May 14, 2008

The presidential election and masculinity

Posted in gender, gender stereotypes, patriarchy, sexual politics, U.S. politics at 11:30 am by LB

Stephen Ducat’s recent Huff-Po article, “Revenge of the Wimp Factor: The Ironies of Proving Manhood in the Democratic Primary” is a fascinating read. He starts off with a very accessible summary of psychoanalytic theory on the phallus as a central organizing term of utmost importance and value, while actually being illusory.

In terms of elections, Ducat says:

In spite of being an evanescent hallucination, political consultants spend much of their time trying to paint a phallus on their candidate. […] In most electoral contests, the question is often “who’s the man?” And the manner in which political manhood gets displayed is tiresomely predictable: macho chest beating, posing with the fetish objects of anxious masculinity (trucks, big machines, and even bigger weapons), humiliating your opponent with castrating insults, calling into question his or her ability to be tough, ruthless, and merciless with the designated enemy of the moment — in short, phallic strutting.

He continues by showing how Sen. Clinton has made herself into the archetypal procurer of the phallus and all it represents, a representation that began by conservatives when she was First Lady, who also represented Pres. Clinton as feminized and emasculated.   These representations were negatives for  Clinton-as-First Lady, but as used by her campaign as positives.

Ducat makes the important point:

Some may ask a very reasonable feminist question that could challenge this argument: why must toughness, Machiavellianism, combativeness, or even swaggering bellicosity be viewed as masculine? They certainly needn’t. But it is, as we have seen, Hillary Clinton herself, along with her surrogates, who have explicitly gendered those traits in the campaign. As the oleaginous Clinton loyalist, James Carville, has said, if Mrs. Clinton gave Obama one of her testicles, “they’d both have two.” (emphasis mine)

I think this is an excellent point, and refers to the very limiting patriarchal constructions of masculinity and of civic competence specifically.   One thing I’m wondering is if her phallic posturing is in part a response to the media’s sexist approach to her being a female candidate (see Shakeville’s series, currently on part 91), on top of the phallic seeming-requirement in politics and a way to avoid “the link American men have always made between effeminacy and aristocratic manners and privilege.”

Then there’s the representation of Sen. Obama:

More recently, we have the example of Barack Obama, the black candidate raised by a poor single mother, being called an “elitist” because of his grace, equanimity, intellect, dismal bowling performance, and reluctance to completely inhale his Philly cheese-steak. This, along with his willingness to negotiate with enemies, we are told, should lead us to question whether he’s man enough to be commander in chief […] Barack Obama stands in stark contrast to the attitude of the Clinton campaign. His guiding political ethos has always been one of bridging but not overlooking divisions, while privileging dialogue, debate, and negotiation over conquest. This is not only a new politics. It is a new masculinity, one that is inclusive of those panhuman qualities previously disowned and projected onto women.

And isn’t that a version of political and civic leadership that could provide space for women’s participation and challenge traditional masculinity while also producing a politics that’s more respectful and just, decent?

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