07 September 2008

Palin and Clinton, or A Celebration of Binaries

I was just reading Adreinne Rich's "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision" and came across this gem of a sentence: "But even in reading these women I was looking in them for the same things I had found in the poetry of men, because I wanted women poets to be the equals of men, and to be equal was still confused with sounding the same."

Of course it got me to thinking about Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, and the view of women in/and politics. My wife and I were talking about this and she said the thought there were 2 routes to a top executive position in the US: you can either be tougher (read: "manly") than anyone else, or you can be so feminine that no opponents put the smack down on you--or they wait until too late to do so. This second approach is in some ways the more suave, nuanced, elegant (read: "feminine") route; it recognizes (implicitly or explicitly) the idea of femininity and motherhood in the US and exploits that. Clinton and Palin are distinct examples of this (...maybe. I bet women who were heavily involved or invested in Clinton's campaign would disagree with some of the generalizations I'm going to make, but they're not average Americans, at least in this sense).

Clinton was treated like a man for most of the campaign; there was some talk of her gender, but when it did come up, it had usually been raised by a conservative pundit to take a swipe and one of their favorite targets.

There are two things this picture tells me: 1) Photoshop was invented by the Devil, and 2) Clinton scares the hell out of some men and has been slapping the shit out of their notions of manhood. Throughout the campaign, "toughness" was either explicitly conflated with "manly" or it was implied when the word was used. My wife is tough, and I don't mean that in a gendered way. Ma Joad was tough in any gendered way. It's pretty obvious that Clinton is tough, but there wasn't enough "femininity" presented to appease some Americans. Her daughter began to introduce her, and she started talking about her mom more, but only at the end. At the end of the day, I think a lot of Americans (even some whom I love very dearly) don't like her because she's too "manly." She does the things that are still sometimes considered the arena of men.

So, then, you may wonder why the conservative folk love their Palin. By the rationale I just presented, one would expect conservatives to reject Palin for overreaching. Of course not, and to see that as a pat conservative response would be to miscast many, many conservatives. It's not that they want to keep women in the home and keep them tied down by the apron strings. Instead, it's all about how women venture into male-dominated arenas. Clinton fought her way in. She got perhaps a better education than did her husband (and definitely a better one than Palin, no offense U of Idaho...and Hawaii Pacific U...and North Idaho College...and Matanuska-Sustina College), she jumped right into a man's world and really made her own way. Then she got elected on her own merits (and, probably, last name) to the Senate. Then she declared her presidential campaign. Palin, on the other hand, was invited to the party. To my mind, that's a big difference in the minds of many conservative voters.

Palin started, of all places, in the PTA. (Psssst, that means she's a great mom, and every mom should feel empowered to be a VP nominee or at least mayor. If gender's not such a big deal, why doesn't every kid raised by single-parents get to be President? Why don't all war-heroes get automatic seats in the legislative branch?) She followed the "acceptable" avenues to power for women whereas Clinton seems to have travelled the other one...the one most men use. Mostly, it comes down to the pant-suits. Clinton didn't look or act like many conservatives thought a woman should--no matter what her politics or ideas. Palin is disarming, helping the Republicans accept her with that spoonful of sugar of skirts and hockey-mom-hood. She acts like a mom and a woman first and a politician second. Clinton acted like a politician first and a woman second.

So there's your gendered binaries for women in positions of power in the US. It works along the same lines as the binaries appended to male candidates. President Bush, Sr. was unfairly called a "wimp," Dukakis looked like an effite fool in that tank, and it's probably only a matter of time before the charges of elitism and intellectualism on Obama morph into the same sort of thing. That's one side: the not-tough-enough side (which is usually code for "not-manly"). The other side is McCain war-hero, T.R. rugged individualism toughness. Reagan touched on it with the big talk during the Cold War, and Bush, Jr. often projects it with brush-clearing and sabre-rattling. The sides are rarely gendered because there was no need for them to be. It was (and mostly still is) a boy's club, so there was no reason to explicitly equate the "wimps" with feminine traits and tough guys with masculine ones. Now that women have entered the upper echelons of government in a big way, things will start being more and more gender-oriented.

The real question, I guess, remains: which of the two women--Palin or Clinton--are confusing being equal with men to sounding and acting like men (or as men want them to)? That one I do not have an answer to.

UPDATE: I am a genius, I tells ya. The LA Times started talking about this very thing on 09.11.08.

UPDATE2: I really am a genius. The SNL opening from 09.13.08:

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