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Sexist insults have dogged Clinton for years. And now they’re part of presidential elections.

Anti-Hillary Clinton buttons for sale at the RNC
Anti-Hillary Clinton buttons for sale at the RNC.
Getty Images

Vendors may have packed up their wares from the Democratic and Republican national conventions, but there will only be more interest in candidate memorabilia this summer and fall, as voters side with their candidates. Yet one unmistakable theme of the merch marketed toward the right is the bombastic, sexist language used to characterize Donald Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton.

The Clinton messaging on buttons, bumper stickers, and T-shirts in Cleveland, at campaign stops, and on the tables of random street vendors — usually made cheaply by private sellers — aim for the gutter. After decades of Clinton in the national spotlight, none of it is really surprising (or that clever): someone holding a "Trump vs. Tramp" sign stood on the streets of Cleveland on Monday; "Life’s a bitch, don’t vote for one" featuring Clinton’s face and "KFC Hillary Special: 2 Fat Thighs, 2 Small Breasts … Left Wing" pins are for sale; a T-shirt with an image of Trump riding toward the White House on a motorcycle as Clinton falls off proclaims, "If you can read this, the bitch fell off."

Missing from the merchandise tables in Philadelphia were similar pins proclaiming Trump a "man whore" or comparing the size of his penis to any type of fried chicken. For women like Clinton (who is an especially divisive figure), no matter how powerful they become, their gender remains front and center, putting ridiculously sexualized terms at the ready.

But for men like Trump, the barbs just aren’t the same. The male versions of these insults don’t really exist, at least not with the same potency. For the first time in American history, a woman is running for president as the candidate of a major political party — but she’s going to have to slog through a slew of sexist insults on her way to Election Day.

Sexist, low-rent insults officially enter presidential politics

Degrading slurs like "bitch" and "tramp" are exclusively reserved for women, Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen told Vox.

"In our culture, the very notion of woman or female is sexual by definition," Tannen said. "It is always at the top or very close to the top of most people’s imagination when they think of a woman in any context. She’s always on the very edge of being stigmatized for being too sexual."

Under this rationale, women constantly straddle the thin line between being "the lady or the tramp." And running for high political office isn’t exactly seen as ladylike.

Clinton herself has shared her own experience, with rising disapproval ratings when she’s campaigning for office.

"It’s always amusing to me that when I have a job, I have really high approval ratings," Clinton said to Vox’s Ezra Klein earlier this month. "When I’m actually doing the work, I get reelected with 67 percent of the vote running for reelection in the Senate. When I’m secretary of state, I have a 66 percent approval rating."

And yet, she continued, "then I seek a job, I run for a job, and all of the discredited negativity comes out again. And all of these arguments and attacks start up."

It may be because the qualities associated with power, like strength and confidence, are interpreted differently when a woman displays them. One of the most common complaints about Clinton is that she’s "shrill" or "abrasive." Both of these terms are how the strong leadership characteristics we see in men are interpreted when the same behavior is displayed by women. Being a strong leader goes against societal gender norms of how a woman should behave.

"The language people use for Hillary, a lot of it is the language people use for powerful or threatening women in particular," Tannen said. "They are shrill. They are abrasive. These are documented to be used much more for women than men."

But why would a strong woman be threatening in the first place? She is running for the most powerful position in US government — shouldn’t strength be required to handle the job? Trump’s supporters tout their candidate’s toughness and strength. But Clinton is in what Tannen calls a "double bind," in which a person obeys two commands but anything she does to fulfill one violates the other. Being strong is a characteristic attributed to a leader, but not to a woman.

In Time, Tannen writes, "the requirements of a good leader and a good woman are mutually exclusive. A good leader must be tough, but a good woman must not be. A good woman must be self-deprecating, but a good leader must not be."

Clinton isn’t applauded for her own toughness; instead, that same tough quality is twisted into her being abrasive or "cold." At least, that’s what remains true when stuck in the double bind.

These aren’t just barbs. Trump uses the sentiments to his advantage.

Even admonishing these terms, though, brings about calls against so-called political correctness, which University of California Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg says people are simply sick of. The fact that these slurs are appearing on Trump paraphernalia matches up with the backlash against political correctness he’s trumpeted throughout his campaign, which has been a draw for many of his supporters.

"[He’s] being straightforward and honest, and not kowtowing to liberal sensibilities," Nunberg said to Vox. "It sort of gives people license to say the things that are on their mind without feeling guilt or shame or qualms about them, to express racist and sexist feelings. That’s what got people excited about Trump."

Trump fans often praise his ability to just "say what he means," no matter how racist or sexist his comments are. Nunberg believes that’s one of the things that has made Trump so popular. Instead of hiding racist or sexist feelings, Trump openly proclaims them, giving voice to many who believe they’ve been stifled from expressing their true feelings. When someone calls him on the racist or sexist element of something he said, he retorts with the accusation that they’re "being politically correct."

The presence of this sexist use of language in the election cycle isn’t surprising, but it is demoralizing. Although the US has the first major party female candidate for president, the sexist language already evident throughout the election cycle is a strong reminder of just how much progress still needs to be made before women and men are equally evaluated for leadership positions in this country.

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