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on Gender Based Political Signifiers and Branding…

(I’m about to get fairly geeky here and do some semiotics work.. I’m going to try to not be too academic, because I’m really interested in opinions from everyone) I’ve been pondering a weird thought experiment the last ten minutes or so. We tend to prefer single name signifiers for our political figures as a kind of shorthand whenever possible. We don’t say “Donald Trump” or “Barack Obama” we just use “Trump” and “Obama”. They even do it. They don’t put “Barack” or “Donald” on bumper stickers or lawn signs. Then I started thinking about the fact that the political shorthand for Hillary Clinton is her first name rather than her last name… almost like she was Beyonce. This began to make me wonder if there was a gender-based bias in the way we assign the signifiers we use for our politicians

My default assumption was yes. Mostly because it’s a pretty safe default assumption when dealing with cultural theory to assume there is a gender based component. But that made me try to think it through a little bit.

The first obvious complicating factor that occurred to me was Bernie Sanders, who was commonly called simply “Bernie” in the press. So I immediately thought “what other women ran for president most recently” (not like there are that many to choose from) and so that brought me to Carly Fiorina and Jill Stein. The former, certainly was commonly called “Carly” during her campaign, though she was also referred to as Fiorina. But I really feel like the surname was used infrequently… certainly less frequently than Trump, Cruz, Rubio or most of her other male opponents.

Jill Stein, on the other hand, I almost entire associate as being referred to by her whole name “JillStein” as though it were entirely one word. As the Green candidate, she was certainly far less famous, so perhaps “Stein” alone, didn’t seem specific enough and “Jill” almost certainly wasn’t. Similarly though, Rand Paul is almost always referred to by his whole name.

So the factors that have occurred to me to be worth considering are familiarity, uniqueness, and of course gender. Bernie’s entire persona is based around being “one of the people.” That’s his whole schtick… in a way very similar to what Trump does… or W did. Folksy. But even more so. Sanders… or even “Senator Sanders” would stand to separate him a bit from his “I’m just like you” image. Calling him Bernie plays very well with the “most of my campaign financing is based on pocket change from ordinary Americans just like you” message. It feels like you could have a beer with him.

There’s also an issue of uniqueness. Hillary couldn’t just be “Clinton” because we already had a related president with than name. I expect that may also be why it’s so easy to say “W” instead of “Bush” and why we referred to his brother as “Jeb.” And this may play into the gendered factor. The first lady (which Hillary was) is a more familiar role by nature of its (at least theoretical) non-politicalness. And since the president is obviously more important he gets the surname. So we end up with Trump and Melania… or Obama and Michelle. Even for those presidents where we don’t use the true last name, the initials we use instead seem somehow more honorific (W and Laura, JFK and Jackie, FDR and Elenor).

The counter that occurs to me right away is Elizabeth Warren (granted not an actual candidate… at least not yet). Who we totally refer to as “Warren” but then her husband, Bruce Mann, isn’t a politician and isn’t really famous. Also, while she never took Mann’s name, it’s worth noting that Warren isn’t actually her maiden name either. She kept the name of her first husband, though I don’t know that most people know that. Even still, while not as often as Rand Paul or Jill Stein, I feel like Warren is referred to by the joint first and last construction far more often than say Trump is.

Therefore, I guess what I’m wondering is, does the presumed familiarity of the obviously gendered position of First Lady hurt her persona to the point that it is even codified in the name we use to refer to her? If so, does that have a direct effect on the perception fo her a a candidate. In effect, by being “Hillary” instead of “Clinton” or “Rodham” is she necessarily an extension to Bill Clinton in any reference to her in the same way that Jeb would necessarily carry the baggage of the other Bushes, but in which Rand Paul is easier to differentiate from Ron Paul? Or, does being “Hillary” humanize her in a way that she badly needed (even she admits that stiffness in her charisma is one of her biggest failings as a politician) in a way similar to what Bernie was going for?

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