Hils-steria: Displaced Corporeality and Fractured Feminine Identities

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

“The question is, How do you become a universal figure when you
represent movements that have claimed the right of equality for you in
your difference?” –Joan Scott (new window)

Surprise– this longest of presidential primaries in recent history, promises to continue making history, as will the eruptions of Hils-steria and Obamamania fueling the surrounding debate. Perhaps when everybody calms down, we can address the complexities of race and gender that have continually emerged, but never really seem to be confronted.

Obama’s speech on race was certainly important, but the subsequent media chatter did little more than ooh and ahh, which was appropriate, but perhaps lacking. I hoped for a bit more dialogue given the unprecedented occasion of a prominent political figure confronting race directly with a national audience.

I’m not sure we can really articulate the nature of ongoing shifts in such huge cultural phenomena, but this election is bringing up old themes that seem very connected to established notions of technological and intellectual paradigm shifts that are touching all of us.

We’ve seen the quick and dirty analyses of race and gender relative to candidates’ supporters, perhaps seeking to evaluate whether these labels are still relevant, noting how many black people do not support Obama, or women voters who do not endorse hillary. We’re often left with a rather clumsy execution of oversimplified identity politics that rely heavily on assumptions that gender and ethnicity are the main determining factors for most voters. This is a mechanistic understanding of identification which reduces complex, highly personal processes, to instrumental associations between embodied existence and activism.

As academics and citizens, we should be deeply skeptical of prescribed behaviors that undermine critical thought, especially given the importance of weighing options carefully in the context of political elections. This couldn’t be more relevant in the case of civil rights, given the importance of the political movements seeking equality, regardless of one’s embodiment, ie:race, opening up the realm of possibilities for people that have been marginalized according to the perceived limits of their physical being.

As a feminist planted firmly in the Obama camp since before he’d even pitched the first tent, I haven’t felt the least bit conflicted about choosing to bypass the first-ever, truly viable female presidential candidate.

Given my age and level of education, I fit the Obama demographic, regardless of my feminist leanings. But post-hoc explanations of a mere demographic correlation doesn’t suffice. But at this late stage, after you’re probably all tired of hearing about feminism and Hillary, I think it’s necessarry to examine feminist and antifeminist anxieties exhibited in the discourses of this campaign, and to explore the emergence of ObamaGirl feminists that Hillary feminists find so vexing.

I don’t think young women who consider themselves feminists, flock large-scale to support Obama because of age, class or education. And given the similarities between Senators Clinton and Obama on matters of policy, I doubt that’s the impetus. I also don’t think Obama’s marketing campaign explains the pattern, although I imagine it definitely plays a role, as do all the aforementioned factors.

A lot of women like me, self-described feminists with vivid memories of Hillary as first lady, might have voted for her if Obama wasn’t a factor. Upon direct comparison, young women seem to prefer Obama– and not in spite of feminist principles. For many young voters, the decision to support Obama draws heavily from feminism, to the chagrin of many Feminists who on their most generous day, see the choice as woefully misguided.

Senator Clinton is an impressive figure to say the least. She is clearly intelligent, talented, and incredibly strong. Hillary seems to embody the feminist movement, demonstrating how to do feminism throughout her lived experience, continually dismantling imposed notions of gender appropriate behavior. Senator Clinton attended law school at Yale when women comprised only 10% of the class. She took a position at a top Arkansas law firm, the first female attorney to ever join their ranks. Hillary was arguably the most politically active if not the most professionally visible first lady to inhabit the White House. No doubt about it, her list of accomplishments is long and her record of glass ceiling breaking is yet unfinished.

And for all of the attention garnered through her achievements, Hillary Rodham Clinton has endured extensive, scathing criticism. Political opponents have sought to exploit the unfortunate reality that gender can be a vulnerability for high profile women politicians. That gender bias influences how Hillary is perceived and represented, is undeniable.

Normative notions of femininity have clearly inspired undeserved and inappropriate criticism of Hillary as a politician and as a woman, encroaching well into the private sphere, prompting exploration and surveillance of matters respected as private for other politicians, especially men.

When media figures were prematurely dismissing Hillary’s candidacy, I didn’t suspect gender bias but rather, the general tendency of journalists to scandalize a topic by deliberately framing events to heighten conflict. When pundits and journalists set the Kill Hillary machine in motion, presuming the loss of the once inevitable frontrunner, it definitely got attention. I wondered why the sudden change.

When Chris Mathews and the lot of boys club journalists inappropriately chastised Clinton on completely irrelevant matters like the quality of her voice, her dress, repeatedly insulting her with derrogatory references, I recognized the deep sexism in their comments. But rather than feeling enraged or apalled, I thought to myself, "well that figures." When pundits and journalists went so far as to comment on Senator Clinton’s cleavage, I was disappointed, particularly by the missed opportunity to discuss the salient issue of how sexuality functions in representation of women political figures.

But those deplorable behaviors, so obviously rooted in gender bias, failed to cause any visceral reaction in me.

I think this was partly due to my personal assessment of Hillary Clinton as simply unlikeable, further amplified by her lack of linguistic grace compared to Obama, and Bill in his younger years. Whether seemingly neutral explanations of Hillary’s treatment are actually neutral is debatable. Insiduous gender bias affects all of us, often beneath the level of conscious thought. Hillary’s being "unlikeable" to many Americans is most certainly tied to her gender.

Failure to recognize sexism and engaging in rationalized denial of antifeminist bashing is one thing, particularly if you support the other candidate. But us self-described feminists couldn’t possibly flock to Obama because on some level, we also find Hillary’s supposedly transgressive, tough demeanor offensive– nah…. We’re liberal… "enlightened." We don’t hear that nagging shrillness in Hil’s voice that seems to drive Dobbs et al to near homicidal aggression. And if we do, it’s because her voice at times, let’s face it, can be shrill. Just like Dean’s auspicious scream was offputting to some and downright terrifying to others, like Al Gore’s manner of speaking was horribly dull, and Kerry’s seemed terse and haughty.

Moving beyond whether objections to voice quality might be justified, I can definitively say that I never noticed anything about the pantsuits that seemed to inexplicably perturb some commentators. Pantsuits go totally unnoticed by those of us focused on, I don’t know, policy? Lengthy pantsuit discourse is not productive, and functions to trivialize a female candidate’s position and undermine her credibility. Male condidates do encounter similar flack, but perhaps because of Hillary’s sheer novelty, talk of melon colored ready to wear sets and whether she likes diamonds or pearls seems horribly diminutive.

One might expect feminists to single out seemingly weak, submissive behaviors as insufficiently feminist, like allegations of using her husband’s political clout to attain success, or upholding patriarchal expectations that women must tolerate male infidelity. But it seems feminists largely don’t, not really anyhow, the reasons for which are probably complicated. Generally speaking, younger feminists don’t see Hillary as insufficiently feminist. Her impressive pioneer feminist report card probably renders such notions moot before the thought is allowed to formulate. If anything, it seems Hillary may have succeeded at achieving gender parity a little too well.

"Feminists for Obama" view Hillary as a divisive figure, which they see as not only unpalatable, but also antithetical to the implicit inclusivity of aspiring for equality. Like conservative antifeminists, liberal, Obamagirl feminists see Hillary’s approach as overly aggressive, resembling the negative, "stereotypically male," scorched-Earth political tactics established by the old white, male guard.

Paradoxically enough, it’s Hillary’s toughness that undermines her support among both feminists, and antifeminists.

Playing by the rules in a game designed by boys means that successful female candidates inevitably risk being subjected to contradictory judgement. This damned if you do/don’t is nothing new. Women seen as overbearing are threatening to traditionalists, while simultaneously criticized by some feminists for playing into patriarchy. This seems especially unfair on the part of progressives considering Hillary wouldn’t be in the race at all if she hadn’t observed those rules.

Some women acknowledge the treatment of Hillary as unfair. But nevertheless, perceptions of Obama as the true Change candidate, and his ability to unify rather than divide, is attractive to young people and young feminists.

Hillary feminists are characterized by the politics of our mothers’ feminism, if indeed your mother was a feminist. And a lot of Hillary fems assert that facile substitution of sociopolitical agendas demonstrated by Obama feminists, is just conflating feminism with a broader progressive agenda, risking dilution of the movement in a way that greatly diminishes its power.

I remain unfazed by Hillary’s allegedly unpleasant, shrill voice. I’m totally annoyed by the people who find the pantsuits inexplicably annoying, given the inanity of treating them as a valid point of analysis. Ditto for base, voyeuristic discussions assessing the potential our future President’s cleavage.

I was sorely disappointed by this coverage and by the petty, patently sexist remarks of Lou Dobbs, Chris Mathews, and various other male and female journalists. I didn’t bother watching the last debate after the fiasco that was the prior encounter.

But I wasn’t exactly outraged by all of this either.

My disregard for the obvious injustice in media portrayals of Hillary, mght be numbness towards a frustrating status quo. It may also be a deliberate choice to ignore the idiocy of the denizens in a media format already in rapid decline.

But my attitude, and my cynicism towards the inconsistencies in my position prompt me to consider whether characterizations of us unruly, unappreciative third wave esque, Obamagirl feminists– might be partially correct.

It’s probably true that we don’t appreciate or understand the struggles of pioneering women who came before us, who laid the groundwork for our comparatively liberated existence. We lack exposure to their circumstances, which diminishes our awareness of historical context and our sense of place in the evolutionary timeline. Furthermore, feminism has been fractured and contested for some time. That new feminists may not relate to the figures of the old school isn’t really that surpising.

What we can access in the dominant culture and how we engage these figures is definitely colored by the work of prior feminists. But are those hues so pale compared to our mothers’ vivid memories of these women, that we fail to establish a real sense of connection to these women? Is this why the sense of urgency that motivates taking strong, decisive action escapes me and apparently, many of our contemporaries?

I’m just not that pissed off. But I also don’t think I’m blind and/or numb. I get the sense it’s something else. If I may give myself and my kin so much credit, it seems an almost zen-like acceptance of where we’re at in this historical process of achieving true gender parity, and that Hillary is the warrior who has unfortunately born the brunt if this current inning.

But are we zen feminists too quick to dismiss the value of political acts of solidarity? Do we assume gender equality as a default because we haven’t experienced true prejudice? And is this ignorant bliss a blinded sense of false consciousness that prevents progress? Or perhaps on the other hand, does generational cycling achieve a cleansing of collective memory that ultimately allows advancement past rigid identity politics that establish solidarity, but also inspire divisions and mistrust of difference?

I think all of those questions might be more like statements acknowledging truth in the assertions of some older feminists. However, the tendencies of prior feminists to characterize our motivations as apathy, or lack of commitment to gender equality, is a value judgement that may hinge on invalid premises.

Our lack of urgency isn’t necessarrily rooted in complacency. What if our attitudes reflect a cultural shift away from old ways of understanding the world, including gender? We are cynical, and perhaps even jaded, but that may not mean we’re hopeless. Losing faith in established institutions that have proven hollow, like broadcast media, or military intevention, or the rule of law, may indicate something other than total cynicism.

It would be pretty senseless to rally the troops against the clownish behavior of media figures growing less relevant by the day. This may explain why we don’t acknowledge that Hillary’s mistreatment in mainstream media is so important. This isn’t because we don’t care or don’t recognize how opinion can be manufactured, but because we know that like so many things, it’s bogus, and it’s only a matter of time before its influence is relegated to nil. Information is exchanged more quickly every day, and the fleeting nature of ideas that propagate and penetrate according to ever quicker news cycles, becomes ever more apparent, even if not explicitly acknowledged by audience members.

Furthermore, the fundamental understanding of political solidarity, its importance, and how it’s established, are brought into question in this paradigm.
So ideas that one should leverage all else for the sake of solidarity might be really misguided.

Obama succeeded at capturing hearts and minds by utilizing technologies representative of this emerging paradigm shift marked by openness, negotiation, decentralized hierarchies, and reliance on virtuality and the information economy. Whereas Obama’s seems committed to abolishing the old hollow structures, Hillary is compelled to work within them, which younger voters don’t find satisfying.

That’s perhaps obvious enough. But are the seeming anomalies of Obama’s success over Hillary also explained within this framework of… Change?

For instance, in a world moving so quickly, characterized by turbulent structural change, dependent on massive transfer of information and the prevalence of mediated existence, perhaps Real World experience is becoming less valuable. Information economics continually undermine the concrete.

Not only do we fail to relate to the experience of our mothers and fathers, perhaps we are suspicious of its utility in this new context. In the case of the next president, might a dependence on old lessons actually hamper effective government, as the holdovers of institutions have been shown to do? In that case it seems only logical to choose the newcomer relative to the established dynasty.

Are we moving perpetually towards the abstract? This might explain why older voters find Obama’s tendency to stay within the philosophical realm and avoid discussing concrete details totally unnerving, while young people can truly relate. As Hillary’s sniper fire gaffe shows, alleged knowledge gleaned from lived experience may not be so reliable after all.

Do we value Obama’s intellect and authenticity over history and lived experience because the relevance of history is diminished? We can now access so much of recorded history in vast collections of catalogued, searchable data, including copious commentary from various sources. This access trumps the learning potential conferred by actual experience in many ways.

Is this another manifestation of disembodiment from the material?

This may also explain the tendency exhibited by older feminists, of clinging to gender difference, insisting in its universality, and maintaining that the goals of feminism cannot be met by substituting gender equality with the broader project of social equality.

One’s experience of gender is heavily tied to the material body. But as posited by constructionism, they are mutually constitutive, and intersected by relevant factors like socioeconomic positioning, ethnicity, geographic location, virtual engagement, etc.

Perhaps the importance of the material body is eroding all the more for emerging feminists. Abstracting gender inequality and recognizing its commonality with other forms of oppression doesn’t simply collapse various types of oppression in a reductivist way but rather, acknowledges the complexity of gender within a shifting matrix, punctuated by critical points of convergence that create meaning.

We have emerged within the context of highly mediated landscapes, with extensive access to virtual worlds, exposure to incredible amounts of information, in an increasingly smaller world where matter is overcome by communication. These profound changes must affect how we understand gender and ethnicity, in turn affecting our attitudes towards femininity and the feminist movement.

I completely disagree with the intergenerational feminist infighting that denies how strongly the goals of feminism relate to the broader progressive movement to promote equality. The importance of intersectionality in constituting women’s experience of gender was pioneered by feminists like bell hooks, pointing out that women of color experience their femininity differently from "white" women, a process influenced by other factors like culture and economics.

The way that multiple factors like ethnicity and social class combine and overlap in a particular woman’s experience is in some ways denied by insisting that we can dislodge the goals of feminism from the influence of other forms of injustice. So in a way, experience isn’t deemed irrelevant. But the notion that we are bound by commonalities like gender and we should be expected to relate to one another because of that, is undermined, which thereby undercuts how we value experience and perceived identification in our leaders.

The desire to separate feminist principles and privilege them over other progressive projects denies the importance of intersectionality, while also inviting unproductive comparisons of different forms of prejudice. Destructive ideological sparring about the importance of gender versus race is futile, based on a fundamentally flawed assumption that inequality is at all uniform within groups that are extremely diverse, like Women.

Conceiving of Women, or any historically marginalized group as a defined monolithic entity, reifies the same reductionist illogic that allows adoption and reproduction of overly broad prejudiced assumptions like stereotypes, which are central to normalizing and maintaining systems of oppression.

Attempting to discern the specific effects of gender bias, thinking that such an Lose Weight Exercise is even possible, implies that what it means to be a woman, a man, black, not black, etc, are defined, non-contingent features of human existence, which opens the door for categorization of individuals, including for the purposes of creating social hierarchies. In contrast, a more nuanced understanding of inequalities as rooted in the same basic logic, allows for understanding social categories of identity as constructed, mutable, complex, and constantly evolving.