Hillary Clinton debated circles around Donald Trump during Monday night’s presidential debate. She had prepared, coherent answers, while Trump had unprepared, chaotic word salad. She subtly baited him into flying off the handle and loudly interrupting her, while she kept smiling and maintained her cool. It was a masterful performance.
But for many women watching the debate, it was also a frustrating reminder of just how hard Clinton has to work to overcome sexist double standards — and how hard most women have to work every day to do the same.
Maacah Davis, founder of Belladonna Magazine, perfectly captured this frustration in a Facebook post. Davis said that Clinton is "every woman who has ever been challenged by a guy who had no idea what he was talking about" but who still has to "pretend that his opinions and feelings are just as valid as the facts her experience have taught her."
Davis said Clinton has every right to "blow her top," as Trump so often does — but that if Clinton did the same, she’d be "crucified."
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the public firestorm if Clinton ever did truly "blow her top." She already gets criticized for seeming too angry or unpleasant — just because she supposedly doesn’t smile enough or speaks too loudly in front of large crowds.
Clinton’s critics may needle her for "shouting," but they probably wouldn’t even know how to handle a genuinely angry, shouting outburst from Clinton of the kind that the more pugnacious Trump unleashed several times during the debate.
Worse, many Americans probably won’t even hold Trump’s outbursts against him.
Vox’s Dara Lind worried while watching Monday’s debate that even though Trump’s sexism and absurdity seemed obvious, it might not read that way to everyone. Maybe most Americans focused on the moments when Clinton tried to talk over Trump’s interruptions, or maybe they saw her smiles and laughter as a sign of smugness.
The Atlantic’s David Frum actually criticized Clinton for smiling too much, even though pundits telling Clinton to smile more has become something of a sexist refrain in campaign coverage:
Who told Hillary Clinton to keep smiling like she’s at her granddaughter’s birthday party?— David Frum (@davidfrum) September 27, 2016
At least a few observers used the word "smug" to describe Clinton — notably Fox’s Brit Hume, who added that Clinton was "not necessarily attractive." (Hume later clarified that he was analyzing the "demeanor" of both candidates, and that he wasn't referring to Clinton's looks.)
The Economist’s Twitter account also suggested that Clinton "looking smug" could have been as big a mistake as Trump lying and dissembling about his "birther" conspiracy theories:
Guys. pic.twitter.com/PWv04KNwgy— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) September 27, 2016
And disturbingly, Republican strategist Frank Luntz said he received this text from an unnamed Republican member of Congress:
Text from a GOP friend of mine in Congress.— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) September 27, 2016
I'm sorry, Congressman, but tonight Hillary is coming across as presidential. #DebateNight pic.twitter.com/DsEEV2FSho
All of this feeds into why the debate was so frustrating for so many women, even though Clinton performed well. She can smile less, or she can smile more. She can try to walk the line between authoritative and being likable. She can try — but the thing about double standards is that they’re never really supposed to be met.
It’s not just that Clinton has to maintain perfect grace in the face of a perfectly graceless opponent. It’s not just that she has to smile when she might prefer to shout in order to avoid activating sexist resentments. It’s that those sexist resentments seem to follow her no matter what she does.