Hillary Clinton's Biggest Obstacle: Sexism Or That Vague 'Likability' Factor?

One writer worries voters are ignoring the real issues in favor of high school-style politics and 'gut' feelings.

Every election hinges on a weird X factor: likability. It's proof that politics haven't changed since high school student council elections (especially if you were, say, Tracy Flick). It's the nebulous quality that leads candidates to worry about trivialities — like Edwards' $400 haircut, Obama's middle name (Hussein) or Clinton's choice of pantsuit. It's one of the factors that landed George W. in the White House: a whole boatload of Americans just felt like they could have a backyard BBQ with the guy (the baby-back-ribs edge!).

But while "likability" is a powerful weapon — check out how far Obama has gotten brandishing his truly awesome JFK-ishness — it's also dangerously fuzzy around the edges, leaving wiggle room for something more insidious to slip into the public consciousness, from racism to sexism to religious intolerance.

One of the front-runners in particular seems to be bearing the brunt of this pressure, and I think we all know I'm talking about the woman in the pantsuit. It can be pretty off-putting to see someone try so damn hard, and she has at times come off as a bit of a robot in her public appearances. But when we talk about the personality of the first viable female candidate for the country's highest office, are we really talking about something else? When younger women voters — one of the groups candidates hope to bring to the polls in larger numbers this election — fail to respond to her message (as happened in Iowa), what's going on?

I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I assume that a lot of those young women are voting based not on policy issues but on personality. I'm a little bit over some of the reasons the young women I've talked to have given for not siding with Clinton: "She just seems kind of cold," "She's not genuine," "I just hate her." I nearly lost it when one of my best friends told me she was seriously thinking of voting for Hillary — partly because of her experience, partly because she's a woman — but scared that she couldn't justify it to her Obama-loving friends. How did a vote for Hillary become a dirty secret?

Maybe it has something to do with how, in spite of the cultural consensus that we're living in a post-feminist age, we have a hard time believing that a woman candidate can bring on the political revolution that a lot of young voters are eager for right now. Maybe it's because Obama seems a lot like a hero straight out of central casting — a handsome, articulate, young guy whose delivery is easy like Sunday morning, even when he's rehashing the same campaign-stop one-liners. He's an African-American Clark Kent in a suit. What would it take to make a female candidate seem as likable, especially to younger women? Does she need to come off like your best friend? Or the world's hippest mom? Does she need to seem encouragingly insecure about how she even got this far in the first place? Or does she have to come close to tears? Isn't there something sexist about the fact that Clinton's choke-up in New Hampshire is being championed as her "breakthrough" moment? Do we need to see a woman lose it emotionally in order to find her believable? (Your cultural studies professor would probably call this "performing femininity.") How does this make her a more viable candidate than nearly any other moment when she's had her sh-- together?

On another note, one of the most surreal conversations this election has inspired is the now pretty well-worn racism-vs.-sexism discussion. Seriously, when did it become a given that it would be more historically significant to elect a black man as president than a woman? There are plenty of conservative religious groups in this country that still subscribe to strict notions of the roles women are capable of playing. And wouldn't it be incredible to see those antiquated notions exploded? If this is really a post-feminist time we're living in, then why is this little think piece so hard to write without worrying I could come off as some pseudo-oppressed harpy? Bringing up this kind of talk is pretty unpopular, even in the mostly liberal MTV newsroom, and that's troubling. How did younger women lose the ability to talk about what makes our experience different from men's?

But back to likability. The bottom line is, because of a whole range of cultural prejudices that we may or may not be conscious of, those vague "gut" feelings on which a lot of us may be basing our votes can be pretty dodgy. Go ahead and support whomever you feel you need to support. But if you're going to hate on Clinton — or Obama or Edwards or McCain — do it because of something more specific, something more relevant, than personality. In this incredibly important election, we should all have real reasons for our choices. Let's steer clear of likability, a smokescreen for so many lazy biases. Vote because of the war. Vote because you can't see a doctor without having to pay thousands out of your own pocket. Vote because the jobs are leaving your town. Vote because you realize you can't afford to go to college. Let's not vote based on which candidate we think is kinda "genuine." After all, that whole BBQ-and-brew mentality is what got us in this mess in the first place. And at the end of the day, not many people actually have a BFF who they truly believe could run the country.