Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Tina Brown's Daily Beast, which a few weeks ago gave us Elaine Lafferty's article "Sarah Palin's a Brainiac," now brings on Daphne Merkin to tell us that a political process that led us to give 18 million primary votes to a female presidential candidate and 58 million general-election votes to a ticket with a female VP candidate actually made us more sexist:

The Sexism Revival

Now that the election is over and racism is ostensibly down for the count, has sexism gotten a new dispensation? Has the "unlikability" (not to mention "unfuckability") of Hillary not only cost her the presidential nomination but brought out the streak of misogyny that runs deep in American culture, affecting the way men think about women and the way women think about themselves?

And what about Sarah Palin, the breeding babe who has emerged as a comely figure of fun with seemingly not a mote of self-doubt in her constitution? Has she furthered men's natural instinct to write off women as light entertainment, chattering nitwits with a shaky hold on the hard facts, and also triggered the self-hatred mechanism in the women who refused to go along with her as a "you can have it all" representation of how far feminism had come? (Legs! Clothes! Family! Career!)

Once again, it seems to be OK to talk about women as risible in their aspirations to leadership....

Is that what we're doing? "Talk[ing] about women as risible in their aspirations to leadership"? Is that why we're waiting with bated breath to learn whether Hillary Clinton is going to be the next secretary of state?

But see, that's not a good thing for women -- as Merkin explains, "Hillary Clinton had recently been demoted from presidential contender to possible secretary of state -- a move that once again positions her as ready and willing to serve rather than to command." The SoS job isn't a plum -- it's an insult! Obama may as well have asked her to iron his shirt!

As for Palin, Merkin goes on to say that "it seems to be OK ... for men openly to dismiss women as social and intellectual equals, the better to focus on how they rate in the all-important looks department." What's wrong with this assessment? Just the fact that the people who were obsessed with Palin's looks, who went on and on and on about her "hotness," are the people who voted for her. The rest of us just thought she was a nasty, ill-informed, unqualified McCarthyite -- Joe the Plumber without a penis. (I've never met anyone who thinks Hillary Clinton is unqualified to be president.)

The ire directed at Hillary Clinton is a complex stew, of which sexism is a significant part. Much of the rest of it, though, is aimed at her as a Clinton. People take pleasure in spotting and mocking the easily mockable attributes of celebrities, in identifying their vulnerabilities, and the Clintons are nothing if not celebrities. Right now, for instance, we're talking about "the drama," and about the Clintons -- both Clintons -- as exasperating prolongers of drama. The issue is not, as Merkin would have it, Hillary's "cankles" or "the reductionist male gaze."

Merkin alludes to a poll conducted for the Daily Beast by ... um, Penn, Schoen and Berland (yes, Mark Penn's firm), which seems to suggest that sexism decided the election (and not, oh, say, blunders by certain key figures in a certain Democratic candidate's campaign):

The poll ... clearly documents what most casual observers identified as relatively favorable press treatment for male candidates like Obama and Biden versus an "anything goes" approach against the women running for office. In fact, the poll ... shows sweeping skepticism about how women are viewed culturally, politically and in the workplace. Though women did not vote in large enough numbers for Sarah Palin's side to prevail, they remain convinced she was not treated fairly by the media, and judged her treatment far harsher than even what Hillary Clinton received.

Here's the thing: women did vote in large enough numbers -- they just didn't vote for Palin and her running mate. Merkin's essay suggests that this is self-hate -- "the Stockholm Syndrome rather than Steadfast Sisterhood" -- as if there's no possible reason (er, abortion?) that a woman might choose not to vote for Sarah Palin, and as if a Clinton vote was mandatory for women.

Hillary was mocked in many ways, some of them sexist. I suppose there was sexism in the characterization of Palin, although she was a sex object primarily to her voter base. But how widespread is the sexism in the public discussion of Condi Rice, say, or Madeleine Albright? Are they figures of fun? Is it all mockery out there for women?

Look, Clinton nearly won the whole thing. And 1988 tells us that, in a different kind of year, Palin might have been on a winning ticket -- I'm sorry, but a man happens to be the nearest analogue to Palin, except that Dan Quayle didn't inspire a rabid cult in the process of inspiring mockery in the rest of the country. The existence of widespread sexism, like the existence of the widespread belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim and a socialist and an America-hater, is a barrier to victory, but a surmountable one. These women didn't make it this year. They might another time, and if they don't, others will.

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