Election 2016

Yes, Hillary Still Has to Suffer the Sexism of the Dude TV Pundits

When was the last time someone suggested Bernie Sanders would do better if he spoke more softly?

Photo Credit: www.hillaryclinton.com

On a recent episode of Sean Hannity’s Fox talk show, the topic was, of all things, Hillary Clinton’s way of speaking.

“She’s screaming,” Hannity complained.

Katie Pavlich, a conservative writer and guest on the show, upped the ante a bit further. “If Hillary Clinton can't handle some criticism about her voice maybe being a little too grating, I'm not sure she can handle being president of the United States,” Pavlich said. “And I guarantee you that Vladimir Putin and the Saudis and everyone else also thinks that her voice is grating...”

This is the kind of attack we’ve come to expect from Fox and the right in general: shallow, lacking in substance and bereft of any real political insight. But the inspiration for that segment actually came from recent comments made by journalism legend Bob Woodward, who also seems to have a problem with Clinton’s voice.

“I think a lot of it with Hillary Clinton has to do with style and delivery, oddly enough,” Woodward said during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, co-hosted by Joe Scarborough. “She shouts. There's something unrelaxed about the way she is communicating.”

“[H]as nobody told her that the microphone works?” Scarborough asked, rhetorically. “Because she always keeps it up here. The genius of Reagan was...Reagan kept it down low.”

The conversation continued in this vein, with participants—women among them—stating that Clinton is “feisty” and “loud”; that this kind of public speaking is “just not natural to her”; and that she should be more like Margaret Thatcher, whom Scarborough said “would find a man in her party that she would reduce with little more than a whisper.”

“When Republicans watch Hillary Clinton speak, they are so turned off that it actually allows them to underestimate her strength as a candidate, because they think, how can anyone possibly like her?” guest Kristen Soltis Anderson said, in what may go down as the most backhanded compliment in history.

This complaint—essentially, that Clinton is “shrill”—is the same one we’ve heard for years, and raises the question of whether all these media members not only got the same sexist textbook, but also opened it to the exact same page. If you have any doubt that this is yet more of the tired, gendered, sexist critique we’ve seen lobbed at Clinton for years, consider how unlikely it would be to hear the same criticism made of her male opponents. Remember the last time someone called Ted Cruz feisty? Or suggested Marco Rubio was too loud? Or that Bernie Sanders—who I’m down with, but who is unquestionably a shouter—would do better if he spoke in a whisper? Didn’t think so. Because that hasn’t happened and it never will.

Consider the conversation a group of guests had on CNN recently. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter noted that Hillary had spoken before “a big crowd,” and was necessarily speaking at a volume to match the room. “You have a tendency to talk a little louder. No one shouts louder than Senator Sanders. All night long he is shouting. He is literally almost the Howard Beale of this campaign,” Nutter concluded, referencing the famous "mad as hell” broadcaster from the film Network.

“But Hillary was so angry compared to Sanders,” countered David Gergen, who must have dutifully read his sexism textbook from cover to cover.

“Let us not slip into some gender bias here,” Nutter cautioned. “Man raises his voice, he’s enthusiastic. Woman raises her voice, she’s angry. Let’s be very careful about how we characterize some of these things.”

“Thanks to his maleness, Sanders’ yelling gets interpreted by his audiences and especially his supporters as the righteous anger of a tough leader,” Nicholas Subtirelu, a Georgia State University linguistics professor, told Time magazine, “while, due to her femaleness, Clinton’s would be heard by many people as the screeching of a ‘hysterical’ or ‘nagging’ woman.”

Kelly Dittmar, an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University, noted how yelling can hurt women candidates while helping men. “Bernie’s ‘shouting’ makes him more likable among many voters,” Dittmar told Time, “while Clinton’s ‘yelling’ cues characterizations that she is cold and aggressive, traits for which women are more likely to pay a penalty.”

“When Hillary Clinton yells, she’s perceived as yelling—not about any policy, not about any needed change,” Jennifer Lawless, a professor of government and director of the Woman & Politics Institute at American University, added.

Whatever you think of Clinton (and I have quite a few bones to pick with her, all of which have to do with policy and nothing as irrelevant as her voice), let’s call out sexist takedowns of the candidate for what they are. Carly Fiorina questioning whether Clinton enjoys spending time with her family; Donald Trump stating that Clinton got “schlonged”; Twitter’s frequent use of the words “bitch,” “cunt” and “slut” in reference to Clinton: these are such classic expressions of sexism you almost marvel at the embarrassing lack of creativity that went into them.

I can guarantee you that every single woman who has refused to hush up, who does not couch her thoughts and opinions in apologies, who has dared to be frank and direct, has faced these kinds of insults, likely on multiple occasions. This is how we—both men and women, because we were all raised in a dominant culture steeped in misogyny—talk about women who speak too full throatedly, even in 2016. No one knows this better than Clinton herself. She encountered sexism aplenty during her first presidential run, and throughout her entire career. These latest attacks, unfortunately, come as no surprise.  

No one’s suggesting Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be criticized. She was fully behind her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which led to our current crisis of mass incarceration, along with other large-scale disastrous human collateral consequences. She is far too cozy with Wall Street for comfort, making promises of reform unbelievable. She toyed with anti-black racism in her quest to beat Barack Obama to the White House in 2008. I don’t want this to turn into a hit piece, but suffice it to say there are plenty of substantive critiques to be made of Clinton’s stances on numerous issues. But grumblings about her voice say far more about the speaker, and our cultural insistence that women talk softly and play nice, than they do about Clinton. And honestly, we’ve all got much more important things to talk about. 

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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