Female candidates fight gender roles in advertising

Portrait of Hillary Clinton against a light blue background.
Illustration by Madeline Cox

Many people have come to dread the seemingly unending plethora of television ads that characterize every election season in the United States. Even if you do not have cable television, you are sure to encounter political ads on social media or even streaming services.

However, the art of political advertising often goes unrecognized. Unlike the average commercial you see on TV that is designed to market a product, political ads — especially those produced by campaigns themselves — are trying to market ideas, and ultimately candidates.

Campaigns must put a lot of thought into the way they advertise candidates. One major factor that must always be taken into consideration is the impact of gender stereotypes and societal gender roles on the way that the general public perceives a candidate. This is especially true when female politicians run for president.

The presidency in itself is a gendered institution. Many of the main duties of a president are associated with traditionally masculine aspects of power, whether that is serving as commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces or standing up to foreign adversaries.

Outside of the formal job description, the president is often praised for exhibiting inherently masculine personality traits. For example, an assertive, competitive and independent president is generally viewed more favorably than a president who is cooperative and compassionate.

Of course, candidates of all genders have the capacity for any personality trait regardless of whether it is viewed as traditionally masculine or feminine, and it is unfair to say that people with feminine traits do not make strong leaders. However, female candidates face an uphill battle in convincing many voters that they are qualified to be the country’s chief executive.

When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008, she had already worked in the White House, made international trips as the first lady and she had served as a U.S. senator for New York since 2001. Even though her experience was comparable to many previous successful candidates for president, many voters still questioned whether a woman could be a strong president.

In one of the Clinton campaign’s television ads during the 2008 Democratic primary titled “Red Phone,” you can hear a phone ringing as you see parents checking on their children asleep in bed. A man narrates the ad.

“It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep,” the man says. “But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing. Something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call, whether it’s someone who already knows the world’s leaders, knows the military. Someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world … Who do you want answering the phone?”

The final few seconds of the ad show Clinton picking up the phone, diligently working late into the night in the Oval Office.

There are no direct statements on gender in this short ad, but its undertones speak volumes. First, through most of the ad, the narrator presents a list of examples of foreign policy experience. When voters are asked who they would want to answer the late-night call, it is likely that many of them first imagined a man, especially in 2008. Seeing a woman handling the unnamed crisis forced people to check their preconceived notions of the kind of people that make good leaders.

Also, the juxtaposition of seeing parents checking on their sleeping children alongside Clinton working to protect the country implies that she is a kind of mother figure for the American people. This in itself seeks to establish that feminine traits can also be qualities of a strong leader.

Whereas Clinton took this more implicit approach to address gender in her 2008 campaign, her advertisements during the 2016 presidential election show a much more explicit approach.

In “Mirrors,” an ad that ran just before election day in 2016, we immediately see Clinton standing on a stage embracing a young girl. The rest of the ad shows girls and young women looking at their reflections while a series of derogatory statements that President Donald Trump has made about women can be heard in the background.

After an old clip is shown of Trump claiming he could not really say he treats women with respect, the ad fades to black and a question is posed in white letters: “Is this the president we want for our daughters?”

This was a much more direct gender-based appeal to voters than in 2008. “Red Phone” implicitly argued that Clinton had sufficient masculine traits to be president and that her feminine traits only strengthened her leadership capabilities. On the other hand, “Mirrors” explicitly argued that Trump’s masculinity was toxic and that he lacked the compassion to be a good leader.

One can debate how successful either of these approaches was, but both show the extent to which female candidates have to walk a tightrope of making advertisements that prove they can be strong leaders without seeming to reject their own femininity. This is a struggle that candidates like Sens. Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren had to face in the 2020 Democratic primary and one that will continue to exist for the foreseeable future.

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