Even before Cher Horowitz of Clueless shopped her way into the world in 1995, cultural commentators spent a lot of energy fretting about uptalk. You know, uptalk? That oft-mocked conversational style, usually attributed to the "Valley Girl"? The one that implies a question mark at the end of otherwise perfectly declarative statements?
As a linguistic stereotype, uptalk has been debunked—boys and girls both use it, and it doesn't just signal docility or uncertainty, as is often assumed. But the phrase "uptalk" is still used to symbolize a broader set of social tendencies that are particularly prevalent among young women: body language and intonations that make girls seem less confident about themselves.
When Senator Kirsten Gillibrand took the stage at The Atlantic's Shriver Report summit on women and poverty on Wednesday, she mostly focused on policy: universal pre-K, affordable daycare, paid family leave, etc. But one of the men in the audience stood up and posed a question that hinted at the stickier social stigmas at work in gender inequality: What about the women who hold themselves back with the way they present themselves to others?
One might have expected Gillibrand to revert to a Lean In-style answer: Girls need to take their rightful place at the table, they shouldn't count themselves out, etc. But while her response had an element of that, she phrased it in a particularly interesting way: Uptalk, she explained, is part of women's "nature."
"The interesting thing about women is that we are often collaborative in nature," Gillibrand said. "We generally prefer to be well-liked, and we like for people around us to be happy. These are some skills we learn being mothers and daughters: We feed everyone at the table, try to make everyone happy ..."
At this point, her interviewer, National Journal's Ron Brownstein, interrupted. "What's wrong with you?" he asked with a sly smile.
Gillibrand smiled and demurred, providing a real-time illustration of her observations about men and women's social tendencies.
"This issue of likability. For a lot of young women, they want to be well-liked. If they’re too aggressive, or too pushy, or too declarative, they won’t be well-liked," she said.
But Gillibrand also encouraged young women to be more aggressive: "To meet those standards, you have to speak less like a young girl and more like a young, aspiring professional."
Then she repeated an interesting word choice: nature.
"It’s part of our nature. It's not a bad part of our nature. [But] it’s a choice every young woman is going to have to make about how she wants to be and how she wants to be received."
It seems unlikely that Gillibrand was commenting on the "essential nature of women" in a Women and Gender Studies 101 kind of way, but this framing was nonetheless surprising. Gillibrand is a former high-powered attorney and a United States senator, so clearly she has learned to present herself in a way that earns respect from her peers. Her message to younger women who aspire to similarly successful careers is that they are responsible for cultivating their own self-presentation. Uptalk is not a matter of the world's discrimination against women, but rather how women choose to present themselves.
Although the difference is subtle, this attitude is a refreshing departure from feminism that focuses exclusively on the way the world holds women back. Gillibrand is arguing that women have at least some power to change the way people look at them, and it starts with how they talk.