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The Media Gaslighting of 2020’s Most Likable Candidate

Elizabeth Warren has proven over and over that she’s a charismatic figure. Why do we keep casting her as a nagging schoolmarm?

Credit: Joseph Prezioso/Getty Images Plus

At CNN’s town hall event on Monday, the American people saw something we’d been told was impossible: Elizabeth Warren winning over a crowd.

The Massachusetts senator took aim at a variety of subjects: the Electoral College, Mississippi’s racist state flag, the rise of white nationalism. Always, she was met with thunderous applause. Even a simple Bible verse — from Matthew 25:35–40, about moral obligation to the poor and hungry — prompted cheers so loud and prolonged that Warren had to pause and repeat herself in order to make her voice heard over the noise. Yet this was the same woman the media routinely frames as too wonky, too nerdy, too socially stunted. But then, Warren has always been an exceptionally charismatic candidate. We just forget that fact when she’s campaigning — due, in large part, to our deep and lingering distrust for female intelligence.

Warren is bursting with what we might call “charisma” in male candidates: She has the folksy demeanor of Joe Biden, the ferocious conviction of Bernie Sanders, the deep intelligence of fellow law professor Barack Obama. But Warren is not a man, and so those traits are framed as liabilities, rather than strengths. According to the media, Warren is an uptight schoolmarm, a “wonky professor,” a scold, a wimpy Dukakis, a wooden John Kerry, or (worse) a nerdier Al Gore.

The criticism has hit her from the left and right. The far-right Daily Caller accused her of looking weird when she drank beer; on social media, conservatives spread vicious (and viciously ableist) rumors that Warren took antipsychotic drugs that treated “irritability caused by autism.” On the other end of the spectrum, Amber A’Lee Frost, the lone female co-host of the socialist podcast Chapo Trap House, wrote for The Baffler (and, when The Baffler retracted her article, for Jacobin) that Warren was “weak” and “not charismatic.” Frost deplored the “Type-A Tracy Flicks” who dared support “this Lisa Simpson of a dark-horse candidate.”

Casting Warren as a sheltered, Ivory Tower type is odd, given that her politics and diction are not exactly elitist. Yet none of this is new; the same stereotypes were levied against Warren in 2011, during her Senate campaign.

Strangely, the first nerdification of Warren was a purely local phenomenon — one which happened even as national media was falling in love with her. Jon Stewart publicly adored her, and her ingenuity in proposing the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau a few years prior earned her respect among the rising populist wing of the party. Her fame was further catapulted when a speech — a video of Warren speaking, seemingly off-the-cuff, in a constituent’s living room — went viral. “Nobody in this country got rich on his own, nobody,” Warren proclaimed, pointing up the ways entrepreneurs benefit from publicly funded services like roads and schools and fire departments.

“First-time candidates don’t usually articulate a progressive economic message quite this well,” the Washington Monthly declared. The New Yorker called it “the most important political speech of this campaign season.” That enthusiasm continued throughout Warren’s first Senate bid. Writing for the New York Times, Rebecca Traister noted that “the early devotion to Warren recalls the ardor once felt by many for Obama.” (Obama himself famously echoed Warren’s message — “you didn’t build that” — on the 2012 campaign trail.)

Locally, Warren prompted a much different discussion, with scores of Massachusetts analysts describing her as stiff and unlikable. Boston-based Democratic analyst Dan Payne bemoaned her “know-it-all style” and wished aloud she would “be more authentic… I want her to just sound like a human being, not read the script that makes her sound like some angry, hectoring schoolmarm.” In a long profile for Boston magazine, reporter Janelle Nanos quoted Thomas Whalen, a political historian at Boston University, who called Warren a “flawed candidate,” someone who was “desperately trying to find a message that’s going to resonate.” In that same article, Nanos asked Warren point-blank about her “likability problem.” Warren’s response seemed to stem from deep frustration: “People tell me everywhere I go why they care that I got in this race,” she said. “I can’t answer the question because I literally haven’t experienced what you’re talking about.”

By demanding that Warren disguise her exceptional talents, we are asking her to lose. Thankfully, she’s not listening.

There’s an element of gaslighting here: It only takes a reporter a few sources — and an op-ed columnist a single, fleeting judgment — to declare a candidate “unlikable.” After that label has been applied, any effort the candidate makes to win people over can be cast as “inauthentic.” Likability is in this way a self-reinforcing accusation, one which is amplified every time the candidate tries to tackle it. (Recall Hillary Clinton, who was asked about her “likability” at seemingly every debate or town hall for eight straight years — then furiously accused of pandering every time she made an effort to seem more “approachable.”)

It’s significant that the “I hate you; please respond” line of political sabotage only ever seems to be aimed at women. It’s also revealing that, when all these men talked about how Warren could win them over, their “campaign” advice sounded suspiciously close to makeover tips. In his article, Payne advised Warren to “lose the granny glasses,” “soften the hair,” and employ a professional voice coach to “deepen her voice, which grates on some.” Payne seemed to suggest that Elizabeth Warren look like a model and sound like a man — anything to disguise the grisly reality of a smart woman making her case.

Warren won her Senate race, and the “schoolmarm” stereotype largely vanished as her national profile grew. By 2014, grassroots activists were begging her to run for president; by mid-2016, CNN had named her “Donald Trump’s chief antagonist.” She’s since given a stream of incendiary interviews and handed the contemporary women’s movement its most popular meme. All this should be enough to prove any candidate’s “charisma.” Yet, now that she’s thrown her hat into the presidential ring, the firebrand has become a Poindexter once again.

The digs at Warren’s “professorial” style hurt her because, on some level, they’re true. Warren really is an intellectual, a scholar; moreover, she really is running an exceptionally ideas-focused campaign, regularly turning out detailed and exhaustive policy proposals at a point when most of the other candidates don’t even have policy sections on their websites. What’s galling is the suggestion that this is a bad thing.

Yes, male candidates have suffered from being too smart — just ask Gore, who ran on climate change 20 years before it was trendy. But just as often, their intelligence helps them. Obama’s sophistication and public reading lists endeared him to liberals. And just a few days ago, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg was widely praised for learning Norwegian in order to read an author’s untranslated works. Yet, Warren is dorky, a teacher’s pet, a try-hard Tracy Flick, or Lisa Simpson. A “know-it-all.”

The “schoolmarm” stereotype now applied to Warren has always been used to demean educated women. In the Victorian era, we called them “bluestockings” — unmarried, unattractive women who had dared to prioritize intellectual development over finding a man. They are, in the words of one contemporary writer, “frumpy and frowly in the extreme, with no social talents.” Educators say that 21st century girls are still afraid to talk in class because of “sexist bullying” which sends the message that smart girls are unfeminine: “For girls, peers tell them ‘if you are swotty and clever and answer too many questions, you are not attractive,’” claims Mary Bousted, joint general-secretary of the U.K.’s National Education Union. Female academics still report being made to feel “unsexual, unattractive, unwomanly, and unnatural.” We can deplore all this as antiquated thinking, but even now, grown men are still demanding that Warren ditch her glasses or “soften” her hair — to work on being prettier so as to make her intelligence less threatening.

Warren is cast as a bloodless intellectual when she focuses on policy, a scolding lecturer when she leans into her skills as a rabble-rouser; either way, her intelligence is always too much and out of place. Her eloquence is framed, not as inspiring, but as “angry” and “hectoring.” Being an effective orator makes her “strident.” It’s not solely confined to the media, but reporters seem anxious to signal-boost anyone who complains: Anonymous male colleagues call her “irritating,” telling Vanity Fair that “she projects a ‘holier than thou’ attitude” and that “she has a moralizing to her.” That same quality in male candidates is hailed as moral clarity.

Warren is accused, in plain language, of being uppity — a woman who has the bad grace to be smarter than the men around her, without downplaying it to assuage their egos. But running in a presidential race is all about proving that you are smarter than the other guy. By demanding that Warren disguise her exceptional talents, we are asking her to lose. Thankfully, she’s not listening. She is a smart woman, after all.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Seen at Elle, In These Times & all across the Internet.

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