The past week has seen quite a bit of discussion of Hillary Clinton’s voice. As I wrote about last week, numerous people have called her “shrill“, a clearly gendered word. Nonetheless, the sexism behind such criticisms continues to be denied. Ben Shapiro, for example, wrote an article titled, “Yes, Hillary Clinton Is Shrill. No, It’s Not Sexist To Say So“, as if his perception of someone’s voice were purely a matter of objective reason.
In addition to “shrill”, last week saw Clinton accused of “screeching” and “shrieking”. Rush Limbaugh called her “a screeching bore“, and Larry Kudlow described her speech as “shrieking” after the Iowa Caucuses. So, apparently, Clinton’s voice has fallen in a less than agreeable manner on the fragile ears of a group of mostly male pundits. Fortunately, these beleaguered men have been able to work past the pain and suffering and use their media megaphones to tell us all about it. I’m not sure what there’d be left to talk about if we didn’t have the oh-so important topic of which candidate’s voice pleases us most. Wealth inequality maybe? Structural racism perhaps?
Besides being a distraction, these men’s shrill, pitiful shrieking and banshee-like screeching about Clinton’s passion are sexist. I’m not saying that just because Clinton is a woman. My point is that Clinton is being described using words that are typically used to negatively evaluate women and not men. As you can see in the chart above, women “shriek” and “screech” in the media with greater frequency than men, and their voices are described as “shrill” more frequently as well. This is despite the fact that women are mentioned less frequently in the media. In fact, I estimate that the media is 2.17 times more likely to describe a woman or a girl as “screeching” (or a related form of the word) than a man. A woman or girl is also 3.14 times more likely to be described as “shrieking” (or a related form of the word), and she’s 2.3 times more likely to be described as “shrill”.
What we see in these numbers then is a pattern in how women’s voices are experienced and how those perceptions are put into words in a predictably gendered fashion. In addition, the meanings of these words portray voices as unappealing in similar, gendered ways. For example, each word suggests higher-pitched voices. Women’s voices are, on average, higher pitched than men’s due both to anatomy and socialization. Thus, criticisms of Clinton as “screeching”, “shrieking”, or “shrill” are not merely criticisms of her voice; they’re implicit statements about what the voice of a leader sounds like, and, looking at media discourse, we can see that that voice is masculine.
Notes on methods
I described the methods I used for “shrill” in my previous post. The methods I used for the other two words are nearly identical and included getting data from the spoken, newspaper, and magazine subcorpora of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA).
Women and girls are less frequently mentioned in COCA. I’ve estimated that they account for about 37% of the people talked about in COCA. This imbalanced representation is reflected in the chart above by the dotted lines that represent what we might expect the frequency of each word to be if male and female speakers were equally described using these words.