On Feb. 3, famed Watergate-era investigative journalist Bob Woodward criticized former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “shrill” manner of speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” He took particular issue with the way she presented herself publicly, claiming that she is not “comfortable with herself” and that she focuses too much on “this screaming stuff.” Other guests on the show attempted to come to Clinton’s defense, including former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, but Woodward continued to assail her tone and encouraged her to “lower the temperature.”
In an election marked by the fiery and impassioned rhetoric of candidates like Senator Bernie Sanders, it is difficult to separate Woodward’s comments from the treatment Clinton receives from the media relating to her gender (The Huffington Post, “People Won’t Stop Criticizing Hillary Clinton For Raising Her Voice,” 02.05.2015). While benign to the casual viewer, Woodward’s critiques follow a dangerously problematic trend of sexism in regards to Clinton’s presidential campaign from both sides of the aisle.
Geraldo Rivera, Sean Hannity, Joe Scarborough and Editor-in-Chief of The Hill Bob Cusack have all made remarks lambasting Clinton’s “shouting,” asserting that this style of speaking comes off as too embittered and angry. Cusack acknowledged Sanders’s tendencies to shout while the other three men made no reference to him when analyzing Clinton.
It is exactly this corrosive double standard that permeates recent criticism of Clinton, ranging from the likes of Rivera and Scarborough to the propagation of anti-Clinton sentiment in the form of angry comments sections on Facebook and Internet memes to criticisms by her fellow presidential candidates. When Sanders yells, he’s called passionate. When Clinton yells, she’s called shrill.
GOP frontrunner Donald Trump often tweets attacks on his would-be opponent, writing that “SHE [Clinton] HAS NO STRENGTH OR STAMINA” (The New York Times, “Donald Trump’s Twitter Insults: The Complete List (So Far),” 02.05.2016).
Additionally, at a campaign event in Iowa, Trump asserted that Clinton had been “schlonged” by Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, another gendered slur attempting to undermine her legitimacy. Trump also has come under fire for sexism when he allegedly referenced Fox News’s Megyn Kelly menstruating during an interview after the first GOP debate, as well as a 2013 tweet blaming rampant sexual assault in the military on allowing women to serve.
Trump’s gendered, raving attacks on Clinton remain consistent with his belittling style of campaigning. It would be easy to denounce these sexist disparagements as typical Trump, especially since his brand of offensiveness is overt and easily rebuffed. However, in the context of comments made by various political pundits and presidential candidates, his rhetoric eerily evokes similar, yet subdued language being used by other “mainstream” political figures.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently (and reprehensibly) told supporters at a campaign event that he’ll “beat her rear end on that stage and afterward she’ll be relieved that I didn’t serve her with a subpoena” (ABC News, “Christie Promises to Beat Hillary Clinton’s ‘Rear End’ on Debate Stage,” 02.03.2016).
In January, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said of Clinton at the Fox Business Network debate, “Unlike another woman in this race, I actually love spending time with my husband” (The Hill, “Fiorina: Unlike Hillary, ‘I actually love spending time with my husband,’” 01.14.2016). Fiorina’s comments perpetuate the offensive image of Hillary as a robotic, detached woman who only remained with her husband for political purposes. Additionally, Fiorina’s attitude towards Clinton illuminates a strain of stereotyped narratives that have propagated in the media throughout her career. Many of these narratives conflict with one another; all of them are rooted in sexism.
The images conjured of Hillary Clinton reflect a variety of negative motifs that are often attributed to women in power. The treatment of Clinton, over the last few weeks in particular, has been extraordinarily reminiscent of the “shrill woman” trope that is pervasive throughout film, literature and popular media. The trope operates on the basis of women (often portrayed as angry and hysterical) being less stable and rational than men. (TV Tropes, “Hysterical Woman”).
In a country where female suffrage isn’t even a century old and women still fight for basic reproductive and economic rights, the trope is, unfortunately, still invoked throughout public discourse, as evidenced by the underlying implications of certain pundits’ statements and Clinton’s treatment on the Internet.
When former presidential candidate Howard Dean suggested that the panel of “Morning Joe” might reflect internalized sexism, co-host Mika Brzezinski rejected the claim as other guests rushed to criticize Dean. However, he was not the only one to take issue with Clinton’s treatment on the episode.
Joe Scarborough’s, co-host of “Morning Joe,” defense of Woodward’s comments prove even more toxic. In response to a Vox article critical of Woodward and Scarborough’s remarks, Scarborough tweeted in response, “Your suggestion that Bob Woodward is sexist for analyzing a woman’s speaking ability is sexist. Lower expectations?” What Scarborough fails to understand is the implicit biases that are revealed when a powerful woman such as Hillary Clinton is put in the spotlight. Analyzing a woman’s speaking ability isn’t inherently sexist, but when such criticisms fit into a larger narrative of the expectation of female submissiveness and holding women to an unfair double standard, no one should “lower expectations.”
As Vox pointed out, “Research shows that people perceive women differently based on their gender. This is true for Clinton, and it’s true for women generally…Even though women are interrupted more often and talk less than men, people still think women talk more. People get annoyed by verbal tics like ‘vocal fry’ and ‘upspeak’ when women use them, but often don’t even notice it when men do” (Vox, “This awful ‘Morning Joe’ clip shows how not to talk about Hillary Clinton,” 02.03.2015). The article cited numerous scholarly articles that explicated implicit gender biases in the workplace and popular perceptions of women in power. The illumination of underlying sexism within these comments should serve as a catalyst for shifting critical rhetoric surrounding Clinton’s campaign. At the very least, if you’re going to criticize Clinton for being loud, hold Senator Sanders to that same standard.
I am (currently) not a supporter of Hillary Clinton. I will likely vote for Bernie Sanders in my state’s primary. I believe Clinton is a flawed candidate for a variety of reasons and am certainly not implying or arguing that Clinton should be absolved of any and all criticism.
However, the pervasive yet subtle sexism surrounding popular discourse about her campaign necessitates condemnation. The recognition of potential biases—ones which Howard Dean attempted to instill in the conversation on Scarborough’s show—makes for more constructive, respectful and productive dialogue and critique that are devoid of toxicity.