Why is Bernie Yelling at Me?

shutterstock_342387872With the presidential election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you a series presented in conjunction with Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!

If you were following the most recent Democratic debate on Twitter, you may have noticed the attention to the candidates’ volume. Search Twitter for “Bernie” and “yelling” and your feed will be full. Clinton, too, was not immune from critiques of her volume and tone, but the attention to Sanders’ style was consistent throughout the night.

While some find Sanders’ gruffness endearing, others feel personally attacked, asking, “Why is Bernie yelling at me?”

But would we respond differently to Sanders’ style if Bernie were Bonnie? Even more, does our own gender influence how we react to Sanders’ “shouting”?

A recent study found that candidates with lower-pitched voices were perceived—by both men and women voters—as stronger and more competent than candidates whose voices were higher-pitched. While the study found no direct relationship between candidate gender and evaluation, one of the study’s authors notes that women are more likely to have higher-pitched voices, and thus may be more vulnerable to bias in voter perceptions.

In a New Republic article that evaluated Clinton’s voice earlier this election cycle, however, linguist Carmen Fought explained that the differences between men’s and women’s vocal tone and style are often overstated. “The biggest differences,” she said, “[are] in how men and women are perceived, and our ideas about how women should talk and how men should talk.” It’s in these perceptions of appropriate tone and style that gender stereotypes are deeply embedded. For example, men are expected to be assertive and loud in proving masculinity, while women’s femininity is expressed by being polite, reserved, and soft-spoken.

It’s no surprise, then, that reactions to women’s assertiveness can often evoke negative tropes of “nagging” wives or “lecturing” mothers. Similarly, female expressions of passion or excitement are frequently amplified as proof of emotional instability. As a result, women candidates are often coached to pay particular attention to vocal style and tone, to walk a fine line between being animated without appearing out of control and being assertive without being perceived as overly aggressive. As Clinton calmly recounted in a previous debate, “I’ve been told to stop, and I quote, ‘shouting’ about gun violence. Well, first of all, I’m not shouting. It’s just [that] when women talk, some people think we’re shouting.”

If voters are, in fact, more sensitive to women’s tone—especially when it goes against expected gender norms—what happens when men shout? Do gender expectations of men and masculinity make it easier for men to get away with speaking loudly and in a more aggressive tone? The dearth of serious backlash to Sanders’ style implies that the penalties for men’s shouting are less significant, at least on the campaign trail. While it provides fodder for late-night TV, there is little evidence that Sanders’ shouting has changed voters’ minds.

That said, there may be something to the idea that women will respond differently to loud men, similar to the evidence that shows that men hear women’s voices differently. Research on gender differences in voice perception shows that men and women process voices differently based on perceived sex and level of emotion, among other things. Multiple studies, for example, find that women are more sensitive to emotion from faces and voices than are men. While this research argues that women are more likely than men to recognize and recall those emotive voices (regardless of gender), it says nothing about indicators of negative or positive evaluations of those using the voices.

Another study finds that women prefer masculinized faces and voices in neutral settings, but that preference is lost after being exposed to male-on-female aggression. In other words, women value masculinity until it’s directly tied to aggression that could be weighed against them. This is not terribly surprising, as the study used a stimulus of direct physical aggression against women (a man slapping a woman).

What happens when the stimulus is less direct, when a man appears to be yelling at a woman? Or when he simply invades her space? In politics, men—and the strategists working for them—have been cautious about appearing overly aggressive to women in face-to-face settings like debates. Learning from backlash faced by candidates like Rick Lazio (who ran against Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate in 2000), male contenders are often aware of body language, tone and temper when taking on female opponents, seeking to avoid accusations of sexism or bullying. This is especially true in settings where women stand alone among a group of men, a reality not uncommon in American politics.

Bernie Sanders presents a slightly different case, however. His tone is consistently loud and aggressive (despite his advisors’ recommendations to tone it down), showing no particular gender bias in how he speaks to or about his opponents. While he is equally physically and vocally animated, his aggression is rarely targeted at others on stage; instead, he often appears to be speaking to a broader audience. That is why our interpretation—as debate viewers—of his style is so interesting. How do we feel when he speaks directly to, or shouts at, us?

Existing research provides no clear answers about gender differences in how we perceive or respond to his style, but it’s worth asking whether it is any more or less likely to resonate with women (who are the majority of, and the most reliable, Democratic voters). Moreover, is Clinton’s claim about gender bias in vocal processing true? Are we more likely to characterize women’s than men’s excitement as shouting? And do we view that shouting as laughable or cringe-worthy?

We need more research to really answer these questions, but, for now, ask yourself: do you feel like Bernie is yelling at you?

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Photo via Shutterstock


Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar


  1. Nah. I didn’t really pay much mind to Bernie’s yelling. I didn’t really think about it. If Hillary were yelling, I’d feel the same way, tbh.

  2. Margaret Bailey says:

    No, I don’t feel like Bernie is yelling at me. His message is so urgent and he is the one candidate that can explain clearly and precisely why we need to vote for him. My #1 reason this election cycle is Healthcare for all, for until all people have access to healthcare, we will not be equal.

  3. Janet Hagen says:

    Yes, I felt Bernie was yelling and it made me tune him out. I also felt like he got more people to focus on him because [to many] he came off as urgent and a strong leader. However, if Hillary would have yelled like he did most of the debate with her body posture forward and positioned aggressively like his, she would have been dismissed as too angry and aggressive (and perhaps desperate). In contrast, if Bernie had quieted his demeanor, both his tone, volume, and body position, he would have been viewed differently and Hillary would have been more “visible.”

  4. Susan Vallem says:

    Yes, Bernie is yelling. By many of his own staff and colleague’s admission, Bernie is rude, impatient, and uncompromising. Definitely NOT a person to bring parties together and break the gridlock. It’s no accident that many Democrat senators are endorsing Hillary, and none are endorsing Bernie. We need a President who can bring people together not antagonize them further.

  5. Chris Toal says:

    If Ms. Dittmar had done her homework, she would have learned that Sen. Sanders has a vocal disability which previously required surgery. On top of that, he has been giving speeches and interviews almost every day since May. Great job belittling someone with a disability, professor!

  6. Sarah McDonald says:

    I agree with Susan Vallem. I had to step away from listening to the debate. Bernie Sanders always seems angry and was yelling. I wish Hillary would adopt a calmer voice and not compete with the
    masculine view of power. No one can listen or problem solve when they are angry.

  7. suzanne123 says:

    It’s not Bernie’s fault, but I couldn’t help thinking as I watched the fourth Democratic debate that a woman would not get away with yelling, nor would she get away with off-the-rack clothes and not combing her hair. There is also some sexism in the fact that Martin O’Malley is not taken seriously because he is good-looking, something Justin Trudeau faced in Canada and Obama dealt with in year 2008. (If you look good, you can’t have brains is nothing more than a sexist attitude.) I wholeheartedly support Bernie Sanders because I support the progressive values behind his campaign (except that I believe in gun control), but I believe O’Malley and Hillary Clinton are far more concerned with “women’s issues” than Sanders. Lastly, the media portrays Sanders as enthusiastic and determined when he tries to get his points across, whereas Hillary is just “out of control” and “screaming.”

    • catherinethegreat says:

      little late in responding as I just watched the New Hampshire townhall. I support any democrat, but prefer Hillary as she is more electable than Sanders. since Hillary Clinton has moved a bit further progressive, the media has written that Clinton does wear off the rack clothes to try to appeal to mainstream Americans, but just the issue that the media would even write about this is offensive.

      it’s the same old double standard – Hillary can wear off the rack clothes but must look great but Sanders and Trump can look any way they want. although I don’t support any republican, it’s refreshing to see that Carly F. wearing fashionable clothes, lots of jewellery and still being taken seriously as a candidate.

      even with Bernie’s yelling and old fashioned terms like “chairman” and “okay, guys” at least he hasn’t insulted women like Chris Christie and Ted Cruz and every other republican (except Jeb Bush). I actually feel bad for Carly F. and all the female reporters and journalists who have to deal with this bunch of sexist egomaniacs.

  8. I am Feeling the BERN! He’s great. He’s sincere, honest, and knows who is he. He isn’t flip-flopping on critical Democratic values or “evolving” as some have said ::cough cough Hillary cough cough::.

    His personality is just who he is. He’s having a great moment for all the progressive, Democratic values we should hold.

    I can see issues with Ms forcing the comparison with Hillary, but Hillary certainly doesn’t have the charisma or sincerity behind everything (or anything) she says.

  9. Grasping at straws here , Ms. We expect you to be pro Clinton. You don’t have to hide your bias in an article about voice tone. Many of your readers like Bernie because of his honesty and consistency. His voice tone is sooo irrelevant.

  10. Merielle Bernier says:

    I always leaned Hillary’s direction but was still interested in what Sanders had to say. However, I found his constant yelling makes it hard to listen and hear what he is saying. I wanted to support him but between his shoutyness, and the lack of development and evolution in his career….it’s a concern. I always leaned Hillary’s direction but was still interested in what Sanders had to say. I found when I asked questions trying to find out information about his policies….his supporters engaged in a relentless and abusive attack on me. That clinched ot for me….I can’t vote for a candidate that supports that kind of ugliness. I will vote for Hillary….should she not get the nomination I will #votebluenomatterwho

  11. Donna Davis says:

    It’s so good to see someone else noticed this! It does feel as if this abrasive man is constantly shouting at his listeners (or even those that merely watch the evening news). It is particularly galling that he yells about domestic issues over which the executive will have little to say. He has no foreign policy or experience. I am not fond of mainstream candidates in general, but I hate to see young people misled into believing that if this man becomes president, the wealth of US citizens will be redistributed. There are so many checks and balances against anyone ever doing this under the system currently in place that the ultra-rich hardly even need a bank account overseas to protect their wealth.

  12. Kristina Tramel says:

    I’ll vote for Bernie before I’ll vote for Hilliary. Some of the things she’s said don’t make me want to vote for her at ALL! (Calling herself Abuela to get Spanish votes, using AAVE to get Black votes, ect)

    Just because I’m a feminist mean I’ll vote just any woman that is running.

  13. Charlotte Pirch says:

    No, no, no. Bernie is not yelling at you he is trying to get you to face up to the fact that we, ordinary citizens, do NOT control our government. What Bernie is saying is that we need to wake up to the fact that our democracy is failing. And it is partially our fault. We don’t vote, we pay more attention to TV series than to politics and that the mass media gives up entertainment and gossip rather than facts.

  14. suzanne123 says:

    As I previously posted, it’s not Bernie’s fault that the media would not let Hillary get away with messy hair and yelling; however, his campaign has not reigned it the sexism. I am no longer a Sanders supporter. While it is perfectly fine for the Hillary campaign to urge women to support each other, it’s not acceptable for the Sanders campaign to reduce women to vaginas and uteruses. Women and female animals support life on this planet because of our uteruses and genitals. Giving a negative spin to uteruses and genitals makes no sense – there would be no life without women and female animals.

    Why would Sanders campaign even have a rapper like Killer Mike representing him? The stereotype of black men as sexist gangsters is offensive to African-Americans. And his lyrics and videos are abusive to both women and animals (I won’t go into detail about the videos).

    Sanders campaign should be highlighting that his policies of immigration reform, drug treatment centers and social assistance will help women (and some men) out of prostitution. That his socialist agenda will help women and visible minorities out of poverty. That holding the media accountable means holding them accountable to sexism. Best of all, his anti-war policies prevent escalations of violence. Sanders campaign also missed the promise of a female Vice President (Jeb Bush immediately said he would have a female Vice President).

    Sanders campaign when he ran for governor against a female opponent in the 1980s did highlight that his policies served women. Sanders current campaign has changed to thinking there is something wrong with having uteruses and female genitals. Furthermore, the campaign implies there is something wrong with women supporting other women. There is nothing wrong with women supporting other women (by voting for Hillary Clinton). Sanders best response to lure female voters away from Hillary is to explain his policies serve women better.

    Sanders hasn’t done this and I no longer support him.

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