Political Body Language: The Angela Merkel Exception
Women in politics face the “double bind,” having to show assertiveness but suffering social penalties for it.
Upon winning her fourth term as Germany's chancellor last weekend, Angela Merkel stood perched atop a podium to deliver her victory speech. Her hands were positioned as they usually are — in a diamond.
This is the hand position the 63-year-old incumbent, who’s been the leader of one of Europe’s most powerful nations since 2005, is known for. It's one of the most recognizable gestures in world politics today. (There are even conspiracy theories about it.) It conveys a certain body language: calm, understated, and undramatic.
Today, Merkel is arguably the most powerful woman in the world. Her power pose has become famous, perhaps in part, because it seems to be working. While the question of what a politician should do with her hands may seem like an unimportant (or even frivolous) question, in a world where the handshakes of male leaders become literal shakedowns, Merkel's diamond is exceptional. Of course, Merkel is the exception in many ways: She is Germany's first female chancellor, having made her way climbing the ranks in male-dominated companies like General Electric and SAP, and as of 2014, is the longest-serving head of government in the EU.
In America, body language has been difficult for women to navigate. Compare descriptors of Merkel to U.S. Senator Kamala Harris. During the Comey Senate hearings, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said she made him "nervous" when she pressed him on unanswered questions — leaning forward, jabbing her finger in the air with each syllable she spoke. Conservative commentator Jason Miller called Harris “hysterical” on CNN shortly after.
Then there's Hillary Clinton, arguably the example of female power in modern American politics. Clinton was the first woman to ever become the presidential candidate of a major U.S. political party. In a recent interview with Refinery29, Clinton described her power pose of choice: "Sitting up straight and looking just about as fearless as you can about whatever lies ahead of you out there." But this contributed to a perceived wall between Clinton and the American electorate. Criticism of her ranged from seeming disingenuous to power-hungry, and almost all of it was tied up in the public's intuition that she just didn't look like a trustworthy person.
While power posing may not be enough to spark a political revolution, people love talking about the body language of politicians in the U.S. as much as they do in Germany. And on this new Trumpian stage, body language plays a starring role. President Trump's movements are constantly scrutinized: A 29 second-long handshake between French President Emmanuel Macron and Trump (available on YouTube) made headlines for its display of macho rivalry.
Notably, when Trump met Merkel there was no handshake at all. Instead, Merkel peers over and asks: “Handshake?” Trump ignores her while the shutters of press cameras continue, but she tries again, “I think they want a handshake.” If there is any image that perfectly sums up America’s current aversion to female leadership, that one is up there: In the wake of defeating one of the most qualified women to ever run for office, a reality TV show star with no political experience refuses to shake hands with the longest-serving leader of the most powerful economy in the EU.
To reach the highest offices in the land, women must walk a thin line between two tricky dynamics when presenting themselves in public and on camera. “Women have to do an impossible dance of being both ‘feminine’ enough not to be threatening, but ‘masculine’ enough to be taken seriously,” explained Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the founder and CEO of The Representation Project. The “double bind” means that women must project both warmth and authority in their body language: Smile, but not to the point of seeming like a pushover; take up space, but make sure you're not physically intimidating others.
"Merkel’s secret is that she has found a method against the men, but the men have found no method against her”
How is it that Merkel has inspired a near mythical status for her power pose? So much so that in the 2013 elections, her supporters created a 230-ft poster of her iconic hand gesture comprised of 2,150 tiny images of supporters alongside the slogan, "Germany is in good hands."
Handelsblatt, one of Germany’s leading business newspapers, ran an insightful piece on what exactly it is about Merkel’s body language that helped her to transcend the double bind effect amidst a sea of male opponents in the German elections. During a televised debate, Merkel, 5’5", demonstrated her impenetrability to her seven competitors' alpha male intimidation games. As they hurled insults across the table, interrupted, and openly mocked each other, she remained small, calm, and stayed quiet.
"Merkel’s secret is that she has found a method against the men, but the men have found no method against her,” wrote Andreas Kluth.
Merkel’s coolness would later prove to be an effective strategy in subverting her counterparts. She has been able to flex this strength especially in the context of German culture, which, more than any other country, has learned “the dangers of charisma, and the horrors a hypnotic figurehead can unleash,” gleans Rosemary Goring in her analysis of Merkel’s plainness as a political tactic. Merkel knows that “hunger for attention, praise or headlines, a desire for glamour and, in the case of women, an attempt to play the gender card by making too much of their appearance, can seriously backfire.”
This is another contributing factor to The Angela Merkel Exception: She has played down her stance on women's issues and has even rejected a feminist label. While she was ridiculed for her matronly appearance early on in her political career, for the most part, Merkel has avoided the extreme levels of sexist physical scrutiny women in American politics endure today.
Hillary Clinton cannot say the same. Just look at the attacks on her appearance during the frenzy of speculations about her health. Right-wing media labeled her as too frail and physically weak to lead. Trump said she "didn't have the stamina" to be president. Deborah Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics, explained just how gendered this jab was. "It was sending a bigger message that women are weak, women don't have the stamina for this job. Trump accused Hillary of using the gender card, but in fact he was using his own gender, playing the masculinity card."
If you look at the Clinton’s body language during the final presidential debates, you might see her employing a similar strategy to Merkel’s: She ignores Trump as he paces behind her menacingly, remains calm when he hisses, “such a nasty woman” from across the floor. She stepped back, just as Merkel did, to let Donald Trump self-implode. But it didn’t quite happen that way.
Clinton was certainly a complicated candidate, but her campaign brought to light just how difficult it is to envision any American version of Angela Merkel: a female leader who is revered for her competence while celebrated for her genuine expression of self. According to Walsh, who works with women running for office, fear of public scrutiny is one of the main considerations holding young women back in American politics: "They have all these great ideas, but they are terrified of getting up and being on stage."
But what if things were different? Envision a world where Hillary Clinton could go full Angela Merkel in her political poses, and it would work? That seems near impossible in the current American context. That’s why Merkel remains an out of reach inspiration for women in America.
The scientific community hasn't yet put forth a hard-and-fast theory when it comes to women's physicality, politics, and power strategies. What we know from the 2016 election is that body language is just another factor women have to pay attention to when running for office, in a way male candidates just don't have to.
"We talk about the progress that's been made, and we certainly have more women in office than ever, but still there's this question of appearance, of expression, of hair and hemlines. All of this in 2017 is something that women face," explained Walsh.
If we can learn anything from Angela Merkel, it's that the issues at the heart of double bind matter. Will the American context ever allow for women with such an understated presence to come to power? Probably not, but it’s worth asking and studying what the solutions of the double bind would be here. Future female leaders may not be able to replicate every Merkel diamond, but we can certainly learn a lesson or two.