Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sexism In Politics

At The American Conservative, Leon Hadar is dismissive of sexism in politics:
The New York Times is continuing to focus our attention on the charges of sexism that Hillary [Clinton] and its supporters have leveled against the media, quoting a leader of one woman group making it clear to America’s misogynists that “We’re certainly not going to take this lying down”.

Now…can anyone imagine the husband of a leading American female political figure winning political office by running on the coattails of his wife? Or is it conceivable that this man could win the support of the public, and especially that of male voters, by exploiting the sympathy he could receive after it was discovered that his wife had cheated on him with a younger man? Mmm. . . I don’t think so. Such a man would probably be ridiculed by men and women alike as a “loser” and a “girlie” man.
I think there is no question but that there were some appalling displays of sexism during the primary campaign. I also don't think it affected the outcome of the Democratic primary. But that doesn't mean it's somehow unreasonable to take note of it, and to regret that it occurred.

But perhaps more to the point, in attacking Clinton's supporters for raising the issue of sexism, Hadar illustrates their point. He sees it as somehow within the rules of the game to make sexist attacks on women, because a man who complained of similar treatement would be seen as a "'girlie' man" - that is, they're compared, unfavorably, to women.
No one is really shocked when men who run for political office - especially for the job of the US president who is also the nation’s commander-in-chief - are judged by their leadership qualities that tend to be associated with male attributes: strength; toughness; potency; charisma; ability to play political hardball.
And that somehow makes it defensible to define the qualities associated with womanhood (or "girlie man-hood") as evidence of weakness, prissiness, or inability to lead? Should I even have to explain this? There is simply no comparison between a form of "sexism" that asserts certain gender traits as positive with bona fide sexism that asserts certain gender traits as negative. The tendency to paint men who fail to meet this measure of "strength; toughness; potency; charisma; ability to play political hardball" as "girlie men" itself is a manifestation of sexism.
It goes with the territory of dirty politics. Male and female candidates don’t win brownie points by playing the role of the victim. No one expects that a male politician losing an erlection would accuse his opponents and the media of sexism or “anti-manism”. That would sound as either pathetic or ridiculous, or both.
And we delve even deeper into the absurd. It may be unfair to hold up a caricature of manhood (Hadar points to "military figures or football players" as doing well in politics, but sneers at male models, apparently forgetting that behind the action figure facade Gov. Schwarzenegger has more in common with the latter than with the former) as an ideal, but it's not anti-male to depict masculinity as a positive. Of course it would sound absurd if somebody deemed this to be "sexist" against men - and Hadar already told us what the response would be: The complainer would be deemed "a 'loser' and a 'girlie' man."

This hints at one of the peculiarities of the election. Even though it is widely assumed that racism played a role in some primary outcomes (with polls in some states showing a substantial population of voters who aren't comfortable voting for Obama due to his race), under present societal mores public figures and media figures are on the whole cautious about saying anything that would be construed as racism. While many are similarly circumspect about making statements that could be construed as sexist, there have been some surprising candor in the expression of sexism toward Clinton. A candidate can make a reasonably substantiated accusation of racism without being falling into Hadar's "girlie-man" archetype.

Hadar suggests that complaints about Clinton such as "She only got where she is because she was married to Bill Clinton", or "She wouldn't have stood a chance if people didn't feel sorry for her because of Bill's cheating", aren't sexism, because we would view a man who attempted to obtain office on similar terms as being weak, feminine and unsuitable for office. But sexism is not a defense of sexism. The woman may not suffer the same stigmatization as a man, because she's a woman and the assertions against her fit within predefined gender roles. It's okay for a woman to be a woman - but it's not okay for a man to be like a woman. Hadar may be right that a man cannot publicly complain of that, but there can be no missing that attempts to depict political opponents as weak and effeminate are a big and continuing part of politics. And under this model, being "like a woman" is a huge negative. Even if the target is a man, that's a manifestation of sexism against women.

Which brings us back to the current election campaign.
Had Mrs. Clinton been the candidate, she would no doubt have faced more attacks for being too mannishly abrasive or, conversely, too emotional to play the manly role. But Mr. Obama should expect similar damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t gender assaults. He will be cast either as the epicene metrosexual who can’t protect the country or else as the modern heathen with a suspicious middle name.

The attacks are already under way, as is evident if one enters the words “Obama” and “effeminate” into a search engine. The effeminacy canard lurks in Mike Huckabee’s imaginings of Mr. Obama tripping off a chair and diving for the floor when confronted by a gunman, and in the words of Tucker Bounds, Mr. McCain’s campaign spokesman, who depicted Mr. Obama as “hysterical.”

News media blatherers and bloggers are taking up the theme. On MSNBC, Tucker Carlson called Mr. Obama “kind of a wuss”; Joe Scarborough, the morning TV talk show host, dubbed Mr. Obama’s bowling style “prissy” and declared, “Americans want their president, if it’s a man, to be a real man”; and Don Imus, the radio host, never one to be outdone in the sexual slur department, dubbed Mr. Obama a “sissy boy.”
And on it goes.


  1. Tucker Carlson called somebody a wuss?

  2. This is... special. Note, however, that the party did not make the pin and denies knowledge that it was available for sale by a vendor.


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