One adjective that appeared in a Politico story Friday morning was “husky” — as in, “the last debate in New Hampshire was arguably Clinton’s worst — she wore her anger outwardly and seemed to deliver her lines in an aggrieved husky voice.”
That tripped the sexism alarm of at least one reader, who tweeted at author Glenn Thrush to say she has “never seen any reporter talk about a man’s voice.”
Thrush said the argument was nonsense (in slightly stronger terms) and cited Marco Rubio as an example of a male presidential candidate whose voice also has attracted media commentary.
“All the time” might be an exaggeration, but so is “never.” Here’s what the New Republic’s Elspeth Reeve had to say about Rubio’s vocal quality just last week:
His voice rises toward a yelp for emphasis, and his voice sometimes has a sing-songy quality. Even if you were never a bully, you kind of want to pick on him.
The Twitter exchange between Thrush and the reader echoed a similar one from last week, which centered on a New York Times account of the same New Hampshire debate referenced by Thrush.
Addisu Demissie, a Democratic strategist who worked on Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, tweeted two excerpts from the Times dispatch — one stating that Sanders “largely kept his cool in the debate," and the other painting Clinton as “tense and even angry at times.”
Demissie wrote that the contrasting passages were “offered without comment,” but the implication was clear: Clinton can’t get fired up without being called “angry” because she is a woman.
Times reporter Nick Confessore, who did not write the piece, came to the defense of colleagues Jonathan Martin and Patrick Healy.
Accurate or not, Clinton made such a depiction very precarious last fall when, while discussing gun control, she memorably asserted: “First of all, I'm not shouting. It's just when women talk, some people think we're shouting.”
The remark was a response to Sanders's saying there was too much "shouting" on the issue of guns — after Clinton had attacked his record on that issue. (Sanders said his comment wasn't sexist.) But Clinton was also issuing a warning to anyone who might think about characterizing her voice as some variation of angry/yelling/shouting/husky: Prepare to be called sexist if you do.
It’s hard to deny the existence of some lingering institutional sexism in our political vernacular. Men and women — politicians and reporters — still use gendered terms to connote strength and weakness. The reason critiques of Clinton’s oratory can be seen as offensive is because they sometimes carry the suggestion that she’s not feminine enough — that she’s acting too much like a man.
In other words, that her behavior is "unbecoming," as Mitt Romney once said of an attack by Shannon O’Brien during the 2002 gubernatorial race in Massachusetts.
Conversely, mockery of Rubio’s “sing-songy” voice (or his “high-heeled booties”) implies that he’s just a little bit girly — which is, of course, presumed to be a bad thing. That’s why last month’s bootie-gate was followed by a concerted effort by Rubio to prove his masculinity.
So the question is not whether reporters remark on the voices of female and male candidates. They do. The question is whether remarks about either, or both, reinforce sexist stereotypes.
It’s worth noting that Clinton doesn’t have a perfect record on this issue. Lost in the uproar this week over the revelation of an Atlantic writer’s transactional coverage of a 2009 speech by then-Secretary of State Clinton is the highly gendered nature of the descriptor Clinton’s team required the reporter to use in exchange for an advance look at the speech: “muscular.” To convey strength and power, a top Clinton aide demanded that her address be called “muscular."
If you think of Annie Thorisdottir when you read “muscular,” good for you. But I guarantee more people think of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or any number of macho icons.
The point, I think, is that journalists and the people they cover — including Clinton — should be thoughtful about word choice but also not conjure an offense where there is none.
Sometimes Clinton does get angry. Sometimes she does shout. She wouldn’t be human if she didn’t, and it’s okay to call her outward displays of emotion what they are.
But as journalists, we ought to check ourselves before typing those terms to make sure they are genuinely applicable and not influenced by latent, sexist mindframes that we’re too proud to acknowledge.