MSNBC Democratic debate coverage rife with sexist stereotypes

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

Sexist references abounded during MSNBC's April 26 coverage of the first Democratic presidential candidates debate in the context of discussions about the only female candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY). MSNBC host Chris Matthews focused obsessively on the appearances of Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) wife, Michelle, to the point that NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell reminded him that they are Yale and Harvard-educated lawyers, respectively. MSNBC host Tucker Carlson asked a Clinton campaign spokesman whether Clinton had an "unfair advantage because of her sex."

"Cosmetics"

During the pre-debate coverage, Matthews repeatedly discussed what Clinton would be "wearing" and asserted, "I'm fascinated by the visual." Matthews said of Clinton: "She's the only woman out there, so everybody else will be in charcoal or navy, and then everybody else will have a red tie, so she gets to be the distinguishing characteristic."

During the post-debate coverage, Matthews praised Clinton for her "dynamite" choice of pearls, which he also characterized as being reminiscent of [late actress] Grace Kelly, adding, "The cosmetics tonight are very important." Matthews also complimented Michelle Obama's pearl necklace. He declared that she "looked perfect," "well-turned out ... attractive -- classy, as we used to say. Like Frank Sinatra, 'classy.' "

Further, Matthews appeared to argue that many viewers would be basing their decisions about the candidates on how, in Clinton's case, the candidate was dressed, or, in the case of the male candidates, how their spouses were dressed: "Some people are, by the way, just watching tonight. They stopped listening a half-hour in, and they noticed how pretty she is -- Michelle [Obama] -- and they said, 'I like the fact he's [Barack Obama] got this pretty wife. He's happily married. I like that.' They like the fact that Hillary was demure, lady-like in her appearance." When Mitchell interjected, noting "You're talking about two ... lawyers," who went to "Harvard and Yale," Matthews defended himself, saying, "Cosmetics are a part of this game."

"You can't be aggressive against a woman candidate"

Additionally, the MSNBC analysis focused heavily on stereotypes about female candidates, even though most agreed Clinton overcame those stereotypes during the debate. For instance, Matthews repeatedly asserted that "[y]ou can't be aggressive against a woman candidate on stage, or you're in big trouble," and wondered how the male candidates would overcome such a challenge. Similarly, during an interview with Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson on MSNBC's Tucker, host Carlson asked: "We were talking earlier about the difficulty the other candidates face in addressing and maybe even going after Senator Clinton on the stage. It does seem like all who attack Hillary Clinton come out the worse for it. Do you think that's true, and is it an unfair advantage she has because of her sex, do you think?"

After the debate, Matthews agreed with Newsweek magazine chief political correspondent Howard Fineman's assessment that Clinton "overcame all the questions of [whether] a woman" could be "tough[]" enough to be president:

MATTHEWS: I thought that she avoided playing victim to the other candidates. She avoided demanding any special courtesy or protocol as a woman. She never appealed to her femininity as any reason to be any different or treated any differently. And I thought, again, it's so hard and everybody disagrees, well, a woman has a special challenge when it comes to political argument because we can raise our voices and it works sometimes. When a woman raises her voice, the octave goes up, and Hillary didn't do it.

As Media Matters for America has noted, Matthews has frequently commented on Clinton's voice, once claiming that "some men" think it sounds like "fingernails on a blackboard."

Matthews also warned of "that big green monster out there in the Atlantic Ocean called 'I'm not going to have a woman commander-in-chief,' " adding, "I don't know whether that head is going to emerge." Matthews has repeatedly made mention of a "gigantic monster," a "big, green, horny-headed ... monster of anti-Hillaryism that hasn't shown itself," as Media Matters has noted.

Admitting mistakes

While giving post-debate analysis during the April 27 edition of NBC's Today, NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert asserted that Clinton would never admit to "ma[king] a mistake" in voting in favor of the Iraq war resolution "because she is afraid that if she acknowledges a mistake, it will show a lack of surefootedness in national security and foreign policy, and, for a woman candidate, that can be a real detriment."

From the April 26 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Do the Democrats have history on their mind right now? Are they in that romantic -- I happen to like the romantic part of politics -- are they, the Democrats, in a romantic mood right now where they want to do something really historic and pick an African-American guy for president or a woman?

From the April 26 edition of MSNBC's Tucker:

CARLSON: We were talking earlier about the difficulty the other candidates face in addressing and maybe even going after Senator Clinton on the stage. It does seem like all who attack Hillary Clinton come out the worse for it. Do you think that's true, and is it an unfair advantage she has because of her sex, do you think?

WOLFSON: I don't think it has anything to do with her gender. I think that she's broadly popular in the Democratic Party, and so there may not be a huge advantage to attacking somebody who is well-liked.

From MSNBC's April 26 pre-debate coverage:

MATTHEWS: And let me not miss my chance to talk about something I love to talk about, which is gender. All our presidents have been men. They've all been white men. We know the facts. What happens when one of these candidates pulls a Rick Lazio, as we saw in New York against Hillary, where he served her papers, basically, on stage; and everybody, as a woman, goes, "Well, wait a minute, what's this?" You can't be aggressive against a woman candidate on stage, or you're in big trouble. What happens then? We're gonna know.

OLBERMANN: I guess we will know.

[...]

MATTHEWS: What's she wearing tonight?

MARK PENN (Clinton campaign strategist): You will see that. I will not --

MATTHEWS: She's the only woman out there, so everybody else will be in charcoal or navy, and then everybody else will have a red tie, so she gets to be the distinguishing characteristic.

PENN: I didn't know you were so into fashion.

MATTHEWS: I'm fascinated by the visual, yeah, I am. Like whether somebody has a riser or not, those kinds of things. I'm always fascinated by that.

OLBERMANN: [Washington Post columnist] Gene [Robinson], we've never had to deal with this before. Chris raises a fascinating point. All of a sudden, we have, not just, as we said, the symbolic elements -- both for Senator Obama, Governor Richardson, Senator Clinton -- we have these practicalities. What is she going to wear, as opposed to what are they going to wear?

ROBINSON: Right, right. It's going to be a different kind of debate. It's going to look different from any other presidential debate we've seen because there's a woman there, there's a Hispanic, there's a black guy, you know, and -- what a setting for it, too. I mean, you know, a historically black college in the South where African-American issues are going to come to the forefront and have to be addressed and then debated.

From MSNBC's April 26 post-debate coverage:

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the decision on the war. Mrs. Clinton, the Senator, has made a point of saying, "I'm not going to apologize." Fair enough. That's a political decision, in terms of --

WOLFSON: It's a substantive decision, it comes from the heart.

MATTHEWS: No, because also Republicans will use it against her and say, "It's a woman's right to change her mind." They'll play all kinds of gender games on her probably. But here is to what I don't understand. She has said that her vote to authorize action was basically to help the president negotiate a United Nations supervised inspection of possible weapons of mass destruction, which would have, apparently, had it succeeded, would have avoided the war. But then, if that's the case and if that's her position, as of now, why did it take her so many years to really attack this war -- to really challenge the war?

WOLFSON: Chris, I don't think that that's fair.

[...]

OLBERMANN: But, in that context, was what Senator Clinton said, which amounted to, if we are attacked, we should quickly respond -- sort of fill in the blank on who you respond against. Does that answer then become sufficient because it looks or sounds strong or has the same echoes of strength as the Bush administration answers have been, and, in fact, practice has been the last seven years?

FINEMAN: I think it was Hillary playing it right smack down the middle of the American electorate, having the tone right, the sense of toughness, overcoming in one evening -- I think she's overcome all the questions about a woman -- this is a big statement to make. I think that she's overcome all the questions about a woman on that stage.

MATTHEWS: I agree.

FINEMAN: She didn't command it unnecessarily, but she was utterly comfortable and in command when she had to be. To me, she settled the commander-in-chief question right there, if there ever was one.

MATTHEWS: I completely agree with that. I thought that she avoided playing victim to the other candidates. She avoided demanding any special courtesy or protocol as a woman. She never appealed to her femininity as any reason to be any different or treated any differently. And I thought, again, it's so hard and everybody disagrees, well, a woman has a special challenge when it comes to political argument because we can raise our voices and it works sometimes. When a woman raises her voice, the octave goes up, and Hillary didn't do it.

SCARBOROUGH: But let's say, this is what she has to worry about because the only time -- we're talking about people in the spin room -- the only time people started to raise their eyebrows would be on an answer to where her voice started to go up.

MATTHEWS: At the end!

SCARBOROUGH: At the end, she started to sound a little shrill. That's the thing she needs to guard against. But, no, she has -- I think you're right. I think she has crossed that hurdle. There are a lot of people in the Democratic base who've been very angry with her position on the war, but, at the same time, she is doing what she needs to do. She's doing what a woman needs to do and what the Democrats need to do.

MATTHEWS: The cosmetics tonight are very important. First of all: her pearls, Grace Kelly -- dynamite. The pearls were great.

UNIDENTIFIED: No, let's calm down.

SCARBOROUGH: Here we go, the Philadelphia --

MATTHEWS: I'm sorry, the pearls were great.

SCARBOROUGH: You know what? You just lost a lot of people.

MATTHEWS: I thought Michelle, whatever you say about Obama, his wife looked perfect -- perfect for the occasion.

MITCHELL: I don't do fashion.

OLBERMANN: Yeah.

MATTHEWS: Perfect looking wife. She had the pears as well -- another Grace Kelly -- well-turned out, very dignified. Not dignified, attractive -- classy, as we used to say. Like Frank Sinatra, "classy." You know, I thought those things were important.

SCARBOROUGH: You're all Philadelphia, Chris Matthews. You're all Philadelphia.

MATTHEWS: I'm sorry, those things are important. You guys are ignoring it. Some people are, by the way, just watching tonight. They stopped listening a half-hour in, and they noticed how pretty she is -- Michelle -- and they said, "I like the fact he's got this pretty wife. He's happily married. I like that." They like the fact that Hillary was demure, lady-like in her appearance.

MITCHELL: You're talking about two [inaudible] lawyers -- Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.

MATTHEWS: That is --

MITCHELL: Excuse me.

MATTHEWS: -- can I talk about this for a second --

UNIDENTIFIED: Good-looking chicks!

MITCHELL: Yale and Harvard.

MATTHEWS: You guys jumped around for a week about poor, what's his name, John Edwards' haircut, you know. Cosmetics are a part of this game.

MITCHELL: That wasn't cosmetics.

MATTHEWS: What was that then?

MITCHELL: That was authenticity.

OLBERMANN: Expense reports.

MATTHEWS: Oh, OK, expense reports.

OLBERMANN: That was [inaudible] expense reports, but thank you for introducing Governor [Jennifer] Granholm [D-MI] into this particular part of the equation on the --

MATTHEWS: [Washington Post columnist] David Broder made that mistake.

OLBERMANN: -- on the public scale. But it's a valid point, and I think, we note it because we have a front-runner woman candidate for the first time, but, as Chris said, we have picked apart the appearance of the male candidates, too. Why -- what is the difference? What is the -- why is it invalid, suddenly -- is it political correctness? -- to raise the issue about a woman candidate and appearance and style and tone?

MITCHELL: No. I'm semi-joking, but I don't think that we talk about the cut of their suits or their jewelry. Tone, yes; substance, yes.

[crosstalk]

MATTHEWS: We don't wear a lot of jewelry to be honest with you.

FINEMAN: I second Andrea on this. I do, I'm allowed. Don't look at me like that.

MATTHEWS: The first pander of the evening was committed on this panel for the first --

FINEMAN: It won't be the last, I can assure you.

SCARBOROUGH: I can tell you that the first person I ran against was a female, and it is impossible to go after them in a debate. Remember Rick Lazio going over to Hillary Clinton?

MITCHELL: Yeah.

MATTHEWS: How bout George Bush Sr., the ultimate gentleman, the old money guy, saying, "I kicked her ass the other night"? Remember that line about [former Democratic vice presidential nominee] Geraldine Ferraro? That was a popular line.

[crosstalk]

SCARBOROUGH: We won't even repeat what he said about [CBS News correspondent] Leslie Stahl. But anyway, it is hard to go after --

MATTHEWS: Right.

SCARBOROUGH: -- a woman onstage in a debate situation. And, also -- and this sounds sort of shallow, too -- but, you know, guys always have to wear the dark suits. One night, she showed up in a debate in this bright red Nancy Reagan-type dress, and I'm like, "Oh damn, I'm sunk." There's no way to compete against that. When you talk about appearance, there are certain things women can do. But I think Hillary is more like Margaret Thatcher, in that people that voted for Margaret Thatcher weren't thinking, "Hey, I'm voting for a woman, I'm voting for a tough leader." I think the same with Hillary --

MATTHEWS: But she's a Tory. Tories get away with more than modern liberals.

SCARBOROUGH: I think Hillary Clinton, though, transcends gender. I think she's about something much bigger than that, that when people vote for her they are going to be thinking --

MATTHEWS: What does -- she transcends gender?

SCARBOROUGH: I think she does. Well, you can ask people what they think about Hillary Clinton, they will give you six or seven words before they say "woman." They'll say "liberal" or "Bill Clinton's wife," or this, that, and the other.

MATTHEWS: You are not -- you're not buying this are you, Andrea?

MITCHELL: No.

MATTHEWS: Not in a million years. She's not going to get by without anybody noticing she's a female.

SCARBOROUGH: I'm not saying that. I'm saying she is not identified as a female candidate first. She's not, and there's actually polling out there that shows that. Why does that shock you?

MATTHEWS: I think that that's a point of view. I've never heard that before because I think it's essential that she's a woman.

SCARBOROUGH: I'll send you [inaudible] the polls, tomorrow.

MATTHEWS: I think Colin Powell transcended ethnicity. I think that would be a case, but -- and maybe Barack Obama does -- but I think Hillary, in the end, I still think there's that big -- possibly -- that big green monster out there in the Atlantic Ocean called "I'm not going to have a woman commander-in-chief." And, I don't know whether that head is going to emerge.

MITCHELL: And, she's also trying to play to all those women out there, many women, who do like the fact that a woman is running and they have of all these websites organizing women.

MATTHEWS: And Howard's right. She passed the commander-in-chief standard tonight, and it wasn't a full pander, 'cause I'm joining you.

FINEMAN: I was about to do my second pander.

MATTHEWS: What is that?

FINEMAN: Andrea is right about the womanhood. She is -- the thing is, she is a woman, but she's showing that she can be plausible in that role, which is what was key. This format benefited her, ironically. Where she's going to have a problem is when she's cross-examined on her stance on issues, such as the war, such as health care, and so on. You've been doing it long distance for months, if not years.

MATTHEWS: That's not what you say when we're not on television.

FINEMAN: OK.

MATTHEWS: I'm just kidding. We'll be right back.

From the April 27 edition NBC News' Today:

VIERA: But she still didn't say "I made a mistake."

RUSSERT: The only one who will not say "I made a mistake," because she is afraid that if she acknowledges a mistake, it will show a lack of surefootedness in national security and foreign policy, and, for a woman candidate, that can be a real detriment.

Posted In
Diversity & Discrimination, Gender
Network/Outlet
MSNBC
Person
Tucker Carlson, Chris Matthews
Stories/Interests
2008 Elections
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