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Opinion Elizabeth Warren danced at a rally, and critics pounced

Elizabeth Warren in Rochester, N.H., on Dec. 7. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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On Tuesday, Elizabeth Warren danced. At her Brooklyn campaign rally with Julián Castro, the Massachusetts senator busted a few moves as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” played in the background. On Wednesday, she gave relationship advice in Elle, with recommendations like, “You’re too good for him.”

And wouldn’t you know, self-appointed arbiters stepped up to critique all of it — on Twitter and on the late-night television shows. She looked geeky, or maybe fake. She was pandering. She was trying too hard. It was a gimme for the late-night hosts: “She’s really rocking an ‘every chaperone at the eighth-grade dance’ vibe,” Stephen Colbert joked. As for the advice column, some complained it was unserious. Didn’t she know she was running for president?

Meanwhile, let the record show that Bernie Sanders did a few dance steps himself during the last presidential election. Let the record show former vice president Joe Biden challenged an elderly critic at an Iowa town hall to do push-ups. Let the record show Andrew Yang makes self-deprecating jokes about Asians and their supposed ability at math.

All of these candidates have come in for a bit of criticism and a lot of good-natured joshing. And that’s fine. People are running for president, partisans are going to be partisan and politicians, as a rule, have a tendency to look like nerds trying to act cool when they perform for the camera. But the obsession with Warren is out of proportion. As her fellow Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) put it on Twitter, “Raise your hand if you know why people are trolling Elizabeth’s dance moves and not my dad jokes.”

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The issue here isn’t deliberate, conscious sexism, but an unconscious double standard. It’s so entrenched — we are so used to a world where women are judged harshly for every miscue or bit of silliness, while men get pass after pass after pass — that we are often unaware when we do it ourselves. Much in the way women in workplace settings are under pressure to show their “nice side” but then told they aren’t aggressive enough, women running for public office are also on a tightrope, damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Female politicians are more likely to get charged with inauthenticity, in part because they are attempting to fit into a world not designed for them. All presidential candidates — as well as anyone running for any political office — experience moments of public silliness, goofiness and vague embarrassment. For women — because they are subjected to the double standard, because many expect perfection from them — these occurrences stand out more.

Hillary Clinton, of course, is the poster child for this. She was relentlessly criticized for her controlled performance while also coming under sustained criticism when she went off-script. And while failed presidential candidates like Al Gore and Mitt Romney were not told to retire after Election Day, Clinton faces people telling her to go away whenever she makes a public appearance.

Rather than subject another female candidate to this ridiculousness, let’s treat Warren like any male candidate doing something less-than-serious. In the Elle video, she was warm, funny and engaging; she made her political points in an empathetic and engaging manner. (That’s no surprise, given her time dispensing financial advice on the “Dr. Phil” show.) As for the dancing, adults have danced to “Respect” at weddings, coming-of-age ceremonies and anniversary parties — and bopped along when hearing it in the background while wheeling a supermarket cart — for decades. It would be all but inhuman if Warren didn’t occasionally give in to the impulse and dance. Besides, she looked like she was having fun. And what can be wrong with that?

Read more:

Ruth Marcus: Politics is finally a coed sport. So, what rules apply?

Jennifer Rubin: Okay, mainstream media, prove your coverage isn’t sexist

Paul Waldman: Why gender will define the 2020 election