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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?


6 comments for “on Gender Based Political Signifiers and Branding…

  1. June 21, 2018 at 7:20 pm

    I completely think it’s mostly just a shorthand, gym teacher thing and the switch from purely last name is to differentiate. (I hate being called solely by my last name like gym teachers always do.)

    Clinton, Bush, and even Sanders can conjure multiple persons to mind. (How many ‘Muricans would have thought of a fried chicken mascot before a politician back at the beginning of his campaign?)

    We also tend to do that with the Kennedys, Roosevelts, and other celebs like the Jacksons and Baldwins.

    1. mav
      June 22, 2018 at 11:39 am

      All the comments are screwed up because Facebook syncing isn’t working correctly anymore. But I was dealing with those issues in the responses to other people as well.

      Yes, I think there’s some of that. I think it’s a conflation of factors.

  2. June 22, 2018 at 7:26 am

    Yeah, I think that it’s certainly more common in society in general to refer to men by last name than women. I expect it’s a vestige of the same customs that of marital ownership that resulted in women changing their last names rather than men. So, even though that’s less common now, the custom still remains.

  3. June 22, 2018 at 7:33 am

    yeah… I was thinking about that when I wrote this and then sort of forgot to put it in.

    So thinking it through… being “the Donald” was very much an attempt to brand himself as a hollywood playboy. That was like his 80s persona… his 21st century persona was more “tycoon business man.” It’s when he started referring to himself in the third person and stuff like that. I like to think he patterned it very much on the “evil billionaire” persona Vince McMahon uses (they’re good friends), right down to the “you’re fired!” catchphrase. I don’t think they ever referred to him as “the Donald” on The Apprentice.

    So maybe it’s like the thing I said with Bernie… there was a direct rhetorical move… an attempt to make himself accessible as The Donald but then untouchable as “Mr. Trump”

  4. June 22, 2018 at 7:37 am

    certainly a fair point. Especially on Arnold. But Hillary is certainly longer to say than “Clinton” and W has more syllables than Bush. But of course, both of those have the ambiguity problems and of course the gender problem with Hillary. That’s why I think it’s a conflation of all of the issues. Obama certainly isn’t an “easy” name… Barack is clearly simpler. But we got used to it.

  5. June 23, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    I guess the best way to look at it is that it did l… she changed it because everyone just kept mispronouncing it the way she spells it now. So in a sense the natural consensus rejected her name and rechristened her.

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