The Internet erupted with cries of “there he goes again” when Democratic presidential contender and congenital oversharer Beto O’Rourke decided to live-stream his latest haircut.
But give O’Rourke a pass on that one, notwithstanding an unfortunate aside he made involving ear hair. Among campaign stunts, hopping into a barber chair ranks among the most orthodox and time-tested. Try a quick Google search. You will find images of politicians at least as far back as then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon wrapped in a cape and getting a trim in that most manly of settings.
What I want to know is this: Would any of the half-dozen female presidential contenders survive putting her salon cut-and-blowout on social media? Or God forbid, letting anyone see her get her nails done?
Though more women are running for office than ever before, there remains a huge relatability gap between the sexes. When female candidates do some of the very things that are deemed to make their male counterparts more likeable, they find themselves the objects of scorn and suspicion instead.
For Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the Instagrammed act of cracking open a Michelob Ultra in her own kitchen on New Year’s Eve was deemed inauthentic and desperate. Boston Herald columnist Michael Graham wrote: “It’s all so transparently fake, so obviously self-interested. So, well, Liz Warren.”
When Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) went shopping in February — the definition of retail politicking — the female journalists who playfully talked her into buying a loud sequined jacket at a South Carolina boutique were accused of betraying their bias. (There was no such outcry in 2015, when reporters went skeet shooting with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) during his unsuccessful presidential run.)
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in March shared a video of herself lifting weights in an Iowa gym while wearing a T-shirt that said “just trying to get some ranch.” That was a reference to a viral moment a month earlier, when Gillibrand had found herself blocking the path of an Iowa City restaurant patron looking for salad dressing. The candidate’s effort to poke a little fun at herself turned Gillibrand into “the subject of mockery on social media, with some Twitter users accusing her of trying too hard to ‘relate to the average American,’ ” Fox News reported.
Does all of this sound familiar? In late 2015, the campaign of future Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton posted a video in which she recounted a story about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) challenging her to drink vodka shots during a congressional trip. The conservative website PJ Media decreed it a transparent effort to show “she’s just regular folk” and gave its story a headline that said: “Hillary Wants You to Know She Binge-Drinks on the Job.”
Clinton also was known to go through jalapenos as though they were potato chips, so it was hardly a surprise to hear her tell “The Breakfast Club,” a hip-hop radio show, that she carried a bottle of hot sauce in her purse. Nonetheless, a chorus of influential conservative commentators instantly decreed that Clinton was pandering to African Americans.
Of course, eating can be a treacherous endeavor for candidates of both genders. Everywhere they go, they are offered the messiest of local delicacies and then challenged to consume them before a bank of cameras. In 1976, President Gerald Ford did not know that the tamale he was handed in San Antonio should be eaten without the shuck on. In 2003, Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential aspirant John F. Kerry horrified Philadelphians by asking for swiss on his steak-and-cheese sandwich.
Those were chalked up to cluelessness. But when Gillibrand in February stabbed at fried chicken with a fork before picking it up at a South Carolina restaurant, her hesitance to dig in was transformed into a metaphor for her soul. New York magazine columnist Frank Rich tweeted: “Is there anything Gillibrand has done that is not contrived and opportunistic? I ask the question seriously.”
Compare that to the viral wonderment that greeted South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg earlier this month, when he declared his love for tacos and managed to down one at a favorite hometown restaurant without getting any on his pristine white shirt.
Meanwhile, the women in the field still must struggle to show that they are “authentic” and “likeable” — an elusive, maybe impossible standard for them to meet. It’s almost as if someone hung a red-and-white-striped pole right outside the door to the Oval Office.