Sen. Sanders, my eyes are up here. On Saturday, a topless woman interrupted Bernie Sanders’ rally to protest Donald Trump with the writing on her body: “Hate speech is not free speech.” When a host on Arizona radio station KTAR asked Sanders about it Monday, the two men shared a brief laugh over staring at her chest before moving onto Sanders’ real turn-ons, issues of the middle class and distributed wealth. Was this an instance of casual sexism or just two dudes talking as respectfully as they could about a half-naked demonstrator?
As Buzzfeed first reported, when KTAR’s radio host asked Sanders if he could read the writing on the woman’s chest, he replied, “I was trying very hard to get every detail. No, I’m just kidding.” At this, the host burst out laughing and said he was trying to do the same. Sanders said, “You were really studying the issue as an investigative reporter, was that what you were doing? Good. That’s what a reporter should do.”
“Right, that’s exactly it,” the host replied in a droll voice. Cue the groans from every woman (and probably some men) who are — or were — feeling the Bern. Yes, they were laughing about being distracted by her breasts. Take away the euphemisms and that’s simply a fact. But were they being sexist?
Female icons like Michelle Obama have spoken out against casual sexism, calling attention to it being just as bad as overt sexism. It disguises itself as an inane comment, a harmless joke, a glance. It’s nothing outrageous, and thus appears acceptable — sometimes to both the giver and receiver of it.
I hardly think Sanders is a raging misogynist. In fact, immediately after those few words about the topless woman (a feminist activist named Anni Ma), Sanders disengaged from the topic with a swift pivot: “No, actually, I was trying to focus on a couple of other things. And what we were focusing on is the disappearance of the American middle class, the fact that almost all new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent.” Bustle reached out to Ma, but she was unable to respond by the time of publication.
Sanders has met ambiguous, highly contested claims of sexism in the past, such as when he interrupted Hillary Clinton in a Democratic debate. Also, Bill Clinton critiqued Sanders’ “sexist” supporters.
However, accusations of sexism are quid pro quo when one’s rival is the opposite gender. Empty claims of sexism only damage both candidates’ credibility and distract from real transgressions.
But speaking as a millennial female myself, Sanders needs to beware of alienating millennial female voters, whether accidentally or not. A recent USA TODAY/Rock the Vote poll shows nearly two-thirds of millennial females support Sanders over frontrunner Clinton. That’s huge. So, Sen. Sanders: Cut it out with any signs of sexism — even bite-sized, throwaway jokes — if you want to continue appealing to these young women who support you and if you want to avoid claims of sexism from your opponents.
Acknowledge your young female supporters, like Ma, and don’t laugh away their actions, even if you find other issues like wealth disparity more pressing. It’s okay to address Ma’s body — in fact, that’s the whole point of her writing on it. Just make sure that’s not the only thing about her you address. I promise that no one will fault you for talking about something other than Wall Street just for a bit.