When Lena Dunham — yes, Lena "she makes many people sigh deeply" Dunham — said last week that she's found news coverage of Hillary Clinton to be "rabidly sexist," more than a few people probably rolled their eyes.
That Dunham shared her opinion during a Sundance Film Festival event, while promoting a documentary which she produced, probably made many a reasonable person even less interested in what Dunham had to say. And that she described coverage of Clinton's campaign as "rabidly sexist in every single portrayal. ... Whether it’s the attacks on her personal life or the adjectives that are used to describe her clothing," then suggested that, "we have to do a full re-examination,” well, that almost certainly narrowed the group of people who took her views seriously a little more. Maybe you even had the same reaction last year when Clinton supporters floated the idea that Sen. Bernie Sanders's cantankerous, sometimes raised-voice exchanges with Clinton crossed the line into sexist terrain.
But something happened Tuesday that exposed the pervasive nature of sexism in American political life and made Dunham seem very much right. Really.
It came in the form of this hashtag:
#WordsThatDontDescribeHillary. As far as we can trace it, the hashtag appeared to come from this tweet by conservative radio talk show host Doc Thompson at 12:20 a.m. Tuesday.
Search the hashtag. Now scroll on down the page. See a pattern or two?
Yes, there are more than a few overt and thinly-veiled references to the many, many questions about Clinton's ethics, her ties to Wall Street, her email issues and even whether Clinton's past record of attempting to discredit women in defense of her husband comports with the rules of 21st century feminism. But there are also repeated references to Clinton's looks and her alleged failure to embody Twitter users' notions of what a woman should be.
Note how many times the words, feminine, attractive, pretty, beautiful or the more artful "pleasant to look at" appear. Or how about "fashionable," "innocent," "warm," "thin-ankled," "genteel" and "able to satisfy husband."
Some don't even bother to bury these assessments in long lists of words. They just keep it simple with single-word statements like "cutie." Others are — and this is perhaps a statement about the overall content of the Internet — inherently sexual. We really could go on. Just keep scrolling on that hashtag.
Now even if you are part of the "well, this is just an honest and random sample of assessments" school of thought and, therefore, believe that this hashtag and its contents have no larger meaning, there is still something hard to dismiss here. How likely is it that "honest" assessments of the rather average — actually, let's be honest, on a good day and after a fresh haircut maybe "average" — collection of men running for president would include this many assessments of their collective appearance? How many references to other peoples's sexual interest in these male candidates would you really expect to see? And would those things truly rank top of mind when asked to describe a man seeking the White House?
The takeaway from the contents of the
#WordsThatDontDescribeHillary collection is this. After more than 30 years of serving as both a U.S. senator and secretary of state, among many other resume points, Clinton's appearance and whether or not she meets a certain set of cultural standards of appropriate or ideal behavior and appearance for women remains top of mind for some American voters.
Don't take my word for it. Look at the sample Tweets pulled below.
Now, what's the word for all of this?