All conversations about the “likability” of a political candidate are sexist, and to claim otherwise is to out oneself as a sexist hiding behind the gauziest veil of cover.
Look no further than the discussion among nameless Washington Democrats about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s supposedly Hillary Clinton-style “unlikability,” as reported by Politico.
These Democrats, Politico reported, are complaining privately (as well as anonymously in print) that Warren is “too divisive” and “too liberal.” These two criticisms amount to the same thing—the degree to which she is liberal is what makes her divisive, in their view—but fine, sure. A somewhat substantive critique, and unsurprising given that Washington Democrats are generally Democrats who like the current system of lobbyist-run government and the money it puts in their pockets. Warren, a longtime consumer advocate and foe of big business, is undoubtedly not their favorite member of their party.
Finally, these Washington Democrats say, Warren “shares too many of the attributes that sank Hillary Clinton.”
Consider that Elizabeth Warren is not married to Bill Clinton. Consider that she has not been accused of covering up her husband’s transgressions including by threatening women who say he forced himself on them. There are people who believe that Hillary Clinton has literally had people murdered. This is not an accusation I have heard leveled against Warren. She is in no way affiliated with the Clinton Foundation. She was not Secretary of State and did not have a long, drawn-out email scandal. Warren is far more liberal than Clinton—which should be a positive factor for voters who preferred Bernie Sanders.
What do Warren and Clinton have in common? They are both notably hard-working older women. That’s about their only shared attribute. Clinton doesn’t even wear glasses.
So why, then, is Warren, according to Politico’s Washington Democrats, in danger of being “written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground”?
Because she’s a woman.
Declaring one’s intention to run for president automatically makes a person less “likable,” as a portion of the country will fundamentally disagree with any given platform. Politicians usually find sustained popularity only in retirement or death, if then.
Yet nobody hand-wrings over the “likability” of men, in politics or otherwise. Men in politics do not have to be likable. Donald Trump might be the least likable person on the planet. He starred on a TV show that was literally about him being mean. He is aggressive and abrasive and his voice sounds like if nails on a chalkboard and a foghorn had a baby and it just nagged at you endlessly, forever. Mitt Romney isn’t likable. He’s potentially a robot. And not a charming C3PO robot, but a really, really dull one. Mike Pence is at best boring and at worst terrifying.
But for women and girls, the demand to be likable begins practically at birth. The feminist scholar Iris Marion Young wrote an essay about this, called Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment. Many girls threw less well than boys because they restricted their own motions. While boys wind up and then extend their whole arm and torso in a pitch, many girls are too self-conscious to move their bodies in that way, lest they look unattractive or silly. This is fundamentally about likability. Appearance is a big part of what makes women “likable” in our society.
Likability is what gave us Lean In and Boss Bitch. Women can’t be bosses without being bitches, so why not embrace the moniker? Lean In’s fundamental belief is that it’s on women to force themselves into being noticed, or heard, or promoted, or acknowledged, or whatever—not on the workplace to be an iota less shitty. Do more work, Lean In tells women. But don’t forget to be likable while doing it!
Likability is why women have a harder time seeking and getting raises than men do. A man asks for a raise and it’s normal. A woman asks for a raise and she’s pushy or demanding. And that’s if the woman even can ask for a raise, if she has not been too ground down from spending a lifetime making herself smaller and quieter and whatever else to be more likable, or at least less unlikable. And one of the greatest sins of unlikability is a woman who doesn’t try to conceal how much hard work goes into doing what she does. Women are expected to be effortless, so the fact that Warren and Clinton are so evidently hard-working is something they have to overcome, to be likable, instead of something that recommends them.
The musical duo The Blow released a song last year titled “The Woman You Want Her to Be,” which goes, “She’ll be smart enough to know if you want her to not be smart or just to not show it… She’s an infinite yes yes yes yes / there will always be more of her, unless of course you’d prefer less, she can do that too, just let her know what you want her to fix, she can take care of it.”
This is, in a nutshell, the trap of likability. Not only do women have to be likable, but being likable as a woman is impossible. To be smart, but not too smart, to be both more and less—these are demands that fundamentally can’t be met. In expecting Warren, or any woman, to be “likable,” we are essentially closing the door on the chance of a woman ever being president.