The 2016 Gender Bias Thesaurus: T is for Testy (Hillary), F is for Firm (Bush)

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

The 2016 presidential race has been a display of semantic gymnastics, with a dictionary’s worth of adjectives devoted to coverage of Hillary Clinton. These terms (cold, calculating, defiant, testy, secretive, etc.) appear as word clusters in the media – created, transmitted and repeated for maximum persuasion. They are amplified through social channels and rapidly congeal into conventional wisdom.

The mainstream media are prime purveyors of these word clusters, providing a dissemination platform for reporters, columnists, pundits, politicians, political operatives and insiders to indoctrinate the public through endless repetition of specific words and storylines.

A recursive loop is created when these media outlets poll the public and find the word clusters being repeated  the polls are then used to validate and justify further such coverage. The cycle continues as the very same media sources who initiated the loop pivot to an outsider's view and report on the regurgitated words and storylines as though they had nothing to do with creating and spreading them. 

Pretending to be objective observers, these outlets now lament the repetition they caused. "Hillary haunted by email story" was an MSNBC headline. Well, who exactly is haunting her? Isn't MSNBC stoking the story by talking about it incessantly? Similarly, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza asserts, "For the second straight week, the Democratic presidential frontrunner found the private e-mail server that she used during her time as a Secretary of State at the center of a national conversation." What Cillizza fails to report is that he has been one of the journalists working overtime to place the story squarely in the middle of the national conversation.

Feigning neutrality and reporting on the effect of their own reporting is like repeatedly hitting someone then asking why they keep getting hit.

This iterative process of fabricating conventional wisdom, which has been the domain of corporate media for decades, has not been slowed by the advent of social media. If anything, the democratization of opinion has accelerated the reach and influence of the big media gatekeepers, who inject memes into the national bloodstream and happily watch them spread. 

This system is on full display with coverage of Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. 

Word clusters are everywhere

NBC News: “Folks, this is the Clinton Way. Secretive.”
USA Today: Hillary Clinton’s “reputation for secrecy.”
Washington Post: “Her penchant for secrecy.”
TIME: A “penchant for secrecy.”
The Hill: “A paranoid, secretive politician.”
New York Times: “The imbroglio could grow into a problem if Mrs. Clinton comes to be seen as unduly secretive or imperious in the months ahead.”

There is a notable gender component to this avalanche of adjectives and descriptors targeting Hillary. For example, her recent brief encounter with the media over her state department emails was described by various sources as “testy."

Politico: Hillary Clinton gets testy when pressed on email
NBC: Our takeaway from Hillary's testy press conference yesterday
KSNV: Clinton experiences testy exchange over email questions
NYT: Clinton pulls plug on testy presser over server questions

This brings to mind the constant use of the words “firm” and “resolute” to describe the same demeanor from George W. Bush, who famously called a reporter an a**hole. 

The formula is simple: Man = firm. Woman = testy.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of these word clusters. Persuasion by repetition is a powerful thing; it is how the public absorbs information and forms opinions. The added gender bias with respect to Hillary further exacerbates the effect, as the terms tap into a deep well of cultural sexism. Furthermore, many of the negative words associated with Hillary are focus-grouped by shadowy conservative research groups and surreptitiously fed to the media

To help sort through the terminology used to describe Hillary, we’ve put together the following thesaurus:

  • A male candidate is smart, while Hillary is “calculating, scheming, crafty, manipulative.”
  • A male candidate values privacy, while Hillary is “secretive, suspicious, paranoid, uncommunicative.”
  • A male candidate takes strong positions, while Hillary is “polarizing, divisive, alienating.”
  • A male candidate deserves the benefit of the doubt, while Hillary is “untrustworthy, corrupt, deceitful, dishonest, unethical.”
  • A male candidate is an achiever while Hillary is “over-ambitious, will do or say anything to win.”
  • A male candidate is diplomatic while Hillary is “inauthentic, disingenuous, fake, unlikable, insincere.”
  • A male candidate is solid and unflappable, while Hillary is “machine-like, robotic, abnormal, cold.”
  • A male candidate is a confident leader, while Hillary is “inevitable, defiant, imperious, regal, testy.”
  • A male candidate is experienced, while Hillary is “old, out of touch, represents the past.”

As the 2016 race heats up and the frenzy to bring down Hillary gets wilder, these gender-biased word clusters will appear more and more often. As #HillaryMen, our mission is to point them out and swat them down.

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Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.