The Sexism Is Getting Sneakier

Is Elizabeth Warren overly “angry”? The media are just asking questions.

Anger, rendered as a criticism of Elizabeth Warren, summons familiar ideas—without explicitly invoking them. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)

In the fall of 2017, Hillary Clinton, assessing her defeat in the previous year’s presidential election, did something she had spent decades, for the most part, avoiding: She got angry in public. Clinton published a memoir, the bluntly titled What Happened, that included such admissions as “There are times when all I want to do is scream into a pillow” and “Reading the news every morning was like ripping off a scab.” In the book and in the media tour she undertook for its promotion, Clinton talked about the rage she felt that Donald Trump and his blustering bigotries were occupying the White House. She opened up about what it felt like for a personal loss to double as a loss of a much broader sweep. She also laid blame—on herself and her campaign, but also on James Comey, on Vladimir Putin, on the Electoral College, on the American media.

She had a point. The stories of the 2016 election, it would become clear later on, were told by some of the men who would be implicated in the accountabilities of the #MeToo movement. Clinton herself carried the freight, at that point, of decades’ worth of coverage from reporters and analysts who were still not quite sure what to make of a woman who sought political power and refused to apologize for the seeking. On the one hand, the stories went, Clinton is incapable of emotion. On the other, she is driven by a deeply held sense of vengeance. On the one hand, shrill; on the other, desperate for approval. The charges didn’t cohere, but it didn’t matter. Policy proposals are complicated to interrogate; it’s much easier to accuse the candidate of humorlessness or anger or manipulation and call it a day.

Americans just passed the T-minus-one-year mark before the 2020 election. And it is becoming clearer how the dynamics of the previous campaign cycle might replicate themselves in the battles to come. Take, for one example, the narrative that has arisen this week about Elizabeth Warren. Joe Biden, responding to Warren’s claim that his policy proposals are “repeating Republican talking points,” recently accused Warren of espousing “an angry, unyielding viewpoint that has crept into our politics.” Members of the media echoed his charge. The dynamic is extremely familiar. It is also instructive. When Clinton made her first presidential run, in 2008, she faced sexism of a swaggering strain. (In Salem, New Hampshire, just before that state’s primary, hecklers interrupted a speech Clinton was delivering. “Iron! My! Shirt!” they chanted.) The sexism of 2020 will be subtler. It will be sneakier. It will know better—but it will persist nevertheless.

The profound irony of Biden’s “angry, unyielding” accusation is that Warren herself is the first to admit to her own anger. A foundation of her campaign is that there is nothing wrong with being angry—and that, to the contrary, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. In an email to supporters late last week, Warren rejected the premise of Biden’s accusation, writing, as she has before: “I’m angry and I own it.”

But what Biden and his advisers seem to know all too well is that once an idea builds—once it becomes the stuff of sound bites and headlines and Overton-sanctioned debate—it becomes extremely difficult to counter. To tell someone “Don’t think of an elephant,” the linguist and philosopher George Lakoff has suggested, is meaningfully identical to telling that person to think of an elephant. Biases are powerful things. So, in politics as in other fields, are emotions.

Anger may be an ethic of the moment. But anger, flung as an accusation at Warren, is not about economic disparity or racial injustice or environmental catastrophe. It is about the familiar standbys: “likability.” “Electability.” “Charisma.” Anger, rendered as a criticism, summons those ideas—without explicitly invoking them. It summons history, too. It is a targeted missile, seeking the spaces in the American mind that still assume there is something unseemly about an angry woman. It is attempting to tap into the dark and ugly history in which the anger displayed by a woman is assumed to compromise her—to render her unattractive precisely because the anger makes her uncontrollable.

The tensions of that situation—anger seen as a liability; anger seen as a point of pride—present a challenge for the media outlets trying to cover the candidates fairly. Late last week, The Washington Post published an article under the headline “Is Elizabeth Warren ‘Angry’ and Antagonistic? Or Are Rivals Dabbling in Gendered Criticism?” The piece did what campaign journalism will often do: It summarized lines of attack that have been used against a candidate, and assessed them. (One of those attacks came from Pete Buttigieg, who recently accused Warren of being “so absorbed in the fighting that it is as though fighting were the purpose.”) The Post’s article was nuanced; it cited experts describing how anger, used as an accusation against a woman, abets sexist ideas. It cited Biden advisers arguing that anger leveled as a charge against a female candidate is not, on its face, sexist. But headlines often have an outsized impact. And look again at the one the Post chose: “Is Elizabeth Warren ‘Angry’ and Antagonistic?” This is the question that lingers. This is the question that insinuates. This is the question that ends up asking, “Is she likable?”

The Post’s posture was replicated in The New York Times. On Sunday, the paper ran an article under the headline “Biden’s Attacks on Warren Turn Personal, Drawing Some Complaints of Sexism.” NPR ran a segment on the same topic, framing its treatment as a matter of conversation and debate: “Reactions to Biden’s ‘Angry’ and ‘Elitist’ Charge Against Warren.”

In one way, such treatments are evidence of reporters doing their job. In another way, though, they offer a case study. This is how unfair narratives take hold: Biased ideas come packaged not as declarations, but as questions. As debates. Did John Kerry, the recipient of multiple Purple Hearts, lie about his service in Vietnam? (No, he did not.) Did Hillary Clinton’s external server mishandle classified intelligence? (No.) Did Edmund Muskie cry while defending his wife to reporters in 1972? (Probably not, but the specifics of the event have since fallen away; today the candidate once considered Democrats’ best hope to beat Richard Nixon is remembered most readily for the apocryphal tears.)

In politics, a field whose battles are typically fought with words, question marks themselves can double as weapons. “A War Hero or a Phony?” asked a New York Times op-ed about Kerry, shortly before the 2004 presidential election he would go on to lose.

The just-asking-questions approach can be especially damaging to candidates who aren’t straight or white or male—people who, deviating from the paradigm that still shapes the American public’s views of what a president should look like, are not typically granted the benefit of the doubt. Which is to say that the querying style can be especially harmful to the political fortunes of women and candidates of color. Warren’s candidacy, for its part—the question of her “anger”—is contending with an additional cultural challenge: Americans are accustomed, still, to extremely sanitized depictions of women’s empowerment. Wonder Woman was notable not only for its effortless portrayal of feminine strength, but also for its framing of its heroine as fundamentally cheerful and caring and compliant. People might buy THE FUTURE IS FEMALE T-shirts for their young daughters, but they might be less enthused about what the slogan could mean in terms of structural change. The media, in the words they choose—and in the events they decide to elevate with their attentions—will help to shape ideas of what feminine power looks like when that power is allowed to be more than a slogan. Every day, the media make assumptions about what kind of change is normal, and what kind of change is radical.

On Monday evening, at a town-hall event in Exeter, New Hampshire, a reporter asked Warren a series of questions—each one asking her, in a slightly rephrased way, to respond to Biden’s latest line of attack. (“I wonder if you are willing to say in person that you found the comments from Joe Biden sexist? … As the only woman now in the top tier of the Democratic candidates, I wonder if you are willing to say, yourself, that you think there is sexism right now in the 2020 race?”) To each query, Warren replied, effectively, that perhaps the reporter should ask Joe Biden whether the attacks brought by Joe Biden were sexist. But the reporter persisted. It was 2016 all over again.