Elizabeth Warren Doesn't Have A DNA Problem. She Has A Sexism Problem

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Susan Walsh/AP)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Susan Walsh/AP)

On Saturday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced herself as a candidate for president who would take direct aim at the super-wealthy, and the power structure that so often coddles them.

She has set out a sweeping anti-corruption bill, and a proposed wealth tax that would be levied against billionaires, a plan widely hailed by economists and wildly popular with Americans.

A responsible Fourth Estate would focus its coverage of Warren on these ambitious proposals. Instead, the vast majority of coverage has focused on a phony “scandal” involving her Native American heritage.

If this pattern feels familiar to anyone, it’s because the exact same thing happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016. The media hung a phony email scandal around her neck like an albatross. They wrote more stories about her email than about her policies, and it wasn’t even especially close.

If this pattern feels familiar to anyone, it’s because the exact same thing happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The question is why?

Why would the media spend more time focused on a candidate’s sloppy use of email than (for instance) the fact that her opponent was under investigation for colluding with Russia? Why would reporters fixate on Warren’s native ancestry and virtually ignore Trump’s white supremacist ancestry, or his documented racial discrimination?

What is it that Clinton and Warren have in common?

Here’s my theory: I think American culture is so steeped in patriarchal thought that it’s become a collective instinct to revile women of ambition, to dismiss their substantive ideas and focus instead on their outfits and their demeanor and whatever far-fetched smear can be used to justify our inherent mistrust of women in power.

I can offer no better explanation for why the American media essentially acted as a press agent for Vladimir Putin during the 2016 election. Outlets all across the political spectrum eagerly published damning material about Clinton, even though they knew the material in question came from Russian hackers. They were as eager to spread dirt on her as Donald Trump, Jr.

Women who seek higher office in America can expect to be picked apart, to hear angry mobs chant about how they should be locked up, to hear opponents fantasize about their assassination.

Thus, it has come to seem natural that our media would slavishly report every single time Trump calls Warren “Pocahontas,” that the story would never die, and that reporters and pundits would use the story’s persistence — which they created — to justify attacking her candidacy.

This happens over and over again because the designated storytellers in a patriarchal culture are always angry, insecure men. And these days, they are angrier and more insecure than ever.

They know that the majority of voters are tired of angry white men running the government. We’re tired of the relentless attacks on immigrants, on women’s reproductive rights, on the environment, and the coddling of gun merchants and billionaires. We want the American government to be truly representative, to look like America, not like a frat house.

That’s why voters used the midterm elections to send an historic wave of women to Congress, many of them women of color. And it’s why the conservative media machine is so eager to demonize unapologetically ambitious newcomers such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Everybody knows that the era of aggrieved white guys is coming to an end, that they can only win elections by rigging the system. In short, the patriarchy is in a panic.

This is why a partisan activist with the temperament of a conservative cable news demagogue and an apparent drinking problem had to bellow his way onto the Supreme Court of the United States. Brett Kavanaugh's nomination couldn’t survive on its merits, so he needed a dose of patriarchal Viagra.

American culture is so steeped in patriarchal thought that it’s become a collective instinct to revile women of ambition...

The fact that Christine Blasey Ford came forward to publicly accuse him of sexual assault — so convincingly that even Donald Trump deemed her “a very credible witness” — only meant that he and his Senate cronies had to crank up their aggression to an 11.

Every single media outlet played right along, allowing his theatrical rage to erase her genuine trauma.

This is also how someone like Matthew Whitaker can become the nation’s top law enforcement official. Everyone knows he’s woefully unqualified for the job, but boy can he bluster his way through a congressional hearing!

The fundamental problem here isn’t with the “likability” of Elizabeth Warren or any other female politician. That’s a dodge. The problem is that our culture at large — and our media specifically — reviles ambitious women, and will happily propagate whatever slander gets lodged against them. The result is an ingrained and monstrous double standard, America’s original affirmative action program, one designed to promote incompetent, cruel and corrupt men.

So the next time you see a story about Warren’s racial heritage just remember, it’s not actual journalism. It’s free media for the patriarchy.


Headshot of Steve Almond

Steve Almond Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond’s new book, “Truth Is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow” will be out in 2024.



More from WBUR

Listen Live