Wednesday, January 09, 2008

a race between the Others

The Times columnist David Aaronovitch set up the Democrats' primacy battle as 'a race between the black man and the woman', concluding that America is 'more misogynist than racist'. It has been almost impossible - at least for me - to ignore this (what seems to me) obvious term of reference, but I'd decided not to comment on it before as I wasn't sure how simple the apparently polarised set-up really was, and for fear of sounding too much like I'm mongering for a 'victim culture' argument.

But as BBC Radio 4 brought it up themselves, as of course Aaronovitch has in his column, I felt justified in having thought about the situation in the same way. Is there is a genuine debate to be had on it?

I had definitely noticed ways in which Hillary Clinton's sex is drawn attention to - the ways in which she is measured for supposed levels of 'femininity' - or what 'kind' of woman she is - and criticized for showing too much or too little emotion - (because for some reason the level of emotion shown by a woman is notable, in a way it's rarely even mentioned in relation to male candidates competing for positions of power - Condoleeza Rice is another at whom criticisms concerning 'emotion' are levelled, not to mention crude allusions to her sex/sexuality).

Who Hillary Clinton is as a woman seems to matter more than who Barack Obama is as a man, and she is satirized with her sex as the root of the satire in a way that Obama's colour or race could (quite rightly!) never ever be satirized.

In other words, in today's society it's completely unacceptable to mock a person's ethnicity, but it's still perfectly acceptable to mock a person's sex. The favourite comparitive image for women aspiring to positions of power is the 'Ice Queen' or the 'Ice Witch' (of Narnia fame!), and Clinton has been no exception. Another Times columnist described Clinton's reaction to watching votes slip away from her to be like 'the Ice Queen watching winter melt into spring'!

Personally, I'm very tired of this analogy. Indeed, it's a very tired analogy! But if it's not an allusion to witches or bitches, some other similar analogy would be drawn up in its place, because the problem is within social psychology: the psychology that unconsciously aligns women with 'unfemininity' and even 'badness' or 'evil' if they in any way deviate from socialized secondary positions of submission to men. In the psychology of women as well as men, power = male, and so if a woman displays characteristics of, or aspirations towards, power, she strikes a discord in our psyches:- she doesn't make sense, there must be something wrong with her.

I only had to click on the 4th link listed after googling 'Hillary Clinton' to find something which commented on her gender and her presentation as a woman, above any discussion about her suitability as a primacy candidate. Click on the pic:

As Aaronovitch says, the qualities of self-control and authority that a woman needs to demonstrate in order to be considered as a serious candidate for a position of power are exactly the qualities that she will be criticized for, and label her 'unfeminine'.

This paradox of positioning - that she cannot win if she doesn't show her ability to be assertive and strong, and yet if she does, she risks being disliked for her show of supposed 'unfeminine' characteristics and so will probably not win that way either - reveal how virtually impossible it is for a woman to reach that very top spot. No doubt at all that Obama has to overcome racist prejudice to win his position, but he does not embody a political paradox the way Clinton does.

Despite my belief that both misogyny and racism are obstacles in the way of both men and women reaching positions of power, in this particular debate even I am a bit wary: that a female candidate and black male candidate are now the two front-runners for the Democrats' leadership can only reflect positively on American society. This whole situation is unprecedented, and whoever wins will have made history. Also, it would be extremely unfair, not to mention ridiculous, to polarize and divide everybody up into racists if they vote for Clinton and sexists if they vote for Obama! And this was what kept me from mentioning it until now. But nevertheless, having a race for power between a black male representative and a white female representative does effectively illustrate the psychology behind the ways we choose our figures of leadership, and this alone, however much the prejudices are exaggerated, is a useful window into societal behaviours.

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