"Little Girls" and Gender Stereotypes

It will come as no surprise to political junkies that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley made an ad hominem attack against Post and Courier reporter Renee Dudley earlier this month. Politicians lob character-based criticisms at each other day in and day out rather than debate the merits of each other’s arguments — it only makes sense to demean a reporter as opposed to her (actually rather thorough) reporting techniques. But Haley didn’t just demean Dudley — she called her a “little girl” because she didn't like an article about her spending habits. This prompted Post and Courier columnist Melanie Balog to join the fun, calling Haley “catty.” Groups like Women’s Campaign Forum and Women’s Media Center are hard at work courting female candidates and fighting back against sexism in the media, but they will never succeed if female newsmakers don’t engage each other on a substantive level, acting as role models for young women. Haley and Balog have become a part of the problem itself by issuing gender-based attacks at each other.

To refer to anyone as a child is insulting but is particularly problematic for women. As one women’s studies professor pointed out, “Little girls are sent from the room so adults can speak.” “Little girls” are thought to be naïve and unaware; we dress them up and let them throw tea parties while adults discuss the real issues at hand. Haley suggests that “[Dudley’s] job is to create conflict,” evoking further stereotypes about the way society assumes little girls interact with each other. Haley could have said that “The story painted a grossly inaccurate picture and was unprofessionally done,” but rather than commenting on the merits of Dudley’s article, Haley waited until (sort of) apologizing for her comment to remark on the story instead of comparing Dudley’s personality to popular cultural stereotypes of teenage girls.

The irony of Balog’s response, of course, is that Balog was actually calling out Haley for her sexist attack on Dudley, saying that the governor “stooped to a condescending, catty low.” I can hardly take issue with the word “condescending,” but using the word “catty” to criticize a gendered attack would be humorous if it weren’t sexist.

While it would be nice to not have words that we associate with one gender or another, part of eliminating sexism in culture and the media has to be an awareness of language and how words are used. We could pretend that “catty” isn’t used to refer to women and to women alone, or we could attack the problem head on and comprehend that calling a woman “catty” is just as dangerous as portraying her as a “little girl.” By invoking stereotypes that are associated with petty conflict, we are not only placing the women in question squarely in the center of those stereotypes, but we are also strengthening these stereotypes. 

I do not agree with Haley’s politics, but I respect her as a politician and I appreciate her desire for more women to run for office. Similarly, I appreciate that Balog has pointed out the governor’s hypocrisy. But if we ever intend to get past sexism in politics, women need to be as aware of their own use of language and treat each other with more respect. It shouldn’t be this easy to be framed by gender. Let’s make it as difficult as possible by taking responsibility for framing each other solely on a substantive level.

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