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'Morning Joe' gets heat for telling Clinton to 'smile.' But was it sexist?

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough has been slammed by the media for telling presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to 'smile.' He says he wasn't trying to be sexist, but does that matter?

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during an election night event at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., Tuesday, March 15, 2016.

‘Morning Joe’ host Joe Scarborough sent out a seven-word tweet Tuesday night that launched a thousand ships. A fleet of feminist crusaders mounted a viral attack against the MSNBC talk show host, defending Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton against what they perceived as a sexist remark.

But ‘Morning Joe’ hasn’t backtracked or apologized. He says he stands behind his comment.

In his opinion, he insists, telling Hillary to smile is kind of an act of feminism in itself. He says he is practicing gender-blindness by allowing Hillary to be subject to the same criticism as men. After all, that is only fair to her and the American people. 

“We’ve hammered all candidates on their style and substance. We try to hold all candidates to the same standard,” he tweeted at 6:51 am Wednesday morning.

And in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post Wednesday night, Scarborough points out that he slammed Trump’s negative post-win attitude just as hard. 

“But to those suggesting that critiquing a woman in the same way that one would critique a man is unfair, I can only say that there are no microaggressions when you are running for the highest office in the land,” says Scarborough. 

“No man should say ‘smile’ to a woman walking down the street,” explains Scarborough. “But Clinton is not a pedestrian on her way to work. She is the most experienced politician on the national stage today who wants to be the next president of the United States. Critiquing anyone’s political skills who seeks that office is always fair game. Whether your name is Donald, Ted or Hillary.” 

But thing is, say feminists and gender experts, he didn’t. 

Female politicians experience a double bind, explained Deborah Tannen, an expert on gender and linguistics at Georgetown University, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor on Thursday. And a double bind is different from a double standard. A double bind means there are two mutually exclusive demands, and anything you do to satisfy one violates the other. All female politicians experience a double bind because the demands of being a woman violate the demands of being a strong leader. 

“He didn’t tweet Trump should smile,” says Dr. Tannen. “He is saying he would now, but at the time he didn’t tweet Trump should smile. But he did tweet Hillary should smile, even though he admits now that she does smile more. It’s the invisible hand of the double bind.” 

And why did he not tweet about Trump’s frown Tuesday night? Probably because it didn’t even register to him, says Tannen.

“You don’t notice when the men don’t smile because you don’t expect them too – and when [Hillary] does smile you don’t notice because it is part of the landscape, it is what you expect. People notice what is unexpected,” adds Tannen. “The trickiest thing about the double bind is that it’s invisible. The reason you are responding the way is because of what you expect for people of that sex. He recognized Hillary didn’t smile because she is female.” 

Even if Scarborough had sent the same exact tweet to Donald instead of Hillary Tuesday night, feminists and pro-Hillary advocates say that it’s not the same thing. If the same sexist criticism was offered to both a man and woman, they say, it wouldn't carry the same weight in both cases.

“Just because you levy the same criticism towards a man doesn’t mean it will be interpreted the same way,” Nicole Bauer, a professor of gender and politics at the University of Alabama, tells The Monitor in a phone interview Thursday. Female candidates have to “walk the line” between being both tough and likable, but this is “not something that male candidates ever have to consider.”

“If Donald Trump doesn’t smile, he won’t lose any voters on that,” adds Dr. Bauer. 

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