Why is Bernie Yelling at Me?

With 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?

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.