Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Politics in Pictures. A Feminist Essay.


Several picture games are being played about the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The first picture I saw (thanks to Ali for finding it again) is this one:

The second one (from Pharyngula) is this one:

A Fark comments thread has many, many more. They mostly share the same joke: While Obama and Biden are up-to-date, functioning and technically complex McCain is old, out-of-date and falling apart while Palin is a toy (preferably something girlish) or a joke and very stupid.

It's possible for me to see these images as a person who very much wants to see Obama/Biden win this race. That person finds many of the comparisons quite funny.

But if I put my feminazi glasses on and use their wider lenses to look at these pictures I notice something different: All these pictures let us laugh at a picture of a woman because she's stupid, a sex kitten, not to be taken seriously. They let us put up the pictures of three men and one woman and to always rate two of the men as the best and in most cases the woman as the worst of them all.

"Ah," you might be saying. "But Palin really is a disaster of disastrous proportions. That she just happens to be a woman is irrelevant." To which I answer: "So in your universe being a woman is irrelevant in politics? You must have lots of female politicians and very few misogynists."

The Firsts As The Best We Have

Well, in my universe female politicians are fairly rare. Indeed, Sarah Palin is the very first female Republican vice-presidential candidate ever! The very first!

It's useful at this point for you, my erudite and keen reader, to lean back, close your eyes and imagine that you are back in the pre-Palin era, in those halcyon days when no woman had ever been the Republican vice-presidential candidate. Which names might have cropped into your mind as possible female running mates for John McCain? Which Republican women had shown themselves to be experienced and skilled politicians, well equipped for the job? I'm sure that you can jot down a few names on that mental list, a mental list of possible "Firsts."

That's what I call the very first black or the very first woman or the very first Latino who enters some new field of endeavor. These Firsts are usually carefully picked. They are almost flawless individuals, because otherwise the prejudice people feel towards against anything new and untried, combined with racism and sexism and other such -isms many people also feel, otherwise those will tear the First into small shreds.

The first black and/or female students at elite universities were superbly talented individuals, often most carefully groomed for the jobs of being Firsts. Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player introduced into white professional baseball player was not just an excellent player; he had also attended UCLA and served as a second lieutenant in the army. His self-control was impeccable. That he was all this was not a random accident but a very careful choice by those who wanted to integrate professional baseball.

This is how the Firsts are usually chosen. Usually, but not in the case of Sarah Palin. Yet she IS the first Republican female vice-presidential candidate and this allows her to be viewed by the sexists among us as the best women can offer (or at least the best Republican women can offer). It allows the sexists among us to make fun of all women in the disguise of making fun of only Sarah Palin. And trying to differentiate between these two intentions is almost impossible.

Note that my post is not intended to denigrate Sarah Palin's qualifications. A country which has had eight years of George Bush and his qualifications and found them just fine shouldn't suddenly get all red-faced and furious about her qualifications or the lack of them. But Palin is not the kind of an individual who is picked to be the First in a new and important arena, certainly not if the intention is to have her break the path for other women to follow (always assuming that she'd let them). Yet there she is.

Back to the Pictures

Let's look at those pictures again, from that feminazi angle. Note how in the first one all the three men wear somber business suits and white shirts. They are all portrayed indoors, apparently giving speeches. Note how the one woman in the pictures is dressed very informally, even messily and portrayed in a non-professional outdoors setting. All this makes the point about Palin's lack of judgement and experience --- how? I believe that it's done by linking her to the archetypal images of women as belonging to the home, not the office.

The second picture compares each candidate to a different type of train engine. McCain's engine is an ancient one but Palin's isn't even a real engine. It's a toy. Her engine would never have actually moved by itself. It's not a train. It pretends to be a train. Just imagine how much fun those who look down on women in general have with that picture! And what freedom all this allows for the misogynists among us who also happen to be Democrats! On the other hand, some conservative misogynists must feel almost as unhappy with this setup as I do...

There you are. It's a mess, this situation, because however hard I wish it not to be the case Sarah Palin is seen both as a First Woman and also as an individual and it's not truly possible to criticize just the latter if the criticism is based on general sexism.

The Firsts As Invisible

The most common trick to get around this problem is to ignore the essential nature of some types of Firsts, to pretend that they are not happening at all. That way focusing on the individual seems valid and the criticism can be as nasty as you can make it be. Hillary Clinton was treated in this manner by many among the liberals and progressives. She was interpreted within the framework of Bill Clinton's reign, as a sneaky way of getting Bill back into the White House, as a representative of the old and stale in Washington, D.C., as hopelessly tainted by the hatred she elicits among the conservatives.

That she may or may not have been all this AND also the first woman ever to have a real chance at the U.S presidency somehow disappeared from sight. Indeed, the whole idea of a First Woman in any new arena was itself deemed as old hat, as something silly, given the existence of Nancy Pelosi (she should be enough for you wimmenfolk) or the success of girls at school or the yuckiness of tokenism in general. That children learning about the presidents or vice-presidents of the United States will not learn a single female name was unimportant, given the urgency of the problems of our time and the need to pick the best possible candidate. Besides, one day a woman will turn up, good enough and pure enough to qualify whatever the urgent problems of that time might be. In the meantime, the majority of Americans are still female.

Now, it could well be that Hillary Clinton wasn't the best possible candidate and that other matters than feminist concerns took precedence in the minds of the voters, especially given the First nature of Barack Obama, too. But still, Clinton was a First and her Firstness has not been celebrated the way it should have been. It has not been acknowledged the way it should have been: As path-breaking. And sadly, those who grieve for the respect that was never paid to a fallen First will not find support and understanding on the largest and most influential liberal and progressive blogs. Rather the opposite, and I believe the reason for that is the way we have made the Firstness of these women invisible, just as women and their concerns often turn invisible in various political discourses.


Not being "the other" has some great advantages. For instance, when John McCain or Joe Biden do something stupid they only affect their own reputations, because white men are not "the other". They are individuals. When Barack Obama or Sarah Palin do something stupid they affect the reputations of African-Americans or women respectively (at least among all racists and sexists). They serve as embodiments of the groups they represent. This is the case as long as Firsts are necessary, as long as we only have a handful of individuals on which to base our group assessments.

On some level most women, for example, know this. Thus, when I look at the pictures in this post I can see them as making fun of Sarah Palin but my stomach thinks differently. It suspects that the pictures also make fun of me.

Note that the dilemma this puts us in is not one with an easy or rapid solution. The obvious solution is to have enough politicians from all gender and race groups so that they all come across as just individuals. Then we can criticize them to our hearts' content without saying anything about the group they happen to come from. But that must await some future century.