The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How sexist will the media’s treatment of female candidates be? Rule out ‘not at all.’

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at her alma mater, Howard University, on Martin Luther King Day, following her announcement that she would run for president. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

If you think the media treatment of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was not seriously marred by sexism, please proceed directly to social media, Fox News, my email or wherever trolls gather.

Because the underlying idea here is that, among the many flaws of 2016 campaign coverage, was the disadvantage Clinton had because of her gender.

In her post-election book, “What Happened,” she described one of the many ways that played out — through false equivalency.

“If Trump ripped the shirt off someone at a rally and a button fell off my jacket on the same day,” she wrote, the headlines would report: “Trump and Clinton Experience Wardrobe Malfunctions, Campaigns in Turmoil.”

The obsession with Clinton’s voice (shrill), her laugh (witchlike), her purported lack of stamina, her marriage, her supposedly inauthentic love of hot sauce — combined with the constant analysis of how voters simply couldn’t warm up to her — is still all too fresh.

One of the reasons it’s so fresh is that we’re hearing echoes of it, already, in the early coverage of the female Democratic lawmakers who have declared their 2020 candidacies.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) kicked off her 2020 campaign at a rally in Oakland on Jan. 27, where she said the American dream is "under attack." (Video: Reuters)

The long-ago love life of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) has been parsed, as has what music she partied to as a Howard University undergrad.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s uncertainty about how to eat fried chicken has been ruthlessly mocked.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy was in trouble even before she declared because of the senator from Massachusetts identifying herself as Native American. (This was a real blunder, to be sure, but not the career-ending one it’s often portrayed as.)

And there’s so much more, even a year away from the 2020 Iowa caucuses. But why?

“There is a narrow universe of acceptable behavior for women,” explained Heidi Moore, a media consultant who is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and former business editor of the Guardian U.S.

In politics — as in so many other spheres — women get bashed far more than their male counterparts for personality quirks, vulnerabilities and actions of all sorts.

Not to mention their appearance and speaking voices. Think of how far a female candidate would get if she came off like the rumpled and ranting Bernie Sanders.

“We see in coverage of women lawmakers that even minor flaws are treated as disqualifying,” Moore told me, “while men’s flaws get brief attention but are glossed over as a case of ‘nobody’s perfect.’ ”

After 2016, there is certainly more awareness of society’s bias and of the media’s role in amplifying it.

New York Times politics editor Patrick Healy wrote this month that he regrets once describing Clinton’s laugh as a “cackle,” and the Times published an enlightening story by Maggie Astor about how female candidates start off at a disadvantage.

It explored the all-important quality of “likability,” which research shows is a necessity for the success of female candidates, though not so for men.

Here’s the Catch-22. One of the qualities that makes women unlikable? Ambition. Which is, after all, hard to avoid in a candidate for president of the United States.

“Harvard researchers found in 2010 that voters regarded ‘power-seeking’ women with contempt and anger,” Astor wrote, but saw power-seeking men as strong and competent.

Unpacking those issues in a front-page Times article is progress, undoubtedly, but Healy also said in a Twitter thread that he thought campaign coverage of Clinton was fair overall. The paper was tough on her, he wrote, but also on Donald Trump.

Jay Rosen, the New York University press critic, told me that this denial of the obvious (the Times’s overblown treatment of Clinton’s email scandal) reminded him of political scientist Norman Ornstein’s well-phrased critique: “A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.”

Even serious issues — like the temperament of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), including her reportedly throwing office supplies in anger — are given far more attention than they would be for men. Joe Biden, the former vice president and Democratic senator from Delaware, is said to have a short fuse, too, but somehow he’s seen as affable, also known as “the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with.”

So, yes, we’re a sexist society, and the media reflect and amplify this. In some cases, female voters aren’t immune — 39 percent of them preferred Trump to 54 percent for Clinton, according to Pew Research. (The president wildly distorts the results, but he still got plenty of female support.)

Still, some see hope: The sheer number of women running for president will make it easier for female candidates to succeed.

“This could be a seminal, turning-point moment,” with the number of women providing a new frame of reference, especially for younger voters just coming into the electorate, Democratic strategist Celinda Lake told Politico.

And for voters of any age, it’s harder — theoretically, at least — to say, “Sure, I’d love to vote for a woman, just not THAT woman,” when there are a half dozen female candidates to choose from.

The campaign is still in its toddlerdom. Harris declared her candidacy only weeks ago, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

But much has happened already to forecast an early unsettling vision of what’s ahead. That includes women in politics gleefully disrespecting each other — as Trump aide Kellyanne Conway did this month. She managed to belittle Harris, Klobuchar and Gillibrand in a single Fox & Friends interview (“I’ve yet to see presidential timber. I just see a bunch of presidential wood chips”), while praising two potential male contenders: former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City.

Granted, Conway also called Beto O’Rourke a loser, but her comments about Gillibrand, the senator from New York, for instance, were especially petty: “Apparently, it was the first time she had ever eaten fried chicken, and she waited for the cameras to roll.”

Silly? No doubt. Inconsequential? Maybe not. Ask average Americans what they know about Gillibrand — if anything — and they might just bring up a “feeling” about her elitist lack of authenticity. Call it the fried-chicken problem, brought to you by the news media.

Society and journalism conspire, Moore noted, creating an unfair standard: “While men get to be flawed and human and complex, women are mostly allowed to audition only for pedestals, for sainthood, for absolute purity.”

So far, no one in this field looks like a candidate for sainthood.

And if such a woman could be found, surely her unbearable piety would disqualify her immediately.

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