Kirsten Gillibrand Speaks Mandarin, But All Anyone Can Talk About Is Mayor Pete

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images.
On Saturday afternoon, Twitter users shared a video clip of presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in which she greeted a Voice of America News reporter in Mandarin. Gillibrand is known to be conversational in the language. She was an Asian Studies major at Dartmouth College and studied for six months in China and Taiwan, where she famously roomed with her friend Friday Night Lights star Connie Britton.
Unfortunately, Gillibrand's command of Mandarin has made barely a blip in the news cycle. At the same time, media outlets have been falling all over themselves to cover Pete Buttigieg, the polyglot mayor of South Bend, IN. Buttigieg, who has recently experienced a surge in the polls and has raised an impressive $7 million in this year's first quarter, reportedly either speaks or is proficient in, in addition to English, French, Spanish, Italian, Norwegian, Arabic, Maltese, and Dari. (Oh, and he's a Rhodes Scholar — so in case you haven't caught on, he's really, really, smart.)
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The fact that a particular subset of intellectuals, or poli sci majors who wish they were, are fawning over 37-year-old Mayor Pete while ignoring the impressive qualifications of other candidates, particularly the female ones, is a glaring double standard. Sen. Elizabeth Warren founded the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an entire agency of the U.S. government, and has a reputation as one of the most distinguished law professors in the country. Sen. Cory Booker was also a Rhodes Scholar, but doesn't get portrayed as a "genius." It's worth noting that Buttigieg could become the first openly gay, and the first millennial, president. But Buttigieg's intellectual prowess doesn't warrant constant, glowing coverage when media outlets could allocate their limited resources to cover women and people of color with equally, or more, exceptional résumès.
"It's not a surprise that the leading candidates for president are white men," Danny Barefoot, a Democratic strategist with Anvil Strategies, previously told Refinery29. "The women in this race are held to a higher standard by voters, the press, and yes, even other women."
It's not a coincidence that white, male candidates are polling ahead because they are considered "household names." They are "household names" precisely because cable news decides to cover them more often, banking on ratings. Covering women, like voting for them, is considered more risky. So, it becomes a vicious cycle: Buttigieg, who doesn't have a lot of tangible policy accomplishments, is clearly being groomed as the young upstart in favor of the senators who've been doing their homework for decades.
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This exposes another double standard: The female candidates in this race generally worked their way up the ladder to larger and larger legislative bodies. Many of the men have held executive positions, or are running for an executive position for which they are not traditionally qualified. Had a young woman who was say, a mayor of a small city, thrown her hat in the ring, she would have been portrayed as "in a hurry."
"[W]hether a youngish candidate is bright, brilliant, and promising or inexperienced, off-putting, and ruthlessly ambitious depends on whether the young thing in question is male or female," Jill Filipovic wrote in a recent column for the New York Times. "Voters, donors, and journalists are all excited by the great leadership potential of young men who leapfrog up the political ladder. They expect women to prove themselves before they move forward. ... We want something new, but for women, unfamiliarity and youth end up being tied to incompetence."
It's telling that to find any substance on Gillibrand's life in China in the mainstream media, you have to go as far back as a 2009 article in the NYT titled "New York senator impresses with Mandarin." The article reports that she initially decided to study Mandarin in college because she loved the artistry of Chinese characters. As she learned more, she gained a deeper appreciation for the culture and an understanding of the complex relationship between the U.S. and China that later helped her with her role as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She researched Tibetan refugees and interviewed the Dalai Lama for her senior project, and later spent four months in Hong Kong as a corporate lawyer.
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A reporter from World Journal, a daily Chinese-language newspaper based in New York, told the NYT after a conversation with her in Mandarin, "She definitely understood what I was saying, and she had good pronunciation. Actually, I was very impressed."
This isn't the first time Gillibrand has spoken Mandarin to reporters on the 2020 campaign trail. In February, a CNN reporter tested her language skills in Cedar Rapids, IA, and she seems to have passed with flying colors.
Here's a challenge: Stop looking for the shiny new guy who's bringing in the clicks and ratings, and start covering the qualifications of the female candidates just as substantively — and, when deserved, just as glowingly — as the men's. Let's give Gillibrand the Beto treatment and portray her as the risk-taker she was in college: according to the NYT, "an exuberant adventurer who sucked down toad venom to counteract poisonous crabs from Beidaihe Beach in Hebei Province and who rode helmetless on a motorcycle in Taipei."
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