How Women’s Emotions Cause Competency Bind

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Portrait of a young business woman at office by Anton Petukhov on flickr.

A new study published in the journal for Women’s Studies and Communication shows how media coverage of Hillary Clinton’s 2013 Benghazi testimony shaped opinions about her competency as a leader. Authors Dustin Harp, Jaime Loke and Ingrid Bachmann found notable progress in the overall representation of female politicians, with Clinton portrayed as hardworking and respected. And the language media outlets used to describe her demeanor during the testimony reflected her as confident, authoritative and professional. But, at the same time, her displays of sadness and anger were framed in stereotypical gendered language, which undermined her perceived effectiveness as a leader. In Clinton’s case, another double bind emerged linking competency with authenticity, implying that she could be seen as either capable or genuine, but never both.

Wait. Didn’t Obama cry when he talked about the need for gun control after the massacre at Sandy Hook? How did Obama get away with that? Didn’t George W. Bush claim that he looked Vladimir Putin in the eye and saw into his soul? How did Bush get away with that? Gut feelings and intuition, after all, are the realm of the feminine. Such is the nature of double binds: we view men’s emotions as something they can act upon, something that enables and permits them to navigate these binaries. Whereas women’s emotions are considered a state of being, specific and individual, and not relating to the larger world. So women are emotional, and men act emotionally. The difference is vast.

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A woman who switches between expressing ideas and emotions is highly suspect in our culture. According to the study, when a woman does express ideas and emotions, we have serious doubts about her competency and authority. We might suspect her motives. Is she cold and calculated — a Lady Macbeth type? Aggressive? Ambitious? Must be the power behind the throne. Sheds a well-timed tear? She’s manipulative, strategic, can’t be trusted. In a 1993 interview with Katie Couric, Clinton acknowledged that women are, “so often put into one box or another so people can deal with who we are as they define it”:

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Language matters. It influences the way we see and interact with one another. It impacts the way we view and interpret works of art. Take the case of Suki Kim’s, Without You There Is No Us, a book that documents life in North Korea through the lens of students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, or PUST. Kim spent six months living uncover as a Christian missionary and teaching at PUST, which is where the sons of the North Korean elite are educated. Kim is the only writer to report on North Korea from such a position, and so she was surprised when her publisher insisted on marketing the book as a memoir instead of investigative journalism. The strategy to appeal to a wider audience backfired, affecting the book’s public and critical reception.

Framing Kim’s work in that way obscured the enormity of her risk; her expertise was not only undermined, it was trivialized. She had to defend her book as a journey of personal discovery, a Korean Eat, Pray, Love, while readers and critics dismissed the book as an emotional tell-all. Kim was criticized for exploiting the students she was entrusted to teach. Highlighting how the work of women and writers of color is seen as subjective and personal, Kim noted on NPR that had she not been a Korean female, the decision to market the book this way “would never have happened.”

Emotional expression is just one double bind, among a sea of others. My own daily trials echo a femininity and competency bind, writ small. Take something simple — household repairs. I deal with two things when I interact with our contractor (I’ll call him Bill), and Bill’s tendency to cut me off when I express an idea or an opinion ranks first. Next, Bill likes to treat me to repetitive explain-a-lanches about the difference between a rail and stile.

I’m not a carpenter. But I’ve built stage flats, so trust me, I know from rails and stiles. Yet, no amount of nodding my head, no statements affirming “Yeah, we’ve talked about this,” stops Bill’s verbal onslaughts. I’ve taken to staring blankly at him, which prompts him to ask, “You following me?” On the days that I don’t have patience and feel like blasting Bill with the white heat of my anger, I modulate my desire and dial it down. Occasionally, I roll my eyes like a petulant teenager signaling, “Whuh? Bill? We’re doing this again? We are so done here.”

I like Bill. Our ritual rail-and-stile convo isn’t personal; it’s not about me. Our context is transactional. I hired him for his expertise. It’s probably fatiguing for both of us. I could ignore it. I could try redirecting. It’s pointless to express frustration. It would read as rage most likely. Because — well, you know how women are. Bill said that to Doug, the guy drywalling our bedroom. “I heard that.” Whisper. Whisper. “Bitch.” Yeah. I’m following you.

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Elizabeth Spreen
Elizabeth Spreen is a writer and independent theater artist. She enjoys engaging and exchanging ideas with artists, makers and thinkers across disciplines. Her work includes performance, communal gatherings, facilitated investigations, broadsides and experimental texts. She is a playwright-in-residence with Playwrights Foundation’s four-year Resident Playwright Initiative. Her work has been developed or produced by Crowded Fire, Playwrights Foundation, Shotgun Players and Paducah Mining Company. She is based in the San Francisco Bay area.