The Trying Game

Can we please get Mars and Venus down to earth?

The latest symptom of Campaign Coverage Fatigue—the media malaise born of a too-early, too-intense presidential race—seems to affect the candidates themselves. And, more specifically, their chromosomes.

Salon broke the big news: Democratic frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, like those crazy fish we learned about in high school biology class, have apparently gone and switched genders. “Hillary is from Mars; Obama is from Venus,” it declared. “In the Democratic presidential pack, the leading man is a woman and the leading woman is a man.”

The evidence of the headline-grabbing gender swap? Well, Obama loves his family and likes Aretha Franklin. How girly. And “Clinton repeatedly tells people that they should let her take control of the country, eschewing Obama’s more abstract calls for national soul-searching. ‘If you are ready for change, I am ready to lead,’ she says. ‘I want to be the president who sets goals again.’”

The assumption is clear: men are unfeeling and macho, women are sensitive and introspective. Leadership and goal-setting are male traits; abstraction and soul-searching are female. Yadda, yadda, yadda. (I’d write more on this, but am too preoccupied by fuzzy thoughts about myself…)

It’s fine to acknowledge gender stereotypes and even (shock!) gender differences; they exist, and they’re an issue—especially now, when, as the piece notes, “the first woman in U.S. history is making a serious run at the White House.” But to do that so glibly, and to traffic so particularly in some of the most generalized—not to mention insulting—stereotypes of both genders, is unproductive at best, destructive at worst. (A candidate’s media coverage, after all, can be a make-or-break factor in his or her campaign. Just ask Al Gore.) Slapping sing-songy, “Hill’s macho, Barack’s girly” headlines and “I see London, I see France”-style epithets onto our politicians turns their candidacy, and the election itself, into a schoolyard parody.

There’s certainly a place for humor in election coverage—campaigns are often ridiculous, and it’s fine to lampoon them—but it doesn’t follow that we should haze candidates through observations that amount to little more than rhetorical wedgies.

The Salon article, its snark aside, is smart. It outlines, cogently and succinctly, the historical role gender has played in American presidential elections and the impact it’s having on the current one—both worthy subjects. The second half of the piece is exactly the type of incisive, analytical journalism I want to be reading about the campaigns right now. Which makes its first half even more frustrating.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.