Bernie Sanders’s Hair: or, Marked Men

So, having argued in my last post that professional women are less marked than ever, here’s what I think of Bernie Sanders’s hair. Sanders’s hair is commented upon not less than Clinton’s, I think, but more. (Admittedly, this is a personal sample based on what I read and hear, but I think it’s true.) The fact that his hair is sometimes not neatly combed, or blows in the wind, is alluded to and often serves as a frame for his ideas, particularly on television. (For a perfect representation of the icon of his hair, and one that also ties in the upcoming Halloween holiday, see here.) He’s not neatly coiffed according to some abstract presidential candidate standard, I guess. (Although it looks ok to me.) The sense that he doesn’t look right also underlies some of the Saturday Night Live debate satire, which focused on his having one set of underwear (!). He himself played into this, telling reporters that when he was first elected to office in Vermont, he only had one suit.

And I think it’s commented on more because Bernie Sanders himself is marked. Marked isn’t specifically a gender category, I think, it’s a category having to do with marginality or outsiderness. (Tannen’s article was written when only so many women were in the boardroom, so their presence just attracted heightened scrutiny.) Because of his Vermont-ness (rural state, mix of liberal and gun control, and so forth), his espousal of economic issues few people were talking about before he brought them to the table, and his accent, he isn’t just any generic guy running for president.

And this brings me to a third central point. The exchange between Bernie and the Times is a debate of sorts. On the one side, he assumes that hair is a trivial thing to be asking a presidential candidate about. On the other, the reporter says it’s a valid gender issue. I think both are correct if we delete the word gender.

The problem, really, is that the Times relied on shopworn observations and analysis, because it is Sanders who is the marked candidate in the race, not Clinton. The stance also illustrates the perils of relying on outworn social observations as much as political or economic ones in politics. Social observations change and become outmoded. It takes constant testing of the wind to see what is really, in fact, happening, not relying on decades-old truisms.

In that sense, Sanders’s incredulity about being asked what he seemed to interpret as a fashion question when he was trying to get out an important economic message was a breath of fresh air.

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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.