Gender Diversity and the 2012 Presidential Debates

Though every vote counts the same, during the 2012 Presidential Debates, it was apparent that there was a stratification system between the gender of the four debates’ moderators and the four Presidential  and Vice Presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, as well as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

The presidential hopefuls did not treat all of their constituents with the same courtesy and one could observe a glaring discrepancy between the way they addressed the two women and men moderators. The women moderators, Candy Crowley and Martha Raddatz, were patronized to during both their debates and babied while the men, Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer, were treated not just as equals, but more aggressively as both Obama and Romney interrupted and fought back.

This change in mood was incredibly apparent even before the actual debates, where in an interview with the NPR-sponsored radio show On the Media in September of 2012, former moderator Carole Simpson spoke of how in 1992 she was the first and last woman to moderate the presidential debates. Breaking the 20-year lull, Raddatz and Crowley now follow Simpson, though she says that women moderators are confined to the vice presidential debate and a town-hall style debate where the moderator cannot ask questions of their own. 

“The men are going to be able to go head-to-head with the candidates. I just found out that Jim Lehrer is going to devote half of the 90-minutes to the economy, then we have Bob Schieffer and he will be asking about national affairs for the last debate. Inbetween that is Candy Crowley. She will be doing what I did, be the lady with the microphone among an audience of undecided voters. I didn’t have any opportunity to ask my own questions of the candidates, now Candy, who is one of the most politically astute reporters in the country, has got the same Town Hall format. It looks like the commission has decided that that the Town Hall format is what women should do, and the real tough questioning should come from men,” (Carole Simpson, On the Media).

In Judith Lorber’s piece “The Social Construction of Gender,” she admits that gender is very much like culture in that it is a human  production that depends on everyone constantly “doing gender.” By going by these roles, ideas such as “real tough questioning should come from men,” are seen as normal, and having women in second-tier positions of power is part of how this “system” works. 
In both Lehrer and Schieffer’s debates, President Obama and Romney stepped on toes, interrupted, and at times were just aggressive towards the men. 

An example of such could be seen in the first debate as Lehrer attempted (in vain) to rein in Romney’s first response after going five-minutes over his alloted time, to which the Governor smugly replied, “It’s fun, isn’t it?” and Lehrer saying it was alright since the answer was still “about the economy.”  Obama was not much better after Lehrer cut-off his response informing him that “Two minutes is up, sir.” The President shot-back, “No, I think — I had five seconds before you interrupted me.” He then continued speaking for at least fifteen seconds, before Lehrer replied, “Your five seconds went away a long time ago,” (Oct. 3 Presidential Debate, Comission on Presidential Debates Transcript).

The agressive attutide changed by the third debate, where the candiate were in the Town Hall format and, whether it be to win voters good will or not, were much less short with Crowley than they were with Leher. Both candiates would often thank the moderator before or after taking a question from the crowd, and even when they would fight amongst eachother, when Crowley reined them back to the question, they obeyed. The atmosphere of the night was very much like that of two boys agruing and their mother stepping-in when they would get too rowdy.  It was a night where everyone was, quite literally, doing “gender.”

The idea of “doing gender,” though it sounds simplied, in Lorber’s opinion is something that is keeping the male and female gender routines in place, and what makes society raise eyebrows at men caring for children, or women doing manual labor (or in this case, ask hardball questions during a presidential debate).

“Gender is so much the routine ground of everyday activities that questioning its taken-for-granted assumptions and presuppositions is like thinking about whether the sun will come up,” (Lorber, 21). This brings upon the question as to why both genders continue this song-and-dance of gender roles, even with the knowledge of the negative impact it imposes.

The gender struggle between the moderators was seen even with the types of questions Crowley and Raddatz asked as compared to Leher and Schieffer. During the round table Vice Presidential debate, for the final question of the night Raddatz asked both candidates their view on abortion and how their religion has played a role in their own personal views on abortion. After her question Raddatz had added, “And, please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country please talk personally about this, if you could.” (Oct. 11 Vice Presidential Debate, Commission on Presidential Debates Transcript).

The fact that a woman had asked about abortion to two male candidates had already set-up the stage for the framing of the question. There is a bias that is already constructed that is hammered home with the tone of Raddatz voice as she asks for Biden and Ryan to talk about the issue “personally.” Regardless of their answers, it was shown by their facial expressions, the pause taken within their answers, and discomfort in the way they looked at Raddatz that they were forming their answer around their situation – that they were two men talking about what is seen as a “women’s issue” to a woman.

Another uneasy question was raised during the second presidential debate, during Crowley’s Town Hall debate, where an audience member named Katherine Fenton asked the candidates, “In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?”  (Oct. 16 Presidential Debate, Commission on Presidential Debates Transcript).

The issue of women being paid less is something that The New York Times has touched upon as seen in the chart below:
Once again a question involving women’s issues was asked during a debate that was moderated by a woman. Neither of these kinds of questions were asked during Leher or Schieffer’s debates, even though they though they (especially Leher) could have integrated the issue of inequality into their set of questions. The choice to avoid these issues could be an unconscious choice framed by the fact these men were raised in a patriarchal society.

In an opinions pieced from The New York Times titled, “The Myth of Male Decline” Stephanie Coontz blames the ongoing assignment of gender roles on the idea that males are afraid of a sharing the power of gender. 

“Fifty years ago, every male American was entitled to what the sociologist R. W. Connell called a “patriarchal dividend” — a lifelong affirmative-action program for men. The size of that dividend varied according to race and class, but all men could count on women’s being excluded from the most desirable jobs and promotions in their line of work, so the average male high school graduate earned more than the average female college graduate working the same hours. At home, the patriarchal dividend gave husbands the right to decide where the family would live and to make unilateral financial decisions. Male privilege even trumped female consent to sex, so marital rape was not a  crime. The curtailment of such male entitlements and the expansion of women’s legal and economic rights have transformed American life, but they have hardly produced a matriarchy. Indeed, in many arenas the progress of women has actually stalled over the past 15 years,” (Coontz, 1).

Though an intense point of view, Coontz debunking of the Male Decline Myth can possibly account toward the ongoing trend of males squeezing-out women and their issues from these debates, and instead focusing on the economy and national security, which can be seen as more “masculine” topics. 
The stereotypical man, too burly and aggressive to be concerned by women’s issues such as abortion and equal pay, cannot break the on-going cycle of “doing gender” and living in a “patriarchal dividend” society. The aggressive nature of the debates shows how the male candidates worked to show dominates over not over each other, but the moderators as well. 

In the case of Raddatz and Crowley, they did not do much to help their cases, as perhaps going rogue and breaking out of their roles as women with microphones would allow them to gain some sort of stance on the political playing field. During Crowley’s debate, however, she had tried to dip her toe into the political ring by correcting Romney after he had claimed that Obama referred to the consulate attack in Benghazi as an “act of terror.” 

Though earning some applause, the exchange had later caused her to have to explain herself on the Daytime Talk Show circuit, calling-out political figures is impressive when a male does it, as seen in the famous Edward R. Murrow and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy exchange, but when a female does so she is forced to explain if she had producers guiding her via an earpiece. Proving that gender roles, much like habits, are just hard to break.

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