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Wednesday, 6 February 2008

On Using Feminine Cultural Advantage

Via Echidne, we find a superb piece of wrong-headedness -- or quite possibly concern-trolling, as Echidne points out -- from Andrew Sullivan:
There were also, of course, the now famous New Hampshire tears - to evoke sympathy. And the blunt appeal on gender grounds alone. And the refusal to disavow the use of her husband for her own political purposes, even as he told lies and cast racist aspersions about her opponent. And, on the eve of Super Tuesday, the tears again. Can you imagine a male politician breaking down in public the day before a crucial vote - and expecting it to help?

It's time feminists realized that Clinton is a dream gone sour.
I find it hard to choose between the two big democratic candidates, but my innermost leanings are probably for Obama. So you should not consider this a specifically pro-Clinton post. Rather, I'd like to weigh in on the feminist questions raised by Sullivan's piece. There are lots of things wrong with the view that Sullivan puts across, but I want to focus on just one particularly silly bit:
Can you imagine a male politician breaking down in public the day before a crucial vote - and expecting it to help?
Excuse me? The main reason a male politician can't do that is because we have this construct known as masculinity. What it means is that men are restricted in the sorts of emotions they can show while still having people's respect. This aspect of masculinity is not sensible. It is not helpful. Women should not be aiming to be restricted by it! Is Sullivan trying to complain because women have this advantage in that we can use emotion in ways that men can't?

Well, it's true. The ability to show emotion and have people react sympathetically rather than scornfully is a cultural advantage that women have over men. And Clinton should have no more qualms over using it than a male politician should over using, say, a tough-guy image to try to attract votes. That is to say, it's silly image politics, but it happens all the time. Why should it be more wrong to use a feminine cultural advantage? Masculine ones are used every day and nobody blinks. And if the aim is to try to even the playing field, that doesn't mean that women should always try to conform to masculine methods of gaining respect.

In actual fact, a tough-guy male politician is helping to restrict men far more than Clinton's willingness to use the occasional sniffle could restrict women. Clinton cannot afford to be feminine all the time -- hence the 'robot' accusations prior to her show of emotion -- so she can't really be said to be subscribing to a narrow view of what women should be allowed to do just because she shows emotion occasionally. Whereas the tough-guy male politician is reinforcing a restrictive gender construct down the line.

If Clinton was always playing feminine and implying that her worth depended thereon, or if she were obviously implying that her husband's skill matters more than hers, well, that would be anti-feminist. But she isn't. She's blending masculinity and femininity in what I consider to be a rather impressive fashion, actually. This is the way we ought to go, being willing to claim the traditionally masculine without subscribing to the notion that anything we gain from femininity is worthless. The ability to give emotion -- not in an uncontrolled fashion but in a calculatedly honest fashion when the situation requires it -- strikes me as a worthy part of a politician's skill set.

And if men want in on the softer emotions, you should jolly well organise your own damn movement. Because until then, we're going to go on aiming to have it all right under your noses, and if you're not brave enough to stand up for your own, similar right, that's your fault.


Alon Levy said...

First things first: there's no such thing as concern trolling. It's a term invented by liberal bloggers who can't possibly fathom how their rhetoric and tactics might turn people off.

As for Sullivan's article, it's just punditry. The pollsters got New Hampshire's Democratic primary all wrong, so the pundits latched to whatever explanation would make people read their columns. The only thing worse than mainstream political pundits is off-mainstream political pundits.

C. L. Hanson said...

My gut-level reaction is that I can't stand how the American political scene has descended into this cynical pit where politicians are praised on their skills with superficial positioning. I know you probably don't read the Mormon blogs, but when people who disagree with Mitt were praising his strategic abilities for cleverly getting free airtime for his "faith" speech and for pandering just right, I was about to tear my hair out. And I feel exactly the same way watching the Democrats -- who naturally should be the winners this time -- at each other's throats deconstructing women vs. blacks trivia.

Maybe analyzing such questions will be fun when it's all over, but I feel like other questions (such as war record, etc.) should take center stage for the moment.

Alon Levy said...

Well, part of it is that Obama isn't running an issue-based campaign; he's running a campaign that's about his campaign, just like Dean in 2004. Policy-wise, he's practically the same as Clinton. His health plan is slightly more conservative, but it's not as if Clinton is advocating single-payer health care. So of course he's going to employ character attacks. It's the same with Clinton, who has no problem using character assassination against political enemies, and on top of it seems to think everyone to her right is conspiring against her.

The pundits like writing about things other than controversial issues; it's easier to maintain readership when you don't have to take a position on Iran or health care reform or immigration. But it's not as if Clinton and Obama are giving them a lot of issue-based stories to write about to begin with.

Anonymous said...

Alon, there most certainly is such a thing as concern trolling. Watch any conservative pundit, on TV or the internet, and you'll soon see it in action: lifelong Republicans who offer advice to Democrats on what votes would "help" them and how they can keep themselves from appearing "extremist" (invariably, this involves knuckling under to conservatives' demands).

Getting back to the original topic, it's obvious that there is a double standard, and though Hillary's learned to play to it somewhat, it still tends to shade how she's depicted in the media. Typically, she's a robotic "ice queen" until she shows the slightest hint of emotion, which inevitably gets her marked as "hysterical". Slacktivist, a few weeks back, linked to a political cartoon in which Hillary is depicted as giving in to terrorist leaders because she was suffering from a bout of PMS. As he pointed out, one can only assume that this cartoonist is disturbingly ignorant of human psychology if he thinks this would still be happening to a woman in her 60s.

Alon Levy said...

Some do. Some Democrats tell Republicans how to act to avoid being extreme. Read any liberal pundit on how bad it is that Republicans aren't following the small-government ideals of Goldwater if you don't believe me.

Anonymous said...

"Can you imagine a male politician breaking down in public the day before a crucial vote - and expecting it to help?"


I do not know the full context this quote was delivered in, but shouldn't it be mentioned that this is just another example of veiled patriarchalism? Underneath or behind the quote, it appears that Ms. Clinton is faulted for not behaving like a man.

bell hooks said that "silence is often seen as the sexist 'right speech of womanhood'--the sign of woman's submission to patriarchal authority." When women break that silence, especially strong ones, they are criticised. The kicker is that they can never satisfy the critics: they are either "robotic," too tough as if they are overcompensating, or criticised for being too feminine. The fix is in...

The goal of feminism as I was trained was not that women should be men (heaven forbid), but that they should be women with equality.


Unknown said...

Very nice post, Lynet. The whole idea that a woman can't lead as a woman, but must become more masculine is sickening.

Lynet said...


I'm not sure if "concern trolling" is a useful term or not, but I will certainly agree that it is often used to dismiss people who have honest reasons for saying "I'd like to be part of your movement but . . ."

I don't think that's what is happening with Andrew Sullivan, though.

Quixote: I do not know the full context this quote was delivered in, but shouldn't it be mentioned that this is just another example of veiled patriarchalism?

Case in point. It could very well be veiled patriarchalism. It's presented as advice to feminists, though, so if it were veiled deliberate patriarchalism, it would be the very definition of concern-trolling.

I suspect, however, that Sullivan believes what he is saying and that it is veiled inadvertant patriarchalism. He probably doesn't care enough about feminism to really think through the implications.

Feminism is diverse enough that I can't dismiss a statement that claims to be feminist just because it doesn't agree with the conclusion I would come to. I have to argue against it from a feminist standpoint, instead.

Q: The goal of feminism as I was trained was not that women should be men (heaven forbid), but that they should be women with equality.

See, most feminists would agree with that statement, but you'd find us arguing over what it means to be a "woman with equality". Liberal feminists would definitely be concerned that "women should be women with equality" might be taken to mean "women should act feminine -- but still have equality". On the other hand, some very radical feminists would agree entirely that women should act in ways that radical feminists see as womanly and not allow themselves to be tainted by the masculine 'poison'.

As a relatively liberal feminist, it seems to me that the most sensible solution is to fight at both ends: try to reduce the stigma attached to certain types of behaviours that are seen as 'feminine' and try to reduce the stigma on women 'acting like men'.

L.L. Barkat said...

Very well put. I do think she has to show a feminine side; there are those who would condemn her for being too hard. And let's remember that she isn't the first politician to show a few tears. To my recollection, Bush has done that and so has B Clinton. And I'm sure there are more!

Needless to say, my vote will ultimately not depend on such fleeting moments in the spotlight.