Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"A woman schlemiel".

In light of Singapore's imminent general elections this year, and the ugliness of sexist dissections people feel entitled to enact upon candidates (e.g. Tin Pei Ling), I thought it'd be timely to share some passages from the Rebecca Traister's Big Girls Don't Cry (an interview with the author), which discusses the sexism and misogyny faced by vice- and presidential candidates - Sarah Palin and Hillary Rodham Clinton, respectively - in the 2008 United States elections.

Breaking from writing conventions, I'm just going to paste the relevant passages without comment or leads. This all seems quite self-explanatory:
It's not that male politicians escaped related evaluation (based on looks) ... The scrutiny was much more intense for Clinton, because women value is intrinsically tied to desirability and attractiveness .... For those who supported her had to downplay her feminine attributes lest she be diminished by objectification. For those who hated her the goal was to humiliate her, and at the same time affirm that she held no alluring power over them. As Shirley Chisholm said decades before, "One distressing thing is the way men react to women who assert their equality: their ultimate weapon is to call them unfeminine. They think she is anti-male; they even whisper that she's probably a lesbian..." (pp76-77)

These points of recognition (of sexism) were about identifying with a certain strain of ill treatment, something feminists are loath to do lest they be accused of capitalising on victimhood. But feminism was born precisely because women faced gendered injustices. To identify and overcome obstacles and resistance was to advance the project of female empowerment ... To see a woman get taunted for being simultaneously frigid and lachrymose and then get teased for her smarts was not to ascribe to her inherently feminine qualities of frigidity, sentimentality, or unsociability. Rather it was to witness femininity as it has historically been cast, especially when it threatened male power structures: as a laughable, silly, unpleasant, or devalued condition. Women had watched a popular version of Hillary Clinton, a front-running candidate with whom they may have had a complicated or cool relationship but whose strengths, weaknesses, achievements, and mistakes had never been traditional or one-dimensional, manipulated to fit into retro molds of lightweight (peevish, unpopular, calculating, shrill) feminine illegitimacy. In a cartoon drawn by Pat Oliphant in the days after New Hampshire a bubbling Clinton is shown at a desk, facing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Osama bin Laden, Lim Jong Il and other menacing men murmuring "Aww, she's sensitive--I had no idea"; "Was it something we said?"; and "Buy her flowers." A thought bubble above Hillary's head reads, "You guys are mean!" and in the corner, a miniature Bill remarks, "This is when PMS goes nuclear." In the face of plenty of good reasons to criticise Hillary Clinton, women now realized that for some it still came down to this: the same twisted characterizations used for centuries to bolster the idea that women were unfit to lead. (pp104-106)

Letters to left-leaning publications and blogs bubbled with enmity toward Clinton. As Katha Pollitt wrote, "Vats of sexist nastiness splattered across the Comments section of hundreds of blogs and websites. It's as if every obscene phone caller and every exhibitionist in America decided to become an amateur political pundit." ... The trouble was that because everyone was liberal and officially down with female empowerment, that many women who couldn't cite actual uses of the words bitch or cunt found themselves troubled by their inability to specify the sexism they sensed. "I don't think anyone in my (progressive) peer group ... would be comfortable saying, 'I'm not ready for a woman president,'" said Alex Seggerman, a twenty-four-year-old art history Ph.D. student. Seggerman was an Obama voter but noticed people making remarks like "She's had plastic surgery" or "Her attitude is off-putting," which she heard as "expressions of some deeper issues with the fact that she is a woman." People can always come up with reasons they don't like the candidate they're not supporting," said Dana Lossia, the Obama-supporting labor lawyer. "But no one disliked Joe Biden or Chris Dodd as much as they dislike Hillary." She's never heard her friends say anything explicit: "[They never say] anything where I could say, 'That's a sexist comment.' It's just that I can't understand why they hate her so much."

It was a contemporary iteration of Betty Friedan's problem that had no name, a maddening cycle of vague hunches and self-righteous denials that left many of us feeling as though we were going insane. Even (Jessica) Valenti was disoriented by it; she was particularly hamstrung because, as she pointed out, she made her living identifying sexism. "You'd think I'd be able to find an example," she said, adding, "Because it's not [always] explicit sexism, it makes it impossible to argue with people, because if you say something, then you're the wackadoo feminist." (pp169-170)

The liberalish radio host Ed Schultz, who had said on air that (Sarah) Palin set off a "bimbo alert", who asked, in conversation with Larry King and Republican Susan Molinari, "What kind of mother is she? Is she prepared to be the vice president? Is she going to be totally focused on the issues?" The Washington Post's Sally Quinn asked if Palin was "prepared for the all-consuming nature of the job ... Her first priority has to be her children. When the phone rings at three in the morning and one of her children is really sick what choice will she make?"

... The feminist writer and lawyer Susan Estrich weighed in, remarking, "No one would be asking these questions if she were a man. No one asked whether Arnold Schwarzenegger should run for governor because he has four children ... This is how the double standard works ... I have no doubt that Barack Obama can count on his fingers the number of times he has been home in the last 19 months to put his two beautiful daughters to bed ... Does this make him a 'bad father'? Should it undercut his claim to the presidency? Of course not?" (pp233-234)

[Palin] was a bad vice-presidential candidate, like bad vice-presidential candidates before her, and her communications team had allowed a prank caller to get through. She was ill-prepared and inarticulate, and her chattiness about how much she liked Sarkozy's model wife, Carla Bruni, was cringey. But progress takes all sorts, and in the pantheon of political leadership there has been thousands of craven, ill-intentioned, pompous, and stupid men. There was no rule that said that in order to make history Palin had to be a decent, honest politician, nor that she was a rocket scientist. Were we to envision true equality in politics, it would involve as many Sarah Palins as it would Hillary Clintons. As Bella Abzug had said, "[The goal is not to see a] female Einstein become an assistant professor. We want a woman schlemiel to get promoted as quickly as a male schlemiel." (p280)
And just to be clear, this farm also attributes sexism as the cause for the imbalance of attention spent between demolishing Tin's political aspiration and other candidates. Head over to Weekday Blues' post to find out why.

When you say or do something sexist and/or misogynistic towards one person, man or woman, you do it to everyone else because you remind us, the everyone else, that we are supposed to have a restrictive place in life too. Don't try to make this them versus us; exceptionalising the hated as someone deserving of discriminatory and violent scorn, then especialising everyone else as different from the pack, like as if we're supposed to feel good about your not being directly bigoted towards us. Oh, looky, Brownie cookies for us! We have your favour and approval. How lovely!

Though the real beauty of exceptionalising it is that it muddles it for us. Makes it difficult for us to call you out, because people don't like to be associated with the scorn, and then be scorned too. Especially not when a large group of people are the culprits of it. Especially not when we least expect our immediate network best friends, greatly admired people, closest of family members, or supposedly most progressive of internet blogs--all of whom supposed to protect and stand with us from all this grotesque discrimination--be the ones promulgating this bullshit.

Don't kid yourself, there's no us and there's no them in social injustices. It hurts every-fucking-one.

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