Thursday, February 2, 2017

Please describe women's speeches as something other than 'emotional'

Maybe it's because we're coming off of a U.S. election season with a female candidate, and heading right into Hollywood awards shows, with their dozens of acceptance speeches. But I already have "emotional" fatigue--that is, I'm sick and tired of news coverage describing women's speeches as "emotional," when they are much more than that--or much less.

There are a couple of beefs wrapped up into one in that complaint. First, I object to coverage that describes women's speeches as "emotional" when they are simply not. They may be straightforward, focused, pointed speeches, but the writers can't seem to let go of the idea that the speech must be emotional if the speaker is a woman. A clear example of this was Hillary Clinton's concession speech in the 2016 presidential race. At the time, I noted:
The widespread media coverage was what we might expect for a woman candidate: Some news media insisted on describing it and her as emotional, something rarely said about male speakers even when they are emotional. Some said she was choking back tears (see if you can find said choking back--I couldn't). As The Atlantic noted in writing about the press and pundits, "They wanted to see tears. She didn’t provide them, but that didn’t make much difference."
Now, both men and women may be emotional, or unemotional, or something in between, when giving speeches. But most of the time, the speaker being described as emotional will be a woman, regardless of the actual emotional content of her speech.

My second beef comes with speeches by women that do contain emotional content. In those cases, it often seems, that guarantees coverage as an emotional speech, and nothing else. Dee Dee Myers, former press secretary to President Bill Clinton, once noted that, when women appear on television, "a bad hair day is like a virtual mute button." So is visible emotion for women speakers. Coverage goes straight to the tears or the choked-up voice, and obliterates the rest of the message.

That might mean extensive coverage of just the emotional content, leading with it, or emphasizing it in headline after headline, so that, if you read only headlines, that's all you will hear about a woman's speech. A good recent example was U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama's final speech at the White House, in which headline after headline described her in tears. As I sometimes do, I took to Twitter to complain:
What would be a better headline? On Twitter, Timor El-Dardiry sent me a good example from a Netherlands paper:
What's so bad about being emotional in a speech? Not a thing. What I'm objecting to is using "emotional" as the primary descriptor when women speak.

Sometimes, it's the event or the speaker who generates emotions in her listeners, but that doesn't make her speaking emotional, necessarily. And I suspect that many times, women's speeches are dubbed "emotional" when they are expressing anger or disagreement. A while back, I shared on the blog this article on Who gets to be angry? which noted:
When women are angry, we are wanting too much or complaining or wasting time or focusing on the wrong things or we are petty or shrill or strident or unbalanced or crazy or overly emotional. Race complicates anger. Black women are often characterized as angry simply for existing, as if anger is woven into our breath and our skin.
I'll quote classics scholar Mary Beard again, from her great speech on the public voice of women:
It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it...
That's what I want: Descriptions of women speakers that convey their authority, as experts, as leaders, as commentators, as CEOs, as citizens.

We can get there with descriptions that cover most of the content, rather than one moment (or a non-existent moment). In Michelle Obama's case, you could describe that speech in many ways: historic, fierce, thoughtful, inspiring. It's a great exercise, when you reflexively reach for "emotional" and are describing a woman's speech, to say to yourself, "What are the other options?"

Journalists, I'm looking at you.

The best I can say about dubbing women's speeches as emotional, time after time, is that it represents lazy writing. The worst? It's a reflection of how we see women, and not men, when they speak. Trust me, women speakers can tell when their messages are obliterated by the race to call them emotional. We can all do better than that...can't we?

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