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John Neffinger

John Neffinger

Posted: June 13, 2008 01:12 PM

Who, Me, Sexist? Confessions of a Cable-News Commentator


How is your day going? I woke up today to find myself at the top of the New York Times' list of people making sexist comments about Hillary Clinton in the media. So I've been better.

The relevant comment was this: "Whenever she raises her voice, there's a danger that she starts to sound a little bit shrill," something I said as a guest on Hardball in discussing Senator Clinton's performance in one of last year's primary debates.

There is an interesting issue about the larger role of the media here, but let's begin with the facts of what I said. Though I expressed myself colloquially, there is solid research on this point. Consider:

"Victoria Brescoll, a researcher at Yale, made headlines this August with her findings that while men gain stature and clout by expressing anger, women who express it are seen as being out of control, and lose stature. Study participants were shown videos of a job interview, after which they were asked to rate the applicant and choose their salary. The videos were identical but for two variables -- in some the applicants were male and others female, and the applicant expressed either anger or sadness about having lost an account after a colleague arrived late to an important meeting. The participants were most impressed with the angry man, followed by the sad woman, then the sad man, and finally, at the bottom of the list, the angry woman. The average salary assigned to the angry man was nearly $38,000 while the angry woman received an average of only $23,000."

That passage comes from an article in the very same New York Times about two weeks prior to my on-air comment, though tellingly it appeared in the "Fashion & Style" section, as opposed to the "U.S. Politics" section where I was pilloried this morning.

Just because there is science backing me up, though, doesn't necessarily mean my comment was harmless. After all, the science basically found that society's perceptions are sexist. In calling attention to that dynamic, without further explanation, did I imply that that sexism was OK by me? Does talking about sexism without explicitly condemning it make me sexist?

From a political strategy point of view, it is fine to point out that Senator Clinton would be wise to be careful not to run afoul of those prejudices by raising her voice and displaying anger. But if I am describing those prejudices on air, maybe I should have taken the time to say explicitly that research shows that there are strong social norms that condemn women for expressing anger in ways that seem appropriate for men. That would at least suggest that any perceptions of Senator Clinton's anger display as negative or aberrant originate with us, the prejudiced beholders, not with her, the "hysterical" female, and that in a more perfect world we would allow her the full range of expression we allow male leaders.

I'd like to think that people who know me are confident not only that I know what I'm talking about, but that I believe that everyone's feelings should be shown due respect, regardless of gender. But since the research shows that as a society we still share some strong culturally-enforced biases in how we perceive men and women, maybe next time I will take the time to make it clear where I stand.