Sunday, September 07, 2008

Fortune is a Woman

Looking at the presidential campaign, the one element that leaps off the page is the horribly compromised position of the so-called "progressive" Left with regards to women. Make no mistake - both Left and Right have been deploying disgusting arguments, narratives and imagery about women and their "place" in politics and society. The Right is still firmly on the wrong side of civil rights for women. As I have watched over the last 12 months, what I see is that the Left has engaged in crude and direct misogynistic attacks on particular women, while the Right has made a more subtle and strategic use of femininity in the public sphere. They have ended up reinforcing their standard arguments about women while the progressives have grossly undermined their own claims, though perhaps they have finally exposed their true beliefs.

In both cases, the two sides have put forward arguments about female sexuality and maternal conduct. The Right has additionally served up attacks on Democratic candidates that utilize social constructs of masculinity and femininity to keep the campaign focused on personalities and avoid issues.

The Left blogosphere thas treated three prominent women, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin, with varying degrees of contempt and levels of demonization. Each woman has been the subject of a slightly different kind of attack.

The brutal assaults on Hillary are taken almost word for word from the Right Wing Noise Machine and are no more true coming from the Left. She has been treated the worst and continues to be impugned and badgered at every turn. Key to her demonization is the attempt to desexualize her. Her looks are derided, from her age to her fashion sense, her sexuality is a subject of speculation, her emotional availability and empathy is dismissed (cold, heartless, calculating, castrating, etc.), and the result is not a masculine figure, but an inhuman one. She is also cast as a bad mother, someone who pimps out her child, refuses to properly surrender her life to the cause of Obama, and overall fail to prevent young men with dumb ideas from getting themselves into trouble. If she had been a good (sexually available, enticing and submissive) wife, her husband would not have strayed and she would have kept her house in order. When she is compared to Grendel's mother (and I don't think the columnist meant the Angelina Jolie version), the demonization is complete. She is denied both sexual agency and maternal impulse, and ecomes a mythologcal creature like Medusa or a Harpy. Reducing her this way makes it possible to igore her as a political actor and a public servant.

Also in the progressive blogophere, though in a complicated way tied up with points of congruence with the Right due to Republican drift, are slanders against Michelle Obama. These attacks focus on her role as wife and her ostensibly illegitimate participation in the campaign. I also see her as a target of racism that cannot be expressed directly towards Barack Obama. I have read any number of allegations, all leading back to "anonymous" (i.e., non-existant) sources in the campaign that it was Michelle Obama's decision to not allow Hillary to be VP. I have no idea what Michelle's input on the VP selection was, and I assume that she is a highly trusted counselor to her husband, just as Hillary obviously is to Bill (and vice-versa), but I doubt she was the only person who said no to that choice, assuming she even said no. Michelle is getting the Lady Macbeth treatment, cast as the scheming woman who drives her husband over the edge and into villany. Given the opposition of the current DNC leadership to all things Clinton, making Michelle the fall guy (gal?) for Barack's decision smells to high heaven - someone is gladly trading in character attacks on her to get themselves off the decision hook.

Something that may not be as obvious is the way in which Michelle is being domesticated and disciplined into the role of good First Lady. It is ironic, given Barack's own snotty comments about Hillary's years in that position, which was part of the misogynistic puts downs and trivializations of his opponent. But Michelle herself is going through a very public "taming of the shrew" process to tone down her sex appeal, limit her statements (whether you agree with her or not, it's better to have outspoken women than the alternative), play up her helpmeet status and generally craft a very pure maternal image. The crafting ends up being a criticism of Hillary, a capitulation to Republican standards of public wives, and a loss of an opportunity to change the rulesl for how to cover political spouses. I keep thinking of the petty sniping at Dr. Dean, the missus, who simply went on with her medical practice rather than be arm candy for Dr. Dean, the blowhard.

Palin is simply getting shit on as a trashy woman who is indulging herself and needs to get home and feed the kids. Unlike Hillary, whose sexuality is regarded as perverse/non-existant, or Michelle, who is presented as properly domesticated, controlled and presentable, the narrative about Sarah is a slut out of control. Too fecund, too careless, too sexually available. The beauty queen who won't stop breeding. This is used to question her maternal qualifications, from whether she has too many kids , to whether all the kids are hers to whether she is properly caring for her children. The juxtapostion of (pre-fall) Edwards and Obama with their young children as above paternal reproach throws a spotlight on the double-standard applied to Palin and other female politicians. The claim that her politics legitimize questioning her on these grounds doesn't pass the sniff test. The anti-McCain elements in the Republican Party were also willing to advance these arguments, but have fallen conspicuoulsy silent in the face of Palin's convention success.

In all of these cases, what we see is direct and crude deployment of standard misogynistic tropes that women have battled whenever they enter the public sphere as actors in their own right rather than accountrements to male actors. What is happening on the Right with respect to Barack Obama is also misogynistic, but at one remove. Obama is being portrayed as feminine, effete rather than effeminate, but still occupying a degraded and unmanly position. The celebrity he enjoys, according to Republican ads, is not that of George Clooney and Brad Pitt, but of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. He is purposefully compared to Palin as much to say "You're not even as tough/strong/capable as a girl!" as any other reason. The comparisons to Hillary coming from the Right give them a two-fer - focus on the mannish Hillary and the feminized Obama. Michelle as Lady Macbeth is not just imagery to degrade her but also to signal his impotence in the face of a tough female.

This is more of the same of what has been thrown at Democratic candidates for the last two presidential cycles. It does not just augment the usual tropes of weakness; it exposes the foundations of that attack which is misogyny itelf. To quote Machiavelli:
For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.

In the Republican mind, the candidate is a male hero striving to shape feminine Fortune to his will, and those who will not do ths are females to be likewise dominated, the "girly-men" Ah-nold sneered at in 2004. Thus, the female "blonde bimbo" celebrity imagery is of a piece with the attacks on Gore, a man who was "practically lactating". These are no longer opponents to contest with; they are feminine objects to be kept under, beaten and ill-used.

This is an argument of the Right, of conservatives and of fundamentalists, that to be female is to be of a lesser class of humanity than males. From this basic proposition, the rest follows. There is room in the world view for an exceptional woman, just as there is room for the exceptional Jew or the exceptional Black, but the socio-economic location of this class of beings is below, subservient and docile.

The "progressive" blogosphere has exposed its own fundamentalist tendencies this electoral cycle, wielding misogyny like a sledge hammer to achieve its political goals. To try to claim innocence on this count is insulting to the readers' intelligence. The Blogger Boyz (and the women frantically trying to prove they are really just Girlz so they can stay in the club) have damaged the campaigns of every female Democratic candidate, legitimizing use of misogynist tropes. The reproductive history of our women candidates is now fair game. In performing this violence against female candidates and public figures, they have validated its continued use by the Right and have cast into doubt their progressive claims. (And here's a clue: The answer to Palin is not that she is a hypocrite but that the Democratic approach allows her family the freedom to make exactly the choices they did, while allowing others to decide differently. Treat her particular choice as one of many valid choices.)

It is one reason why I reject the lable "progressive" for myself and state clearly what I am - a liberal. I do this in the same way and for the same reason that I say I am a feminist.

My fortune is as a woman.



lakelobos said...

I have a single deviation from the views of progressives as progressives. What we call progressive is typically referred to as the left. Historically, the left was frequently associated with reactionary issues. Whether it was the decades long support of Eastern European repressive oppressive and murderous regimes, excessive antisemitism (never mind that left had a large percentage of Jews), the support of social solutions that didn't work (the old welfare system in the US didn't serve the poor properly, yet the left was hell bent on keeping it intact; the result was the reform was way to the right), etc.

Progressives have always been on the wrong side of issues. Why did we expect the left blogosphere to be liberal? After all, we are talking about an assortment of loosely associated voices that are much more prone to exhibit: prejedices, psychological problems, man are subject to the macho syndrome and groups have always a mob behavior.

pm317 said...

The irony between the two opposing camps can't be clearer. On the right, they have embraced a woman because she is seen to lead them to victory. On the left, they rejected a woman because she was not woman enough (as in cold and calculating, lacks empathy, is divisive) or the right woman enough (I'll vote for a woman but not this woman) because they had a preference to the guy. In both cases, I see women being used as pawns, as objects to be traded for a preferred outcome. I do not think that will change unless we have a critical mass of women in politics at all levels from both parties that we forget to use their womanhood in our arguments. The liberal feminists who are crying foul at McCain's choice and trying to own Hillary now are looking foolish by the day.

Elizabeth Torak said...

Great post. To state the obvious the evaluation of a woman's professional life thorough the lens of her reproductive life is not limited to the political sphere. I am an artist, a woman, and, like you, made a conscious decision not to have children.

As such, I am continually saddened and infuriated by the way Mary Cassatt is treated. Her extraordinary images of women and children are inevitably tagged as the product of a woman who did not have children as if that were the explanation for why she painted them: her choice of this subject matter is always treated a yearning for children she never had. The not too subtle subtext is "Pathetic. Don’t let this happen to you. This is the punishment for asserting artistic voice" Only once have I seen discussed the fact that painting daily life was the philosophy of Cassatt’s artistic circle: the daily lives of women and children offered fresh artistic ground. as well as being available to her as subject matter. I may be wrong but I have never seen evidence for the first interpretation (that she painted children because she didn’t have them) in her letters - only in the world view of her critics.

show me said...

Wow! Fabulous post!

This is your answer to the frequent and plantive question asked by core Democrats, "What has happened to my party?"

Answer: it has turned into the enemy. Obviously this streak of misogony has been there all along but it has been magnified by the neodems, they are ruining our party just like the neocons ruined the Republicans.It is for different reasons in different ways but each goes to what is supposed to be bedrock in each party.. The leadership in Washington has melded into a priviledged elite battling to control their own turf and power.The MSM are their handmaidens. The people are screwed.

The irony is despite what has been done to her there is one WOMEN who could lead us out with her shear understanding of it but she is on the sidelines.

Kathie said...

Good post as usual.

I wanted to add a special fillip to your point about the recasting of Michelle. Although I personally found her early statements to be negative--I appreciated where she was coming from and her honesty. I hate the way she has been subverted to become more palatable to those intimidated by tough-minded black women. Her recent statement, "the only accessory I need is Barack on my arm!" was particularly appalling. Bleah. I wish some special friend had called her up and said, "Honey, the only accessories you need are your beautiful black skin and your strong and nimble mind."

What a sad state of affairs. BTW, I was happy to renew my acquaintance with Madeleine Albright's quote (via Dr. Lynette Long's recent column): There's a special hell reserved for women who do not support other women.

jangles said...

My question on this political play around women is this: is this peculiarly the off-spring of American history and a culture that is at once independent, rough and tumble and yet in search of the manners and intellectual salons of European upper classes and royalty? It is a sort of Annie Oakley/Jackie Kennedy spread. I also wonder about Palin and Cincy McCain. The McCain spouse seems to be structured around a familiar First Lady expectation. Palin seems to be allowed and admired a very different face by Republicans---very much the Annie Oakley. It is interesting to me that Annie Oakley was a put down from the Obama camp of HRC but is being put forth for Palin as a new American woman by Republicans. I especially appreciate your statements about M. Obama here. As I have read comments from HRC supporters that have at times been crude and ugly about MO, I have thought about the double standard and hypocrisy and I am sorry I have not said more about that myself.

hesperia said...

GREAT post. I must say I object to lakelobos' characterization of "the left" - it seems we're responsible for ALL the bad stuff in the world and that's far from true. I'd much rather be tagged with "leftie" or "progressive" than "conservative" or "republican".

Anna said...

Back when, I realized that the first generation of Star Trek had no woman who had all three of these qualities: beauty, power and goodness. The women were often cast with two out of three but never all three. Men were often cast as good, powerful and sexy.

So which area a political woman will be attacked on can often be forecast.

Michelle is beautiful and good so of course she must be presented as powerless. Palin is beautiful and presumptively powerful as a politician and hence cannot be presented as good. The attacks against Hillary are more scattershot because she was so balanced on all the qualities.

grand tier said...

I believe that the story that Michelle Obama nixed the idea of HRC as VP originated with Robert Novak.