“Señora Rivera”: Linguistic Sexism in Media

Image: Aaditi Lele

Image: Aaditi Lele

Every day we communicate using an immensely vast and complex language, but have you ever stopped to think about how our use of language might be carrying sexist undertones? In our communication, we utilize a myriad of words for the same characteristics; however, they don’t all exude the same connotations. Let’s take a look at a few examples. Loud voices can be described as both “shrill” and “commanding;” determination can be described as both “stubborn” and “steadfast.” While some of these words appear negative and others positive, they denote the same characteristics. Many times, these choices in syntax can alter an audience's perception of an individual and that's why it's so vital we analyze the media’s linguistic preferences when describing men versus women. 

In 1933, a Detroit reporter published an article regarding the iconic and prolific surrealist painter Frida Kahlo. The article was titled “Wife of Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art.” The headline reduced Kahlo, a master herself, to “Señora Rivera,” characterized simply in relation to her husband. But, it was not the headline itself, rather the linguistic choices made throughout the article that offer a glimpse into gendered social biases conveyed through everyday language. The article is a relic of a time when overt, in-your-face sexism gave way to more subtle forms of gendered bias, many times through attitudes and syntax. The headline itself is a testament towards how intentional diction can alter an audiences’ perceptions of a woman and a man in the same profession. While today, Kahlo’s works have been elevated to accolades in parallel with her husband, the article’s title portrays a contrasting impression. Describing Rivera as a “Master Muralist” and Kahlo as a woman who “Gleefully Dabbles” creates a distinction between each of their abilities. Linguistic choices like this one have been a vital tool through which media has played a role in perpetuating social biases towards gender. 

Over 8 decades later, the aftershocks of linguistic choices in media continue to perpetuate gendered biases, especially in the sphere of political coverage of female candidates. This issue arose prominently in the 2016 presidential elections when political coverage of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was found to utilize negative word choice for similar characteristics prevalent in her male counterparts. Recently, New York Times political editor Patrick Healy wrote that he regrets once describing Clinton’s laugh as a “cackle,” one among many such cases. In 1933, the article painted a picture of Kahlo’s work as miniature and demure while her husband’s was heroic and great; in 2019, female candidates loud voices are described as “shrill” while their male counterparts are “commanding.” Syntaxes like these subconsciously push gendered stereotypes onto an audience and have historically put female candidates at a disadvantage from the very beginning.

So, what exactly is linguistic sexism? It’s when language that is supposed to include all people may intentionally exclude a gender. As our language has evolved many characteristics and thus, adjectives, have become coded as “feminine” or “masculine” traits. So, when journalists choose to adhere to these categories when describing candidates, they could have a real impact on their reader’s impressions. But, can something as simple as choosing one word over another really impact an election? Surprisingly, yes. The Columbia Journalism Review conducted a study to see how much word choice can have an impact using the Bem-Sex Role Inventory, which categorizes every-day adjectives into masculine, feminine, and neutral categories. It found that words like “ambitious” and “assertive” have been considered masculine while “loyal” and “compassionate” are feminine. The study discovered that “A woman politician described with masculine-coded adjectives was seen as almost 10 percent more qualified and 7 percent more competent than a woman described with feminine adjectives.” So, while the seemingly superficial and harmless choices made by journalists daily don’t seem to matter much, they can truly have massive implications. 

Now, not only are female candidates described using a different set of feminine-coded words, they are often characterized by adjectives with negative connotations. Like I explained earlier, many traits can be described by words with either negative or positive connotations. Studies have indicated that women are more commonly referred to on the negative spectrum of these descriptors. On the campaign trail, women with loud voices are referred to as “shrill and abrasive” while men with loud voices are considered “commanding.” Further, when women embrace these masculine traits, like an authoritative voice, they are considered “arrogant or lecturing” rather than “confident and opinionated” like their male counterparts. The way our gender-coded word choices characterize men and women differently arises from our society's double standards but is further amplified by how media embraces these linguistic norms. In the bigger picture, the use of negatively connotative descriptors for female candidates adds up. To illustrate this, Northeastern University’s School of Journalism tracked media sentiment per 2020 Democratic candidate and found that female candidates were overwhelmingly described by a lower percentage of positive words. 

So, don’t we owe it to ourselves to ungender our vocabulary and reflect upon our tendencies to characterize men and women differently? If we, along with journalists, can become more cognizant about the choices we are conditioned to make, we could limit the implications of simple syntax. Next time you read or write an article, take a minute to check if your word choice reflects a gendered bias and if it may have an implication on your audience’s perception. If we can all become a little more aware of the words we are conditioned to use, we could stop calling women “shrill” and “abrasive,” “bossy” and “unlikable” without referring to men in the same fashion.

Aaditi LeleComment