The “Feisty” Secretary Clinton—An Object of Media Bias?

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” (, “aggressive” (, “assertive” (, and “forceful” ( 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.

Suggested Reading

Erika Falk, Women for President: Media Bias in Nine Campaigns (2d ed. 2010).

Kim Fridkin Kahn, The Political Consequences of Being a Woman (1996).

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. David Papke

    Thank you for the insightful decoding of the portrayal of Hillary Clinton in the mass media. As you note, the bias is hardly limited to the Secretary of State herself. Gender stereotyping lives on, and the patriarchy continues its attempt to control and limit women.

    I was struck by the January 24 headline in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel concerning Hillary Clinton’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “Clinton Storms Capitol Hill.” It was accompanied by a large color photo of Clinton with her hands in the air, a tortured look on her face, and the light glinting of her glasses. Lost in the reporting was the fact that Clinton had in fact been called to testify by the Committee.

    I thought at first that this portrayal of Clinton related to the fact that Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson was her rudest and most aggressive questioner. The local media, perhaps, was indirectly defending its own. Then I noticed the same headline in the Washington Post and elsewhere – further proof, I think, of how troubled the patriarchy is by smart, forceful, accomplished women.

  2. Andrea Schneider

    For those watching Clinton (and Sarah Palin) in the 2008 elections, there is no question that women politicians are held to different standards. The only good news (to the extent we count this as good news) is that it appears that women lawyers being equally “feisty” as judges or on behalf of clients do not suffer from the same backlash.

    For more on the difference between politicians and lawyers, see Likeability v. Competence: The Impossible Choice Faced by Female Politicians, Attenuated by Lawyers, 17 Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy 363 (2010).

  3. Irene Ten Cate

    With this blog post fresh in my mind, I encountered the word “feisty” in the obituary for Ed Koch in yesterday’s New York Times. Later that day, a colleague used the same term to capture Koch.

    What may have been a coincidence turns out to be a deeper connection. My Google search for “Koch” and “feisty mayor” returns 63,300 results, with the characterization “feisty” often appearing in the headlines. A search for just the words “Koch” and “feisty” returns 514,000 results. Koch himself may have played a role in cementing the association by publishing a book titled “All the Best: Letters from a Feisty Mayor.”

    So it appears that Koch (a man!) has upstaged Clinton in the feistiness department, at least for now. As someone who first entered this country in the middle of Giuliani’s reign I feel unqualified to theorize about the association, but I’d be very interested in the thoughts of others.

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