Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Feminism Ultra-Lite

I read about Naomi Wolf's most recent missive from the feminism-is-elective school of thought on Amanda's wonderful blog, and I'm hereby declaring that I have stolen the topic from her.

Wolf has written an article about the many ways in which feminism and presidential campaigns interact. Or rather, the two ways that she sees them as interacting, and they are: 1. The Republicans have successfully stolen the feminist message. 2. Teresa Heinz Kerry is the deathknell for the Democratic campaign for presidency.

Naomi is famous for writing about the "beauty myth", and she is a bona fide feminist, or at least was one. But this particular article makes me wonder how elastic we can make the definition of a feminist before everything slips out and flips and flops all over the place. Though her points about Karen Hughes' impact on the Republican campaigning style are interesting:

So they devised a deliberate strategy that went unnoticed by Democratic strategists, most of whom are white guys over 50: to showcase a moderate, mainstream feminist makeover for the Bush brand. Everyone fell for it, including the press. Bush's speeches are routinely cast before the eye, I am convinced, of Karen Hughes, who spins tax cuts as a boon to women entrepreneurs, like the one Laura Bush mentioned in her convention speech (Carmella Chaifos, "the only woman to own a tow-truck company in all of Iowa"). The fallen heroes of Iraq are "moms and dads." Afghanistan was the first time U.S. troops were deployed for a feminist goal, "so Afghan girls could go to school."
Abortion is an issue not of Ms. Magazine–style fanaticism or suicidal Republican religious reaction, but a complex issue on which "good people can disagree." (W. mimicked his father's trick of catering to his religious base while leaking the fact that his wife is pro-choice.)
Look at the language. Starting in 2000, every Republican-male dinosaur on TV began to sound like Oprah. Suddenly they all used the words—sensitive, comfort (or comfortable), and appreciate. George Bush is "comfortable in his skin." Laura Bush and her husband want to "comfort" the bereaved families of dead soldiers. Republicans would speak of Bush as "sensitive" to the complexity of issues and as being someone "appreciative" of working moms. It worked frighteningly well: The words "changed the tone" of Washington Republicans from that of the losing old boys' club of 1992 and 1996.

Yes, this is interesting, but Wolf is wrong in arguing that this is co-opting feminism, unless feminism is redefined as something so lite, so diaphanous that it becomes meaningless. After all, beneath all these words the Republican approach to women's issues has been nothing short of an undeclared war against all uppity women. I think that Naomi is confusing PR with real beliefs here as well as in the whole article. Still, she does us a favor by pointing out the little bit of feminist rouge on the cheeks of George Bush.

Where I disagree more strongly with Wolf is in her discussion of Teresa Heinz Kerry's disastrous effect on Kerry's campaign. Here is what Wolf says about it:

The charges are sticking because of Teresa Heinz Kerry. Let's start with "Heinz." By retaining her dead husband's name—there is no genteel way to put this—she is publicly, subliminally cuckolding Kerry with the power of another man—a dead Republican man, at that. Add to that the fact that her first husband was (as she is herself now) vastly more wealthy than her second husband. Throw into all of this her penchant for black, a color that no woman wears in the heartland, and you have a recipe for just what Kerry is struggling with now: charges of elitism, unstable family relationships, and an unmanned candidate.

So it's all about images? Wearing black is elitist and makes men unmanned? I don't know. I would think that something a little more is required to unman someone. I would also think that Teresa might have kept her previous name because it is part of who she is and because she has children with that name. Removing the name you share with your children smacks of unstable family relationship in the image world, doesn't it?

And if Kerry's masculinity was so frail that it had to be preserved by turning Teresa into some sort of a billion dollar Taliban-wife, wouldn't that really give us an image the opposite of what was intended? Right now I think that Kerry is a man fully up to the challenge of being married to a woman who is powerful on her own right, opinionated and interesting. Passionate, even. Isn't that a good image, too?

Not according to Wolf. Wolf argues that though she's a feminist, the hard truth is that politicans become imagery for the rest of us and so do their wives or husbands. Teresa should act in ways that prop up John's alpha-male image, or even better, Teresa should be kept under wraps and Elizabeth Edwards brought out to go on Oprah and talk about "mom-messenger" things, because she's a good antidote to all the things that are wrong with Teresa Heinz Kerry.

This is a brand new type of feminism to me, if it's a real type. I don't think that it is, because Naomi would get into some difficulties with applying this double-think to cases where it is a woman running for office and her husband acting the role of the supportive spouse. The images that she wants to use would guarantee that no female candidate would ever be elected.

I understand the need to pretend in politics, and I even understand the need to hide certain ideologies from the conservative eyes of some voters. What I don't understand is why Wolf pretends that this has something to do with feminism or why 'feminism ultra-lite' is good for the Republicans but bad for the Democrats.