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Jeneé Osterheldt

There’s inequity in how we view men, women, and likability

Senator Elizabeth Warren (left) and comedian/actress Tiffany Haddish.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (left) and comedian/actress Tiffany Haddish. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

On Monday, two things happened. Elizabeth Warren announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee. And Tiffany Haddish failed to be funny on stage in Florida.

In both cases, the narrative became less about these women doing their jobs, and more about their likability. Because when you are a girl or a woman, it’s all about being liked.

Within hours of Warren’s announcement, Politico was picking apart her chances of escaping the stigmas that plagued Hillary Clinton, “written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground.”

And Haddish, known for her catchphrase “She Ready,” became a #shenotready hashtag.

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She bombed her New Year’s Eve set at the James L. Knight Center in Miami. She was hungover and flubbed. Paying customers have the right to be disappointed over a bad show. They deserve a refund. The comedian herself admitted she flopped, tweeting, “I wish it was better Miami. I prayed on it and I have a strong feeling this will never happened (sic) again.”

But people piled on with delight over her failure. The schadenfreude was real. A video of a man in the audience heckling her performance has been viewed more than 2.6 million times and has 11,000 likes.

In comments under her pictures on Instagram and all over Twitter, Haddish has been called trash. And then came a debate about liking her and whether disliking her meant you hate black women — a debate that has plagued her career, as she is often sadly critiqued for being “loud and ghetto.”

Sigh. How is this not the story of one bad night? Comedians bomb sometimes. Dave Chappelle got booed off stage in Detroit in 2015 and went on to stage a major critically acclaimed comeback.

Haddish partied too hard, got it wrong, and people are enjoying her fall.

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“Saturday Night Live” comic Pete Davidson, playing sets in Medford and Boston on Monday, told his fans he’d taken weed and shrooms before the show. The New York Times described Davidson’s performance as “rough and raucous stand-up” that started off “slow and discursive” before he eventually found his stride. Davidson has a high-profile struggle with depression and online trolling. This time, his audience gave him the grace to get it together. He deserved it.

Haddish was fed to the online wolves.

Women are defined based on whether they please the people. We should talk about Elizabeth Warren’s policies. We should talk about her powerhouse fund-raising. We should talk about her populism. We should talk about her problematic DNA test.

But are we really going to talk about whether a second-term senator is likable enough to be president? Not her diplomacy, but her aloofness?

Her achievements might be the very root of the backlash.

“When women are successful in male-dominated fields, they are deemed less likable,” says Sarah Sobieraj, associate professor of sociology at Tufts University. “The very fact that they are successful or knowledgable is what makes them less likable.”

On Wednesday morning, Jess McIntosh, former Hillary Clinton outreach coordinator, told CNN the likability narrative is a sexist practice.

“In the very beginning, as we just start to see women candidates coming through, I want to be cautious that we don’t fall into the sexist trap of talking about their likability exclusively,” she said. “It’s not about running for prom queen, it’s about running for president, and we need to make sure we are treating the women in the race the same as the men.”

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There’s inequity in how we view men, women, and likability when President Trump is trying to bully the nation into building a wall by shutting down the government and Louis C.K. is still performing.

“Women are expected to be sweet and nurturing and considerate of others,” Sobieraj says. “So when women act or behave in a competitive or assertive or authoritative way, it is read as deviant.”

Maybe our need to define women by how cool or nice or pleasant they are is why Warren felt the need to chug a beer on Instagram Monday night. “It’s one more way to be able just to invite people into your home,” she said. But critics called her desperate.

Author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had it right in her 2017 book, “Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.”

“Teach her to reject likability,” Adichie wrote. “Her job is not to make herself likeable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people.”

Like it or not, women are letting go of the likability politics and stepping into their power.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.