What's so bad about "sweetie," anyway?

Why we should care about Barack Obama's preferred term of endearment.

By Rebecca Traister
Published May 16, 2008 10:09PM (EDT)

Likely Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama this week found himself under one of those unflattering spotlights -- the kind that shines on small utterances, making them appear brighter and bigger than they might otherwise have been -- when he called female reporter Peggy Agar "sweetie," after the reporter at Detroit's ABC-TV affiliate approached him during his visit to the Chrysler LLC plant in Michigan and asked him, "Senator, how are you going to help the American autoworkers?" Obama responded by waving Agar off, saying, "Hold on a second, sweetie."

The clip gained immediate YouTube traction, and within hours of its airing, Obama left a message for Agar in which he apologized for failing to answer her question, as well as for referring to her as "sweetie." He called his use of the word "a bad habit of mine." "I mean no disrespect and so I am duly chastened on that front," Obama told Agar.

Obama's apology was timely, gracious and sincere. But he's right that he does have a little "sweetie" problem, one he should try hard to get over before November.

In early April, it was reported that the Illinois senator addressed a female factory worker in Allentown, Pa., as "sweetie." ABC quickly dug up footage of Obama telling a female supporter, "Sweetie, if I start with a picture I will never get out of here," and another one, "Sweetie, if I start doing autographs, I won't be able to get [out]..."

Not everyone is offended.

On "The View," Whoopi Goldberg said, "What he meant to say, I believe, was with no disrespect, because I call everyone 'sweetie' if I don't know their name." And on "Good Morning America," a practically purring Diane Sawyer said, "Don't you think it's going too far to care about that stuff?"

Well, actually, no. It's not going too far to care about that stuff. To care about it does not mean that anyone should or would change their votes or their larger feelings about Obama or his candidacy. But calling attention to language, "caring about that stuff," is the only way to examine and understand how language can convey diminishment, whether that diminishment is based on gender, race, age or, in this case ... power.

But to start at the beginning: What is so bad about calling someone "sweetie," anyway?

Often, nothing at all. "Sweetie" -- a word redolent of sugar and spice and all the rest of that stuff little girls are made of -- is an endearment, an affectionate address, a nickname most often, but not always, applied to women. It's a warm word. I've been called it by my boyfriend, my mother, my female friends. Surely many women have enjoyed being called sweetie by someone they care about, just as many women have enjoyed being called "honey" or "babe."

But that does not mean that those same women would enjoy being called any of those things by a presidential candidate, especially one they'd not met before, especially in response to a question about the economic future of the autoworkers, and especially when the word is a fundamental part of a larger professional brushoff.

Yes, there are places in the country where "sweetie" is used to address strangers of both sexes; a waitress, for instance, might call both male and female customers "sweetie," as a conversational address, rather than an indication of personal familiarity. But that's pretty clearly not what was happening at the Chrysler plant, in part because the waitress doesn't often have a power dynamic with her customers that resembles the relationship between a male presidential candidate and a female reporter.

Is it the be all end all? No. Is it the most sexist thing a man could say to a woman? Certainly not.

But one of the odd qualities about the questions applied to this story has been the focus on whether Obama's intentions were premeditated, or stranger still, malevolent. Surely they were neither. As Goldberg said, the senator likely "meant ... no disrespect." Obama is an excellent candidate on women's issues, and has won the often controversial support of feminists who might otherwise have fallen in behind Hillary Clinton. But having good intentions, and good policies, does not mean that anyone is incapable of offense, disrespect or condescension.

So it is troubling that ABC's report was headlined "Obama's Sweetie: Spontaneous or Sexist?" and "Good Morning America's" "workplace contributor" Tory Johnson averred that anyone offended by someone's use of "sweetie" should speak up but "not assume that their intentions are bad." Johnson went on to warm of the dangers of "policing spontaneity ... we should let people be themselves."

These kinds of arguments suggest that words cannot be both spontaneous and sexist, as they often are. After having received some flak for his use of "sweetie" in Allentown, one should certainly hope that Obama's Detroit gaffe was spontaneous. Had he given it thought, he would surely never have used the word. Also troubling is the perception that "sexist" must equal "ill-willed" if it is to be deemed offensive. Someone could call a professional woman "sweetie" and mean it in an avuncular, affectionate, non-harming way -- the way Barack Obama no doubt meant to deploy it. But just because a word is not meant as an offense, does not mean that it isn't diminishing, paternalistic and disrespectful.

It is fair to say that this mini-press cycle should be a dust storm and not a tempest. It's fine to say that it shouldn't mean too much, that it doesn't offer any sharp new insight into Obama or his campaign.

But it's not fine to simply laugh it off. It's tempting, especially as a woman, especially as a strong woman, like Diane Sawyer, to establish that caring too much about a small thing like "sweetie" is lily-livered, feminine, weak. We've all, like Peggy Agar, been called far worse; to fret too much over the small stuff can be akin to crying wolf; it might only make the big stuff appear less serious. But as tempting as it is to project the cool-girl post-feminist attitude of not caring at all, it's also important to note that just because a small exchange doesn't mean everything, we don't have to pretend that it doesn't mean anything.

The idea that a professional woman might be taken aback by being called an infantalizing or feminizing diminutive is not a news flash. There is a scene from "Tootsie," a movie made more than 25 years ago, in which Dustin Hoffman's cross-dressing character, a man, assesses the differences in how men and women are spoken to in professional situations. As Hoffman, dressed as his female alter ego Dorothy Michaels, tells a chauvinist boss, "I have a name. It's Dorothy. It's not Tootsie or Toots or Sweetie or Honey or Doll ... Alan's always Alan, Tom's always Tom, and John's always John. I have a name too."

The point is not that Obama should have, or could have, known Agar's name. It's that had her name been Alan, Tom or John, he would not have called her "sweetie." That is true. It may not be evil or intentional or even that big of a deal. But it is fundamental and true. And what it tells us, in a small way, is that even in the year in which Obama's most serious competition has come from a woman running for what has historically been a man's job, gender still matters.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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