about traditional gender roles for both men and women.

On the final day of 2018, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., announced her exploratory committee to run for the presidency in 2020. The former advisor of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Harvard Law School professor and current U.S. senator tweeted a video focused on protecting the middle class from exploitation by the wealthy, placing emphasis on issues related to civil rights and equality. And it didn’t take long for the sexism to begin. The same day, Politico ran an article questioning how Warren can “avoid a Clinton redux—written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground.” The article goes on to cite a friend of Sen. Warren’s as saying “she is a warm and affectionate person” to contrast her to Hillary Clinton, who apparently must be frigid and domineering.

Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren are very different politicians. They have very different backgrounds. Yes, both went to law school and both became U.S. senators, but this hardly distinguishes them as inseparable kin in Washington D.C. They have very different policies and policy priorities. Even the respective political environments for their presidential campaigns are very different. I wonder what they have in common.

Besides the misogynistic biases in the media, the truly sad thing this exposes is that while O’Rourke can be compared to Obama and Obama can be compared to John F. Kennedy, female candidates don’t have a template of a victorious presidential campaign to be compared to. Instead, they are lazily grouped into the same category reduced to their gender with little analysis of their unique qualifications and values.

Given the most generosity, what Politico is really asking is “how can Elizabeth Warren run for president as a woman while still being likable?” And they’re not wrong for asking it. They’re wrong for perpetuating a link between female candidates and being unlikeable. It is based on the same attitudes about women that lead to female leaders being described as “bossy,” “petty,” “not approachable,” “difficult,” “bitchy" and “self-interested," as well as being assigned significantly more negative attributes than their male counterparts. Truth be told, any woman running for president will have to overcome the rampant sexism in this country. And if that woman is a person of color, she will have to overcome rampant racism as well.

And while these candidates and their campaign staff will, unfortunately, have to devise strategies to deal with sexism and racism, it is because of the relationship between likability and prejudice. Voters (and those involved in and who talk about politics) should avoid choosing the next president of the United States based on who they would like to have a beer with. We all know how that went last time.

Marisa Wright can be reached at marisadw@umich.edu