Bitch. Whore. Stupid. Hot. Disabled. Shrill. Mean Girl. Hag. Diva. Ice Queen. Slut.
The midterm elections of 2010 brought back a familiar rage and sick, queasy feeling as I watched women on both sides of the aisle being devalued with sexist diatribes. The hateful rhetoric that defined much of the 2008 presidential campaign was not an anomaly. When debating the merits of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy detractors could no longer say, “I don’t mind electing a woman – just not that woman.” Such a phrase was nonsense after all. Plenty of women seem somehow to be that woman. Though not seeking political office, even Michelle Obama did not escape. Once called angry and emasculating, she now tills a victory garden in designer jeans and Lanvin sneakers. Sarah Palin, derided as reactionary and “disabled,” seems a terrifying prospect to the left and even some on the right.
But none can compete with the twenty years of skewering Hillary Clinton has endured. In 2008, the breathtaking atmosphere surrounding Hillary and Obama’s first solo debate captured the imagination and hopes of millions, but my joy in watching a qualified woman vie for the presidency was marred by newsmen and pundits calling Hillary Clinton a hellish housewife, Nurse Ratched, she-devil and bitch.
Not content to take the word of the pundit class on Hillary’s character, I sought the reality under the damaging “divisive and polarizing” label that had long haunted her. Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments and tireless work ethic proved that she was not the harridan of pundits’ fantasies. I ignored my scattershot but steady career as an actor to work on Hillary’s campaign. That career was nothing fancy but I’d made a living in the business for many years. The only calling I have ever had or loved became an inconvenient distraction.
Did I want Hillary to win because she was a woman? No. Did I want her to win because I thought she had the best chops for the job? Yes. She was my candidate. But the long knives were out for Hillary, the media bias appalling. Her party turned a deaf ear and stood by as her policies were misrepresented, her character maligned, her womanhood degraded. The net result was to make me work harder.
Through my passion for Hillary’s candidacy, I evolved from actor and fearful news junkie to determined campaign grunt and citizen pundit. If you told me I would immerse myself in this effort, become a blog writer for the first time in my life, build a following on various political websites under the name “Ani” and write a book on the subject that I am currently working to get published, I would have said you were potzo.
In 2008, my reluctant odyssey into the world of politics forced me to examine the way women are treated in a post-feminist world. Especially women with high aims and hard heads. I questioned the bias against women in authority, the limitations women placed on themselves, my own preconceptions about party, my choice of career, and even some of my friendships.
The fever of that campaign is still with me for one reason only — as a society, we have learned nothing. We still practice the same behavior.
Speaking out on the internet, I raised my volume well past my comfort level. At the time, hiding my real name felt like a necessity. While I didn’t want my politics to interfere with my work as an actor, far more worrisome were the threats leveled at some of Hillary’s supporters. One friend received internet death threats. Another had someone vandalize her garage door painting “Hillary hag” on it for having a Hillary lawn sign in her yard. I read that a woman with a small Hillary sign in her car window was followed by a man in another car for blocks. When the man caught up with her, he screamed, “You can put up all the signs you want. That bitch will never be president.”
In a hostile atmosphere, so many of us whispered our support, as if it was somehow something to be ashamed of. Female columnists, even those touting Hillary’s qualifications often couched their commentary in cynicism, almost as a protective mechanism lest they be accused of being too soft for believing in her. Yet indulgent coverage of her opponent was not only common, but encouraged.
Woman have long been shamed for their sexuality, for being outspoken, for asserting themselves. Shirley Chisholm, who ran for president in 1972 said, “Tremendous amounts of talent are being lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt” and “My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn’t always discuss for reasons of political expediency.”
I no longer wish to hide. I want my name back.
As a blogger keeping my identity confidential, some readers on the internet who stood in firm support of my commentary trashed the profession they had no idea I had been part of for many years. Some of their statements repeated the bad rap Hollywood has long held: actors are vacuous, phony, amoral, and don’t know what they are talking about. To say that someone who lives in Hollywood is a brainless, lefty loony who hates America is just as unfair and baseless as saying those who live in red states are backward, uninformed hillbillies. These labels stop us from having a meaningful debate about much of anything. The behavior profits no one but politicians and special interests that pit us against one another, using our fears to fill their coffers, trotting out the same hot button issues every couple of years, never really intending to advance any cause beyond Election Day.
The stereotyping I witnessed, not only toward actors, but toward any and all defined groups, made clear how easy it was and is to practice contempt prior to examination. I felt a growing need to expand beyond my own circle, pushing back against those who would use demagoguery to keep otherwise likeminded people divided. I no longer trust labels or those doing the labeling.
Women are pitted against one another constantly in this same divide and conquer scenario. Yet Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin refused to have the catfight the media was aching to cover. Instead, both women took care to discuss each other in respectful terms. If women on the left and right could ever reach a truce on reproductive rights, the guys would never win another election until they stopped condescending to 52% of the population as one-issue voters.
The elections of 2008 and 2010 also instilled in me a deep need to understand where all the pent up hatred was coming from and why it was so easy to curse women for, well, being women.
Victoria Woodhull was a successful entrepreneur and activist who ran for President in 1872, almost 50 years before woman had the right to vote. The type of press coverage she received was not dissimilar to the tiresome focus on Hillary’s ankles, “cackle,” pantsuits and vocal quality. Kneecapping a woman with poisonous derision was an age-old practice simply refreshed with new verbiage in 2008.
In the early days of the presidential campaign, the Washington Post offered a story about “Hillary’s dip into new neckline territory”: “There wasn’t an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable.” This tidbit was picked up by news outlets and pundits from here to Australia . Senator Clinton was discovered in her incriminating ensemble as she stood on the floor of the Senate discussing the burdensome cost of higher education. Her wardrobe had once again trumped her issue.
In February of 2009, the stock market had just lost half its value, two wars continued abroad, we had inaugurated a new president, and Congress was about to pass the $787 billion stimulus bill. CBS, along with other news networks, were wondering…”Will CNN, “Jessica Simpson spoke out in her first interview since getting slammed for putting on a few pounds.” A preposterous amount of attention was focused on this woman’s waistline. In the midst of numerous crises, we were offered bread and circuses.’s Curves Hurt Her Career.” On
In 2010, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was referred to as “the Senate’s hottest member” by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Was that better or worse than Massachusetts Senate candidate Martha Coakley being referred to as an “ice queen?”
If the objectification of women was not endemic to our culture, it would find no quarter with the American people and those practicing it would have to find something else to talk about. We, too, are part of the problem. We are daily reminded what the feminine ideal should be via airbrushed and otherwise “enhanced” images of beautiful women who grace magazine covers. It is also clear how easily any woman can be the target for humiliating treatment if for whatever reason, she does not match up to that ideal, physically, socially or politically.
A woman’s appearance can be used against her via demeaning images in novelty stores, airports, greeting cards, television ads and magazines. There is no escape: Hillary nutcrackers, Hillary’s head sticking out of a toilet. Hillary as dominatrix dolls. Hillary toilet paper. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews displayed a photo of Hillary with horns coming out of her head on his show. Imagine the backlash had he made President Obama the target of such treatment.
To complement David Letterman’s references to Sarah Palin’s “slutty flight attendant look,” there were Sarah Palin orifice-accessible blow up dolls and ‘naughty Sarah’ action figures. Photographs were manipulated on the internet. The naked Sarah Palin and the naked VP Dick Cheney having sex, her legs up over his shoulders, was the nadir.
Ridicule. A woman’s sexuality is abused as a weapon to demean and humiliate. It would appear the thinking is, “If I can screw it, I can own it.”
One of the worst weapons is laughter. We are encouraged to listen to an endless litany of put downs with good humor and complain about none of it. Yet over time, it must have an effect on the way society sees women and the way women see themselves.
“They fined CBS a million dollars for Janet Jackson’s nipple.
Just think what they could get for Hillary Clinton’s c_nt.”
–Bill Maher, HBO, “Real Time with Bill Maher”
Today, female candidates on average receive 40% less coverage on the issues and 350% more coverage about their appearance than their male counterparts. Calling a woman a whore is an old tactic and still an effective one. That more women candidates are facing these attacks head on doesn’t render them any more acceptable.
Nicky Haley just elected the first female Governor of South Carolina overcame a phony sex scandal to win office. Current research indicates women do much better when they fight back rather than bear such accusations in silence. When women run, they tend to win almost as much as men do – but many don’t want to throw their hats into the ring if focus on appearance or character assassination will trump issues and qualifications.
Now that the midterm “shellacking” is done, media speculation has once again turned to both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin – will either or both of them run? If so, when? And does another vicious, sexist hazing await?
The majority of the pundit class and newscasters have exhibited a disturbing unwillingness to discuss an issue that shows little sign of dissipating. While looking away now may be the more comfortable choice, sweeping this issue under the rug ensures an encore of the same behavior the next time a woman dares step to the plate.
Born into a family where abuse to women was the norm, I am more sensitive to the warning signs. My beautiful and tireless mother was devalued and shamed to devastating effect so that my father could maintain superiority in our home. There is a personal, profound cost to each of us as similar types of assaults continue to unfold on a national level. Until that personal cost and innate bias is acknowledged, examined and debated, little will change.
Will we arrive at the point where misogyny’s tool kit loses its power to manipulate? For all our sakes, qualifications and policy positions had best trump branding, stagecraft or a focus on ankle size. I look forward to the day when considerations of race, gender or age will neither advantage nor disadvantage someone who has the courage to stand for our country and represent our interests.