There's a certain adjective I've used describe Hillary Clinton on lots of occasions. It's calculating, and I've called her it in writing (see here) and, likely, lots of times on television. I've probably even said it on the radio. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it — until Taylor Swift showed me the error in my ways. Clinton's people have reached out to me privately about it, asking me not to use the word. But, after considering it, I've always brushed their concerns aside. The critique was that I was being implicitly sexist, judging Clinton more on her persona than I would a similarly situated male candidate and then passing that judgment using gender-loaded language. Language like “calculating.” Now, I don't think that just because I'm a woman, I'm inherently immune from replicating patterns of sexism. And, while I've had moments where I get defensive, I generally try to be open-minded in the face of genuine feedback. So I wasn’t predisposed against this particular critique of my coverage of Clinton — I just thought it missed the mark.
She really, really hates the word calculating.
Enter Taylor Swift. In case you didn’t know, I’m working on becoming friends with Taylor Swift. Really. So I’ve become a hyperconsumer of Taylor Swift interviews lately, including, obviously, her cover story for GQ. In it, reporter Chuck Klosterman writes: "I’d found myself having dinner with a former acquaintance of Swift’s who offhandedly described her as ‘calculating.’ This is the only moment during our interview when Swift appears remotely flustered. She really, really hates the word calculating.” Reading this, I got flustered myself. Why does Taylor Swift hate the word calculating? (And not unrelated, does Taylor Swift know I’ve used the word several times, and therefore did she decide not to become friends with me?) Then the GQ reporter goes onto weave a tautological web in which he tries to ensare Swift: “Any attempt to appear less calculating scans as even more calculated.” The reporter calls this “Swift’s circuitous dilemma,” but to me it looks more like his dilemma. Klosterman pretends he's deconstructing the term merely to justify reinforcing it — sort of like how the media say the email scandal is “dogging” Hillary to rationalize the fact that they’re the ones hounding her with it. The media (myself included) aren’t just passively reporting on the characterizations and scandals of their subjects. They’re feeding and shaping the narrative themselves. Later, Klosterman writes, “So is it unfair to categorize Swift as calculating? Maybe, and particularly if you view that term as exclusively pejorative.” This is after several paragraphs in which Klosterman basically wondered aloud whether not only Swift’s career but her personal friendships are calculated. Nothing pejorative about that, eh?
She’s 25 years old and the most successful artist on the planet. Who the hell thinks anyone could get there by accident? Calculating? Of course she's calculating!
In my head, I was shaking the magazine and shouting, “She’s 25 years old and the most successful artist on the planet. Possibly the most successful artist of the century. Who the hell thinks anyone could get there by accident? Calculating? Of course she's calculating! So were Jay Z and Bill Gates and The Beatles and Gandhi, for that matter, but I don’t hear anyone judging them for it.” Which is when it hit me. And the screaming voice in my head turned into a quiet, self-loathing moan. Shit. I did some Googling. In March of this year, The New York Times’ Amy Chozick reported that a group of Hillary Clinton supporters (unaffiliated with the campaign, apparently) sent out an email foreshadowing “coded sexism” that would likely be deployed against Clinton. According to Chozik, their list of sexist watch words included “polarizing, calculating, disingenuous, insincere, ambitious, inevitable, entitled, overconfident” and also “secretive.” Now, honestly, I still think some of those words are perfectly legit — Clinton’s candidacy does seem inevitable, or at least did, as did Jeb Bush’s, and I don’t think pointing that out is gendered. And Hillary Clinton is secretive. She and her husband are famously so. Why else go to all the trouble of creating a private server for your emails, for instance? As for the other words — inevitable, entitled, overconfident — maybe when used one at a time they don’t raise the impression of sexism. But, taken as a whole, they definitely play into a critique of Hillary just for being an ambitious woman. Words like “calculating” suggest something untoward — or even evil — about her aspirations to the White House and the steps she's taking to get there. And that's a game I don't want to play.