The mounting misogyny of the 2016 election

It's 2016. We're supposed to be better than this. But we're not.

The 2016 election has hit women hard.
(Image credit: Photo illustration by Jackie Friedman | Images courtesy JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images, BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

In June, a Georgia Southern University professor named Jared Yates Sexton attended a Donald Trump rally in Greensboro, North Carolina. While he tweeted scenes of general pro-American rowdiness — "crowd chanting BUILD THAT WALL BUILD THAT WALL over operatic music" is one pretty summative tweet — he also offered a glimpse of a different sort of scene that is increasingly central to the 2016 election:

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That many of Trump's most fervent supporters are attracted to misogynist jokes and images isn't exactly breaking news — nor, sadly, is finding Hillary Clinton at the center of gross, sexist humor. The outspoken former first lady has been plagued by such grotesquely inappropriate T-shirts and knickknacks since at least the 1990s.

But what is new is the time and place. It's 2016. Our president is black. Gay marriage is legal. We're supposed to be better than dumb, sexist jokes. But we're not.

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Throughout the 2008 election, it was hard not to think about the stakes in terms of race. The historic implications of Barack Obama being elected were clear. More than two-thirds of Americans said that Obama's election was one of the top three most important advances for black people in the past 100 years, according to a November 2008 Gallup poll.

Eight years later, a question begs: Will the 2016 race be considered the same sort of landmark for women if Clinton wins?

You might think the answer is obvious. Clinton would be America's first female president, just as Obama was the nation's first black president. In assuming the awesome powers of the American presidency, Hillary Clinton would arguably immediately become the most powerful woman who has ever lived.

But look just a little deeper, and it's hard to see the 2016 race as a revolution for women.

The primary season kicked off with Trump raging on national television that Fox News' Megyn Kelly asked him tough questions in a debate because she had "blood coming out of her wherever." Later, he rejected fellow Republican Carly Fiorina's bid for the presidency by exclaiming, "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?" Trump additionally ripped the appearance of Ted Cruz's wife, Heidi Cruz, by retweeting an unflattering photo of her next to a glossy shot of Melania:

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It should go without saying that this is horribly sexist, and ought to be beyond the pale for any public figure, let alone a leading contender for president. But Donald Trump demolished his primary competitors anyway — and with astonishing ease. It's possible that he won not in spite of his misogynistic rhetoric, but in part because of it.

Clinton is regularly torn down in memes mocking her appearance (a popular variation shows her mid-guffaw next to a horse flashing its teeth). And somehow, remarkably, Monica Lewinsky jokes have apparently not gotten old over the years. There are jokes about Clinton not "getting the 'job' done," or with fifth-grade entendres about "blowing it" or "sucking." Slightly-more-complicated but no-less-foul jokes involve the word "down." As in, "I think when Donald Trump debates Hillary Clinton she's going to go down like Monica Lewinsky." That last one isn't from a pseudonymous internet troll; it's from the chairman of the Broward County GOP Executive Committee in Florida, Bob Sutton.

Members of polite society know better than to openly laugh at such jokes. And yet, sexism sells — a lot. Sam Costantino, who runs an online decal business, told Time that he's made about $10,000 off merchandise featuring lines like "Hillary will go down faster than Bill's pants." "Anti-Trump stuff is not selling. It's just the anti-Hillary stuff that's selling," he said.

Clinton is only the most obvious case of the rampant sexism in the 2016 race. While feminists tsk-tsk over the language used to describe Clinton, Donald Trump's wife, Melania, is met by wrinkled noses for apparently being a vacant "fox-eyed" trophy of Trump's. "Lying prone on a rug adorned with the Great Seal of the United States, the woman who might someday be first lady is wearing high-heeled sandals and a crimson bikini," begins a profile in the nation's venerable newspaper of record, while a friend observes to GQ that Melania is "smart for the things she's interested in, like jewelry. She's not stupid, she's not a bimbo, but she's not especially clever."

In most cases, these women have pushed back. Megyn Kelly, with steely patience, rebuked Trump multiple times. Fiorina stared the camera down when she told the audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library that "women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said." Even Melania, in her own reserved way, has said repeatedly that she is willing, capable, and frequently does stand up to her husband.

But really, this isn't about the most powerful and famous women amongst us. It's about the rest of us. By choosing what we look at or share or buy, we are casting a vote about all women.

Many people are at peace with their votes. Rush Limbaugh, who in 2007 slammed Clinton's first presidential bid by asking if Americans would want to "watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis," is likely to be unbothered by the wider misogynist implications of his words. But for most of us, jokes about Clinton seem innocent enough when we paste them to our timelines or show them to our friends. An ugly, snarling Heidi Cruz is a face to laugh at, then forget. Melania Trump is an airhead to be dismissed. And hey, that double-entendre about Clinton was pretty clever, doesn't that deserve a "like"?

But every time we do so, we are making a decision. We are voting. And we can do better than this.

In the meantime, sexism clogs Facebook timelines and Twitter mentions. It covers the faces of buttons for sale outside of the Republican convention. And all it would take for us to make progress is simply being less complacent in the face of blatant sexism. If we don't like a candidate, we ought to talk about the issues — not about gender.

But until we start to pay attention to the images and words used to bring women down, most of us are still cracking smiles, even if those smiles are hidden pseudo-tastefully behind a hand.

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