fiorinaRepublican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump raised eyebrows when he ridiculed opponent Carly Fiorina’s face in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?” he was quoted as saying. Trump later massaged the situation by maintaining he had not criticized her appearance, saying he was actually referring to her “persona.”[1] He contradicted himself publicly in the CNN Republican Debate when the two rivals faced off in a highly anticipated moment, saying “I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman.”

Fiorina calmly replied to Trump, saying that she believed “every woman” in America knew what Trump was referring to in his Rolling Stone comments. Carly Fiorina later commented that “Maybe, just maybe, I’m getting under his skin a little bit because I am climbing in the polls,” she said. And perhaps her ascent was tied to the way she coolly handled his mean-spirited remark.

Journalist Erin Gloria Ryan responded to their interaction this way:

“You may not agree with a woman, but to criticize her appearance — as opposed to her ideas or actions — isn’t doing anyone any favors, least of all you. Insulting a woman’s looks when they have nothing to do with the issue at hand implies a lack of comprehension on your part, an inability to engage in high-level thinking. You may think she’s ugly, but everyone else thinks you’re an idiot.”trump-fiorina-debate

The public is more critical of women speakers advancing into leadership roles:

Results of a research study showed two thirds of 2,000 women felt tremendous pressure to look good, citing a rise in ‘perfect-looking’ women in the media setting unrealistic standards. When women seek to advance, they feel anxiety and twice as much pressure as men do to look good. [2] Is that because women intuitively know that audiences and/or competitors will be tough critics?

Even with all our advances in business and public life, women are still twice as likely to feel scrutinized for their appearance as men and experience more self-consciousness than men do about their body, whether at work, on holidays, at parties or at home, much less at public gatherings. Women are specifically concerned about their weight, teeth, cellulite, bags under the eyes, and (given the popularity of sleeveless dresses) a fear of having flabby arms or ‘bingo wings.’

Writer and cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote about the existence of a double standard in appearance stemming from the fact that women’s faces are valorized for only one thing: girlish beauty. Men’s faces, on the other hand, are notable for being interesting, weird, wizened, humorous, and more. [3] Look at Donald Trump’s hairstyle, a caricature of the norm. Nobody would say he shouldn’t run for the top job because of his comb over.

And the truth is that people make snap judgments about any person’s value in 30 seconds or less [4] based on their perceived age, social standing and how approachable they are. Princeton research informs us that first impression can be formed in less than a tenth of a second, which is when we determine likeability and competence. This research has tremendous implications for women today who have to play down their likeability in order to convince audiences that they are intelligent enough to make those tough complex decisions leaders have to make and play up their competence. [5] This is tough for women who have to communicate their competence without being seen as bragging or displaying self-aggrandizement, both of which conflict with society’s expectations for women. The double bind surfaces when women have to walk a maddeningly fine line between being perceived as too masculine or too feminine, or unnerving people by being seen as too smart or too pretty (or both). On the other hand, what we see in Trump’s attack on Fiorina’s looks is the problem (in Trump’s mind) of not being pretty enough to be President.

Fiorina played The Woman Card:
Fiorina believes that sexism remains in American politics. “It’s still different for women,” she said. “It’s only a woman whose appearance would be talked about while running for president — never a man. And that’s what women understand.” [6]

But does Carly speak for all women? This is where it gets interesting. Because the listeners were swept away by the nasty edge of the incident and how well she handled it rhetorically, they could easily forget that Fiorina’s campaign platform isn’t at all sympathetic to women’s issues; for instance, Fiorina doesn’t believe that women should be grouped together as a special class in order to achieve equality. She opposes the ERA, paid maternity leave, reproductive choice, and equal pay legislation, and is against putting a woman’s face on the ten-dollar bill.

The discussion regarding Carly Fiorina’s ability to stand up to Donald Trump with poise and presence has distracted the public from assessing her candidacy based on her positions on a wide range of the issues. What does Carly Fiorina the candidate actually stand for? According to the New York Times, it turns out she is a hard liner and believes in military action abroad. She would begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet and the missile defense program in Poland, would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states and send a few thousand more troops into Germany, all this to send a message to Vladimir Putin. She would cut taxes for the wealthy and opposes raising the federal minimum wage, saying doing so “will hurt those who are looking for entry-level jobs.” She would reduce government regulations that have helped spur the economy, and she opposed the 2009 federal stimulus program as a wasteful use of taxpayer money. [7]

Women speakers must be prepared for mean spirited remarks:
The point is that if you are a woman who seeks a top position, be prepared for comments – if not criticisms – regarding your appearance, your weight, your competence and likability, and your age. The double standard prevails when you stand up to speak up. Women’s style and appearance will be scrutinized more by men who can be flip, sarcastic, and adopt a conspiratorial off-the-record tone.

Whether or not you like her ideas in standing up to “the bloviator billionaire,” [8] Carly Fiorina gained admirers who aren’t necessarily aware of her far right positions on the issues. The more women we have competing with other women or competing with men for that matter, the less necessary it will be to play the gender card. If you have confidence in your ideas, take the high road to the podium. That’s where you’ll convince decision-makers and voters that whatever comes your way, you can face it!

1. Trump Seriously: On the Trail With the GOP’s Tough Guy By Paul Solotaroff September 9, 2015
3. The Double Standard of Aging, 1978 essay by Susan Sontag.
5. Snap judgments decide a face’s character August 22, 2006; 02:03 p.m. by Chad Boutin writing about Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov
7. Carly Fiorina on the Issues, New York Times, GERRY MULLANYMAY 4, 2015
8. The term “Bloviate” was coined in the 1840s from “blow,” a facetious pseudo-Latinism mocking the inflated oratory of an era when, as Tocqueville observed, Americans couldn’t take to the stump without “venting their pomposity from one end of a harangue to the other.”


  1. Thank you for getting down to the issues in her platform!!! She’s scary, whatever she looks like.

  2. I wondered what your take was going to be on this when I heard about the scuffle! The double standard is real. It sucks but there it is. I suppose the positive takeaway is that it’s noticed, now, and considered a bad thing.

    Oh, and I love your title!

  3. You make excellent points. I loathe the gender “thing” but have to say when I listen to the overall content of Carly’s message she is a classic war hawk. Use a garble machine to warp her voice and she sounds like every militaristic white man who came before her. Sure, she stood up to a blow hard bully very well—sure, she can spout statistics and handle herself as she did in a boardroom but she is not a chick. It’s not enough for a woman to stand up to tough insecure men–no, she has to be a snake charmer too and soft looking. Madeline Albright wasn’t a beauty but she projected an air of non obnoxious confidence and had her signature pins on her clothes and a presence that trumps the beauty card. We are held to a higher standard but is that new? Great post –as always.

    1. Dear Alyse, Please forgive me for not responding promptly. I’m so delighted that you find my posts worthy. You were articulate in pointing out the double standard, insightful as usual. Thanks! I totally agree. Please do let your friends know that the blog exists and there’s another female media voice that is commenting on women’s leadership. I’d love it if you’d tag my FB page: Women Seen and Heard on FB ( Thanks for being such a loyal friend. Mutual admiration society here! Lois

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *