Speaking to reporters Tuesday, the president described Harris’s questioning of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing as “extraordinarily nasty” — “nasty to a level that was just a horrible thing.” He also said she was “the meanest” and “the most horrible” in pressing Kavanaugh. And Trump said her debate stage attacks against Biden during the Democratic primaries were “very, very nasty.”
The insult is one Trump has levied roughly equally against men and women alike since becoming president, according to Factba.se, a data analytics company that tracks all of Trump’s public utterances. He did use it far more frequently during the 2016 campaign against women than men, said Factba.se founder Bill Frischling, although that was in part because he repeatedly brandished it against just one woman — Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, whom Trump famously called “such a nasty woman” during a debate.
But the resonance of the adjective — the way the attack lands, the nuances in connotation — is often different when the recipient is a woman, and different still when that woman is a person of color. Calling a woman nasty, say many experts and women in politics, is another way to deliberately dismiss and demean female politicians.
“It really has become coded language for a woman, and it tries to put her in a place that is unacceptable to society,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women across the country. “Our society allows for poor behavior by men but has little acceptance for anything but perfection by women, and so a term like ‘nasty’ really is just coded language, at least for a certain piece of the population.”
Trump, Schriock added, “knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Aparna Thomas, a professor of politics and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at Cornell College in Iowa, said the descriptor is “dismissive” and signifies that “women are not to be taken seriously.” She said it was significant that “nasty” was the inaugural attack Trump hurled at Harris once she became Biden’s running mate.
“That’s the first thing that comes to the president’s mind, is that she’s to be dismissed and that she’s a nasty woman,” Thomas said. “We’re now back to 2016, where we have a vice-presidential candidate who is female and is still being judged by a different set of standards set by men.”
Of course, “nasty” is one of the president’s preferred descriptors, and he wields it with impunity, lobbing it at targets animate and inanimate, people male and female.
The word is used a little over 13 times out of every million words in the English language, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English — a collection of more than 500 million words created by a linguistics professor at Brigham Young University. Trump, by comparison, has used the word more than 37 times for every million words, according to Factba.se.
“ ‘Nasty’ is one of his quote-unquote words,” Frischling said. “It’s one of his go-to descriptions.”
The Trump campaign dismissed the idea that the president’s attacks on Harris are in any way sexist, saying “nasty” was simply the most apt way to describe some of her past behavior.
“Though the mainstream media would have you believe otherwise, the President said Kamala Harris’ treatment of Justice Kavanaugh was nasty, which it was,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Courtney Parella said in an emailed statement. “The Democrats already tried using Hillary Clinton‘s gender to shield her from criticism in 2016 — it didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. Kamala Harris cannot claim sexism every time her liberal record or public statements are questioned, and protecting her from scrutiny does a disservice to American voters who deserve to know the truth about her radical record.”
But many critics say that sexism is inextricably bound to Trump’s attacks on women.
“The words ‘nasty’ and ‘mean’ are much more pejorative when directed at a woman,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to former president Barack Obama and board member of Time’s Up, a legal-defense fund for women who are victimized in the workplace. “There’s this whole sense that women need to be likable, and when you say they’re nasty or mean, that is intended to cut them deeply, whereas men are not subjected to the same likability test.”
The women Trump has singled out for the “nasty” treatment, Jarrett added, are “usually in a high-profile situation,” something that seems to irk the president.
Thomas said men who are described as nasty are also often described with other phrases such as “aggressive” and “ambitious” that, unlike for women, are not inherently negative for men.
“It’s okay because men are seen as powerful, and you can afford to be all of that and that does not define your identity,” Thomas said. “With women, it gets at this idea that their identities are rooted in their gender, in their races and in their sexual orientation, and that their identity is reduced to that.”
Harris’s background as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants adds another layer of nuance to how the insult lands, said Kelly Dittmar, the director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“Nastiness is saying that they are apart from or threatening to the status quo, and in this case, this is a status quo that has benefited white men in politics,” Dittmar said.
As with many insults, some women are trying to claim the word as a badge of honor, with “Nasty Women” and “Nasty Women Vote” hashtags appearing across social media.
Photos of “Nasty Woman” shirts are also popping up, as some are digging out their merchandise and slogans from 2016 — back when the word was directed at another Democratic woman: Clinton.