How To Cover Hillary Clinton Without Being Sexist


As she hits the media circuit to promote her new memoir, former Secretary of State and potential 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton is speaking out against the sexism she faced during her last presidential run and in her public life.

“When you’re in the spotlight as a woman, you know you’re being judged constantly,” Clinton told ABC’s Diane Sawyer last week. “It is just never ending. You get a little worried about, okay, people over on this side are loving what I’m wearing, looking like, saying. People over on this side aren’t…I’m done with that. I’m just done.”

Clinton may say she’s “done with that,” but the media certainly isn’t. Six years after the 2008 campaign, the jokes about Clinton’s fashion and marriage have given way to a softer, under the radar form of gendered coverage. The sexist code isn’t gone, it’s just become harder to crack.

For instance, in a town hall style interview with the former secretary of state Tuesday night, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour chuckled that Clinton “got quite feisty” in a prior interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News. After the CNN interview, commentator Wolf Blitzer also said approvingly how “feisty” Clinton had been.

“Feisty” is one of the words that sets off alarms for the Women’s Media Center, which released a guide to gender neutral coverage of female candidates and politicians during the 2012 election cycle. The guide includes a dictionary of all the words that are used to subtly demean women. For instance, the guide notes that “feisty” is a word “normally reserved for individuals and animals that are not inherently potent or powerful; ‘one can call a Pekinese dog spunky or feisty, but one would not, I think, call a Great Dane spunky or feisty.’”

Other examples of seemingly innocuous but gendered terms include “complain,” “aggressive,” and “scold.”

Rachel Larris, communications manager for WMC, explained that this sort of commentary is not intentionally sexist or malicious, as reporters are often “not aware that they are doing it.”

Still, “tropes develop,” Larris told ThinkProgress. “Covering a female candidate’s appearance at a campaign stop is a journalistic trope.”

Even when the coverage is not blatantly offensive or negative, these tropes can hurt women with political ambitions. Research shows that even neutrally mentioning a female candidate’s appearance hurts her election chances.

Hillary Clinton has long been a magnet for such tropes, from her pantsuits to her scrunchies. Another new theme emerging is her soon-to-be grandmother status.

In the ABC News interview, Diane Sawyer tied Clinton’s familial obligations to her political aspirations, asking, “Can you savor being a grandmother and be president?” Clinton shot back, “Of course, men have been serving in that position, being fathers and grandfathers, since the beginning of the Republic.”

Similarly, Amanpour brought up the Benghazi attacks by asking Clinton about a victim’s mother. “How do you relate to her as a mother?” she asked.

Clinton has certainly been eager to talk about her grandchild, and in several interviews expressed angst about balancing family with a potential campaign. But “that doesn’t let political reporters off the hook for calling her Grandma Hillary,” Larris said.

While candidates of both genders frequently talk about their families, Larris pointed out that journalists tend to more closely affiliate female candidates with their familial identities. “Mitt Romney was never called a grandfather in a headline, or called grandfatherly,” Larris said, even when two new Romney grandchildren were born during the 2012 campaign. “[Grandfatherly versus grandmotherly] as an adjective shows the kind of differences between a male candidate and a female candidate. When a female candidate talks about children and grandchildren, the whole story is about that.”

The “heavyhanded” sexism in the 2008 campaign cycle, during which Clinton was mocked as shrill and compared to a nagging wife, seems to have made the public more aware of the ways female candidates are targeted, Larris said. But reporters also need to be more aware of their language choices.

“The best tool that any media personality has in order to negate the effects that gendered reporting can have on their subjects is to simply be aware of it,” Larris said. “To think about words — would I actually use the term feisty to describe David Brat? Have I merely made the fact that he’s a father the main part of the article? In some cases it may be warranted. But just to think through these words can make a big difference.”