I know, and you probably do, too, women who drink beer. As a matter of fact, I am one myself. And while I’m aware that there’s whole lot of marketing out there that suggests that women just naturally prefer wine, whereas men, the more robust and less refined gender, prefer beer, I have learned, in the course of my adult life, to ignore it. In life, which is not very much like the neat and simple world depicted in advertising, it is possible to like wine and beer and mixed drinks without worrying too much about whether one is passing some litmus test of gender identity.
However, in the land of oversimplification and stereotyping that is advertising, gender is a very clearly demarcated, not-at-all-fluid attribute. There are only cis-women and cis-men. Women do laundry; men cook meat on the grill. Women care about smells emanating from furniture and carpets; men get sweaty (this is a fun presentation of more familiar imagery). Advertising both taps into and reinforces sexism by using clear visual tropes associated with traditional gender roles. And it works, not just to sell products and services, but to sell us ideas about who we are and how the world is: our coveting of the lifestyles associated with products in ads is a sort of side-effect of marketing. And so, long story short, we know very well by now who cracks open a beer and watches the game and who pours another glass of zinfandel at book club, whether we live our own lives by those rules or not.
Thus, when the “traditional” likeability test of presidential candidates starts to make the rounds in media coverage of a race — you know the question: “which candidate would you prefer to have a beer with?” — you can bet that manliness as a measure of “presidentiality” has entered the conversation. In past races that haven’t had any female candidates, the “beer test” measured the degree to which a male candidate was traditionally manly, in that particular American sense of the cowboy or the working-man (remember “Joe the Plumber”?). By that metric, George W. Bush was annointed “man of the people” and Al Gore deemed nerdy and stiff.
Now, although we’ve moved the needle to include women in the race to elect our head of state, the “beer test” remains, a metric that all of the female candidates will fail, because in the visual imagery we’ve associated with beer, women aren’t drinking it. They might be serving it. They’re probably wearing a bikini or a slinky dress and high heels near it. But beer is the beverage that men drink while they ogle women and sporting events in almost equal measure, consumers of all three. That’s what sexism has given us and advertising has taken advantage of. And that’s what sexism continues to deploy against women who dare to contend with men for the power to govern.
Why does mainstream media continue to participate in and propagate this kind of bigotry rather than reporting on it, exposing it for what it is, and helping to dismantle it for good? Why do we get coverage of Fox News panelists’ reactions to Elizabeth Warren’s beer-drinking, but precious little reporting on the female candidates themselves?
Why do we find opinion pieces like this one, which appears to mock “the beer test” but ends up accepting and propagating the familiar, strictly gendered ways in which men and women “naturally” inhabit the world? Changing the question to “who would you like to hang out with, doing whatever it is YOU like to do” does not touch the fundamental problem here, which is that a sexist litmus test is used in polling and treated by supposedly serious news outlets as a real measure of someone’s qualification for the presidency.
I read a lot of beautifully written essays, mostly in non-mainstream publications, and dazzlingly smart short-form commentary on outlets like Twitter, in which people tackle the systemic bigotry of America in its many manifestations. There are people doing the good work, to be sure. But the mainstream media, revered publications like the New York Times and The Washington Post, are failing to take on these issues. It’s not even that they gloss over the role that sexism plays in presidential races; it’s that they also fail to interrogate their own biases, which shape everything from the headlines they craft, to the people they profile and report on, to the columnists they provide a venue to.
The publications that lay claim to being the best in the field should already know the power they have over the flow and spin of information and opinion, and they should operate with more care and transparency. Otherwise, we might start to think that they’re invested rather than disinterested. The role of the free press is to provide a check on the powers that be; it is supposed to be an instrument of the people. But with their ongoing failure to risk controversy and take on the issues that divide us and oppress us, it starts to look as though they’re bidding to be kingmakers rather than reporters.