Was Hillary Clinton's defeat in last year's election in large part the fault of the male journalists recently outed as sexual harassers? This increasingly popular theory -- advanced by, among others, New York Times opinion writer Jill Filipovic and late-night television talk show host Samantha Bee -- is a post-Harvey Weinstein, post-#MeToo twist on the familiar claim that Clinton's loss to Donald Trump was obviously due to rampant misogyny.
Now, for many Clinton supporters, allegations of sexual misconduct made against journalists such as ABC's Mark Halperin and NBC's Matt Lauer prove the point: Clinton couldn't get a fair shake when so much media coverage of the campaign was shaped by lecherous men harboring profound contempt for women.
However much such arguments resonate, they badly miss the mark, eliding Clinton's flaws while misunderstanding the Trump phenomenon and offering a blinkered and simplistic view of gender dynamics.
It is not self-evident that sexism primarily explains how Trump could beat a vastly more qualified female candidate. Early on, he also beat more than a dozen more qualified male candidates in the Republican primaries. Consider that Trump got away with mocking a war hero and facing credible fraud lawsuits; Marco Rubio never recovered from repeating a talking point four times in one debate. The reasons Trump triumphed are complicated. Among other things, he was the outsider who did not play by normal rules, and he benefited from low expectations.
Yes, plenty of misogyny was directed at Clinton, but there was also feminist passion in her favor. And when the second Trump-Clinton debate was restaged earlier this year, with genders reversed, the reaction upended the assumption that a female candidate could have never gotten away with acting like Trump: Viewers sympathized with the female version of Trump and detested the male version of Clinton.
Those who blame Clinton's defeat on misogyny often point to a 2010 study supposedly showing that people feel "moral outrage" toward a female politician seen as ambitious. But this claim is based on highly misleading summaries. The study subjects who read a biography of a fictional state senator identified as "John Burr" or "Ann Burr" gave Ann -- but not John -- somewhat less positive ratings when she was described as highly ambitious, with "a strong will to power." However, the "moral outrage" (anger, contempt, or disgust) expressed toward her was negligible: The average score was 1.62 on a scale of 1 to 7, compared to 1.45 for the ambitious man. And when the text made no mention of ambition, "Ann" got much more positive ratings than "John."
These findings echo other recent research, mostly by female scholars such as Dartmouth professor Deborah Jordan Brooks, showing that overall in 21st century U.S. politics, being female tends to be a plus. In a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, female leaders were overwhelmingly seen as more compassionate than men. A substantial minority of respondents (more than one in four) believed that men were more likely to be decisive, but nearly one in three gave women an edge in being honest.
Of course, in Clinton's case, perceived honesty was one of her weak spots. Her supporters attribute that to bias in the media, now with ammunition from the sexual harassment scandals. Filipovic notes that Halperin was a "harsh critic" of Clinton, while Lauer and recently ousted CBS veteran Charlie Rose grilled her aggressively on her alleged mishandling of classified email.
But whatever these men's offenses (which range from alleged sexual assault to alleged awkward advances), does their presumed sexism really explain the view of Clinton as untrustworthy or insincere? Would any self-respecting journalist have failed to ask tough questions about the email scandal, the subject of a federal probe? What about harsh Clinton critics in the media who were female, such as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd? The post-Weinstein blame game cannot account for the fact that Harvey the misogynist was one of Clinton's biggest Hollywood allies and proud feminist Susan Sarandon one of her most outspoken foes.
Weinstein's support for Clinton is easy to see as a hypocritical mask, but the facile assumption that all sexual harassers are, in Bee's words, "men who hate women" underrates human complexity. Misogyny hardly explains same-sex harassment, or the fact that sexual abusers are often abusive bullies toward other males.
People, including sexual harassers, compartmentalize. A man may treat some women as sexual playthings while recognizing others for their abilities. It's true of Trump, who has had high-level female associates and was once a great fan of Hillary Clinton. It is also true of one of Clinton's staunchest supporters: her husband.
Whether or not Bill Clinton is a sexual predator, there is little doubt that he is a womanizer who has behaved badly toward women at times. Yet he also has a long history of working with women as equals, appointing them to top posts and, more recently, of being a gracious helpmate in his wife's political career. That does not excuse his past behavior. But it would be absurd to suggest that, were he suddenly to become a TV pundit, his commentary on female politicians should be flagged for poisonous misogyny.
When tough criticism or grilling of female public figures is met with cries of sexism, it amounts to a call for treating women with kid gloves. That's the opposite of equality.