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Can of worms

I've been avoiding posting about this topic for a lot of reasons. Mostly because I know it's a hornets' nest, and I really don't want anyone on my flist to think I'm attacking their beliefs. That's not my intention, I promise. But it's also an issue that's been bothering me, a lot, and something pushed me over today. So here goes.

(By the way, before I get into this, I want to put my cards on the table: I voted for Obama in the California primary. So this has got nothing to do with which candidate I support, and everything to do with patterns in our language and our society that bother me, a lot, regardless of the individual people involved.)

So, Hillary Clinton, and the increasing stridency of the calls for her to step down before the primary season is over. I understand the impulse. I even agree with some of the reasoning. But the language that people are using disturbs me more every day. Case in point: this post from Wil Wheaton's blog. Now, Wheaton is a blogger who I read semi-regularly and usually like and respect. In this post, he does two things. First, he quotes from a piece which refers to Clinton as the "psycho ex-girlfriend of the Democratic Party", and then he flatly rejects any criticism that the piece might be sexist: "I'm not sexist. This isn't sexist. That's a stupid straw man, and if you try to make that claim, I will point and laugh at you."

If Wil Wheaton feels the need to track me down in order to point and laugh at me, that's fine, but the fact is that the "psycho ex-girlfriend" line is sexist. I cringed the minute I read it, and nothing in the rest of the post convinced me that it was okay to stop cringing. The lone commenter who dissents says pretty much what I would like to say, and so I quote:

The metaphor evokes a trope in sexual politics, that of the irrational girl who cannot accept that a relationship is over. Labeling, categorizing, pigeon-holing someone in this way "he's a geek, she's a slut, he's a pig, she's cow" is at once appealing to a fragment of truth, and also making the target controllable.

If they are controllable, they are marginalizable. And they can be dismissed. The problem with controlling and dismissing Hillary using a trope from sexual politics is that it moves her from the realm of discourse and debate into the realm of sex (as in "getting it on"). And labeling her as batshit crazy in an ex-girlfriend sense means that she is not only sexualized, but her sexuality can be controlled.

And that's the heart and soul of sexism.

You said it, Backpacking Dad.

If this were an isolated incident, that would be one thing. But it's not. Sexist attitudes and language have shaped attitudes toward Hillary Clinton from the moment she appeared on the political scene. Shakesville, the feminist blog I read most often these days, has a feature called the Hillary Clinton Sexism Watch, and it's up to part eighty-nine. There are clear patterns. Promoted by people who should know better. And it will never stop unless people who recognize them stand up and say "No more."

One last point. Let's say that Clinton and Obama's roles are reversed: Clinton is leading, her lead narrow but with momentum on her side, and it's mathematically possible but increasingly unlikely that Obama will catch her. Would so many people be demanding that Obama drop out for the good of the party and to promote party unity? Maybe so. But even if they were, would anyone be calling Obama the "psycho ex-boyfriend of the Democratic Party"?

Finally, I can't even believe that I have to say this, but of course there has been racism involved in this campaign as well. It happens, and will continue to happen, and it's not any better than the sexism. But I don't think that calling out one form of discriminatory and offensive behavior invalidates any other.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 9th, 2008 11:56 am (UTC)
Huh. I think I interpreted that into "crazy ex-lover" from the very beginning, because I've had a crazy ex like that, and he was of the male variety, so it never occurred to me that was really sexist. It probably *would* have been better for the author to say "ex-lover" though. To me, it's her "win at any cost" attitude that prompted that post, and Obama hasn't acted like that, so there would be no basis.
May. 9th, 2008 03:57 pm (UTC)
No, Obama hasn't acted like that, but if he had, would we be speaking about him in the same terms? That was the point I was trying to make -- in an alternate universe, where Obama was pulling "win at any cost" tricks, no one would be pulling out gendered insults because "win at any cost" is behavior we expect from men. But when women do the same thing, suddenly it's unnatural/psycho/wrong. That's why I called sexism.
May. 9th, 2008 01:14 pm (UTC)
I was gonna send you this link today, but I'll just post here.
May. 9th, 2008 02:24 pm (UTC)
God. I couldn't even get thru that post, it made me so angry. And it's true, the sexism is all there, all out in the open, in the mainstream press. I'm sure theres a lot of racism out there in the right wing press, or there will be once Obama is the candidate, but that's not quite the same thing, and it's not accepted in the same way that denigrating women is.

If I have to find one good thing in this it's that Hillary's candidacy, and the reactions to it, have made us more aware of just how rampant sexism still is, and hopefully made us more willing to speak up and try to change the language and the attitudes.

I know that I;ve started speaking up... a couple of days ago I found myself yelling at a bunch of preeteen boys making lewd comments about a woman in a tanktop in the subway. They were shocked, but it made them stop and think. and shut up.
May. 9th, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
If I have to find one good thing in this it's that Hillary's candidacy, and the reactions to it, have made us more aware of just how rampant sexism still is, and hopefully made us more willing to speak up and try to change the language and the attitudes.

I agree. I think it's waking up a lot of people who were complacent before. Unfortunately, the people who need to hear it most are still pretty resistant to it (see: the Wil Wheaton disclaimer). But the more we speak up, the harder it is for them to ignore us.
May. 9th, 2008 04:35 pm (UTC)
Wow, that really underscores the ways in which casual racism is so much less acceptable in our society than casual sexism. Thanks for posting the link.
May. 9th, 2008 02:46 pm (UTC)
His comment was unforgivably sexist, and each and every one of the people defending him and nodding their heads is also sexist. The problem might be that he equates sexist comments with being sexist, period, instead of just the comment being sexist?

If he had said it without the disclaimer, I would've been like, "Wow, that's a pretty sexist comment!" When he added the note in order to protect the "hilarity" of his commentary, it took the comment to a much deeper level, which makes me think not only was the comment sexist, but that he, himself, is also pretty unapologetically sexist.

And an asshole.

This macro is appropriate:

May. 9th, 2008 04:56 pm (UTC)
The problem might be that he equates sexist comments with being sexist, period, instead of just the comment being sexist?

This is very often an issue. We've seen it over and over again in fandom, where someone says "you just said this really sexist/racist/homophobic thing", and the other person hears "you are sexist/racist/homophobic". When that's not the same thing at all. And sometimes I wonder if the mishearing isn't willful. It's certainly a great way to shut down discussion and avoid having to confront your own prejudices.

I totally agree about the disclaimer. That probably bothered me more than the comment itself. Who are you, Wil Wheaton, a white male celebrity (which is possibly the pinnacle of privilege in our society) to decide what is or is not sexist?

Edited at 2008-05-09 04:57 pm (UTC)
May. 9th, 2008 04:19 pm (UTC)
I agree completely. The language and the rhetoric used against Hillary can be truly revolting sometimes. The "psycho ex-girlfriend" thing is strongly gendered and the blanket preemptive statement that of course it's not sexist is pretty silly, but of course that's not even close to being the worst kind of thing that gets said about her.

My observation has been that when people are angry, contemptuous, or worked up for whatever reason, they have the unfortunate tendency to use whatever insults and put-downs are available. And society provides us with a whole suite of sexist attitudes towards women (as well as corresponding racist and other language). So what you get is people who think of themselves as not sexist, and maybe behave in better ways when they're not worked up; but when they want to lash out, they seize whatever weapons they find at their disposal, and society gives them quite a few. So they end up saying sexist things, because those insults are all ready-made.

(Of course there are some people who are consciously, deliberately sexist, as well; I just wanted to point out how people who don't think of themselves that way can arrive at the use of sexist tropes.)

One thing I will disagree with you about, though. That's the political "if the roles were reversed" speculation. Now we can never know this for sure, but we have to remember that Hillary was genuinely the front-runner at first and vastly more famous than Obama. As a result, I think that if the roles were reversed: if she had won Iowa, lost New Hampshire, won SC, won Nevada, then he had surprised her by almost tying on Super Tuesday but then she ran off like 12 victories in a row in February, then yes, I think the calls for him to drop out for the sake of party unity would have been in fact much stronger than they were for her; I think he would probably have dropped out before we ever saw March. That's just my guess, but I think it was a combination of her initial front-runner status, huge name recognition, and party connections that allowed her to go on through all those losses in February, twelve in a row, when most other candidates would have long since felt the need to quit.
May. 9th, 2008 05:19 pm (UTC)
but of course that's not even close to being the worst kind of thing that gets said about her.

Definitely not. This was just the thing that happened to push me over the edge. I think it might even have been the very fact that it wasn't so bad in comparison, because it allows people to think that it's not really *that* sexist.

Your point about Clinton having initially been the front runner is a good one. In a lot of the discussion about the calls for Clinton to quit, people have compared her to Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown, and other second-place candidates who kept going until the bitter end, but none of them were ever the establishment favorites. They were more like the Obamas of their years: upstarts who did surprisingly well.
Mar. 9th, 2009 07:30 am (UTC)
Oh, John Scalzi, no.
User heyheyrenay referenced to your post from Oh, John Scalzi, no. saying: [...] never been all that strong on is recognizing their privilege. it's just like what happened with the wil wheaton fail. he wouldn't see his privilege, he wouldn't listen, and he shut discussion down in the end : It makes me sad Scalzi has ... [...]
Mar. 11th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC)
Hi, I'm actually here from rydra_wong's links via heyheyrenay. I wanted to comment in support of what you've said here. I enjoyed reading Wil Wheatons's blog for many years, right up until he wrote "I'm not sexist. This isn't sexist. That's a stupid straw man, and if you try to make that claim, I will point and laugh at you."

When I read that I took his blog off my reading list and never returned. I was disappointed that a man I'd admired for writing about his family could be such an arse and a misogynist. There may be many legitimate criticisms to make of the Secretary of State but the argument is undermined and my respect lost if the best that can be managed is 'psycho ex-girlfriend' particularly if it's followed up with the not!sexist flim flam.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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