The Problem of "Hillary"

I’ve been noticing a trend in media coverage of the Presidential campaign lately which I find rather disturbing. Or rather, this trend is one of several disturbing things about modern Presidential campaigns, but it’s the one I’m going to talk about here.

If you’re familiar with the formal/familiar distinction in many languages (vous vs. tu in French, for example), this paragraph won’t provide you any information. If you’re not, here’s some useful background. In many languages, such as French, there’s a distinction between formal and familiar modes of address. In French the familiar is tu and the formal is vous, which is also the plural; in Spanish it’s tu and usted, with ustedes as the plural. One speaks in the familiar to close friends, family members, lovers and other intimates, and in the formal to adult strangers and non-intimate acquaintances, business partners, etc. Mostly. One also speaks in the familiar (the French even have a word for “to address someone as tu“: tutoyer) to children, whether one actually knows them well or not; and to adults one doesn’t know well, if they are below one’s station — servants, bellhops, etc. (It’s clear that this is an idea originating in the highly stratified societies of medieval Europe.) Thus to use the tu with someone you’d normally address in the vous is a grave insult: you are indicating you think them below you, a child, not worth taking seriously. Now, in modern English (“modern” here in the sense of “the past couple years,” not in sense of the technical Old/Middle/Modern English distinction) there is only you, which is clearly (both in orthography and usage) equivalent to vous: it’s the formal singular, and the formal or informal plural, but we use it as the familiar singular as well, because we haven’t got another one. Of course earlier Modern English does have a distinct familiar singular, thou, but it hasn’t been in common use in hundreds of years, and due to its association with the King James Bible, a great many people now mistakenly believe thou to have been a more formal mode of address.

The lack of a specifically informal second-person singular pronoun, however, has of course not precluded the encoding of formality levels and status implications in our forms of address. It’s (generally) rude to call someone you don’t know by his or her first name, and (generally) rude to address someone by his or her last name alone, rather than “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Ms.” or “Dr.”, etc.

The standard way for newspapers, TV reporters, etc., to refer to people is by their last names, often with a title if applicable, but certainly not by their first names. I feel quite confident that you will never hear a reporter talk about “Fred,” “Mike,” “Mitt,” “Rudy,” “Bill,” “John,” or “Barack;” all the male candidates are consistently referred to by their last names, or their full names, or their last names plus an honorific. “Fred Thompson,” “John Edwards,” “Senator Obama,” “‘Governor’ Romney.” Even among pundits, commentators and blog authors, groups less bound to a tradition of objectivity (however nominal that tradition may have become in the general news media), rarely does anyone not either a committed supporter or a committed opponent of a male candidate refer to him only by his first name. Note the split, here: supporters and detractors use the familiar, first-name address, those who aren’t solidly in either camp use the formal, last-name address.

As I see it, there is a different reason for each group, but they’re doing the same thing. In fact, they’re both doing the same thing I would be doing in France if I said tu to an adult peer outside my family.

Campaigns want committed supporters to identify with and feel close to their candidate. They specifically try to foster in their supporters a feeling of personal connection with the candidate. So it’s no surprise that supporters of a candidate often feel like they’re on a first-name basis: that’s what the candidate wants. If someone feels like you’re they’re friend, they’ll support you more strongly than if they just feel like you share their positions on political issues. Messages I get from the Edwards campaign talk about “John’s” plans, Clinton bumper stickers say “Hillary,” Giuliani supporters praise “Rudy.” This is a kind of spurious formality intended to connote closer intimacy than actually exists.

On the other hand, people attacking a candidate will often use the first-name form of address as well, and they clearly don’t mean to suggest that they’re on a friendly, first-name basis with the candidate. They’re being deliberately disrespectful and dismissive. Even so, this is a rarer phenomenon (with an exception I’ll get to shortly) than the supporter using the first name. I noticed it in the 2006 Massachusetts gubernatorial race, when opponents of Deval Patrick and of Kerry Healey typically called them “Deval” and “Kerry” respectively rather than “Patrick” and “Healey;” it’s also happening in the 2007-08 Presidential campaign. Occasionally Giuliani opponents call him “Rudy,” Romney opponents often refer to him as “Mitt” (or “Mitt the shit,” or “W. Mitt” or “Willard,” since “Willard” is the first name he chooses not to go by), Obama detractors talk about “Barack” or “Barack Hussein,” as though the coincidence of his middle name were of great significance; and Clinton opponents invariably refer to her as “Hillary.”

Actually, it turns out lots of people refer to the former First Lady as “Hillary” in preference to “Hillary Clinton,” “Mrs. Clinton,” “Senator Clinton” or just plain “Clinton.” And this brings me to the actual point of this post. What does it mean that, more than any other candidate as far as I can tell, people (and this includes regular people in casual conversation; bloggers; columnists and pundits; and even, to some degree, reporters) tutoyer the Senator from New York, seemingly irrespective of their support for, opposition to, or neutrality concerning her? Obviously I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t have an answer to suggest.

When committed supporters of Hillary Clinton refer to her by her first name, or when her campaign emails and bumper stickers and signs say “Hillary” instead of “Senator Clinton,” they are doing the same thing I’ve already discussed, attempting to foster a feeling of friendliness and familiarity between supporters and the candidate. When committed opponents speak of her as “Hillary,” they’re being deliberately insulting. So there’s no mystery there.

But when many pundits, reporters, commentators, Op-Ed contributors, and others who are traditionally expected to be, if not always neutral and objective, at least professional and decorous, refer to the candidate more often by her first name alone than any other way, and do so with none of the other candidates, they obviously aren’t trying to indicate that they’re on a first-name basis with her (after all, most of them are in professions where writing stories about your friends is frowned upon), but presumably they’re not trying to be insulting and dismissive either, right? While most probably aren’t consciously trying to, and indeed very many of those who do this almost certainly would describe themselves as liberal and egalitarian, if not feminist, I claim that nonetheless they tutoyer Senator Clinton out of misogyny.

American society remains a fundamentally patriarchal society, despite large gains made in many areas over the past century, and as such is deeply sexist and gynophobic in many regards. That this is true, and that this sexism is so thoroughly woven into everyday life that it can be very hard to notice, I take as understood from this point on; if you are inclined to dispute these propositions, I recommend very highly that you spend some time reading up on the subject, for example at the excellent Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog (in particular, the pages on “What is sexism?” and “Isn’t ‘the Patriarchy’ just some conspiracy theory?” may be helpful in understanding the position I’m starting from), rather than taking issue with these premises here, because I’m not going to argue about them. My purpose in this post is ultimately just to argue that the tendency to refer to Hillary Clinton by her first name only, something not done with any of the male candidates, even among people who neither strongly support nor strongly oppose her, or are otherwise expected to remain to some degree “above the fray,” is a hitherto little-remarked-upon (as far as I have read) example of this ubiquitous misogyny. (Other, perhaps more obvious examples of generalized sexism directed at Clinton include the spate of “news” stories “analyzing” her laugh, or the many column inches devoted to her wardrobe.)

I mentioned above that I had noticed this in the 2006 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign; in that race, both Republican Kerry Healey, who would have been the first woman elected governor in this state (Jane Swift was Acting Governor), and Democrat Deval Patrick, who became the first African-American governor of Massachusetts, were frequently referred to in the media as “Kerry” and “Deval,” while the other candidates in the Democratic primary were typically referred to by their last names. Patrick’s last name, of course, is a common one in Massachusetts, and (unlike “Obama”) gives no indication as to his ethnicity. But most listeners, hearing “Deval,” would tend to recognize, even without knowing who he was, that the name doesn’t sound “white,” just as virtually all (American) listeners recognize that “Hillary” is a female name, while the last name “Clinton” is not gender-specific (and indeed is perhaps slightly more strongly associated with Bill Clinton). In either case, the use of the first name highlights the fact that the person spoken of is different, “other,” as well as being impolite. Indeed, this pointing-out of difference is the reason the normal rule of formal address is broken and the familiar is used.

There’s been a lot more written, of course, on the appalling misogyny that’s been directed at Senator Clinton in the campaign thus far (though of course as a woman with the audacity to be seen in public, she’s been a target of a great deal of hatred for a decade and a half). For starters, I recommend reading McEwan, Filipovic, Amato and McEwan again. They link to still more, naturally, but those four posts will establish some important context.

(Some readers may have caught an earlier version of this post this morning. I accidentally reverted it to an unfinished draft after posting it, and have been unable to recover the text I lost, so I’ve had to rewrite the last couple of paragraphs.)



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