On Language

The 'Hot' Female Senator and the Rule of Reversibility

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand listens during a news conference about a bill regarding military sexual assault cases on July 16, 2013. i i

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand listens during a news conference about a bill regarding military sexual assault cases on July 16, 2013. Charles Dharapak /AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Dharapak /AP
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand listens during a news conference about a bill regarding military sexual assault cases on July 16, 2013.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand listens during a news conference about a bill regarding military sexual assault cases on July 16, 2013.

Charles Dharapak /AP

I wanted to spark a debate and got an earful.

Still, the many comments I received to my July 9 column on referring to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand as "perky" and speaking with a "girlie" voice were so generally insightful that I thought I might pick up on them here.

But first let me be clear: I agree with the editing out of those descriptions for being, as "RJ" posted, "dismissive and condescending." My questions had to do with whether and when a reporter can ever use such terms, or any feminine or female physical terms, when describing women leaders. In a world of changing fast-moving social change, these are questions that constantly deserve revisiting.

Two concepts kept popping up in the many thoughtful responses: context and what Rachel Larris called the "Rule of Reversibility."

Ms. Larris, who is from "Name It. Change It," a joint project of three women's advocacy groups that focuses on news coverage, summarized the rule:

Don't ask questions of women leaders that wouldn't be asked of men. Don't use terms that only apply to women — like "girlie" or "feminine" — that wouldn't be written about men. But in the larger sense, perhaps all members of the media should keep in mind the cultural biases that are constantly at play, both within reporters themselves and the subjects whom they interview.

This rule makes good sense, it seems to me.

But many others added a wrinkle. They wrote that journalists could use such terms when their stories directly deal with the perceptions of a female leader. As Dan Hortsch wrote, the stories also must definitely give the leader's "own reaction to the fact that a range of people, not just the reporter, come up with such descriptions."

This, too, makes good sense to me.

Hortsch and the others helped better define what were my own expressed concerns about making hard rules. We don't want to lose the value of a subjective profile of a leader, male or female. So, the added principle might be: deal with gender-specific stereotypes fully or don't traffic in them at all.

I don't agree with reader Nate Bowman when he wrote, "Personalities should be done outside of the news shows." An important role for any news organization is profiling society's leaders so citizens will know more about them. I was also sorry that he didn't seem to see the value of opening a conversation, as opposed to my giving diktats.

But perhaps the most trenchant comments came from a particular critic, my 29-year old daughter, Karina Schumacher-Villasante. "I actually read your article yesterday and had plenty to say about the subject," opened her long missive, sending shivers up a father's spine.

"The major difference between the sexes is that while someone like Chris Christie is ridiculed for his looks, his ability to govern is not questioned in parallel to his looks," she wrote from Dubai, where she works for a cable television company. "The skills or intelligence of someone like Gillibrand, however, might be doubted because her looks lend herself to being stereotyped as a 'dumb blond.' Or look at how Chris Christie's attitude is treated versus that of Hillary Clinton. Christie is hard hitting, honest and will get the job done! Hillary Clinton is PMS'ing."

This was part of the point made by Larris of "Name It. Change It." The issue is society itself, leading to her next concern: "Media stories can amplify, if not cause, such perceptions." This brings us back to the NPR story and why I agreed with the editing that took place.

But one comment stayed in the story and few of you took up my raising of it. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid was quoted in the story as calling Gillibrand the "hottest member" of the Senate. I suspect that most NPR listeners agree that Reid was stupid to say such a thing, but was NPR equally wrong to leave it in?

It can be argued that the comment was a newsworthy matter of public record. It also apparently was meant as a compliment by the leader of her own party in the Senate. I don't think that is justification enough to repeat the quote.

I go back to the idea that you either deal fully with what in that context was a degrading observation, or you don't mention it at all. Reid's intentions are not reason enough to let the observation pass on its own. Reid had bad judgment; editors don't need to. This applies to quotes about men and women.

You might enjoy reading some of the reader comments republished below. Let's keep the discussion going.


RJ wrote:

Please: Perky and girlie are unequivocally dismissive and condescending. I have met Sen. Gillibrand and what I did say to my "friends after first meeting" her, aside from her powerful and committed attributes, is that she's shorter than I expected. Not for a woman or a man; simply shorter. As for her and her office laughing it off when asked: Duh. She, as all politicians, rely on the press and unless challenged on an issue, the smart ones will treat them as good ol' buddies. Harry Reid and the rest of the male-dominated political power forces in DC are not surprising when they express their sexism; I just hope she chewed him out behind the scenes.

If the story is about how women in powerful positions are *still* mistreated, then reporting on the fact that people refer to her these ways despite the power she exuded in the military hearings (among others), then I can see a context for these remarks. But otherwise they add nothing to the story—it's not like describing a war zone or a woman who's been battered—and they are not part of her story.

Meg Pierce wrote:

There's a difference between reporting the facts, whether a politician is blonde or brunette, short or tall, 30 years old or 50 years old, and making judgments about their attractiveness. Attractiveness is a socially-construed concept. What one person conceives as "hot" is not what another person considers attractive. There are as many different types of beauty in this world as there are people.

Alyssa H wrote:

I remember reading the article mentioned and being very disappointed for a number of reasons. I was, of course, frustrated that a female senator was referred to as "girlie," petite, and soft-spoken. Even if she hadn't been a senator, what kind of bearing does that have on the story? Not much, I don't think.

I was also sad to see that an article, the title of which led me to believe that it was going to be about this woman's crusade to reform the way the military prosecutes sexual assault - a very serious issue - was mostly about the senator's home life and how she "makes it work" as a senator and a mother. I don't see many other articles addressing how male senators balance their work and home lives.

This, coupled with the comments about Gillibrand's "feminine" traits, made the article seem uncharacteristically sexist compared to NPR's usual reporting.
(Also, I find it odd that the comments section for this article is dominated by men, many of whom are saying that this subject is not worthy of such attention. As a woman, I believe the subject is very important. It was disheartening to see a female journalist of a respectable news organization refer to another woman in such a manner.)

Dan Hortsch wrote:

Clearly, a profile offers a reporter more latitude in describing the subject. However, if certain words are used, they ought to be put in the context of the subject's own reaction to the fact that a range of people, not just the reporter, come up with such descriptions. "Girlie" certainly is one such word. The fact that the reporter is a woman makes a difference in a listener or a reader's perception of intent, but reporting should not have two standards in that regard. "Petite, blond and perky" could be objective descriptions — at least the first two could be — just as "tall, dark-haired and quiet" might be. Or someone might be of "imposing" size with an aggressive speaking manner. But again, context makes a big difference. What does the subject say about being perceived a certain way? In this case, knowing that the reporter discussed potentially sexist descriptions with the subject, and her reaction to being viewed that way, helps. In regard to Gov. Christie, I am weary of references to his size, including by comedians. Leave it alone. The comments are pointless unless they are in a context, such as in reference to the surgery he had to help him lose weight.

Nate Bowman wrote:

Conspicuously absent from the report by the professor of journalism is what journalism tells us that a journalist should do. So, naturally, Mr. ESM is of no help, throwing his hands up in the air with "I am not sure what the answers to all these questions are, except to say there is no one clear answer."

I believe having this kind of presentation outside the frameword of a definition of journalism does a lot of harm to journalism.

If journalism is supposed to help the public make informed decisions, then how does appearance, voice, girliness, etc. add to the ability of a public to make informed decisions about a politician?

How do the same things matter in the senator's articulation of policy?

How does Washingtonian magazine's inclusion of Mr. Obama's appearance relate to journalism when the magazine describes itself as "the region's top source of information for dining, shopping, entertainment, and personalities."

And, speaking of journalism, what principle of transparency says that if there is no correction of factual error then there is no need to inform the public of a change in the text of a story?

And what principle of journalism allows a "journalist" to have "the irony of the first physical and speech impressions left by the senator seemed to Chang too obvious and too interesting on a human level to ignore" What possible bearing does it have on a senator's performance of her job to note that irony?

What difference does it make how many people bring up her looks in discussing the senator? NPR is supposed to perform journalism, not personalities. Personalities should be done outside of the news shows.

If "Chang and the editors and producers at Morning Edition came up at the last minute with this diplomatic formula," it was so that they could find a reason to include the immaterial discussion of her feminine traits.

What difference does it make if the senator herself doesn't mind? A journalist still has to answer the issue of pertinence.

How can Mr. ESM mention studies that pertain to the issue and then have the temerity to say that he hasn't read them? What journalist would do that?

Of what possible relevance is it to say "They do it to men, too." It is just as immaterial in that sphere.

Karina Schumacher-Villasante wrote:

I actually read your article yesterday and had plenty to say about the subject.

...

The major difference between the sexes is that while someone like Chris Christie is ridiculed for his looks, his ability to govern is not questioned in parallel to his looks. The skills or intelligence of someone like Gillibrand, however, might be doubted because her looks lend herself to being stereotyped as a "dumb blond." Or look at how Chris Christie's attitude is treated versus that of Hillary Clinton. Christie is hard hitting, honest and will get the job done! Hillary Clinton is PMS'ing.

...

I will 100% admit to the fact that if a man in my office sweats, smells or even chews with his mouth open, I judge him. But I would never question his intelligence, strength, strategic thinking, etc... Whereas the tables are turned for women...because the lighter we dye our hair or the more lipstick we apply, the more we fit into a stereotype in the minds of both men and women (let's not pretend like women are innocent bystanders who don't judge other women).

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