Saturday, April 26, 2008

Fear. Loathing and Gender on the Campaign Trail

If you haven't been following, we've had quite the discussion on WLST, Plunderbund, Glass City and here about this month's cover of The New Republic.

The discussion has, in the main, been unsatisfying. Eric and I have pointed out grave dangers with overusing the label "misogyny" and with equating criticisms of Hillary with hatred of women. Folks on the other side (some who are good friends of mine) have refused to acknowledge those dangers much less confront them. Instead the argument boils down to "You're a man so your arguments don't count."

That's one bit of useful consciousness raising. I'm reminded what it is to be subject to a double standard.

I agree that sometimes the normal rough-and-tumble of American politics has crossed the line in attacks on both Hillary and Barack, and will even go so far as to say I've seen more sexist1 commentary from Barack supporters than racist commentary from Hillary supporters2

At the same time, it's really important that we not conflate all criticism of Hillary with sexism. Like all Presidential candidates, Hillary has flaws. Some of her very real character flaws also touch on gender stereotypes, but that shouldn't be a basis for disallowing comment on them. For example, one reason the charge that she is ruthlessly, stop-at-nothing, bend-the-rules ambitious is a long record of stopping at nothing and bending the rules on the part of both her and her husband.

To illustrate, lets' look at this hypothetical from my comments section:

    Now, what if the shoe was on your foot? What if the cover was of a stay at home dad, what if the cover was a photo of YOU as a stay at home dad and instead of capturing you in the 99.9% of the time where you are your wonderful self, what if the photo they chose for the article was you in an unflattering circumstance (most likely taken out of context) that illustrated the stereotype that only women can raise children and men were unfit care providers. Maybe you would be a little more critical of the magazines intentions and would not so eagerly dismiss the charge that the cover was picked soley to garner attention and lacked any journalistic value.
To review the initial controversy, TNR runs a story about the dysfunction in the Hillary campaign. The implication of the article is that Hillary can't run her campaign staff and as a result the campaign as a whole appears schizophrenic. That point is was the cover was illustrating.

It's hard to imagine an illustration of that point -- photo or cartoon -- that couldn't be read as reinforcing some gender stereotype. If she's calm she's "calculating" or "frigid," if she's happy she's oblivious, etc.

So we can make the analogy tighter by assuming that I am running for public office and a photo of me as a stay-at-home is used to illustrate a point about my character. That photo may even reinforce some stereotype about stay-at-home dads -- that they are disastrously organized for instance (true in my case.)

The question shouldn't be whether the criticism happens to reinforce some stereotype. It's whether it constitutes fair comment -- fair in the sense of relevant to my seeking office and with an at least arguable factual basis. If, under the hypothetical, I'm running for office, I've opened myself up to harsh commentary on my character. As long as the commentary isn't "don't vote for him because men are disorganized," it's fair comment.

Here's the thing. Rolling back sexism, racism and various other -isms requires among other things some social approbation for engaging in those isms. In turn, that requires society in the main to be willing to enforce that social approbation. All of that doesn't happen if we aren't careful about how we apply the labels.

In the political context, that is particularly important. One reason the charges of sexist treatment of Hillary haven't stuck is that it's often seen as a way to hide Hillary's flaws behind a veil of "you can't talk about that, it's sexist."

So we need -- desperately need -- to have an ongoing discussion about how we differentiate between criticisms of a candidate and attacks on all members of her gender. And respecting the opinions of both genders in the course of that discussion would be a good start.

1Among other things I've tried repeatedly to point out that charging "misogyny" as opposed to mere sexism is over the top. Alas that point has received no acknowledgement and I'm tired of hearing myself type. It's sexism from here out, with the understanding that the two are not synonymous.

2There's an element of know-nothingism from the Hillary campaign itself when it comes to things like the "Barack is a Muslim" rumor. But we're talking about discourse here so we'll leave that for another day.

8 comments:

Jill said...

Scott - I love you, man, just like I love Eric.

But you are still missing my point - I can't speak for any other woman. Contrary to popular believe, I do not have multiple personalities. :)

Misogyny does not get attention only when you or I say it should. It does not DESERVE attention only when it meets a certain threshold of your sensitivity or mine.

We are bloggers. I have indicated where I see the threshold as deserving of attention - you think that threshold is so low as to be crying wolf.

I cannot disagree more.

Just as racism has seeped into so many elements of our daily lives, so has sexism AND misogyny. Yes - they are distinct. I stated that over at Plunderbund.

But where is the line? Well - we are hashing that out and we are not agreeing on where it is.

But I will not accept that someone's dubbing where I see misogyny as being too inconsequential or not misogynistic enough as to be worthy of pointing it out means 1) it's not misogyny or 2) I should not point it out for fear that no one will ever listen.

Scott - so many aren't listening now. I fail to see how my post did anything but - as you say yourself - raise consciousness about the need to discuss.

And as a blogger - well, I can live with that.

Again - I love you, man. I do not agree with your approach re: when to point out what I view as misogyny because you or others see it as crying wolf.

Lisa Renee linked to several others who felt exactly as I did - you might consider leaving comments at those blogs re: they are crying wolf or at least read what they've written and see if they do a better job in explaining - I know that I have not done the kind of job in that for you that you would prefer or like.

(I'm not being facetious - I really would like to know how you can dismiss the concerns of all those other folks who see what I see in that cover.)

Hillary Hater said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Pho said...

No, Hillary-Hater-Who-Has-to-be-Hickman. An anti-Semetic blast at Jill isn't going to stay up on my blog. Cry about censorship all you want. That comment comes down every time.

Pho said...

JILL:

If you love me, can you acknowledge that I have legitimate concerns? Can you do that, just for me? Can you acknowledge that just maybe we should be concerned about overclaiming sexism in the context of a political campaign? Or do you just always want to put the onus on the critic to prove he/she doesn't hate women?

How do I dismiss the complaints? I look at the evidence. I look at a long history of TNR covers that satirize their subjects. And I conclude that the cover isn't about hating women it's about illustrating a real concern about Hillary's campaign. Cheez I've only said that like five times.

Hillary Hater said...

I'M NOT ANTI-SEMITIC
AND I'M NOT HICKMAN

I'M JUST TIRED OF JILL AND THE GLASS CITY GAL BEING CRYBABIES FOR HILLARY!

AFTER ALL YOU AND ERIC ARE PRIME EXAMPLES OF MISOGYNISTIC SEXIST MEN. AREN'T YOU?

THAT'S WHAT THE CRYBABIES WANT EVERYONE TO BELIEVE. IS IT TRUE?

Pho said...

OK FINE. BUT YOU CAN DISAGREE WITH JILL WITHOUT DISPARAGING HER FAITH. IN FACT IT WOULD BE GREAT IF YOU COULD DISAGREE WITH JILL WITHOUT DISPARAGING HER. AND IT WOULD BE GREAT IF YOU COULD OPPOSE HILLARY'S CANDIDACY WITHOUT HATIN'.

ANYWAY, BRING SMACK LIKE THAT AROUND HERE AND YOU GET DELETED EVERY TIME.

BY THE WAY. WHY ARE WE SHOUTING?

LisaRenee said...

Glass City Gal, has a name and she is tired of men assuming that trying to have a rational, adult conversation about sexsim or racism means that she's a Hillary fanatic.

My point is similar to Jill's, if it was just Jill stating she found this cover to be a clear example of misogyny it would be one thing, then it would be a matter of her individual threshold being different. However...many women and a few men saw it exactly as Jill did. Not all of them Hillary supporters by the way which is an important fact that seems to have been missed in the attempt to just brush off the concerns as being ones by Clinton supporters.

That was my main motivation for jumping into this was it's more than just about Jill, that was being lost. I did not expect things to get to the point where I'd be harrassed by email or have to ban/delete posts.

Just as we can't seem to talk about race, it appears we can't talk about sexism either. Until we can move beyond the "me syndrome" of stopping to reflect on how others are perceiving something and truly question our own impressions to see if it is possible to discover where the truth really lies, we'll be exactly as we are right now. With both sides discounting each other...

Anonymous said...

While I have seen it mentioned that men may have a different point of view on this than a woman, I think it is rather disingenuous to state that the only counter to your argument was:"You're a man so your arguments don't count."

Also, I never read anyone refusing to acknowledge that there are dangers to overusing the label of misogyny. And, I don't get your need to cling to the word sexism but so steadfastly refuse the word misogyny. If you want to call the cover Sexist, fine by me. I am glad we both agree the cover photo is sexist.

Now, your example that Hillary is actually "ruthless" that's why she is portrayed as ruthless. Ruthless is a pretty powerful word. How do you know she is actually ruthless? Have you had personal interactions with her? or are you just going by what someone else told you? Maybe someone who thought it might make for a better story to play up a stereotype? We don't know any of these candidates personally, we know Barack and Hillary as well as we know Brad and Angelina. We don't know anything really. We take the press at their word and we all know their word isn't that good.

To review the controversy, TNR ran a photo of a manic looking Hillary with large type "The Voices In Her Head" I did not read the article but if those two things together do not imply mental illness (hysteria) I am not sure what does. There are plenty of photos of Hillary looking normal and often darn presidential. So, I think it would be easy to find a better photo to illustrate what you believe was the magazines intentions without being so disrespectful. Heck, I bet one of TNRs snazzy caracitures would have been perfect. TNR was looking for shock value and controversy. They wanted to push buttons.

You apparently have read the article and believe the only thing going on here is TNR saying "Hillary can't run a campaign". While I believe you that Hillary seems to suck at campaigning, I do not believe that is the only message being sent. I think the message also includes the undertone that powerful women are crazy - which isn't so far removed from "don't vote for her she's crazy!"

Yes, we need to be careful how labels are applied but that doesn't mean don't apply them. The only time I remember anyone in the press mentioning sexism was the "cleavage comment" that Hillary received early in the campaign. Obviously, there is more to sexism than cleavage.(but cleavage is an obvious one) Many believe there are aspects of misogyny in this cover, the fact that you so steadfastly refuse to be open minded about that is troubling. Instead of yelling out "you are wrong", why don't you try to understand the people who feel that way. In the end, The real issue isn't whether the cover is or isn't misogynistic, that cover is over and done, the issue is how do we move forward together.

To be fair, I believe women would be offended by this photo no matter what serious women was featured in that pose with those headlines. The fact that it is Hillary is a sidenote. So, when you speak of the political arena, I really don't know what to tell you. I'd be just as irritated if they did this to the woman who wrote Harry Potter or the one who divorced Paul McCartney. You might be able to convince me it was okay to do to Britney. But only because she does appear to have been officially diagnosed mentally ill. Of course, then I would tell you they were exploiting the sick.

Pho, Jill and Lisa, thanks for creating on darn good dialogue about such an important topic.