Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sexist Language in Media Coverage of Hillary Clinton

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By Ashleigh Crowther

Whether she's a First Lady, a Senator or a presidential candidate, the media has always had a love-hate relationship with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Coverage of Clinton is complex, unpredictable, and highly inconsistent. The one thing that the media never forgets, however, is the fact that Clinton is a woman.

In Postfeminist News, Mary Douglas Vavrus comments that "Hillary Rodham Clinton seems to inspire a mixture of respect and disdain from media personel, and this mixture is more often than not strutured by patterned references that reveal their creators' perspectives on women, power, and public life" (130). Press coverage of Clinton has exposed journalists' sexist ideas about gender and politics.

As early as 1992, media critics had begun noticing that the press' attitude toward Clinton was complex and ambivalent. In an October 30, 1992 article for the Washington Post, Donnie Radcliffe wrote the following about her: "It hasn't been easy being the Woman in this Year of the Woman, everybody's favorite target for all that's dangerous about being independent, smart, impatient, articulate, outspoken, ambitious -- and while she's at it, a three-fer: wife, mother and successful corporate lawyer. By any standard, Hillary Clinton has been a handful for America to deal with."

What was really hard for the press to "deal with" was a woman who could fulfill multiple roles successfully while remaining independent and ambitious. The coverage of Clinton's current presidential campaign reveals the media's negative attitudes about Clinton as a career-oriented woman. This is evidenced by the fact that Clinton is frequently described in a way that implies that she is overly ambitious. The word "calculating" is used most frequently.

Wall Street Journal national political editor John Harwood called Clinton "very politically cautious and calculating" on MSNBC's Hardball on January 29. According to Hardball's Chris Matthews, Clinton is a "calculated politician." National Review Online editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg remarked that Clinton was"cold and calculating in an obviously political marriage." On NBC's Meet the Press on February 11, The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz claimed that "the image that the many journalists have of Senator Clinton as being a kind of a cold and calculating and triangulating politician."

The media also perpetuates an image of Clinton as "scary" or "intimidating." This view of Clinton was crudely articulated by the recent spate of stories regarding her laugh.

On September 23, Clinton appeared on the five major Sunday political talk shows: NBC's Meet the Press, CBS' Face the Nation, ABC's This Week, Fox News Sunday and CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. Immediately following the appearances, the Republican National Committee released a research briefing titled "Hillary: No Laughing Matter: On Sunday Morning Shows, When Not Laughing Off Important Questions, Hillary Hides From The Facts And Her Own Record." The briefing contained links to video clips of Clinton laughing during various interviews.

Journalists writing about Clinton immediately began mentioning her laugh, including Patrick Healy of The New York Times and Ben Smith of Politico. On September 24, conservative blogs and talk radio picked up the story: Matt Drudge posted a link to Clinton's laugh on his blog, Rush Limbaugh featured a segment on the laugh, and Sean Hannity played a clip of it on his radio show. On the O'Reilly Factor, "body language expert" Sonya Reiman called Clinton's laughter "evil." On September 25, the story hit the Daily Show, and on October 1, ABC's Good Morning America, CNN's Situation Room, Fox News' Hannity & Colmes and MSNBC's Hardball included stories about it.

It is unsurprising that conservative media pundits exploited the story. It was a fun and easy way to criticize a liberal politician. It is also unsurprising that non-conservative outlets eventually featured stories about Clinton's laugh, since the story had been in the news for a week and did not seem to be going away.

What is most irritating, however, are the sexist undertones found in the stories. It became more than just an easy way to bash Clinton. It became a misogynistic attempt to undermine Clinton as a politician by evoking negative stereotypes about women.

The New York Times' Patrick Healy called it the "Clinton Cackle." Frank Rich of The New York Times called it "calculating." Maureen Dowd wrote that Clinton was transitioning "from nag to wag."

Only Joan Vennochi of The Boston Globe bothered to call attention to the sexism inherent in the terminology: "HENS CACKLE. So do witches. And, so does the front-runner in the Democratic presidential contest. Former Bill Clinton adviser Dick Morris recently described Hillary Clinton's laugh as 'loud, inappropriate, and mirthless. . . . A scary sound that was somewhere between a cackle and a screech.'"

The first definition for "cackle" in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is the following: "Of a hen: to make the clucking noise characteristically made after laying an egg." Therefore, literal translation of the word is exclusive to females, specifically female chickens. In modern, everyday usage, the word "cackle" is applied to evil-sounding laughter, most often to the laughter of witches. Witches are also generally depicted as female.

Perhaps what was so attractive about the story for news outlets was that it drew on fairytale archetypes, which always constitute easy story-telling devices for journalists. In children's stories, the "good woman" is generally a young, naive virgin, while the "bad woman" is generally a witch or gorgon-type. (Think Snow White and the Witch, or The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West.) To paint Clinton as a cackling witch plays with the public's deeply-ingrained stereotypes about women. As a strong, female politician, Clinton often comes under attack for her inability to be a traditional woman: she is not quiet, she is not naive, and she is not deferential to her husband.

In fact, Clinton had already gained a reputation as an insubordinate wife. In 1992, Clinton remarked on 60 Minutes that she was "not some little woman standing by her man like Tammy Wynette" (Vavrus 132). A few months later, then-candidate Jerry Brown claimed that Clinton had acted improperly as an attorney while her husband was governor. Clinton responded, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas. But what I decided to do was fulfill my profession" (Vavrus 132). Us News & World Report that year said she was an "overbearing yuppie wife from hell."

To that end, Clinton is consistently represented as cruel, ruthless, and even vicious. On the November 14 episode of CNN's American Morning, Politico write Mike Allen referred to a recent campaign event in Hilton Head, South Carolina, during which a questioner asked Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), "How do we beat the bitch [Clinton]?" McCain had responded uncomfortably, joking "May I give the translation?" and moved on with the discussion without bothering to chastize the questioner.

Allen remarked, "What Republican voter hasn't thought that? What voter in general hasn't thought that?"

Debra Condren of The Huffington Post was much more critical of McCain. She slammed him for not "confronting the dropping of the B-bomb" and suggested that "McCain would never have tolerated a booster referring to Barack Obama using the N-word."

On November 16, Politico columnist Roger Simon titled his column "The (rhymes with rich) is back." In this case, Simon intended the label as a compliment, remarking that in a recent debate,"Hillary Clinton was not the passive, parsing, punching bag that she was at the last debate in Philadelphia two weeks ago."

Despite the fact that the comment was intended as a compliment, it is still undeniably sexist. The word "bitch" carries a specifically feminine connotation, and is applied almost exclusively to women. In this case, the word "bitch" is used to describe a woman who is tough and ambitious.

Simon is following the popular convention in the media of singling out Clinton as a female candidate and reminding the audience of Clinton's gender.

Simon's column implies that Clinton can only be two types of women: a "bitch" or a "punching bag." It is unclear whether Simon is showing his own sexist attitudes toward women, or if he is using the journalistic trick of molding people into archetyal story-book characters. However, one thing is for certain. If Rudolph Giuliani had made a sudden improvement, the article would not have been titled "The (rhymes with rich) is back." It would have been titled something like "Rudy makes a comeback."

According to Condren, "bitch" is just "code for ambitious woman who is too big for her breeches." The word is just a way of cutting women down: "[I]f [a woman is] tenacious, determined, stubborn, aggressive, committed to excellence in her field, confident--and especially if she's competing against like-minded male peers and feels entitled to earn her worth, power, and recognition? We swiftly unsheathe the B-word to bring her down hard, to put her in her place."

Clinton is scrutinized by the press in yet another way that her male counterparts are not. The press is especially critical of Clinton's appearance. The most notable recent example is the Clinton cleavage debacle of this past summer.

The whole thing started when The Washington Post published an article by fashion writer Robin Givhan on July 20. Givhan's article critiqued an outfit that Clinton had worn while speaking on the Senate floor on July 18. Givhan claimed that showing cleavage "means that a woman is content being perceived as a sexual person in addition to being seen as someone who is intelligent, authoritative, witty and whatever else might define her personality." However, Givhan seems unwilling to accept Clinton as a sexual person: "it was more like catching a man with his fly unzipped," she commented. "Just look away!"

Other media outlets picked up the story, and it snowballed into a full-blown controversy. However, this time it wasn't the conservative outlets who jumped on the story. According to a Media Matters for America report, MSNBC and CNN devoted substantial amounts of time to the story. From 9am to 5pm ET on July 30, MSNBC gave 23 minutes and 42 seconds to segments discussing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's "cleavage." CNN devoted 3 minutes and 54 seconds to the story, while Fox News devoted none.

It seemed like everyone had an opinion on the issue. For CNBC's John Harwood, it all went back to Clinton's calculating nature. "When you look at the calculation that goes into everything that Hillary Clinton does, for her to argue that she was not aware of what she was communicating by her dress is like Barry Bonds saying he thought he was rubbing down with flaxseed oil," he said on NBC's Meet the Press.

Hillary Clinton's campaign sent out a fundraising letter calling Givhan's article "grossly inappropriate." The letter went on to say that "focusing on women's bodies instead of their ideas is insulting," and "it's insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting."

The cleavage episode was not a unique case of Hillary enduring criticism for her appearance. Only 3 days later, during a CNN debate, John Edwards made a joke about Clinton's coral-colored jacket.

These types of remarks debase Clinton, forcing the audience to view her first as a female, then as a candidate. Jennifer Pozner commented on this issue in an essay about media coverage of women involved in Campaign 2000: "By focusing so consistently on irrelevant personal, gender-specific details about female security advisors, attorneys general and congressmembers, media outlets imply that they are 'ladies' first, major political players second" (Pozner 10). Pozner prefectly sums up Clinton's troubled relationship with the press.

The media's depictions of Senator Clinton exhibit pervasive, sexist attitudes. Media outlets go beyond critiquing and reporting on Clinton as a candidate, instead choosing to highlight the fact that she is female using negative feminine stereotypes. If Clinton is to be criticized, she should be criticized on a level playing field with her male peers, without charged language or fairy-tale imagery.

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