Writing Bill Clinton: Mediated Discourses on Hegemonic Masculinity and the 2008 Presidential Primary

By Khan, Kherstin; Blair, Diane M. | Women's Studies in Communication, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview
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Writing Bill Clinton: Mediated Discourses on Hegemonic Masculinity and the 2008 Presidential Primary


Khan, Kherstin, Blair, Diane M., Women's Studies in Communication


This study seeks to examine how traditional gender scripts function to reinforce hegemonic discourses about groups that already occupy positions of political power and dominance. A close analysis of the 2008 Democratic Primary coverage reveals that the media discursively framed former president Bill Clinton's role reversal as spouse of a presidential candidate as a reaffirmation of hegemonic discourses about masculinity and the presidency. The media framing positioned Bill Clinton as the popular, patriarchal head of the Democratic Party. Emphasizing his celebrity and charm among Democrats, his attempts to protect and legitimize his wife's candidacy, and his political experience and prowess, the co-construction of President Clinton by the campaign and the media not only continued to focus attention on the former president but also highlighted and reinforced traditional gender expectations for the presidency. We argue that this framing of Bill Clinton as the popular, patriarchal head of the Democratic Party ultimately functioned rhetorically to marginalize Senator Clinton's campaign and re-center the connection between hegemonic masculinity and the presidency.

Keywords Bill Clinton, feminist criticism, hegemonic masculinity, media discourses, presidential politics, rhetoric

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During an August 2008 trip to Africa on behalf of his foundation, Bill Clinton was asked by ABC News Reporter Kate Snow if he deserved at least some of the blame for his wife Hillary Clinton's loss of the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency. His initial response was to deflect the question as irrelevant and distracting to what was at the time the upcoming November election, but over the course of the interview it became clear that Bill Clinton placed much of the responsibility for how the historic primary played out on news media's coverage of the campaign. The proliferation and influence of media in presidential campaigns is without question. According to Shawn Parry-Giles and Trevor Parry-Giles, the "dominant characteristic of politics in postmodern America is its hyperreality--a condition created by the dominance of representation and the explosion of media" (Constructing Clinton 1). Most voters encounter presidential candidates only through the media coverage of those candidates; at the same time, presidential candidates recognize that the mainstream media is one of the primary avenues by which they can reach mass audiences. As such it is difficult to separate political candidates and their spouses from the images cocreated by their rhetorical actions and the rhetorical framing of those actions by the media.

In addition, the media play a significant role in how society discursively constructs relations of power, especially in the realm of presidential politics. The media in concert with political actors perpetuate and maintain gender hierarchies that serve "to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already" (McIntosh 187). The 2008 Democratic Primary featured an unprecedented contest between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for their party's nomination. For the first time in our nation's history, a woman and an African American were the front-runners in a presidential primary. When examining the experiences of women and people of color as political candidates, it is important to look at the unique obstacles and constraints facing them. This study seeks to examine how traditional gender scripts function to reinforce hegemonic discourses about groups that already occupy positions of political power and dominance. The media's framing of President Bill Clinton's performance in the presidential primaries works to remind the audience that Senator Hillary Clinton aspires to a role that is not a conventional space for females to occupy. While our analysis focuses primarily on gender constructs, the U.S. presidency as a masculine space relies on the intersection of race, gender, and class.

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Writing Bill Clinton: Mediated Discourses on Hegemonic Masculinity and the 2008 Presidential Primary
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