Bernie Sanders’s Hair: or, Marked Women

Happy Rockober, readers!

I want to talk today about Bernie Sanders’s hair. (Whenever I have started to write this, I keep thinking about the fact that the cadence of “Bernie Sanders’s hair,” especially if you write it “Bernie Sanders’ hair,” sounds like the improvised Native American chant “John Wayne’s Teeth.” It was written by Sherman Alexie and featured in his movie Smoke Signals. It’s a big digression, but before we start, here is a relevant clip.)

So. Bernie’s hair.

A few days ago, I was looking up the Saturday Night Live skit spoofing the Democratic president debate earlier this month. I enjoyed the debate, and I wanted to see particularly the Larry David version of Bernie Sanders. Which can be seen here.

Ok. I ran across yet another clip. (Reader! Perhaps the secret subject of this post is clips!) This one had two young men talking about a conversation Bernie Sanders had with a New York Times reporter in which he scolded her for asking him whether, and I paraphrase their clip-within-a-clip (!), is it fair that Hillary Clinton’s hair gets more scrutiny than his does.

He responds incredulously, asking her to verify that she is actually asking about hair when he is trying to talk about massive income inequality in this country. Yep, she responds, I am, and then says something to the effect of “I can defend that—there’s a gendered reason.”

At that point, my meta really swung into action.

First, yes, for the past several decades, analysts have been pointing out that women’s appearance is often the focus of comment and criticism, whereas the appearance of public men (politicians, corporate leaders, etc.) is unremarked on, no matter what they look like. It’s been an issue gendered, yes.

But second, the larger point is that women were subjected to this extra scrutiny because they were what the scholar Deborah Tannen calls “marked.” (If you’ve been anywhere near English of Women’s Studies departments, you have very likely read her essay “Marked Women, Unmarked Men.” The text, helpfully, can be found here.)

Basically, Tannen pointed out that the styles women choose mean something, while the styles men choose, if they are basic office wear, don’t. They mean “basic guy” with no inflection. When clothes meant something—when the meaning had to be decided upon—the women could be subject to judgment or criticism. At the least, a higher level of scrutiny, a gender inequality when people simply don’t think about the way men look.

So as part of my discussion, I want to focus on two things. The first is that it is arguable that women today are not nearly as “marked” as they were when Deborah Tannen wrote her article in the early 1990s. Yes, commentators sometimes mention Hillary Clinton’s penchant for bright colors…but the firestorm over her wearing head bands, also in the early 1990s, was exponentially greater.

The proof of the “less marked than ever” theory, as I guess I’ll call it, was that Donald Trump tried a version of “markedness” on Carly Fiorina by deriding her looks. And, basically, he lost. People generally were much more with her. They supported her dignified response, regardless of what they felt about her being a presidential candidate. She dresses and wears her hair like a generic, regular-type corporate woman, and so, to a large degree, does Hillary Clinton. There is a recognizable female professional style, and they recognizably both walk within its boundaries.

In the sense that anyone who follows that style is no more marked than their respective male counterparts, that’s a victory for women. Trump’s remark may have been the last gasp of being able to deride professional women for looking any particular way, and the beginning of acceptance of their looks just as we accept the looks of every male presidential candidate without serious comment.

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