Regarding the recent Senate committee hearings on the September 2012 attacks that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, several major media outlets described Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as, among other things, “feisty.” Strictly from a definitional standpoint, the media’s characterization appears unobjectionable. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, for example, most relevantly defines “feisty” as “quarrelsome, aggressive, belligerent, etc.” and these words arguably capture at least some aspects of Secretary Clinton’s remarks.
A modest examination of American English usage suggests that “feisty” is commonly used to refer to the behavior or character of people in a group (e.g., “the candidates had a feisty debate” or “it sure is a feisty crowd”) or to an animal, particularly a small rambunctious animal (e.g., “that there is one feisty critter”). Indeed, the word’s proximate origins concern the temperamental nature of mixed-breed dogs, and its earliest origins concern the malodorous passing of gas—hence a “fisting hound” in late 17th-century England was an undesirably flatulent dog.
The term “feisty” can also be used, of course, to describe the demeanor or behavior of an individual person. When used in that way, however, it seems more frequently to describe the elderly (“feisty octogenarian” retrieved 17,200 Google hits), the relatively young, and—it appears—women, or at least certain women.
What one does not find as readily, at least in contemporary writing, is the characterization of individual men as “feisty.” For example, regarding the highly contentious second presidential debate in mid-October 2012—during which there was much feistiness—one or both of the candidates were variously described as “fiery” (usnews.com), “aggressive” (foxnews.com), “assertive” (nytimes.com), and “forceful” (cnn.com). Fox News did call the debate “a feistier face-off than the first round,” but it did not describe either candidate as “feisty.” Yet a quick Google search of “feisty Clinton” pulled up over 43,000 results, and most or all of them appeared to relate to the January 23 Senate committee hearings (a product, no doubt, of newswire propagation).
So why might it be that women are more likely than men to be characterized as “feisty” when they are, to borrow again from Webster’s, “quarrelsome, aggressive, [or] belligerent”? The likely answer has something to do with expected but often unspoken norms of behavior, in this case linked to gender. When the eighty-year-old pummels a would-be robber, he or she is a “feisty octogenarian” because eighty-year-olds are supposed to be frail, slow to react, and thus easy to mug. To be sure, the term “feisty” is often modified by other adjectives, such as “old” or “little,” denoting remoteness from a norm.
It is difficult to state precisely the norm to which Secretary Clinton was being held by the media, but it presumably concerned the degree to which women are expected not to be too combative or aggressive, perhaps especially before a Senate subcommittee. If that assessment is correct, then it raises serious questions about the extent to which a real concept of gender equality has genuinely and deeply taken root in the mainstream media. It also calls into question, or continues to call into question, the extent to which reporters, writers, and editors are covering the news—or can ever cover the news—in a truly evenhanded fashion.
Erika Falk, Women for President: Media Bias in Nine Campaigns (2d ed. 2010).
Kim Fridkin Kahn, The Political Consequences of Being a Woman (1996).