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Clinton, Obama, sexism, feminism, etc


Fascinating piece at Salon from a couple days ago: "Hey, Obama boys: Back off already!", by Rebecca Traister.

The article mixes a bunch of stuff together, but the core thread running through it is the idea that a bunch of young women, many of whom are uninterested in feminism (by that name) and feel alienated by second-wave feminist voices, are getting upset about their male friends' visceral hatred of Hillary Clinton.

The article notes that there are lots of perfectly valid political reasons to dislike Clinton. But it suggests that although the anti-Clinton rhetoric is couched in political terms, there may be something else going on under the surface:

"Hillary Clinton is not an attractive personality for a lot of people," said [lawyer Becca] O'Brien [, a friend of the article's author], who noted that it's "very convenient that the same people who have a sense of discomfort with female authority they prefer not to examine" also object to her personality and record in specific terms, an antipathy they feel comfortable voicing. "What you get," said O'Brien, "is the energy of the first expressed in words of the second."

It's an interesting idea. I'm not sure I believe it as presented; but I think there may be some truth in it. I do see people (including some of y'all) exhibiting extremely strong gut-level anti-Clinton sentiment, but I'm always wary of leaping to the conclusion that such things are based on prejudice, even unconscious prejudice. I think it's too simplistic to say that anyone who feels that way about Clinton must be reacting out of misogyny or discomfort with female authority; people sometimes have strong reactions to other people. And yet, I do think (and this is hardly a new observation) that there are certain styles and approaches of female authority that a lot of people in our culture tend to be uncomfortable with. But to the degree to which that's true, I would argue that it's not so much a case of individuals being sexist or misogynist as of our society/culture having certain unfortunate ideas about how men and women should/can/do behave.

(I'm not talking about my own reactions to Clinton and Obama here 'cause I'm still trying to sort them out; I have some interesting and contradictory gut reactions to both of them, and I'm not sure where any of that comes from.)

Btw, I'd like to ask that y'all go read the article before commenting on it. It's a nuanced article, with some careful examination of some complex issues; the above is not a summary of the article, just a small excerpt from it.

(Um, but I do have to object to the article's author's use of the phrase "something dark and funky" in reference to an undercurrent in Obama supporters' attitudes. Was that really necessary? After all, "funky" is a term more often associated with a certain Clinton.)


You know, if she'd said "Hillary-haters, back off already," I would have been totally down with that.

But speaking as somebody who was a big Hillary fan back in the day, and who despite her Senate record had no strong opinion about either candidate as late as the Michigan primery, she's earned every last bitter drop of my newfound terminal irritation with her.

And I'm not particularly amused to be told by Ms. Traister that I'm merely "disguising... unsightly misogynistic blemishes." No, I'm damned well not, okay? I went to UCSC, I go to Wiscon, I know a misogynistic blemish when I see one. And I think all the people on my LJ friendslist who've been posting Obama videos do, too.

You want me to prove my feminist-ally credentials, Ms. Traister? Get Barbara Boxer to run for President.

(And now look what she did, she made me misspell "primary.")

That's a really good article, Jed. Thanks for linking to it.

(Speaking as someone on Dave's LJ friendlist who's been posting Obama videos)

These days, Obama is just about the only politician I can hear speak and *not* want to punch in the face, and Clinton has surely earned my antipathy, but there's no doubt in my mind that a lot of the popular hostility (including my own) toward her, or at least some of how it gets expressed, is affected by her gender.

Jed, you wrote "it's not so much a case of individuals being sexist or misogynist as of our society/culture having certain unfortunate ideas about how men and women should/can/do behave."

I'm not sure what the difference is--I don't mean that rhetorically, I may be missing something. But it seems to me that "being sexist" is very similar to disliking a person for behaving "wrongly" according to their gender, and I think that's what you're describing.

But it also seems to me that it's very hard for any of us to have ideas about Hillary Clinton that aren't colored by her history, and that history is all about what she's done and whether people thought a woman should do it. Whether we support her for it or resent her or think she's betrayed our support or just squandered a lot of political capital or fallen into the casual racism of the middle-class white women's feminist movement--we can't think about her unemcumbered, can we? I can't.

Related to Jessie's comment, I've been thinking lately about just how deeply the Hillary Clinton persona is loaded down with the baggage of her public history. That history has obviously been useful to her as a politician, but it also exacerbates some of the public-perception problems any female candidate would probably be facing. It's extra hard to differentiate Clinton's political life from her personal life, because she's spent so many years in the political spotlight being famous in a very gendered role as the supportive wife, rather than for her professional or other individual accomplishments. The role became even more personal because the whole world knew about Bill's affairs. And I think all of that makes her extra vulnerable to being viewed in personal, sexualized, and gendered terms.

I think this is tricky stuff. As Ms. Traister says, there is an “abundance of rational reasons to dislike [Sen.] Clinton”, and I think that most of the people who I talk to who have expressed such dislike have rational reasons for it. On the other hand, I think that a lot of dislike is instinctive, and a lot of the intensity of dislike is instinctive, and those instincts are shaped by culture. And culture is also shaped by celebrities, and Sen. Clinton is a celebrity.

For instance, a woman of my acquaintance told me that she just can’t stand that woman’s voice. Now, is that because her voice is awful? Or because people have been mocking her voice for sixteen years or more? That mockery got its power, largely, from misogynist aspects of our culture, and was largely perpetrated by misogynists. But I find her voice annoying, too. I didn’t vote for Sen. Clinton in the primary, and I certainly don’t think that the annoying voice aspect had anything to do with that decision, but would I have found her arguments more appealing if I found her voice more appealing, and would I have found her voice more appealing if she hadn’t been being mocked for a third of my life?

In addition... I have seen, dimly, some supporters of Sen. Obama expressing their frustration with Sen. Clinton’s campaign in terms that made me very uncomfortable. Even some liberal “high-information” voters seem to regress (if I can call it that) to unpleasant comparisons and personal attacks that derive their power for misogynist tropes. The sentiment Ms. Traister quotes Jessica Valenti as quoting (I’m not not voting for her because she’s a woman; I’m not voting for her because she’s a bitch!) was familiar to me.

On the other hand, I thought that the anecdote about Becca O’Brien was the most interesting. Here, simply the fact that a bunch of male friends called her to advise her to vote for the male candidate made her uncomfortable. It wasn’t a co-ordinated campaign, and each of those friends had made their decision for reasons of his own, but the result was one young woman being hectored by a bunch of men who felt that it was appropriate to advise her on her vote. Did they call their male friends? Did women call their male friends to advise them? Somehow, I suspect (based on stereotypes, because there wasn’t much actual reporting) that it was far more common for a man to call a woman to straighten her out than for a woman to call a man, and for that, I blame the patriarchy, don’t you?

So. Combine the comparative handful of men who individually make such women uncomfortable with the culturally-dictated situations that make such women uncomfortable, and you have young women who feel that their support for Sen. Obama may wind up supporting the patriarchy, even if such women are not used to blaming the patriarchy. Since I think that it’s in general a Good Thing for the patriarchy to be exposed and blamed, that’s not so bad. On the other hand as a man who voted for Sen. Obama, I don’t like being blamed. Ah, well.


From the article: "Were it her husband -– a man who has exhibited many of these same flaws (and more!) -– in the same place, he might or might not be trailing Obama, but it is hard to picture the kind of seething, violent animosity being flung at him."

Perhaps Ms. Traister is not acquainted with the seething animosity that was directed at Bill Clinton by all sorts of folks on the right for most of his presidency. The WSJ editorial board had a relentless, shrill, seething animosity towards Bill Clinton, and they were among the *friendliest* of the hard-right critics of President Clinton.

I won't soon forget my right-wing roommate in the mid-1990's who was trying to get his pal John (who was an WSJ editorial writer) to help him publish an opinion piece on privatization in the WSJ. On more than one occasion, John said, "Not now, Bill, we are trying to take down a president."

The bigger picture here is that many folks who have their knickers in a knot over the gender issues in this campaign are not focusing on the historical fact that politics in the US have essentially always been shaped by folks with extremely sharp elbows...who lie easily, throw each other in jail, and worse.

While I admit that gender bias may be playing a role here, I think it is far, far smaller role than Ms. Traister suggests. Brutal criticism and vitriolic personal attacks are practically a tradition in US politics, starting with the founding fathers.

In 1804, sitting VP Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. That, Ms. Traister, is what I would call "violent animosity."

While VP's not named Cheney generally don't shoot their acquaintances at close range anymore, brutal personal attacks are simply part of politics and I believe that attacks on Hillary are mostly about politics and personality, with perhaps a minor in misogyny.

Hillary's voice, hair, laugh, and admirable determination don't bother me a bit. What does bother me is her ability and willingness to lie--to paraphrase her ex-close friend David Geffen, all politicians lie; the Clintons just do it more and more easily than most. My visceral negative reaction to Hillary is actually based on something that matters...and that's the ease with which she lies. As an Obama supporter, I actually welcome Clinton staying in the race. Obama could use some additional toughening-up before his upcoming epic battle with McCain, and Hillary and her surrogates are providing just what the doctor ordered. Hillary is not destroying the party, she is making it stronger. Tough love.

Finally, here's a brutal quote about Hillary, (which I think is wrong on a couple counts but still thought-provoking), from Christopher Hitchens, via Peggy Noonan: "I end with a deadly, deadpan prediction from Christopher Hitchens. Hillary is the next president, he told radio’s Hugh Hewitt, because, “there’s something horrible and undefeatable about people who have no life except the worship of power...people who don’t want the meeting to end, the people who just are unstoppable, who only have one focus, no humanity, no character, nothing but the worship of money and power. They win in the end.” "

Thanks for all the comments.

I want to apologize for posting this, or at least for posting it the way that I did, and certainly for upsetting friends and family with it. I was in a rush, and I posted a quick entry that didn't really say what I wanted it to say, and I started regretting it almost immediately -- but once there were comments, I didn't feel like I could replace the entry with something saying "This was an ill-considered entry and I've taken it down." Perhaps I should have.

The thing that I'm specifically uncomfortable about, in both the article and (to some degree implicit in) my endorsement of the article (despite my disclaimers), is the notion that anyone who dislikes Clinton must secretly be A Sexist and/or A Misogynist. I don't even like that kind of statement, much less that specific one. While I was reading the article, I felt like it wasn't actually saying that per se, but by a few hours later, in my memory it felt like that was the main thrust of the article in a kind of hinting insinuating sort of way, and I felt bad for having pointed to it the way I did--in particular, I felt like by pointing to it I was accusing some of y'all (especially Jay, whose views on Clinton I knew) of being secretly sexist, which really wasn't my intent. I apologize for having done that.

To briefly reply to Jessie: I do think that there's a difference between saying "our culture as a whole leads most people to think about gender, and about women, in unfortunate ways" and saying "You--yes, you, the one in the blue shirt--are a dyed-in-the-wool unredeemed Sexist, and you are therefore bad, and wrong, and should be stopped, especially because all the rest of us are saintly and perfect." I feel like the article (despite the nuance and the interesting bits) was focusing primarily on accusations of sexism against a particular group of people, and I'm much more interested in focusing (not just in the Clinton issue, but in general) on the ways in which our society makes it very easy for everyone in it to think and behave in sexist ways.

Anyway. I specifically apologize to anyone who felt attacked by this article or by my posting it. I don't normally do that, and I'm unhappy that I did it in this case.

And thank y'all for nonetheless responding with thoughtful discussion. I haven't yet read through everyone's comments in detail, but I hope to soon.

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