Why Are We So Obsessed with Hillary Clinton’s ‘Authenticity’?

No, it’s not because of her emails

By Katie O’Brien

by Michelle Savran

In 2015, Mitt Romney slammed Hillary Clinton during an MSNBC interview with the following criticism: “When you see her on stage or when she comes into a room full of people, she’s smiling with her mouth, but her eyes are saying, ‘Where’s my latte?’ It just doesn’t suggest that she believes in everything that she’s saying.” Supposedly, simply based on the way her face situates itself when she smiles, Romney can tell that Hillary Clinton is not an authentic person; that her outwardly friendly expressions are actually masking a cold, calculating personality that is worried about who is going to bring her a latte above all.

This is an oddly common portrayal of Hillary Clinton. I’ve noticed that any time the prospect of her presidency comes up in conservative and liberal circles alike, it seems like someone inevitably utters the phrase “I just don’t trust her” or “I just don’t like her”—to the point where they’ve become understood, stock responses even from people who don’t especially follow politics. According to a New York Times-CBS poll, 40 percent of Democrats believe that Clinton is not trustworthy. But according to PolitiFact, an acclaimed fact-checking organization, Clinton actually has the best record of truth-telling of any of the 2016 presidential candidates—she beats Sanders and Kasich, and she blows Cruz and Trump away. Yet the narrative of her inauthenticity and her implicit dishonesty persists.

I’m not unaware of the criticisms of Clinton’s actual policies and actions that have led people to conclude she is dishonest and/or untrustworthy, such as her switching positions on gay marriage later than other progressives. But I’ve never heard anyone call Obama fake, for example, for changing his stance on gay marriage since 2008. Ultimately, as with most politicians, I think the truth about Clinton lies somewhere in between “she’s an evil bloodthirsty Lady Macbeth” and “she’s a perfect angelic feminist hero who just wants to make a better world for her grandkids.” But I’m not so much addressing those criticisms against her  as I am the comments that are based on “something about her” that just “seems fake.” I think the standard of authenticity is an odd framework to apply to politicians in the first place—as if anyone whose career depends entirely upon maximizing votes by strategically appealing to as many people as possible within an artificially divided half of the country, is not going to cater their actions and stances around that necessity.

Backing up the above point, management professor Helena Liu argues in “Doing Authenticity” that “authenticity” is something leaders perform, rather than an intrinsic trait. But even more interestingly, she argues that the social construction of authenticity is gendered, with different criteria applied for men and women. She writes based on the results of her study of media portrayals of men and women in power in Australia, that “being constructed as authentic depends on the leader performing authenticity in line with gender norms deemed appropriate for the socially constructed context in which they are expected to lead.” To show this, she studied the Australian media’s coverage of two CEOs—one man, and one woman—over a long period of time. She found that the male CEO was portrayed as authentic when he acted in line with idealized masculine gender norms (“independent, strong, active, and decisive”) and the female CEO was portrayed as authentic when she behaved in line with feminine gender norms (“nurturing, caring, outgoing, and communal.”) More than that, when the woman CEO acted decisively or in other “masculine” ways, she was represented as inauthentic.

“Could it be that the reason people perceive Hillary Clinton as inauthentic and fake is, at least in part, subconsciously due to the fact that she is a woman, acting in ways we expect of men, in a space we are accustomed to seeing men?”

This study is fascinating in its implications for how Clinton’s gender might influence how we see her. It’s basically the opposite of impostor syndrome; not that women feel like impostors in positions of power, but that people view them as impostors in spaces associated with men. Could it be that the reason people perceive Hillary Clinton as inauthentic and fake is, at least in part, subconsciously due to the fact that she is a woman, acting in ways we expect of men, in a space we are accustomed to seeing men?

The framing of women as being fake in spaces where they are perceived as outsiders is certainly not an unfamiliar phenomenon. In the music industry, for example: many female music writers have written at length about the misogyny behind the “groupie” label. It implies that women are blindly obsessed fans, seeking the attention of men rather than being engaged artistically. This also manifests itself in the portrayal of male-dominated rock music as gritty, raw, and authentic, versus female-dominated pop music as artificial and manufactured. The tech and gaming industries are notorious for this double standard toward women as well—just look at #GamerGate, and the “fake geek girl” meme. The meme shows a girl with side bangs wearing hipster glasses, captioned with things like “I’m such a gamer…Plays Angry Birds” and “I’m a graphic designer…Uses Papyrus and Comic Sans.” It’s pretty obvious that this meme is based on sexist assumptions that view women and girls in gaming and tech as imposters who are there simply to try to appeal to men. This meme is strikingly similar to a meme circulating about Clinton and Sanders, based on a fake campaign poster that shows where each candidate stands on an “issue.” The poster shows each candidate’s stance on an “issue” such as “wolves,” “sleeping,” or “Lord of the Rings.” Bernie’s stance is a well-thought out, in-the-know, cool answer, while Hillary Clinton’s answer is poser-ish and comically off-base, an example of her supposed pandering to an audience she knows nothing about. This is not unlike the way their actions are framed: when Hillary Clinton says she has hot sauce in her purse or takes a selfie with Kim Kardashian or Lena Dunham, people accuse her of “pandering,” implying she is being inauthentic. But when Sanders strikes a pose with Killer Mike, giving a weird side-ways finger gun hand gesture, it is not framed in the same dismissive condescending way; it’s just seen as a testimony to his Cool Guy-ness. It’s unlikely his voters actually believe Bernie is authentically a Killer Mike fan, so it must be part of the broader tendency to give him a pass when it comes to his own politicking (ahem his voting record on gun control), based on his “likeable” persona.

“In a political sphere where women are still only 19 percent of elected officials, are we really to believe that sexism doesn’t continue to color the way we see Hillary Clinton today?”

Which leads to the conclusion that someone’s “authenticity” at least stems from their perceived “likeability.” And there is no doubt that likeability is often a misogynistically coded framework under which women who do not act conventionally feminine and delicate are criticized. Documentaries, books, and even commercials have been written about the double standard applied to women in power—they’re described as “bossy,” “frigid,” and “calculating” with such disproportionate frequency that the with words have become gendered. This same attitude toward women who exhibit traditionally masculine behaviors is also what causes certain male news anchors to be put off by Clinton’s “shouting” (or call her “shrill”), while yelling is accepted as just an endearing part of Sander’s M.O. From the intense scrutiny over her appearance while she was First Lady, to her position from 2001-2009 in the notoriously sexist and male-dominated senate, there’s no doubt that Clinton has had to deal with misogyny throughout her career. While she was First Lady, she was frequently criticized for being independent and career driven rather than domestic and subservient of her husband. As White House documents from during Bill Clinton’s presidency reveal, her staff strategized how to make her appear more “soft” and “feminine,” so as to be more “likeable.” In a political sphere where women are still only 19 percent of elected officials, are we really to believe that sexism doesn’t continue to color the way we see Hillary Clinton today? Maybe she comes across as fake and “trying too hard” simply because, as a woman, she really has had to try ridiculously hard to balance appearing “likeable” while still commanding respect—all while trying to do her job amidst the skeptical eyes of men—and maybe she hasn’t quite figured out that balance yet. And it’s unfortunate that she has to.

In the end, there are plenty of valid reasons to criticize Hillary Clinton and her policies—she’s far from the perfect candidate. And I don’t mean that there aren’t valid reasons to distrust her, either; people can decide that for themselves after looking at her voting record and policies.  However, if you haven’t actually done much research into the matter and she “just seems fake” for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on, it might just be because she’s a woman.

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