No Laughing Matter

The media had barely gotten over the fact that Hillary sometimes wears v-necks when a new sexist observation cropped up. Apparently she doesn't laugh -- she cackles.
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The media had barely gotten over the fact that Hillary Clinton sometimes wears v-neck tops when a new sexist observation began cropping up. Apparently she doesn't laugh -- she cackles.

The New York Times actually published a whole article on Friday delving into the phenomenon, going as far as to break with AP Style to capitalize the "c": The Cackle. As if it's the conventional wisdom by now that Clinton's laugh is her defining characteristic, and the best way to describe it is with this completely negative, gendered word:

cack路le (kkl)


v. cack路led, cack路ling, cack路les


v.intr

.
1. To make the shrill cry characteristic of a hen after laying an egg.


2. To laugh or talk in a shrill manner.

This is the type of descriptor we've come to expect from the likes Rush Limbaugh and Fox News -- neither outlet is exactly known for shying away from gender stereotypes. But aren't journalists at the "nation's newspaper" supposed to be better at finding original and creative ways of describing things than your run-of-the-mill conservative commentators? Words like "cackle" and "giggle" just fall back on stereotypes.

The article also points out Clinton's tendency to laugh in a rather forced manner when she's hit with difficult or embarrassing questions. That's a fair criticism. Say her laughter sounds fake or uncomfortable. Point out that it follows tough questions on topics like her Iraq war vote or her husband's legacy. It's certainly possible to critique her laughter -- and what it says about her campaign -- without resorting to gender stereotypes.

Perhaps one reason Clinton is so quick to force a laugh is that she's trying to counteract the "ball-busting bitch" image bestowed upon her by conservative pundits and, more subtly, by the mainstream media. If she's all serious, all the time, she feeds that stereotype. But she can't seem to get ahead by trying to infuse more humor, either. She addressed this herself, the Times notes, after she cracked a joke about her husband's infidelities, and reporters followed up with serious questions:

"You guys!" she said to reporters, chuckling, after the third question on the topic. "I thought I was funny. You guys keep telling me, lighten up, be fun. Now I get a little funny, and I'm being psychoanalyzed."

No kidding. Psychoanalyzed and basically called a witch.

Maureen Dowd managed to use the gender-neutral description "big belly laughs" in her Sunday column. Of course, that was only after she quoted New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier calling Hillary a nagging housewife.

In Slate, John Dickerson at least acknowledged the sexism inherent in descriptions like "cackle" and "giggle":

Like all aspects of the Clinton campaign, there's sexism in the giggle critique: Women can only laugh in certain preapproved ways. Historically, men have categorized women's laughter as a way to diminish them--they either cackle like a witch, or they titter like a schoolgirl.

And if Clinton's laugh wasn't high-pitched enough to warrant the witch or schoolgirl allusions, they'd no doubt be calling it "mannish."

Which brings up another interesting point: Presidential candidates have been forcing laughter for years -- to buy themselves a few more minutes before answering a question, to defuse tension in an awkward moment, to convey their lighter side to voters. But up until now, those candidates have always been male. Maybe Clinton's higher-pitched laugh is so often described as odd or jarring because it's in a whole different range than we're used to hearing from our presidential contenders.

I'm betting that the next time a woman runs for president, her laugh won't sound so strange.

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