Last month, an airbrushed Jennifer Lawrence appeared on the cover of Glamour magazine with the tagline, “No Filter”; Benefit released its latest brand of mascara, called “Realies”; and Hillary Clinton — the first woman ever to make it to the Democratic primary — was attacked yet again for being “fake.”
Clinton’s alleged “authenticity problem” has haunted her for the duration of her presidential campaign, drawing a disproportionate amount of media attention. This past July, Politico contrasted the candidate’s polished, unemotive demeanor with that of then-Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, dubbing Clinton “too fake” and Trump “too real.” In October, Rolling Stone published a far more scathing attack on Clinton’s authenticity, titled, “There is No Real Hillary Clinton.” Defending the former Secretary of State amidst an onslaught of criticism, Slate actually offered advice to Clinton, urging her to give up her façade of demure professionalism and “embrace her geeky, authentic self.” For supporters and critics alike, it seemed, the Democratic frontrunner lacked an essential measure of relatability.
No other candidate has come under this level of scrutiny for not being adequately themselves, and with good reason. Politics is, by nature, a performance. As the New York Times noted in October, “all politicians are strategic about the image and behaviors they present to voters. Some just hide it better than others.” It’s no accident that Hollywood actors have a long legacy in politics, from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger. And Donald Trump, whose appeal has rested precisely in his seeming inability to be anything other than brutally honest, made a career out of performing authenticity on “The Apprentice.” If all politicians are acting anyway, why are we so fixated on Clinton?
It is true that some of the criticisms of Hillary — that she cannot be trusted, for example, and merely caters to popular views — are directed at her political positions, many which have changed dramatically over the course of her career. Most notably, Clinton vocally opposed gay marriage in 2004, though she was quick to celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of it over a decade later. The senator has also radically revised her stances on immigration, gun control, and mass incarceration, and has been accused of being a pawn of big banks. Yet more often, the discourse surrounding Clinton’s “authenticity problem” focuses not on her policy but her person: she is “robotic,” a cold-blooded career politician who “dons and doffs personas as often as hairstyles,” as Politico put it. Clinton’s alleged “fakeness,” I’d argue, is more than a matter of changing views. In fact, I think it has little at all to with Clinton as a candidate, and everything to do with the gendered way that we read authenticity more generally.
For most Princeton students, the role of gender in politics is a familiar topic. Campus conversation was never so attuned to the double standards surrounding male and female candidates as during last year’s USG election, when Will Gansa, who ran largely as a joke, nearly defeated Ella Cheng. In many ways, Cheng’s position — and the discourse surrounding it — was not unlike Clinton’s. Like Clinton, Cheng would be the first woman to hold the position she was running for. Apart from her gender, however, Cheng was, in every sense, a cookie-cutter candidate: a Woody Woo major with an impressive resume, boasting extensive work in public policy including a summer at the State Department. And, like Clinton, she played by the rules, campaigning door-to-door with the catchy if somewhat cheesy slogan, “let’s put the ‘U’ back in USG.”
Cheng did not change her position on any issue; she had no high-profile connections. Yet her impeccable record and conventional approach to campaigning were enough for many students to dismiss her as a “resume padder,” impassionate about the position itself. Nearly half of all students who voted supported Gansa, whose satirical platform demanded ripe fruit, waffle fries, and the intentionally vague “bike reform.” It was Gansa, the joke candidate, who was perceived as the more “real” of the two. In poking fun at USG, he seemed charismatic, relatable, and free of ulterior motives, while Cheng — the real candidate by all objective standards — was construed as power-hungry and fake.
Both the USG and presidential races beg the question of why — in both cases — we interpret male irreverence as more “real” than female competence. Much of this has to do with the fact that many of the traits we associate with authenticity — confidence, for example, and a related willingness to not always play by the rules — are typically associated with masculinity, and much more difficult for women to achieve than for men. This is especially the case for professional women, who face significantly more pressure to appear competent than do their male peers. A recent New York Times article, titled “Speaking While Female,” confirmed this subconscious bias: in a study of two companies, when male employees pitched ideas that brought in revenue, they earned higher approval ratings, but when female employees did the same, their managers’ perceptions of them did not improve. Women, then, must not merely equal but substantially outdo their male peers in order to gain the same recognition in professional settings.
The silver lining of this is that female leaders do tend to rise to the occasion: a previous study by the same authors revealed that while men tend to be more confident leaders, women are actually more competent. But what happens when success isn’t a matter of superhuman competence, but on the contrary, simply being human? Both Clinton and Cheng have been caught in precisely this double bind. There’s no reason that competence and authenticity should be odds with one another. Yet many of the ways that we read authenticity—Bernie Sanders’ oversized suits, per say, or Trump’s disregard for political correctness—do defy the codes through which we usually measure a candidate’s fitness for office. These are codes that, like Cheng, Clinton simply can’t afford to break. Sanders’ mussed hair might make him relatable, but anything short of a perfect coif on Hillary would be shamed on the front page of the National Enquirer.
Maybe, one day, our ideas about authenticity won’t be so bound up in gender. In the mean time, I think it’s worth questioning why, exactly, “realness” is so important to us in the first place. After all, being “real” doesn’t necessarily mean being honest. Just like reality TV can only claim to represent reality, authenticity in a politician can only claim to represent integrity. Male or female, anxious or at ease, Democrat or Republican—winning votes is, to a certain degree, about acting. Some candidates are just better at acting real than others.