In The New York Times' telling, Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker and mayoral hopeful who happens to be openly gay, is "temperamental and surprisingly volatile." The piece, written by Michael Grynbaum and David Chen, has people talking not just because it includes more tweet-worthy quotations from the mouth of Speaker Quinn than have appeared in any Times article in recent remembrance, but also because Quinn is a woman. The story reveals the ups and downs of her personality, at times brash and vulgar; at times charming and sweet. She's loud and makes threats and retaliates against her enemies. She sounds exactly like ... a politician.
One can read the piece in a couple of ways, I think. One is that there's an undercurrent of surprise working with regard to Quinn's persona because of her gender, i.e., could a woman really be this rude and lacking in gentility? Or, is she simply being painted as more so against the expectations of her as a woman? That has some, such as BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray, saying that the story itself is the problem: "This story would never have been written if Christine Quinn was a man," she tweeted. But one could also see this piece, a no-holds-barred look into the personality of a complicated, striving (female) politician who's not going to make excuses for who she is, as a positive move from the Times. Hey, female politicians may be just as aggressive and irascible as their male counterparts. So what?
Should we even respect Quinn more for being as vocal and brash and unafraid to say what she means as, say, Rudy Giuliani or Rahm Emanuel? Jezebel founder and columnist Anna Holmes tweeted soon after the story went up, "Not sure I agree that this Quinn story is sexist. (My initial reaction was respect with mild amusement.)" Author Roxane Gay replied, "I don't find it sexist. I've seen similar stories about men."
So let's take a look at a few of the notable lines:
- "Ms. Quinn summoned Ms. Gotbaum to an office nearby and, with little warning, began shouting at her in increasingly angry tones about appearing weak in front of other lawmakers. 'You were like Bambi in there!' Ms. Quinn exclaimed, slamming her hand on a table for emphasis, according to Ms. Gotbaum, who was on crutches at the time." [Note: Bambi was a male deer.]
- "But in private, friends and colleagues say, another Ms. Quinn can emerge: controlling, temperamental and surprisingly volatile, with a habit of hair-trigger eruptions of unchecked, face-to-face wrath." [Note: I think there's more trouble here with the idea that her private and public faces are different than there is with her being volatile. Is it the case that Quinn as a woman tries to rein in her anger in public so as to fit a certain expectation of her? At the same time, isn't every politician worth his or her salt able to talk through both sides of the mouth?]
- "She has threatened, repeatedly, to slice off the private parts of those who cross her." [Note: Later in the piece we learn that she employs the phrase with both men and women.]
- "A former campaign donor who had been called to Ms. Quinn’s office to discuss a legislative proposal said: 'She screamed at me for 10 minutes, uninterrupted, and used the F-word at least 20 times. I was just so startled, I didn’t know what to do.'” [Note: So she uses the f-bomb. She is not the only one.]
- Quinn herself, who you imagine might be both angry about and proud of this article—she once once bragged in an interview that she could "open up the bitch tap and let the water run" write Grynbaum and Chen—also uses the b-word freely: “I don’t think being pushy or bitchy or tough, or however you want to characterize it, is a bad thing,” she said. “New Yorkers want somebody who’s going to get things done.” [Note: That's true, I think. And I have a kind of admiration for anyone, woman or man, who is unabashed about who they are.]
We also get that she's "sensitive to slights" (what politician isn't?); that her staff added soundproofing to her office at City Hall so outsiders couldn't hear her yell; that her screaming is "old-fashioned" and intense; that few would speak on the record about her for fear of "retaliation"; that when she berates you she gets "in your face," pointing fingers; and that she can be as intensely charming as she is terrifying.
All this may simply mean she's as good a mayoral candidate as any. As Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery put it, "I've never heard anyone sound so much like an NYC mayor in the making, for better or worse."
Quinn offered no apology to the interviewers for her behavior, though she did say "she was working on becoming kinder and more measured." Would a man say that? Maybe. It depends which man. I looked back at a piece on Joe Lhota, also a mayoral candidate, from the Times in January. The words are different, it's true. Lhota gets called "something of a throwback: an unapologetically outsize personality, known throughout his career for big emotions and an uninhibited style." He's "larger than life, occasionally profane," and a hothead. He once gave a reporter the middle finger. There is a different tone in this piece, but it's also a different story.
Of course this article would be different if she were a man, because it too would be a different story, with different facts and realities. Quinn herself would be different, at the very least, because her gender would be, and given the environment in which she became a politician, may have done different things, perhaps, to get where she is. But presuming all the quotes in the piece are true (and there's no reason not to), we can't very well call the article sexist. Still, it can be very hard to fully separate facts about gender from one's larger opinions—these views are often deeply engrained, and that's why we need to be aware of them. That's also why our reactions to this piece are different than they would be if she were a man. But if we hold Quinn to some standard of "ladylikeness" and say she can't do her job or is unacceptable as a mayor because she's behaving brashly, it's not the fault of this piece. That's our fault, our problem, and society's. And if we pay more attention to the quotes and personality revealed in this piece than we do to the realities of her policies (really, no paid sick leave?) and plans for our city's future, that's our problem, too.