Is It Sexist to Comment on Clinton's Smile?

The Democrat’s supporters seem to believe she’s entitled to lighter scrutiny than her opponents.

Julio Cortez / AP

This week, I debuted on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. No glamorous green room or boutique bottled water for me, however—just six seconds of body-slam derision. The clip’s here. Don’t blink: My appearance lasts only six seconds.

In case you don’t want to turn up the sound, Bee took exception to the following tweet of mine.

Many, many people on Twitter prefigured and echoed the point. And of course they would! I mean: To mock Hillary Clinton’s smile as perhaps possibly contrived and false … How awful. How low. How sexist. Can. You. Even. Believe. It. Nobody would every dare such a thing about a male politician, now would they?

Well, except of course for that time Stephen Colbert derided candidate Mitt Romney’s half smile.

Or that Salon published a not even mildly good-humored attack on George W. Bush’s smile by the Guardian columnist Gary Kamiya, accusing him of having a “weird, canned, and completely inappropriate smile” like that of “an autistic beauty queen.”

Here’s a gif the Daily Show made to mock John McCain’s smile.

Will Ferrell got good use out of his imitation of George W. Bush’s smirk.

But let’s not be partisan here. Recall that other time Jon Stewart ridiculed John Kerry’s smile.

Come to think of it … it seems to happen rather a lot of the time. As Megan McArdle has well put it, “If you want an election where no one makes fun of their opponents, run for kindergarten class president.”

It’s a pretty notorious fact about politicians that they are seldom sincerely happy to share a stage with their opponents. Hillary Clinton has sometimes seemed even less happy than most.

So when she opened her mouth in a wide recurring “I’m just so delighted to be here”-grin through most of the first 20 minutes of her Hofstra University encounter with Donald Trump, it would have been a very credulous person indeed who imagined her sincere. Especially since the smile quickly dropped away.

When I posted my tweet at 9:31 p.m., I fretted a little that I might be offering too glaringly obvious an observation. It was obvious, but it stood largely alone, because a waiting Twitter platoon had been battling for some weeks beforehand to label any comment on Hillary Clinton’s facial expression as an intolerable affront. Support for women's equality, they suggest without apparent irony, requires holding women politicians to a different standard than men.

Not all women qualify for the protective treatment, however. There’s a lively online library of abuse of Sarah Palin’s smile on Democratic-leaning websites. And of Michele Bachmann’s. Even of Ann Romney, who didn’t run for office herself.

On closer inspection, in fact, the “no criticizing the smile” rule looks more like a special one-off exemption available to Hillary Clinton alone. I pulled up all the above examples either from memory or on the Google machine between conference sessions in far-away Estonia. No writing staff! I have to imagine that the members of Bee’s professional team could have unearthed 50 more examples had they cared to look—or to test their own unreflecting ideological certainties and party loyalties.

Modern late-night comedy has long ago laid aside its one-time goal of “making you laugh” for a new, less-ambitious hope of “making you think.”

But you can’t inspire others to think (as opposed to merely clapping and repeating) unless you do some hard thinking yourself first.

If it’s OK in certain cases to mock the political smiles of men, but not of women (or anyway, not of Hillary Clinton—Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin seem not to count for these purposes), which are those cases?

Unquestionably, Hillary Clinton (and other female politicians too) face forms of abuse that their male counterparts do not face. I photographed this T-shirt at the Republican convention in Cleveland:

You couldn’t do that image the other way around.

Yet it’s also true that Hillary Clinton and her supporters sometimes aggressively seek to weaponize charges of sexism to shut down legitimate criticism—and to gain an unfair advantage. They were quick to applaud Michelle Obama’s advice, “When they go low, we go high,” but seem not to have put it into practice.

For years, Clinton’s supporters have argued that it’s sexist to comment on her age, notwithstanding that John McCain got the same and rougher treatment in 2008.

This year, journalists and supporters have claimed that it’s sexist to ask questions about Hillary Clinton’s health, despite her public stagger at a 9/11 memorial event. It’s sexist to question her business ethics. It’s sexist to expect her to hold regular press conferences. It’s sexist to suggest that women support her only because she is a woman. At the same time, it’s sexist for women to refrain from supporting Hillary only because she’s a woman.

After a time, it becomes difficult to thread your way through the argument except by assuming that criticism of Hillary Clinton is presumptively sexist, failing to agree with Clinton is presumptively sexist, and remarking on the farcically self-serving quality of all this is the most sexist thing of all.

Hillary Clinton has complained of a so-called Hillary standard: "I often feel like there's the Hillary standard and then there's the standard for everybody else.” But the standard Hillary Clinton’s supporters seem to want for her is a double-standard in the opposite direction, an exemption from the ordinary bumps and stresses of political life that fall to everybody else. They seem to believe she’s entitled to better, although they never really explain why.

Networked mass outrage, after all, does not emerge from the explaining and reasoning part of the brain.

It’s an expression of group loyalty, of a structure of locally agreed dogma and taboo. That’s good for political team building. It’s very bad for journalism or any other form of independent intellectual activity. It’s even worse for comedy—if comedy is still even the right name for those smug late-night sermonizing programs that have somehow convinced themselves that “how dare you!” qualifies as a punchline.