Imagine, for a second, that Elizabeth Warren, or Amy Klobuchar, is standing at a town hall in Iowa. A voter asks her a question—a question she doesn’t like, a question based on misinformation—and instead of answering it quickly and moving on, or correcting the person doing the asking, she angrily calls him “a damn liar.”
She walks toward him, until they’re just a few feet apart, and mocks this person—who says he got his news from the TV—by saying she’s not sedentary, suggesting of course that he is. She challenges him to a push-up contest. A running contest. An IQ test. She backs up, and then moves toward him again as he tries to explain. “Get your words straight, Jack!” she yells into her mic.
The voter gets frustrated. He says she has no more backbone than Donald Trump. “I’m not voting for you,” he adds. She whips back, “Well, I knew you weren’t, man. You think I thought you’d stand up and vote for me? You’re too old to vote for me.”
It’s an unthinkable confrontation for any female candidate to have, one that could arguably end the campaign of Warren or Klobuchar or any other woman seeking office—at the very least send it in a downward spiral. And yet it was just another campaign gaffe for former Vice President Joe Biden, who in a very real-life, very unimagined scenario on Thursday did exactly what’s described above, when a voter falsely suggested he’d sent son Hunter Biden to work for a gas company in Ukraine, “selling” access to the president.
Biden was understandably irritated by the question, one based on a narrative peddled by certain members of the GOP and right-wing media, and exacerbated by the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. It’s an unproven plotline that has plagued his campaign for months. But his response was a textbook example of the privilege that comes with being a white, male candidate. He was allowed to be mad. The crowd clapped as he moved toward the questioner, visibly agitated. And while Biden is no stranger to performative masculinity—he’s previously challenged Trump to a push-up contest, and has said he’d “beat the hell” out of him in a schoolyard fight—usually his bravado is saved for his opponents. This time, it was directed at a voter.
Had a woman lashed out this way, she’d very likely be labelled mean, unhinged, emotional—certainly not presidential. Female candidates are judged by a double standard, especially when it comes to traits like strength and toughness, on which Biden leans heavily. A report by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which supports women’s equality and representation in politics, found that women in executive office (it examined female governors) are held to a higher standard than their male counterparts in demonstrating both traits.
Likewise, a separate study shows that female candidates are also tasked with showing compassion and humor more than men; that voters are sensitive to female lawmakers sounding “shrill” and “loud,” both words associated with anger; and that the ever elusive “likeability” factor is a higher hurdle for women. A recent New York Times-Siena College poll supports this finding—41 percent of voters backing Biden over Warren agreed with the statement that the women running for president “just aren’t that likable.”
Biden is no doubt aware of how much the “angry woman” label can hurt a female candidate. In early November, with Warren rising to the top of some polls, he posted a message on Medium that didn’t name Warren directly, but referenced her jab at him over health care. He framed her comment as reflecting an “angry unyielding viewpoint,” and described her words as “condescending,” and “representative of an elitism that working and middle class people do not share.” A flurry of articles questioning Warren’s anger followed, prompting Warren to address her supporters in an email where she wrote, in part, “I am angry and I own it… Over and over, we are told that women are not allowed to be angry. It makes us unattractive to powerful men who want us to be quiet.”
Warren’s rage is different than Biden’s, however. Her rage seems to stem from her frustration with a system that continually benefits the wealthy over the poor and middle class, and casts women as second-class citizens—an anger centered on injustice and corruption that millions of people around the country share with her. The anger Biden has displayed seems to largely center on himself.
Early in his campaign, he appeared annoyed when a woman questioned him on the Hyde Amendment, pointing his finger in her face. After a female reporter questioned him on his record with LGBTQ issues in a tense exchange, she says he called her “a real sweetheart.” And then there was the event on Thursday, where he hurled insults at a man when he could have simply corrected him.
There is an egotism to the anger, and also a hypocrisy given what he wrote about Warren. What is more elitist than telling a voter with bad intel that you “know more than most people know” and boasting about an IQ test? What is more condescending that commenting on his weight, or his age? (Biden, for what it’s worth, is 77, and the vast majority of his supporters are older.)
It’s similarly telling that as the video of Biden spread across social media, another political clip of House Majority Speaker Nancy Pelosi went viral. She, too, was responding to a question she didn’t like—in her case, a conservative reporter asking if she “hates” Trump—but she did so in a markedly different manner. She remained on the stage, at first pointing at the reporter, but then moving behind a podium.
It’s clear that the question struck a nerve, but she composed herself, eventually stating: “This is about the Constitution of the United States and the facts that lead to the President’s violation of his oath of office. And as a Catholic, I resent your using the word ‘hate’ in a sentence that addresses me. I don’t hate anyone. I pray for the President all the time. So don’t mess with me when it comes to words like that.” Then she walked off, as planned.
Pelosi, of course, didn’t call the reporter names. She didn’t personally degrade him. She wouldn’t, and what’s more, she likely knows she’d be held to the fire if she did. (Trump still tweeted that she’d thrown “a nervous fit,” because he can’t resist the impulse to retaliate against anyone who questions him. But you know what they say—women, so emotional!)
Biden is receiving backlash for his behavior, but he can also take comfort in the knowledge that it will likely blow over and might even play well with certain voters. He’s just a tough guy, after all—not some crazy, angry woman.