During the first few moments of the third Republican primary debate, the candidates were asked to name their biggest weakness. When it was Carly Fiorina's turn, she took the moment to address what apparently was a common criticism of her previous debate performances: she doesn't smile enough. After flashing a big smile for the crowd, Fiorina remarked that, in fact, the country faces serious challenges that require a serious attitude. A good response — but there's another reason why this critique of Fiorina falls flat. It's based on unfair expectations of how female politicians "should" act.
"After the last debate, I was told I didn't smile enough," Fiorina said in her first remarks of the debate. "But I also think that these are very serious times. Seventy-five percent of the American people think the federal government is corrupt. I agree with them."
It's true that Fiorina had a serious demeanor during the first two debates. But guess what? So did many of the men on stage with her. So do a lot of male politicians, in fact — and yet, curiously enough, they're rarely, if ever, criticized for smiling too infrequently.
Bernie Sanders, for example, almost never flashes his pearly whites, but that's never remarked upon. No, Sanders is applauded for coming across as strong and commanding. And plenty of Fiorina's competition on the Republican side have perpetually dour expressions on their faces — Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Rick Santorum, and so on. Trump is criticized for many things, but failing to smile enough isn't one of them. And let's not even mention Jeb Bush, who looks perpetually miserable in just about every public appearance he makes.
Make no mistake: It's perfectly fair to assess a candidate's personality based on their on-stage persona and then draw a conclusion based on that assessment. But let's make sure we're using the same standard for everyone, regardless of gender, mmmkay? Because the pundits who focus their anti-smile animus solely on Fiorina aren't.