The best moment of the third presidential debate was when Hillary got Donald with a classic zing-and-bait: “My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it,” she said, riffing on her plan for raising taxes on the rich to buttress the sagging Social Security Trust Fund. Trump, right on cue, leaned into his mic and interrupted her: “Such a nasty woman.”
And lo, the internet caught fire with #ImANastyWoman, a hashtag that continues to trend on Twitter, while the Clinton campaign deftly bought the domain nastywomengetshitdone.com, which now redirects to the campaign website. In one of the sweetest ironies of the Trump garbage-fire campaign, the mogul’s misogyny not only made Janet Jackson spike on Spotify, but he once again pushed gender into the public conversation.
It struck Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen as a strange comment, since Trump himself has called Clinton the devil, promised to jail her if she wins, said she is proven to be a liar, and interrupted Clinton 37 times in the space of 90 minutes. There is also a gendered asymmetry to the term, as there is with bossy. “The word nasty would sound almost comical if applied to a man,” she says. It would seem so understated that it would sound sarcastic. And Trump wouldn’t say “what a nasty man,” she says, but just “nasty.” It has to do with the images that the phrases call up. “A nasty man isn’t an image that’s easy to imagine. Whereas a nasty woman you get an image of a particular kind of woman that you don’t get with a nasty man,” Tannen explains.
Indeed, if you feed the word nasty into a database of 14,000 professor reviews for ratemyprofessor.com, female instructors are way more likely to be labeled “nasty” than men.
To Tannen, author of Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work, the Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words, and other books on gender and language, “nasty woman” denotes a woman who isn’t performing femininity — in other words, being self-effacing, smiling, effusive. It’s not a stretch to say that “nasty woman” is a euphemism for bitch, Tannen says; when she gives talks to businesses about gender at work, she’ll show a clip of a woman doing her job, being serious, not smiling, staying focused. Invariably, people will comment, saying that she looks “like a bitch.” This, Tannen says, is the double-bind that professional women face: to be feminine is to be deferential, to be in authority is to command, so the social roles of being a dutiful lady and a highly realized professional are in conflict, or, as Tannen says, mutually exclusive.
“There’s a B-word — bossy or bitch — hovering when a woman in a position of authority is simply serious and doing her job. The universal sense is a powerful woman at any moment risks being labeled ‘a bitch’,” Tannen says. “The reference ‘nasty woman,’ by association, brings that characterization into focus.”
The culture just doesn’t have lots of archetypal images of women in authority, Tannen says, beyond the librarian or the schoolmarm. The most positive association is with the mother, but that’s not super relevant to public life. But, come November, there will likely be a new one: Madam President.