The New York Times Book Review has announced a new slate of columnists, and popular novelist Jennifer Weiner, a frequent critic of the Times’ coverage, tweeted her thoughts. “New NYTBR columnists. Ladies: lots. Commercial writers: zero,” she wrote. “Wishing NYTBR would just say ‘we exist solely for 5000 readers of literary fiction’ … it's not a very lively conversation, when both parties make the same points, share the same assumptions.”
When the Atlantic Wire’s culture editor, Alexander Nazaryan, wrote about her tweets, Weiner tweeted some more. She objected to Nazaryan's characterization of her criticism as “combative,” “polarizing,” and in particular, “strident.” “Men with opinions—even sharply-worded ones—don't get treated like this,” she wrote. “Whose voices do we lose when women who speak up get slapped with ‘strident’ and told to be ‘quiet?’ ”
Is strident a sexist term? Nazaryan was initially unsure but later amended the post to replace “strident” with “strong,” citing the term’s “historic usage to dismiss women.” A quick survey of writers in my network found that they typically use strident as a synonym for forceful, but the dictionary definition reads more like shrill: Merriam-Webster online defines it as “characterized by harsh, insistent, and discordant sound” and “commanding attention by a loud or obtrusive quality.” Over the past century, published books cataloged by Google refer to a “strident woman” more frequently than they do a “strident man.” In 2008, books in Google’s system used the descriptor for women twice as frequently as they did for men. That’s particularly significant given that books talk about men in general a lot more than they talk about women.
Historically, the word has been conspicuously applied to women who are characterized as “obtrusive” or “discordant” for airing their opinions (particularly, their opinions about being women). In the 1930s, books referred to a “strident feminist” more than it did a “strident critic.” Now, they refer to a “strident critic” much more frequently, but the gender of the critics to whom the term is applied is unclear. Caitlin Moran, in her book How to Be A Woman, suggests that women take back “strident feminist” as a badge of honor. “It’s been so wrong for so long that it’s back to being right again,” she wrote. “They have used it to abuse us! Let’s use it right back at them!” Of course, that kind of reclamation only really works when women are using it to refer to themselves.
Men, of course, are also described as strident on occasion. Book blogger D.G. Meyers was recently described as strident by the New York Daily News. Also deemed strident Thursday: Vladimir Putin, in USA Today, for his “strident defense of a Syrian regime that has killed thousands of its people.” (Not exactly a flattering comparison for Weiner.) But again, it’s difficult to assess whether a couple of anecdotes make the term gender-neutral or whether the word is typically wielded in a gendered context.
All of this bean counting aside: Is it ever acceptable to refer to a woman as strident? What if she is harsh and obtrusive? While I’ve appreciated some of Weiner’s feminist commentary about the publishing industry, her approach can be grating for reasons unrelated to her gender. I find it obnoxious that she conflates the problem of gender representation in book publishing and reviewing (socially important) with her advocacy for commercial writers (mostly self-serving). When she lumped in criticism of the term strident with words like combative and polarizing, it looked like an attempt to brush off fair criticism of her approach as gender-based harassment. (Nazaryan declined to delete “polarizing” and “combative” from the piece, saying those words “accurately describe her public criticisms”; for what it’s worth, books refer to a “combative man” more frequently than they do a “combative woman.”) I rolled my eyes when Weiner quoted AP style to critique the Atlantic Wire for failing to contact her for comment on its blog post about her publicly available tweets. (As if one news organization’s policies have jurisdiction over the entire Internet! After all, Weiner didn’t quote a rep from the New York Times Book Review when she tweeted her criticism about its columnists.) And when one of her followers mentioned that she’d seen the term strident applied to Lindsey Graham, Weiner joked, “Lindsay. Girl’s name,” which struck me as dismissive and, crucially, unfunny.
But it’s easy for me to claim that my criticisms of Weiner are unrelated to her gender. It’s a lot harder for women to pick apart whether potentially sexist terms are being employed in a malicious context or a benign one. In 1970, Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce coined the term “microaggression” to refer to minor slights that are “subtle” and often subliminal, but that nevertheless contribute to a culture of racial or gender harassment. One of the most pernicious aspects of microaggressions is that they’re more difficult to assess than more explicit threats. Did that person just cross the street to avoid the black man walking her way, or because her route just happened to take her there? Did he call her strident because she’s a woman, or because she's strident? As a woman, I understand that because targets of microaggressions are often criticized as overreacting or playing the race or gender card, these potential slights are allowed to slide under the radar unchecked. But from a writer’s perspective, it seems unreasonable to totally excise certain descriptors from the English language—or to only apply them to men—in order to avoid the perception of sexism. Nazaryan told Weiner that he deleted “strident” because “the goal was never to cause offense, only to chronicle your ongoing conversation with [the Times].” Better to just use “aggressive” next time. Wait—is that one OK?