Implicit newscaster sexism against Hillary Clinton. A good observation by Mrs. Bad Astronomer

The wife of Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy made an interesting observation on Super Tuesday. She noticed that newscasters and commentators were referring to Hillary Clinton on a first-name basis, but to all other candidates either by last name or full  name. I agree with Mrs. BA in her assessment that this is a clear case of sexism. It may have unconscious origins in many cases, but it is reflective of, at minimum, implicit sexism. I post Mrs. BA’s analysis below.

Mrs. BA writes

Has anyone else noticed that newscasters and commentators seem to feel it is perfectly appropriate to refer to Hillary Clinton as “Hillary” while referring to every other presidential candidate by their last name, or first and last name? This has been bugging me for a couple of weeks, but the clincher was last night. I was watching MSNBC’s coverage of Super Tuesday and in the hour that I watched I heard Senator Clinton referred to as Hillary at least 30 times by a dozen different commentators ranging from conservative to liberal. Barack Obama was called “Barack” once and every other candidate was referred to by their last name or their full name. I find this troubling. Does anyone else see the problem here? To refer to a person by first name only strips away a layer of formality and respect. That’s why school children aren’t allowed to address (most) teachers by first name and (most) parents don’t allow their children to address them by first name. Addressing or referring to someone formally indicates to the listener that this is a person in authority, deserving of respectful treatment. I wonder why it is that the talking heads on television and radio don’t feel that Senator Clinton deserves the same level of respect that the other candidates do.

While pondering this mystery, I thought to myself “Why, they’re doing it so people won’t confuse her with her husband, Bill Clinton.” But I realized that doesn’t work because all they need do to resolve the problem is add in her first name –- say it with me now, broadcasters –- “Hillary Clinton”. When the current President Bush ran for office, there didn’t seem to be a problem distinguishing him from his father, George Sr. He was sometimes called Dubya, but that was a nickname, not the same as calling him simply George Junior or George W. I did sometimes hear him referred to as George Bush, Jr. or George W. Bush, but they were using his entire name, which is OK -– that’s still respectful.

The only reason I can come up with for the inappropriately familiar use of “Hillary” alone is that she’s a woman. I don’t want to think that’s the cause, but I can’t think of any other reason. Hillary Clinton is a woman with a real shot at being the Democratic candidate for President, and this is probably, at least subconsciously, disturbing to some people. Maybe it’s because we’ve never had a female candidate get this far, so it is simply an unfamiliar, and therefore unsettling, situation. Maybe it started as a conscious attempt by some broadcasters to refer to her in a diminutive way, thus trivializing her role in the election. I don’t know how it started and I’m not advocating a conspiracy –- the BA probably wouldn’t post this if I did! I did a couple of Google searches and I couldn’t find anyone else who’s blogged or commented about this. I may be more sensitive to it because I’m a woman, but I’m betting I’m not the only person, man or woman, who’s noticed it. This whole thing leads me to wonder: if Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is elected, will the talking heads refer to her as President Hillary?

Another possibility is that some of the newscasters and commentators may simply have unknowingly internalized the culturally widespread practice of referring to women often by first name in situations in which men would get last- or full name treatment. It could in many cases have nothing to do with any displeasure in having a female candidate. It could simply be a reflection of the internalization of sexist cultural practices. However, this isn’t to say that there may not be some truth in Mrs. BA speculations. Good post, Mrs. BA.



Beth W. of the Here and There Blog made some good points in response to the view that referring to Hillary Clinton simply by her first name constitutes sexism. Firstly, Beth pointed out that referring to her as Hillary is fair on the grounds that she shares her last name with ex-President and husband Bill Clinton, who has already in a way taken ownership of the name by virtue of being the first famous member of the marriage. Beth’s second point, which was not acknowledged by Mrs. Bad Astronomer, was that Hillary’s own campaign frequently refers to her simply as Hillary. If the media cannot take their cues on referential ediquette from Mrs. Clinton’s own campaign… This being said, though, I still suspect that had the female candidate been someone else they would still probably have been referred to by first name more than their male counterparts. It’s a part of the culture. I also suspect, however, that the next time a female runs for President the media will make special effort to refer to her by her last name, given the charges of sexism made this time around.

17 Responses to “Implicit newscaster sexism against Hillary Clinton. A good observation by Mrs. Bad Astronomer”
  1. fadnet says:

    Maybe they use Hillary to increase her familiarity, and make her a friend or family member over a political candidate. It would seem that the republicans don’t have the odds in their favour so ‘the powers that be’ may want Hillary to win because she is the closest to ‘their’ agenda. And everyone knows ‘they’ control the media as well.

  2. Psychodiva says:

    I have noticed also a cultural habit? in the USA of calling women by their husband’s name- I always thought it strange that on her wedding day a female in America would suddenly change her name to a man’s name- and it happened to be the same as her husband’s (LOL) seriously- what is that about? I don’t call my self Mrs Philip …. and there does not appear to be a smilar habit over here in the UK- apart from when the husband has a ‘title’ that applies only to him and not his family- then a female would be referred to as lady Philip for example- to show sher had ‘married into’ the title- then again the man would not so it is sexists 🙂

    as for Ms Clinton – I agree, it is derogatory to refer to her in this way and it reminds me of the way journalists referred to Ms Maragret Thatcher as ‘maggie’ – then again there is still a hangover from more partiarchal times when we call ourselves Mrs and not Ms – and the man doesn’t have to change a thing!

  3. This Busy Monster says:

    Maybe the media just needs an easy way to distinguish between Hillary and that other Clinton who’s always in the press. They are not exactly dealing with the most literate audience in the US. Sometimes the simplest explanation is the best. What’s that called again? Oh yeah, Occam’s razor.

  4. active_axon says:

    There’s also the fact that her campaign signs all say “Hillary ’08” and not “Clinton ’08.” This may be a chicken or egg type question, but it’s very possible that she started it herself because she like to emphasize her level of familiarity with the American public. She was first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the US, and Senator from New York. She’s the most recognized name on the ballot.

  5. bloomoon says:

    I just found your blog and am enjoying the intellectual discussions. Please note, however, that rampant sexism in this campaign is evident throughout the media–regardless of the names by which the candidates are called. There are dozens of posts across the web on this, so I won’t go into great detail. However, my favorite: John McCain’s speech in which a supporter shouted “How do we beat the bitch?” and McCain laughed. He actually laughed. Had the supported shouted “How do we beat the nigger?” a second of levity would have ended Mr. McCain’s campaign then and there. Where is the media critique of this? As a woman, as a professional, academic, successful woman, and as a human being I am disgusted by this inherent and extreme chauvinism. Thanks for mentioning it here.

  6. Megan Jonas says:

    This has been on my mind. Maybe you can help me develop the idea further and more intelligently or eloquently.

    I wonder if there is a link between the exploitation of women in hip hop/rap culture and the youth driven movement for Barack Obama. Do young supporters subconsciously choose Barack Obama because they visually link him to the powerful black male rap stars?

    I wonder then if they disregard Hillary Clinton as a serious candidate because of certain white female stars in our popular culture who spend time in rehab? If this is the case I hope the easily swayed youth will never make it to the voting booth.

  7. ronbrown says:


    I personally doubt any major effects from current pop culture.

    I’m reluctant to really comment too much, as I don’t pay so much attention to US politics to be able to make much educated speculation.

    I can say that I’ve read of social psychology findings relevant to these issues. In these findings there were biases against a certain minority group. However, once members of that minority passed a certain level of skill, they came to benefit from a sort of positive discrimination. In the studies I recall, a person in a group that is not “supposed” to do well (e.g., a Black guy in intellectual pursuits; a woman in basketball) is generally undervalued, but if they show themselves to be particularly good, they can be overvalued. For instance, the woman who is very good at basketball or who leads an organization might be called a “super woman”. While people would be impressed by a guy who was very good at basketball or ran an organization, the praise received often isn’t quite as staggering. Perhaps positive racism is helping Obama. He speaks very well, is a smart guy, is polished in his conduct and appearance, very successful, etc. Perhaps people are viewing him as a “super black man” and giving him greater praise for his good qualities than they would if a white candidate had the same attributes. In fact, I suspect that this is the case.

    However, this leads one to wonder why Hillary Clinton is not receiving positive sexism. Actually, I should ask. Is she? Again, I haven’t paid that great a deal of attention. I’ve heard some say that she’s kind of a bitch. If many people feel that this is the case, it could be having a big impact. It seems that if one wants to be a high-ranking politician, the worst thing they can do is be a woman. If they are always kind and polite, then they’re a spineless pushover. If they are assertive and strong, then they’re a castrating bitch. The tight-rope the woman has to walk is razor thin.

    Perhaps it is easier to be a polished good-looking great speaking fairly young Black Dem candidate than it is to be the equivalent, but rather than being Black, being a woman.

    Again, though, I state my ignorance of the candidates. Maybe Obama is just doing better in a lot of areas irrespective of demographic biases. Maybe more people just like his platform more.

  8. Megan Jonas says:

    Thank you RB, I think I learned something here 🙂

  9. philagon says:

    Does anyone remember way,way back in history to two Presidential cycles ago? A big intangible pressing Bush ahead of Gore for many, was the the “likeability” factor. The “I would rather talk over a beer” factor. My point is that informality is seen as a plus- wearing long sleeved plaid shirts as most Pres. candidates do with aims to appear as a common, working class man or similiarly, calling audiences “Friends” or “My FELLOW Americans”. The familiarity associated with calling a candidate by her first name is, by my thinking, a benefit to the candidate, engendering the familiarity and approachability that most of have with our other adult relationships.

  10. Sick of the Sexism says:

    I think all the posters are right – there is an inherent sexism present here – albeit it performed consciously or subconsciously is another matter. It all has to do with establishing authority and with it, the respect that that commands. First name basis allows you to view that person as either an equal or an inferior, while referring to someone as “Senator Clinton” or “Clinton” or their whole names gives them an air of authority and commands attention and respect. Given that most of the talking heads want to debase Clinton, they will usually address her by her first name. And it’s not because this is her campaign theme neither. Mike Huckabee is copying Eisenhower’s theme of “I like Mike (instead of Ike)” and yet no one I have ever heard refers to Mike Huckabee as “Mike”. It is a common first name like Hillary’s. Obama doesn’t quite have this problem as he has a first name that is uncommon, and even sounds almost like a surname. I think it’s more of a subconscious sexism that is culturally ingrained in us and until we recognize it, it won’t change. We need to understand women’s rights have just come about for less than 100 years in the United States, and many countries still don’t have it. So it is definitely an issue that still needs to be addressed, recognized, and eradicated.

  11. Stoobs says:

    The fact that the media also makes a concerted effort to use Obama’s middle name regularly, but started doing so only after he was well ahead of Clinton, suggests that the choice of name is a conscious decision, intended to manipulate people’s view of the candidate.

    That said, neither candidate is worth the effort of getting out of bed to vote for. Both are center-right corporatist types with voting records which invite extreme cynicism. Neither voted against the patriot act, for example. Both routinely accept huge bribes (sorry, contributions) from the very people responsible for the current government.

    Luckily, I’m not in the US, but in Canada, where the exact same situation obtains – elections are a choice between bad and worse, between hard right ideologues and their center-right enablers. Oh well, not so lucky, I guess.

    I’m giving serious consideration to moving to South America – they seem to be moving towards the future, at a time when the ‘developed world’ is charting a course squarely for the dark ages.

  12. manika says:

    I read Mrs BA good observation.Its really sensitive and it shows the citizens responsibilities. May be this sorts of comments may minimise the behaviour of mankind.

  13. Mary Turner says:

    I believe the sexism has been rampant and completely off the charts on MSNBC. As one poster said she is Hilary and he is Obama, etc. I listened the day of the Puerto Rico primary and the references were “she” or “her” and Senator Obama or Barack Obama.

    Also what male candidate has ever been chastised for their laugh being a cackle. I forget which news person this quote is from but it was on tv the day of the Puerto Rico primary, the quote “When men listen to her speak they hear “Take out the garbage””.

    I am actually more interested in why the press en masse have been inspired, are in awe, and have never heard such inspirational speeches with Barack Obama. No one talks about his ideas or programs only his ability to give a stirring speech. I actually heard an MSNBC person (can’t call them reporters), said just the way he strides on the stage inspires you.

    So my question is were they all so inspired because he is inspirational or because his opponent was a woman?

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] draft, I only referred to Hillary Clinton by her first name. To preempt the inevitable sexism accusations, I’ve added the Clinton surname […]

  2. […] Brown at the often-intriguing Frame Problem blog has a simple explanation: The wife of Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy made an interesting observation on Super Tuesday. She […]

  3. […] seen lots of people claim that referring to Hillary Clinton by only her first name is sexist. We call John McCain “McCain” and Barack Obama […]

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