Sexism and social media affect the Clinton health debate

By Olivia Tasevski. Politics and International Studies Tutor, University of Melbourne

The health of Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has recently been thrust into the media spotlight, following the release of footage showing her needing assistance to get into a car during a 9/11 memorial ceremony held in New York. It was subsequently announced she had pneumonia.

The incident has come after continued questioning of Clinton’s health, as well as her physical and mental strength, by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Discussion and comment regarding U.S. presidential candidates’ health by the media and the candidates’ political opponents is not a new phenomenon in US election campaigns.

But there’s an element of sexism in the way Clinton’s health has been discussed. Social media has also had an impact.

THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT

During the 1960 presidential campaign, Republicans proclaimed that the then Democratic presidential candidate, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), suffered from Addison’s disease. They were right, but JFK had not publicly disclosed his illness.

The health of former Republican president Ronald Regan was extensively scrutinised. So far, Reagan is the oldest candidate to assume office – he was almost 70 when he first won the presidency.

During the 1980 campaign, Reagan was questioned by New York Times journalist, Lawrence Altman about his forgetfulness and the status of his health was reported on by a range of media outlets, including the New York Times.

Reagan’s health continued to be questioned during the 1984 presidential election campaign, with the Democrats stating that his performance in a presidential debate with his opponent Walter Mondale, further illustrated his forgetfulness.  

During the 2008 campaign, the health of the then Republican presidential candidate, John McCain who was 71 at the time, was reported on by numerous US media outlets, including the Washington Post. In response, McCain made over 1,000 pages of his health records available for journalists to view - considerably more detail than those released by either Clinton or Trump.

Both Clinton’s and Trump’s health has been a subject of discussion during this campaign, partly because their age. Clinton will be 69 next month and Trump turned 70 in June. Whoever wins will be the oldest ever US president to take office.

TRUMP’S CRITICISM OF CLINTON HAS BEEN GENDERED

Trump has asserted that defeating Islamic fundamentalist terrorism requires ‘tremendous physical and mental strength and stamina. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have that strength and stamina.’

He has also argued that Clinton ‘lacks the mental and physical stamina to take on  ISIS [the Islamic State of  Iraq and Syria group]’.

These are questionable statements, given that Clinton served as US Secretary of State from 2009 until 2013 and Trump is older than Clinton.  

In the context of Trump’s penchant for sexist and misogynistic comments, his statements suggest that Clinton lacks physical strength and stamina (traits incorrectly commonly associated with men) because  she is a woman.

Hence, Trump’s criticisms of Clinton differ from partisan criticisms of JFK, Reagan and McCain because they are gendered in nature.

THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA ALSO MAKES A DIFFERENCE

The discussion of   Clinton’s health issues is also different from the aforementioned examples because footage of her collapse has been widely disseminated on social media, thus amplifying discussions about her health.

This arguably harms Clinton’s campaign as it lends credence to Trump’s argument that Clinton lacks ‘stamina’ and distracts from Clinton’s central campaign messages. As Trump and Clinton have both recently released letters from their doctors stating they are in good health, hopefully the focus of media attention and political debate over the next two months will shift from their health to their policies regarding issues of importance to most Americans.

Banner image: A still taken from a video of Clinton leaving the 9/11 event in New York

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