Friday, August 03, 2007

Obama, Ambition, and Misogyny

Hidden among such trivial stories as Rove's absolute immunity from everything, Gonzales' 'confusing' testimony, and the Sunni withdrawal from the Iraqi government was this week's greatest bombshell: Brack Obama, it turns out, is ambitious.

One might reasonably point out that anybody who runs for president is 'ambitious' by definition, but for some reason this never keeps it from being 'news'.

Shakespeare's Sister argues that compared to Flightsuit Boy's lackadaisical recklessness, Obama's ambition is a positive attribute--an attribute that also goes by the name of 'seriousness'. I agree...but my semi-snarky comment was that it's only a positive attribute for those who have the most basic qualification for the presidency--that is, being a Republican--and for anyone else it's a negative.

Semi-snarky, yes, but the more I think about it the less snarky it seems. I don't need to link to any 'ambitious Hillary' stories; we all known them pretty much by heart ("Her pre-school playmates recall her saying that someday she would be First Lady for eight years, then Senator from New York, and eventually President"). Gore got it too, and so did Kerry--especially Kerry. For all of them it was a negative--because they're Democrats.

But there's something more than just knee-jerk disdain for the Democratic party going on here. I think the more salient point is that the Republicans have succeeded (with the help of a complaisant press corps) in defining the Democrats as the Girly Party. Hence, ambition in Democrats is inherently a negative; a trait (such as ambition) that in men is considered admirable (or, in fact, mandatory) is unseemly in women. Stories like this one about Obama (or the savaging of Kerry in 2004) are a product of misogyny, even when they're about men, because it is the 'feminine' nature of the party that makes ambition undesirable. Yes, Hillary Clinton is dealing with a whole level of obstacles, of misogynist attitudes and assumptions, that no male candidate has to deal with (or, in all likelihood, can ever understand). At the same time, in a broader sense, they're all Hillary.

The further implication of this is that to the extent that negative stereotypes of Democrats are gender-related, it is futile to try to defeat them by playing against type. 'Toughness' (or more precisely, machismo), even when it is genuine (as in, say, a Vietnam war hero), is naturally seen as phony because it cuts against the visceral perception of Democrats as 'feminine'; meanwhile, even a whiny little coward like Bush has no trouble looking 'tough' because he's a guy in the Guy Party. Democrats are doomed to inauthenticity, while Republicans (however phony) are 'comfortable in their skin'.

I wish I had an answer to this; I don't. I do think it's essential to understand the dynamic, though, if we're to have any hope of overcoming it.

[Cross-posted at If I Ran the Zoo]

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