The ‘nasty’ politics of risk, gender and the emotional body in the US Presidential election

So, the worst has happened and Hillary Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump. From a feminist perspective, Trump’s much documented misogyny and its apparent acceptance by some commentators as ‘banter’, represents a real risk to women’s rights and to the self-esteem of girls growing up in the US. In Trump-land, retro-sexism becomes normalised, as women and their bodies are defined as risky objects of either desire or disgust. Thus, unpacking the psychosocial dynamics of the relationship between risk, gender and the body takes on a political urgency in a context where fantasies of femininity become aligned with notions of risk within the cultural and political imagination, as we saw in the campaign through representations of Clinton’s body. So, whilst Trump represents a risk to women and to US civil rights more broadly, it is powerful women such as Clinton (who ironically, are said to be from the political establishment) who are nonetheless often presented as the risk, and who therefore cannot be trusted. 

The wider socio-political context of ‘risk society’ has been discussed at length by Ulrich Beck and Giddens, who argue globalisation, economic crises and social fragmentation are linked to a heightened fear of risk and a dread of impending catastrophe. One can apply these ideas to the psychosocial and political dynamics of the US Presidential Election campaign and its media coverage, where widespread anxiety about risk was dealt with through the defensive mechanisms of splitting candidates into ‘good and bad’ and by projecting fears and anxieties onto them. The election has thrown into sharp relief the different ways that men and women are represented in the public sphere through the embodied attributes and emotions ascribed to each candidate. In Clinton’s case, it was as if the fragmented political body (the electorate) dealt with their fears by projecting them onto the image of a corrupt and abject political body that she, as a woman, seemed to represent, and her body thus became the focus for their anxiety and sense of risk.

These psychosocial processes are linked to gendered divisions of emotion, and perceptions of the body that are prevalent in contemporary politics and society more widely. Against a backdrop of personality-driven mediated politics, the emotional personality has now taken centre-stage in political campaigns (Richards, 2007; Yates, 2015). This development is shaped by perceptions of gender, and men and women have a different relationship to the public in this respect, reflecting the double standards that exist around emotion and gender more widely. As is well known, women on the political stage are often encouraged to look as assertive as men, and yet must also be cautious about appearing too domineering. Although Trump’s antics left many feeling that he is overly narcissistic and emotionally unstable, for swathes of the American electorate and in certain sections of the media, it was Hillary who was nonetheless represented as the riskier candidate. For decades, Clinton has been described as cold, unfeeling and somehow unnatural for failing to comply with feminine stereotypes. And yet we know if she ‘softened’ her image, she ran the risk of appearing too weak. Throughout the campaign, Clinton maintained a cool persona, but what was emphasised was her health and the potential frailty of her aging female body as being somehow inherently risky, thereby shoring up older discourses of femininity, emotion and embodiment.

Although many aspects of the news reporting – here and in the US – could serve to illustrate the implicit and explicit sexism within news and societal discourses, the repeated reporting on the two candidates’ relative health uniquely illustrates the gendered double standard. The impact of the rigours of campaigning was heightened when Clinton contracted pneumonia in September and reportedly ‘fainted’, according to US and UK front pages, coupled with the coverage of health conspiracy theories related to Clinton and speculation after the release of her medical records. The double standard around gender, health and risk in relation to political competency and performance is evident if we look at the reporting around the candidates’ health records. In contrast to press reports of Clinton’s vulnerability, the self-professed ‘high testosterone’ levels of Trump reported in the news appears to celebrate his potency as a man despite the well-publicised sexual assault complaints from women. Despite the unease from within his own party and amongst some voters, the critical focus around trust and risk returned to Clinton, whose status as a woman appeared – at least in fantasy – to encapsulate anxieties about the dangers of femininity and women as political leaders.

As the political rhetoric and its new reporting would have it, Hillary Clinton’s emotions and gendered body – and by extension those of all women – serve to heighten perceptions of her as an inevitable risk, therefore making her apparently untrustworthy as a leader. The fear and anxiety about the possibility of a ‘nasty woman’ president was so great that Clinton lost the election. As a result, we all lose because women and their leadership potential continue to be undermined within everyday settings such as media, politics and society.