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What's in a gesture? To some, a double standard

Could a woman get away with Bernie Sanders' signature expressiveness?
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) gestures during a campaign speech, Feb. 8, 2016, in Nashua, N.H. (Photo by John Minchillo/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) gestures during a campaign speech, Feb. 8, 2016, in Nashua, N.H.

Comedian and TV host Samantha Bee described one flourish as Bernie Sanders trying to "flag down a waitress." A Bustle writer said the Vermont senator, always expressive with his hands, "only reserves the index finger wave for moments when you're imagining him screaming, 'I don't think so, missy!' internally." The Onion joked that one jab would send the senator tumbling off the debate stage. Still others, watching Thursday's Democratic debate, saw the Vermont senator and presidential candidate gesticulate, as he does, and wondered if a female candidate would get away with such physical forcefulness.

To his supporters, Sanders' body language, which many (including this reporter) associate with his Brooklyn Jewish-American upbringing, may make him even more endearing. It's in keeping with his unvarnished persona and baggy suits. "There is a rumpled authenticity to Bernie Sanders," David Axelrod recently observed. But women in public life rarely have the luxury of being unkempt on the stump. And social scientists have found that the exact same affect by a woman simply doesn't play the same way. 

That includes the candidates' voices -- and how they use them. “Thanks to his maleness, Sanders’ yelling gets interpreted by his audiences and especially his supporters as the righteous anger of a tough leader, while, due to her femaleness, Clinton’s would be heard by many people as the screeching of a ‘hysterical’ or ‘nagging’ woman,” Nicholas Subtirelu, a linguistics professor at Georgia State University, told Time magazine.

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In one experiment conducted in Norway -- a country with a better track record of electing women than the United States -- researchers had a male actor and a female actor deliver exactly the same speech. "Our main finding is that the male 'politician' was believed to be more knowledgeable, trustworthy and convincing than the female 'politician' even though they presented the same speech verbatim," the researchers wrote

Recalling the 2008 race against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama recently told Politico, "She had to do everything that I had to do, except, like Ginger Rogers, backwards in heels. She had to wake up earlier than I did because she had to get her hair done. She had to, you know, handle all the expectations that were placed on her.”

Male politicians can face potential minefields of their own, at least when campaigning against a woman. In 2000, when Clinton ran for Senate in New York, the image of her male opponent crossing the stage during a debate and wagging his finger in her face, demanding she sign a campaign finance pledge, came to define the race. The gesture, which many saw as sexist, or as one of Clinton's aides put it at the time, "menacing," was credited with helping her win by 12 points. 

There have been no such moments so far in the Democratic primary debates, as Clinton runs for president for a second time. Sanders has been careful to express his respect for the former secretary of state and to keep it professional and largely amiable. He's also kept on his side of the stage.