A closer look at gendered political speech

Communication is one of the most important factors in the strategic self-representation of political leaders or candidates. This is especially important for women in politics who remain often unrepresented in leader positions. In order to be successful, women must cultivate an appropriate self-representation that reconciles on the one hand traditional attitudes towards gender, and on the other hand masculine prototypes of political leaders.

As explained by Jones, language provides a valuable lens for understanding how standards affect the self-representation of women in politics. This not only concerns linguistic style referring to content or substance of speech, but also the way someone communicates and how someone shares meaningful content.

These gendered expectations can clearly be seen in the debates and speeches that Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton gave during the 2016 United States presidential elections.

Expectations of feminine and masculine speech

Social identities are powerful and are embedded constructs that influence and guide political behaviour. As explained by McDowell:

“gender is the cultural construct imposed on people as a result of their biological sex, placing constraints on how each sex should perform within society, which frames and to some extent controls the roles deemed suitable for men and women” (p.274).

Through these stereotypes, men are usually characterized by competence, assertiveness, and independence whereas women are more often characterized by traits such as friendly, warm, sociable, and interdependent. This means that often we act, walk, speak, in a way that is in line with these expectations. This is learned from birth on, through culture, socialization, narratives, and language. Hence, gendered expectations play a major role in shaping how we ‘perform’ gender.

Language is one of the most important reflection of these acts. Language reflects our sense of identity and our self-perception, how we think we should act. The idea that men and women communicate in fundamentally different ways is extremely widespread and has even attained the status of self-evident common sense. Cameron and Shaw have named this the ‘different voice’ ideology which relies on a two-culture model distinguishing male and female communication styles. It states that women often opt for cooperative supportive interaction and empathy whereas men focus more on point-scoring and self-promotion.

Female politicians want to be seen as competent and likable at the same time in order to appeal to the voters. However, this creates the risk of violating whether gendered or professional expectations. Research confirms that strong displays of authority by women leads to negative judgments on her femininity and likability. The inability to balance these competing expectations can have huge consequences for a women’s career. Margaret Thatcher, for example, was trained to lower her naturally high voice to communicate with more authority and Kim Campbell, former Canadian prime minister, describes herself as not having a traditional way of speaking but a more assertive one.

A closer look at Trump and Clinton

In light of what is explained above, it is often harder for a female to combine authority and likability. They either score well on one or the other. Speeches given by the reality TV star and businessman Donald Trump and the former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign contained many instances of gendered language.

As first female candidate nominated by a major party to seek the US Presidency, Clinton tried confronting the traditions of having only men in power leading to women being underrepresented in politics. She therefore, through her campaign, appeared in contrast to the direct, though, and uncompromising style of Trump.

One of the most striking examples of these gendered expectations is that Clinton was often criticized for not smiling enough which is a common trait of expected female behaviour.

Then, research has shown that the use of emotion by men is often linked to a display of power and assertiveness. Women, on the other hand, when showing emotion provoke negative reaction among audience, being associated with sensitivity. Speeches during the campaign show that Trump was much more likely to use words displaying anger as opposed to Clinton. He used words such as corrupt Clinton machine often to discredit his rival or described the Obama administration as an absolute disaster. Similarly, Trump raising his voice and shouting was perceived as passion, while Clinton doing the same thing was seen as ‘shrill’, a stereotypical attribute of female communication.

Furthermore, as Trudgill mentioned, men interrupt each other more and take pleasure in argumentation or point-scoring whereas women tend to interrupt to agree with that person. In addition, he also explained that under gendered expectations it is seen badly when a woman swears as compared to when a men does. When looking at speeches, there are countless examples of Trump interrupting people during debates. Likewise, during the campaign Clinton did not publicly make use of swearwords, Trump, however used a total of seven.

Hilary Clinton, being compared to the usual masculine way of communicating in politics, has been often criticized when she fails to show masculine leadership qualities and as well when she fails to show feminine warmth. She has however, along the campaign, gained a more masculine and assertive tone.

In conclusion, in the past years there have been a lot of improvements in attitudes towards women. However, I consider that gendered expectations are still a reality and that it can have consequences in people’s lives and careers. I think that it is important to stop focusing on the different gender stereotypes and how one gender should or should not behave. Rather, we should focus on what language and way of communicating is appropriate for each position or job regardless of whether it is a normative feminine or masculine speech.

Have you noticed this type of phenomenon around you?


5 thoughts on “A closer look at gendered political speech

  1. Hi Caroline,
    I really enjoyed reading your post. It is shocking how such stereotypes of seemingly ‘masculine’ behaviour are evident in Trump´s behaviour and how Clinton is even criticized for going beyond such gender nonsense (we are in 2019!). I totally agree with you on this 🙂

  2. Great post Caroline! I like that you chose to compare Trump and Clinton as I myself was considering to do the same before choosing to write about another politician. I completely agree with the last few sentences of your blog that we should find an appropriate and respectable manner of using language.

  3. Very interesting post, Caro! En effet, incroyable de voir ce genre de critique surgir et cela montre à quel point il reste du chemin à faire avant de s’éloigner réellement du système patriarcal dans lequel nous vivons.

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