When I wrote about the debate Saturday night, there were pretty much two responses in comments: "Ugh, you like Hillary?" and "Yay, you like Hillary!" I'll say now as I said then, that it's a long primary season. I'm not sure for whom I'll vote in my primary that won't mean a hill of beans, and it's still very, very early for anyone to have made up her mind in an absolute and irrevocable way. But do I respect Hillary Clinton? Yes. Do I think that people (liberals, conservatives, men, women, pundits, whatever) who seem to think that they can take gender out of the equation when they evaluate her her are foolish? Yes. And so that's why I'm writing this post. Not because I "like" Hillary or because I am in some way endorsing her, but because I want to talk about gender and power in this country, and I want to talk about it in relation to what I've noticed about the coverage of "Hillary" (Not Clinton, not Senator Clinton, just Hillary, sort of like Madonna or that Fergalicious Fergie) and my thoughts as I prepare to teach for the first time in the coming semester a class on feminist theory.
"Message, Not Gender, Turns Voters Off Clinton"
Or so said a Reuters article as recently as yesterday, and so said David Gregory on the Tim Russert show on MSNBC on Sunday.
(Speaking of gender and power, notice the next time you're glancing at the 24-hour news channels and the pundit shows how many pundits are men. And then notice how many of the people slogging away at the various campaign headquarters are women. And then ask yourself why it is that it takes Gloria Steinem to ask why sex isn't taken as seriously as a barrier to achievement, only the very next day to have Maureen Dowd say that Hillary came off in her victory speech last night like "the heroine of a Lifetime movie." If only Gloria Steinem is allowed to utter the F-word - feminism - in this country, like a blast to the second-wave past, and if everybody else is supposed to be somehow "beyond" taking gender seriously, or if by not taking gender seriously as a barrier it somehow proves that we are more sophisticated, and unlike those philistines who would be compelled by heroines of Lifetime movies, I suppose, well, that to me indicates exactly how insidious the impact of gender continues to be. But I digress.)
The thing that's difficult about discussing gender in the context of Hillary Clinton's candidacy is that if one admits that gender influences the way that we evaluate her, it can seem as if we're trying to make it a contest between gender and race as indexes of electability. That one is somehow more important or more of a detriment than the other. That one would be more "history-making." So the way that the conversation seems to be framed is that sex/gender are being taken off the table, at least as something to be discussed concretely or with any sort of specificity, while race remains on the table, with Barack Obama signifying just how far we've come as a nation and giving us cause for self-congratulation.
But I would argue that it's impossible for sex/gender really to be off the table in our evaluation of Clinton. If it were off the table, hecklers wouldn't have yelled "Iron my shirt!" at Clinton. I wouldn't have seen a bumper sticker last spring that declared, "Women belong in the house - Not the White House" with an unflattering picture of Clinton. (I looked for an image of this on google, but couldn't find one. I did however, find these, which make the point pretty well. Indeed, bitches do love Hillary.) So when I get the message that sex/gender aren't actually in play when voters choose to support Clinton or not, I am skeptical. Ultimately, by taking sex/gender off the table, all it does is validate sexist and misogynistic resistances against her, ones to which we all are susceptible (men and women alike) because ultimately, and I know this will shock you, our culture continues to be patriarchal.
Let's take, for example, the continued charges against Clinton that she is a "polarizing" figure.
I've been troubled by the emphasis on this for a while now. First of all, I find it troubling because we elected a "uniter, not a divider" in 2000, and look where that got us. Even when I disagree with Clinton, I've got to say, I don't mind terribly that "uniting" the country isn't the first thing on her agenda. Perhaps I'm a pragmatist, but I'm more interested in what a candidate will do about real life issues like the economy first and only in a secondary way does their ability to make me have a warm and fuzzy feeling about my country being united matter. I feel like if some of the fucked up things about our country are fixed then unity will follow. How we can talk about unity without the fucked up things having been addressed, well, I'm not entirely sure.
But aside from that, it strikes me that the attachment of the word "polarizing," with all its negative connotations, becomes even more negative because Clinton is a woman. Let's go back to Women's Studies 101 for a moment. What qualities are associated with femininity? Nurturing. Compassion. Reconciliation. Passivity. An emphasis on "feelings" over ideas. And the list goes on. Women are supposed to be more about being relational - to keep the homefires burning and all that. Now, if a woman is "polarizing," what does that translate into, given the cultural baggage that weighs down the figure of Woman? Well, friends, it translates into something like, "Hillary is a ball-breaking bitch who doesn't know her place." To my mind, we can talk about a few other candidates on the ballots this primary season as "polarizing" - Mike Huckabee, anyone? Rudy Giuliani? God, even John McCain - but we don't. The media doesn't. Because, at the end of the day, we don't expect the same things of men that we expect of women. And if a man does talk about "uniting' the country, he's not evaluated negatively for that "vision" but rather he's seen as having a "vision" whereas, I suspect although I could be wrong, that if such were a female candidate's emphasis that she would be seen as *lacking* in vision because she'd be performing within the bounds of prescribed femininity, which equates with weakness. In other words, when it comes to the whole "polarizing" thing, I think a woman candidate is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. Just as she's damned if she does "tear up" and damned if she doesn't convey to voters that she has "real" emotions.
So what does all of this have to do with my thoughts as I prepare to teach feminist theory?
Well, the students whom I will teach for the most part fall into that "generation of younger voters" who, by all reports and from my own conversations with students, are attracted by Barack Obama. They, for the most part, fall into a generation that is reluctant to self-identify with the term "feminist." Moreover, they come from a region in which the term "feminazi" still comes up in conversation (indeed, it's a real flashback to 1992 here in that regard) and has even come up on a few choice student evaluations of mine. In other words, I teach students who come from fairly conservative backgrounds who at the same time are compelled by the idea of radical change.
It strikes me as I finalize the syllabus for my course that I am incredibly invested in the idea of demonstrating the ways in which "feminism" continues to be a radical political position, even as it has in many respects been institutionalized by the academy. Even "theoretical feminism" (as opposed to a more activist, grass-roots sort of feminism), for me, constitutes a mode of inquiry and resistance that often is dismissed in contemporary conversations about power in our culture. For students who believe in a "You've come a long way, baby," Sex and the City style of feminism, for students who see women as having achieved equality with men (in spite of the fact that women still make around 76 cents on the dollar), I think it's important to highlight the ways in which sex and gender still inform our perceptions and choices in a culture that continues to position women as second-class citizens. I think it's important to have a language for talking about women and gender that moves beyond "she just turns me off." If Hillary Clinton turns my students off, I want for them to have a sense of *why* she does so and to be able to situate those reasons in the context of how women are perceived generally in our culture. I want them to see that sexist responses or attitudes aren't solely the territory of men, but rather that in a cultural context that is patriarchal, even women's responses to other women are shaped by sexist attitudes. I want them to see that it's not a contest about which group is more marginalized - African-Americans or women - but rather that both groups are marginalized in our culture and that even a vote for Hillary is a vote against the status quo, regardless of the political capital that she holds or some of her more conservative positions.
So will I vote for Hillary? I don't know. Will I have the chance to do so? For me, that is a more interesting question than many of the others that are asked about her candidacy.
4 years ago