It’s been a week since Donald Trump revealed his new campaign strategy: whining. “I do whine because I want to win and I’m not happy about not winning and I am a whiner and I keep whining and whining until I win,” Trump said on CNN’s New Day.
Looking back, it was nothing but another blip on Trump’s campaign radar — news one day, only to be run over by the traveling circus the next. But there are two 2016 candidates who would’ve been sunk if they’d promised to whine their way to the White House — Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina.
Let’s say that, hypothetically, Clinton or Fiorina said that they would whine themselves to success. I would posit that we would still be hearing about how their lady whining would affect diplomatic relations, the economy and gas prices. Because “whining” is rooted in our minds as a traditionally female activity.
The Women’s Media Center’s “Guide to Gender Neutral Coverage of Women Candidates and Politicians,” designed for use by journalists, gives the term its own entry: “this word is functionally sexist since it is used primarily of women and children, while in similar circumstances, men are said to ask, tell, repeat, complain, criticize, or just plain talk.” The Guardian also included whine on a list of words commonly used to put women down.
A woman saying that whining would be part of her political strategy would, to many, affirm what they would already speculate is a weakness. It would be like if a woman said that hormonal mood swings would keep her from being able to smooth out wrinkles in the Iran nuclear deal — it’s not something that critics haven’t already thought, and even coming close to affirming it in any way would be a giant red flag.
Now think about the last time that you read about a man whining? You’ve heard about them complaining, sure, but they’re not whining, they’re just saying. Like the difference between a male candidate being determined and a female candidate nagging, there is, actually, no difference between the two. It’s all in the framing of the terminology.
Trump’s quotable was reported in the immediate aftermath of the interview, but with little context aside from the fact that he said it. There were no large-scale think pieces speculating what kind of leader a person could be if they used whining as their primary tactic or what that said about his candidacy on a wider scale.
It’s almost as if the word seemed so foreign when applied to a male candidate that the media didn’t know what to do with the proclamation. Trump took whining and reverse engineered it to sound like a strength. He, in his mind, could glean power from his ability to complain relentlessly. No one really questioned him on that, but simply let the comment slide.
The emotional (or hormonal) differences between men and women are, of course, not an actual issue in politics. Still, there’s been no way to definitely prove that to naysayers, because women are still an anomaly in politics. This is slowly correcting itself. Each time one more woman is elected to the House or Senate, it’s a record-breaking event. But that slow adaptation is one of the reasons a woman hasn’t been in a general election for the Oval Office.
Trump can say a number of things, including that he is a whiner, with little to no effect on his campaign. To be fair, there’s only so much you can swallow in the melee of absurdity that Trump provides. But if Clinton or Fiorina had said the same thing, not only would we still be hearing about it, we’d be in the thick of Whinegate.
Abby Johnston is an assistant editor at Texas Monthly Magazine and a frequent contributor to DecodeDC.