Candidates in Monday's debate, beware the gender minefields

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Story highlights

  • Kayleigh McEnany: Throughout the 2016 primary, gender stereotypes were on full display
  • Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be dodging a minefield of familiar gender pitfalls and double standards during Monday's debate, she says

Kayleigh McEnany is a CNN commentator and supporter of Donald Trump. She graduated from Harvard Law School with a juris doctor. She received her bachelor of science in international politics from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and studied politics at Oxford University. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)On Monday evening, the eyes of the world turn to Hofstra University for the first-ever presidential debate between a male and female candidate. Despite the novel circumstances, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be dodging a minefield of familiar gender pitfalls and double standards.

Throughout the 2016 primary, gender stereotypes were on full display. In the Flint, Michigan debate, Bernie Sanders uttered four words to Clinton that lit up the headlines the following morning: "Excuse me, I'm talking!" The New York Post's headline was emblematic of the next day's coverage: "'Excuse me!': Bernie snaps at Hillary during debate."
    Kayleigh McEnany
    These words, however, were not new to a primary debate. In fact, Clinton said "excuse me" to Sanders three times in the Miami debate three days later, and the press did not take notice. A perusal of the 2016 primary debate transcripts shows that "excuse me" has been leveled in a caustic manner 22 times. Nevertheless, outside of the time a male directed it to a female, the "excuse me" interjection never graced a single headline. Perhaps this was because Sanders played directly into the hand of the "aggressive male" stereotype.
    A deeper walk through political debate history suggests a long history of both male and female gender stereotyping.
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    In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro made history by participating in the first male-on-female vice presidential debate against George H. W. Bush. What should have been a groundbreaking moment for gender equality in politics became a forum for old gender expectations.
    During a foreign policy discussion, Bush lectured Ferraro, saying, "Let me help you understand, Mrs. Ferraro," to which Ferraro quipped, "I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy."
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    This exchange framed the ensuing media narrative of "Bush as a bully." The Daily Pennsylvanian dubbed Bush's debating style as "unexpectedly aggressive." Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman described Bush as "shrill, strident and hysterical," claiming that he received a lesson in "lethal chivalry" when he attempted to come to Ferraro's aid "as if he were giving the lady a hand into the car." NBC's "Today Show" followed suit, calling Bush "a very intense man."
    Fast-forward nearly two decades and the gender pitfalls for male candidates were still alive and well at the September 13, 2000, New York Senate Debate between Rick Lazio and then first lady Hillary Clinton.
    The moment came when Lazio emerged from behind his podium and confronted Clinton with a pledge to ban soft money from the campaign. Nick Baumann and Patrick Caldwell at Mother Jones set the scene: "Clinton awkwardly tried to shake Lazio's hand as he towered over her, his finger wagging in her face." The towering image was accompanied by a testy exchange, where Lazio said, "Right here. Right here. Sign it right now. I want everyone to see your signature... Why don't you show some leadership? Because it goes to trust and character."
    The Washington Post lists the moment as one of the "worst debate moments ever," saying "Lazio came off as bullying and inappropriate." Indeed, that was the media narrative that followed. In the aftermath of the debate, Clinton veteran Howard Wolfson described Lazio as "menacing," and her aide Ann Lewis called Lazio "personally insulting."
    The media latched on to the Clinton campaign portrayal. Baumann and Caldwell write: "'In Your Face,' proclaimed a headline in the Daily News. Jon Stewart titled his segment on the debate 'Rodham 'N Creep.' Eventually, the Clinton campaign's depiction became the dominant assessment. Lazio was 'Darth Vader with dimples,' Gail Collins wrote in the New York Times later that week."
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    Clinton herself played into the narrative. When asked about the encounter, she commented: "The thing that probably prepared me best in dealing with things like that was having two younger brothers." Clinton went on to win the New York Senate race by double digits, and Lazio now admits the pledge was a mistake: "On substance, it was right -- and on style and perception, it was a mistake, which I regret."
    Unlike the Bush, Lazio, Sanders examples, where a male stereotype was at work, the narrative with regard to Sarah Palin-Joe Biden centered around a female stereotype (Palin was charming but naïve).
    In a book about post-feminist politics, Kristina Sheeler and Karrin Anderson detail the gender-oriented backlash aimed at Palin. Andrea Mitchell of NBC suggested that Palin "tried to charm her way through the hour and a half." The Washington Post claimed, "She twinkled and winked and piled on the perkiness..." while the New York Times' Alessandra Stanley characterized Palin as "a little sister who knows her older brother cannot hit back."
    In Time magazine, Joe Klein recalled, "the first words out of her mouth [being] 'Go to a kids' soccer game...'." He continued, "She had that folksy thing down—although I did notice... that when she tried to get cutesy with her folksiness, it didn't work." New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd even resorted to characterizing Palin as various types of Barbies -- "Caribous Barbie" and "Valentino Barbie."
    The Palin example suggests female candidates are not permitted to be "too feminine." Like Palin, Clinton confronts an expectation, one where she is expected to toe the line between firmness and femininity.
    History suggests that opposite gender debates, unfortunately, are accompanied by a host of expectations. Each candidate must tread carefully or risk running afoul of the gender stereotype they are subconsciously expected to conform to. Clinton and Trump both would be wise to let the past guide their future.