Misogynoir: A Guide To Racist And Sexist Phrases In 2020
The role of misogyny in the 2016 election coverage, and ultimately in the election of Donald Trump, shouldn’t be underestimated. A focus on Clinton’s perceived “electability” issues and on nothingburger scandals consistently grabbed the mainstream media’s fickle attention, promoting conspiracy theories and undermining her standing with independent and progressive voters alike. And the bias of several prominent male reporters, who seemed to have a vested interest in digging up sexist attacks against Clinton, was clearly visible for anyone who cared to look.
And yet, as Kamala Harris stepped into the spotlight to become Biden’s vice-presidential pick earlier this week, it appears many are poised to repeat the same mistakes. And it’s not just Donald Trump and his supporters digging up all the old classics such as the “angry black woman” and racist birtherism 2.0. It’s also the subtle sexist digs that suggest Kamala Harris is a power-hungry star whose ambition makes her a danger to Biden. Or criticisms that smack of racism that Harris’s story of struggle and her rise as a trailblazer is somehow not good enough (or black enough).
This intersection of both sexist and racist rhetoric is referred to as misogynoir, a term coined in 2008 by Moya Bailey, an assistant professor of cultures, societies, and global studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Northeastern University. And as we move into the final weeks of election coverage, misogynoir is on display throughout both social and mainstream media platforms as prominent figures, politicians, and reporters alike question Harris’s electability with the kind of scrutiny white male candidates never seem to face.
Why the words the media uses in election coverage matter.
Not only has there been ample evidence that sexism was in play in the 2016 election, but there is a plethora of research that indicates the words the media chooses when describing candidates plays on our inherent biases. Biased coverage can range from providing less airtime to female candidates or those of color to scrutinizing aspects of a candidate’s personal life, physical appearance, or mannerisms with verbal cues that exploit gender or racial stereotypes.
A groundbreaking study published in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2018 suggested that not only do voters have a bias towards candidates described with masculine attributes as identified by the Bem-Sex Role Inventory, but that bias was more pronounced among women voters. Candidates described with masculine adjectives were perceived as 10% more qualified by voters in general and female voters indicated candidates described with feminine attributes were 15% less competent than other candidates.
As you can imagine, candidates of color like Kamala Harris face increased media hostility with wide-ranging attacks that seek to delegitimize her candidacy, her competence, and her ethnicity. A consortium of activists, politicians, and influencers have banded together in the past week to promote a campaign for media accountability called “We Have Her Back.” In an open letter penned to the entire news industry, organizations like NARAL, Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, Supermajority, Time’s Up, the National Women’s Law Center, and the National Partnership for Women and Families have vowed not to allow misogynoir in media coverage to go unchecked.
“Women have been subject to stereotypes and tropes about qualifications, leadership, looks, relationships and experience. Those stereotypes are often amplified and weaponized for Black and Brown women. Attempts at legitimate investigations of a candidate have repeatedly turned into misguided stories that perpetuate impressions of women as inadequate leaders, and Black and Brown women as worse. There are multiple ways that media coverage over the years has contributed to the facts of the lack of diversity at the top of society’s roles.”
The letter then goes on to break down a litany of sexist and racist tropes that the media have repeatedly trotted out and given airtime for decades. While many networks like MSNBC and CNN have made huge improvements in this regard since 2016, there is still a lot of work to do. And it calls upon all of us to hold the media accountable when they fail to recognize these attacks that undermine the very fabric of the diversity American democracy relies on.
An A-Z Guide to Misogynoir in Election Coverage
To better recognize the arsenal of misogynoir that both the right and some on the far left can bring to bear on female candidates, specifically those of color, we’ve created this guide to holding mainstream media mouthpieces accountable for their words. It is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list of sexist and racist tropes. As you’ll see, many of these attacks overlap and create a framework that traps female candidates in language that objectifies, while simultaneously pushing racist conspiracy theories that seek to undermine a candidate’s legitimacy.
When you see these words being used even in subtle ways to undermine women and people of color in leadership positions, it’s worth stopping and inspecting the source. Often you’ll find those who use terms that reek of misogynoir have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of an oppressive society.
The weaponizing of a woman’s ambition against her is uniquely sexist and a disparity that’s often visible in coverage of male versus female candidates. Reports that Trump was surprised by Biden’s selection of a woman who could “steal the spotlight” or question Biden’s authority frame a woman’s ambition as a threat to male power. When the media focuses on a woman’s ambition, the subtext is always that a woman’s place is at home mothering her children and not on the campaign trail pursuing a career in political service.
On Maria Bartiromo’s show for one of his public therapy sessions, Trump refers to Kamala Harris as “a mad woman” pic.twitter.com/kXfai20ODa
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 13, 2020
One of the classic sexist and racist tropes used to define women, and specifically black women, who exhibit passion or emotion is the angry black woman. This racist caricature has roots in inciting fear among the white electorate that people of color are violently aggressive and threaten both property and privilege. You’ll see faucets of this applied with a wide brush throughout the media in criticism of women like Maxine Waters and Serena Williams.
While women have been accused of being “too emotional” to govern, the flip side of this patently false gender stereotype is that a focused and professional female candidate is “cold” or unlikable. Clinton and other female candidates often face this accusation when they remain reserved about details of their private life, but it’s rare that male candidates are framed as unlikable for being similarly reticent.
The intent behind this kind of sexist language is less than subtle. When women seek to hold those in power accountable, framing them as disrespectful suggests they are questioning male authority. Trump has already tried this tactic with Harris, attempting to cast what many saw as a cool and competent questioning of an obviously flustered and angry Brett Kavanaugh as impudent. It’s also language that seeks to patronize and infantilize adult women.
After watching hours of Lindsey Graham and Brett Kavanaugh spraying spittle and raging when asked to account for sexually assaulting a woman, you might be forgiven for assuming it is men and not women that are too emotional to govern. And yet this gender stereotype that feelings are a uniquely female attribute implies vulnerability and weakness – it’s a stereotype that gets thrust forward over and over again in discussions of electability.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
There is particular attention paid to how women in the public eye dress or the shape of their bodies that is a thinly veiled attempt to objectify and discredit women as serious candidates. The implications of this body-shaming are two-fold and it places women in peril no matter which side of the coin they fall on.
Politicians like Patty Murray, once described by her own senator as “a mom in tennis shoes,” are made to seem incompetent and unable to meet societal expectations of women as objects of beauty. And when they do happen to be physically attractive, well-dressed women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they become an object for men’s desires and their intellect and accomplishments are downplayed or disregarded entirely.
President Trump says Kamala Harris was his “number one draft pick” for Joe Biden’s running mate, and that she was “extraordinarily nasty” to Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings https://t.co/LuaejUqCGi pic.twitter.com/O3z3qbXNjK
— CBS News (@CBSNews) August 11, 2020
There is a very visceral, instinctual reaction to the word nasty and it’s one Trump loves to wield against women, most infamously against Hillary Clinton and now, Kamala Harris. The undercurrents of the term suggest both disgust, usually regarding physical appearance, and the implication of female promiscuity or sexual deviancy. Feminists have led various campaigns to redefine nasty as a term of empowerment, seeking to align it with the idea that a nasty woman is one who persists in challenging the patriarchy.
Not Black Enough
A concerted effort to undermine the ethnicity of candidates of color didn’t end with Barack Obama. Newsweek has already resurrected various shades of birtherism 2.0 for Kamala Harris, whose Oakland upbringing as the child of American immigrants has been exhaustively documented It’s since been echoed by right-wing media and President Trump.
But this racist attack doesn’t just undermine a candidate’s legitimacy to seek office. It also attempts to call into question a candidate’s standing with communities of color by framing them as not black enough, an attack that has been applied with particular vehemence against Kamala Harris who hails from a biracial background.
Can you be too competent? If you’re a woman, the patriarchy says the answer is yes. Clinton faced this sexist trope in 2016 on the heels of a debate in which male reporters like Chuck Todd criticized her preparedness to answer policy questions. While being competent seems like an attribute voters would admire, it is used as a double-edged sword for women who are accused of being stiff, snobby, or unapproachable if they are too intelligent or experienced.
This term is a vague one that becomes a bucket to hold all sorts of attacks on a candidate’s competence. For women, it can take the form of questioning their rise to power as legitimate or implying they “slept their way to the top.” In people of color, it can also take the form of accusations of tokenism that hint their legitimacy as a candidate is not based on their qualifications but on race. Barack Obama faced these sorts of attacks when his credentials were defined as a “community organizer” rather than as a senator and influential politician.
The media’s obsession with Hillary Clinton’s voice was a noticeable distraction in the 2016 election cycle, with some reporters repeatedly finding ways to describe her voice as “shrill” or hoarse. This characterization plays on our sexist ideals that women should be pleasing and charming and their value comes from being objects of physical attractiveness and femininity. You can also see this play out in the absurd focus on Clinton’s pantsuits, which later became a feminist symbol of empowerment for disenfranchised female voters.
Trump Campaign legal adviser Jenna Ellis has already attacked Kamala Harris for her voice, claiming she sounds like Marge Simpson. The Simpsons have already hilariously responded.
Smile more often. Don’t be angry. These cues for female candidates tell us that societal expectations for women tie their success to being quiet, unassuming, and willing to cheerfully be “the woman behind the man.” While this perspective seems archaic, polling in 2016 indicated one in four of the voters in swing states agreed with the statement “Sometimes, it feels like most women who run for president just aren’t that likable.”
It’s rare to find the media framing a white male politician as “unelectable,” but it was the subject of many op-eds surrounding Hillary Clinton and even Barack Obama. The coverage validated the idea that the American electorate wasn’t ready to elect a woman or a person of color and that their candidacies were destined to fail.
Not only did that turn out to be spectacularly untrue of Obama, who went on to win a second term, but Clinton also won the popular vote by an unprecedented margin. Yet arguments about electability for women and candidates of color persist.
It seems laughable that anyone could level this criticism against a candidate with Donald Trump sitting at the other end of the equation, but it’s happening. Kamala Harris is being framed as uniquely unworthy of our trust by both right and left-wing pundits because she’s had to make compromises in her history as a public servant.
Often these arguments seem completely divorced from the context of the time and are leveled by those who can’t seem to decide if Harris is too liberal or too conservative. And they frame the evolution of Harris’s policies as cold political calculations rather than as evidence of her honest human empathy and capacity for change.
A Candidate by Any Other Name
And last but not least we get to one of the oldest microaggressions in the book. Intentionally mispronouncing or misleading the public about a candidate’s name had a good run under Barack Obama, so the racists are resurrecting it for 2020. By making a name sound more (or less) ethnic, critics can subtly suggest that a candidate is not as “American” as they seem and play the burgeoning xenophobia in this country like a fiddle. Tucker Carlson of Fox News has already tried his hand at this:
Tucker Carlson loses it when a guest corrects his pronunciation of Kamala Harris’s name pic.twitter.com/1fHIrPGuwN
— nikki mccann ramírez (@NikkiMcR) August 12, 2020
Media coverage can also have a tendency to reinforce the use of a woman’s first name instead of her last and disregard titles she’s earned when providing quotes or sourcing. These sorts of subtle omissions are inherently sexist and they can lead to public perception of a female candidate as less qualified than her male colleague.
The Rantt Rundown
While we need to hold the reporters accountable for the coverage they provide and the ways in which it shapes the opinions of the electorate, we should also acknowledge WHY the media struggles with racist and sexist tropes. In large part, this is a result not only of societal oppression but a lack of representation in newsrooms and at publications both local and national.
When asked to provide demographics for a Columbia Journalism Review study on race and gender in 2016’s election coverage, The New York Times disclosed that 90% of their reporters and editors tasked with covering the election were white and 70% of them male. In fact, none of the publications queried had equal representation in their newsrooms when it came to race and only two, NPR and USA Today, had a female majority. If we want to reshape election coverage and address the persistent misogynoir in the media, we’ll have to start by pushing for more diversity in the demographics of the folks who make and write the news.