During his interview of Michele Bachmann last night, Chris Wallace pointedly asked the presidential hopeful, “Are you a flake?” Bachmann was visibly offended. “I think that would be insulting to say something like that,” she shot back , “because I’m a serious person.” Shortly after the interview, the Fox News Sunday Facebook page was flooded with accusations of sexism on Wallace’s part. Politico and the Washington Post speculated today that the interview might enhance Bachmann’s appeal among female voters who’ll now take a sympathetic posture towards her.
In response to the growing chorus of criticism, Wallace issued a video apology this afternoon. “I messed up,” he said, “I didn’t mean any disrespect.” Bachmann quickly implied that she would not accept the apology . She may be justified in her refusal-this isn’t the first time the Fox reporter has used the term to describe her. In fact, Wallace also told Bachmann in an interview this April that she had a reputation for saying “some-forgive me-flaky things.”
Wallace has plenty of material to work with. In the April interview, he confronted Bachmann with footage of two of her more outrageous assertions: that the Revolutionary War began in New Hampshire , and that the federal government presently owns 51 percent of the private economy. Last night, he pointed out that she’d alleged NATO airstrikes had killed 30,000 civilians and also accused members of Congress of being anti-American. As those (and many , many other ) statements illustrate, Bachmann is a flawed candidate, and it is well within the media’s rights to point that out. Still, like passive and hysterical , flaky is a term that strikes a chord when levied against a woman, particularly when she is vying for a position of authority. Male candidates may often be critiqued as unrealistic, incompetent, or unappealing, but they are rarely framed as unserious or child-like, as the word flaky implies.
It’s interesting to note that “flaky women” is used as a Google search term more than twice as often as “flaky men.” The term itself, however, doesn’t seem to have a specifically gendered history, according to Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large for the Oxford English Dictionary . In fact, while “the precise inspiration” for the word “has never been satisfactorily explained,” it seems to have a masculine origin: Flaking out was used in military circles in the 1940s to mean “to go to sleep or pass out,” particularly from exhaustion. The current, colloquial use of the terms flake and flaky arose during the 1950s.
As with much questionable language usage, Wallace’s tone was crucial: His use of the word last night was inextricable from his belittling attitude toward Bachmann. In the April interview, Wallace began his conversation with the representative by noting that it “may surprise some people” to learn that she is a tax attorney. As others have pointed out , his tone last night was similarly more like a doubtful high school counselor than a journalist conducting an interview with a public figure. (“Do you recognize,” he asked her, “that now that you are in the spotlight in a way that you weren’t before that you have to be careful and not say what some regard as flaky things?”) It’s hard to imagine an interview with a male politician opening with the “surprising” news of his professional career, or him being condescendingly reminded that he needs to choose his words carefully. In his apology today, Wallace offered a mea culpa to his viewers for upsetting them. But he ought to be apologizing directly to Bachmann-and offering extra words of contrition to his female viewers.