Pete Buttigieg, Hillary Clinton, and who gets to show emotion in American politics

Last night the New York Times editorial board endorsed Senator Amy Klobuchar and/or Senator Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic nomination. Leaving aside the arguments for and against each of these candidates as well as the arguments over whether endorsing two candidates makes sense (I think it does), I want to—quelle surprise—talk about Pete Buttigieg. Chiefly, I want to talk about Mayor Pete, emotiveness, and who gets to be expressive in American politics and culture.

First, let’s get something out of the way. I am supporting Pete Buttigieg for president. I think the New York Times’ interview was at times very unfair to him, especially Binyamin Appelbaum’s outright lies about his time as a consultant for McKinsey. I am not happy with the Times’ endorsement, though I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Mayor Pete was the fourth-place pick of the editorial board (behind Warren, Klobuchar, and erstwhile candidate Senator Cory Booker).

With that said, there was an exchange that I think is worth discussing in a bit more detail than I’ve seen discussed elsewhere. In response to Appelbaum asking whether he feels the same anger a lot of young people feel about the state of the country, Mayor Pete answered that “while I may not be as emotive sometimes about my sense of anger or frustration or injustice – and I would argue that some people are given more room to be emotive than others – I would not be doing any of this if I were not propelled by a level of passion.” While debating the pros and cons of each candidate (as shown on The Weekly), Michelle Cottle complained that “Pete talking about how he doesn’t emote as much as some, that’s a real problem. I mean voters love that ‘I feel your pain’ stuff,” prompting Lauren Kelley to rightly point out “he also almost surely would be painted in some unfair way if the gay man on the trail was overly emotional, right? I mean, it’s a bind.”

Indeed, it is a bind – one in which many gay men have found themselves. I don’t know if Pete Buttigieg meant to imply that others have more leeway to be emotive because he’s gay or not (he never expressly says), and I understand the point Cottle was making. Voters really do love a passionate, emotive candidate – think Bill Clinton, think Bernie Sanders, think Donald Trump – though Barack Obama showed that sometimes cool-as-a-cucumber works, too.  But Kelley raises a point that I think is important to make, if not about Mayor Pete specifically, about politics and business in general. Who gets to be emotive, and who gets dismissed when they’re emotive, is something worth discussing.

Gay men have long been portrayed as flamboyant and dramatic, from Nathan Lane’s character in The Birdcage to Jack McFarlane in Will and Grace right on up to Cam on Modern Family. There’s nothing wrong with being flamboyant and dramatic—lots of gay men (myself included, frankly) are, just as lots of all sorts of people are. For a long time, though, the stock character of the gay “drama queen” was the predominant depiction of gay men in pop culture, and that image has become a stereotype of gay men in general. The problem arises not because some gay men are dramatic, emotional, emotive, or flamboyant, but because the straight world assumes that when a gay man is dramatic, emotional, emotive, or flamboyant it is because he is gay and that is, inherently, a bad thing.

As I said above, I’m an expressive and sometimes flamboyant gay man. I’ve never felt any shame in this. One of my nicknames among my friends in high school—given in good nature— was “Bitchy Diva Queen.” (The other was “Zazu,” because I always knew the gossip.) The nickname itself didn’t bother me. The way my emotions were often dismissed because of it, though, did. I developed a thick skin back then—you had to as an openly gay boy in a southeastern Kentucky high school in the early 00s—but when something really did upset me, such as sophomore year, when a group of bullies apparently planned to attack me, my genuine fear, anger, or hurt was dismissed as being “overly dramatic” by my friends, my classmates, and even the administration.

This attitude followed me into adulthood. I was heavily involved in student government during college. During one contentious meeting at a retreat, frustrated, I got up to go smoke (a filthy habit, I know). This was allowed considering how long the meeting was going; people were taking breaks as needed. I walked quickly and with purpose (as I always do, a product of trying to make it from one class to the next without getting attacked in high school), hurrying outside to light a cigarette. The next thing I know the student body president—my boss, as her chief of staff— is outside chastising me for “storming out.” When I tried to explain that I simply needed a cigarette, she wouldn’t hear it, dressing me down for being so dramatic.

Even into the professional world, even in a big blue dot like Chicago, this attitude has prevailed. When I was in meetings with management at the corporate headquarters of a large American mortgage company, I often felt dismissed if I showed even a hint of emotion. One well-meaning boss, who herself could often be heard cussing and screaming from her desk, suggested that I “tone it down” a bit. Another not well-meaning—and to no one’s surprise, male—boss told me to “stop being a diva and stop complaining,” even though I was one of several employees—though the only gay man—raising concerns that day.

Learning to keep cool is an important skill for anyone of any background, because sometimes you can’t just fly off the handle—and sometimes you won’t want to. I’ll be the first to admit there have been times that I have let my emotions get the better of me, when people had every right to pull me aside and tell me to chill out. I think that’s happened to most of us. For many years, this was compounded by an undiagnosed anxiety disorder which I only discovered I had in my late twenties. But time and again, people have somehow linked my emotiveness with my sexuality, othering me in the process.

This is why it matters who gets to be emotive and who does not. Hillary Clinton famously had a similar problem in 2008, when she was first accused of being cold and unfeeling. When she did show emotion at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, she was pilloried for it. “ A common first instinct was to treat the episode as a ploy, a calculated effort to ‘humanize’ the candidate—an interpretation that depended heavily on its having been somehow staged or faked,” Hendrik Hertzberg wrote at the time in The New Yorker, “but the authenticity of Clinton’s emotion was apparent to anyone who took the time to study the many replays with an open mind…”

Hillary Clinton herself has addressed this double standard several times. In 2016, she told the viral photography project Humans of New York she “had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.” In her 2017 memoir What Happened, she rightly called this “another variant on the impossible balancing act” women must perform in order to show enough emotion to be quote-unquote likable while not showing so much that they’re thought of as quote-unquote shrill or overwrought. “If we’re too composed, we’re cold or fake. But if we say what we think without caution, we get slammed for it,” she writes. “Can you blame us for feeling like we can’t win, no matter what we do?”

I suspect the similar double standard experienced by Hillary Clinton and—it must be said, to a lesser degree—Pete Buttigieg is rooted in the same patriarchal, misogynist notions about how women and gay men behave. It’s why when a straight man gets angry, he’s “passionate,” when a gay man gets angry, he’s “dramatic,” and when a woman gets angry, she’s “hysterical.” This is further compounded by race, with tropes such as the “angry black woman” making it even more difficult for Black women specifically, and women of colour more generally, to be allowed space to have and show emotions without ridicule or prejudice. Black men, too, are often viewed as angry or violet where white men aren’t, as a 2017 American Psychological Association study reveals.

Homophobic, sexist, and racist double standards influence how we perceive people’s emotions and emotiveness. Mayor Pete never says why he can’t be as emotive as others, nor does he say who gets to be more emotive than he does. Zooming out from him and looking at the culture more broadly, though, it’s clear that in America, not everyone is equally free to express themselves. So long as stereotypes and double standards continue to affect who gets to show emotion and how that emotion is perceived, we should all remember that sometimes a candidate is guarded not because they aren’t passionate, but because they aren’t allowed to be.

Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.

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