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The “Bitch” and the “Ditz.”

November 17, 2008

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Amanda Fortini argues that this year’s political election may have actually set women back.

In the grand Passion play that was this election, both Clinton and Palin came to represent—and, at times, reinforce—two of the most pernicious stereotypes that are applied to women: the bitch and the ditz. Clinton took the first label, even though she tried valiantly, some would say misguidedly, to run a campaign that ignored gender until the very end. “Now, I’m not running because I’m a woman,” she would say. “I’m running because I think I’m the best-qualified and experienced person to hit the ground running.” She was highly competent, serious, diligent, prepared (sometimes overly so)—a woman who cloaked her femininity in hawkishness and pantsuits. But she had, to use an unfortunate term, likability issues, and she inspired in her detractors an upwelling of sexist animus: She was likened to Tracy Flick for her irritating entitlement, to Lady Macbeth for her boundless ambition. She was a grind, scold, harpy, shrew, priss, teacher’s pet, killjoy—you get the idea. She was repeatedly called a bitch (as in: “How do we beat the … ”) and a buster of balls. Tucker Carlson deemed her “castrating, overbearing, and scary” and said, memorably, “Every time I hear Hillary Clinton speak, I involuntarily cross my legs.”

Career women, especially those of a certain age, recognized themselves in Clinton and the reactions she provoked. “Maybe what bothers me most is that people say Hillary is a bitch,” said Tina Fey in her now-famous “Bitch Is the New Black” skit. “Let me say something about that: Yeah, she is. So am I … You know what? Bitches get stuff done.” At least being called a bitch implies power. As bad as Clinton’s treatment was, the McCain campaign’s cynical decision to put a woman—any woman—on the ticket was worse for the havoc it would wreak on gender politics. It was far more destructive, we would learn, for a woman to be labeled a fool.

When Sarah Palin first stepped onto the national stage, I was, like many women, intrigued by her. Here was a woman who—even if you didn’t agree with her politics—seemed to have achieved what so many of us were struggling for: an enviable balance between career and family. She was “a brisk, glam multitasker,” to quote the Observer’s Doree Shafrir, with a good-natured stay-at-home husband at her side and several adorable young children in tow. She was running a state and breast-feeding a newborn and yet, amazingly, did not seem exhausted. There was something inspiring about seeing a woman so at ease with her choices, even as both liberal and conservative critics chided her for running for vice-president when her family needed her. Politics aside, when, at the convention, she delivered a politically deft speech like a pro, it was pleasing to witness the first woman on a Republican ticket perform so well.

Of course, the myth of Sarah Palin unraveled almost as quickly as it was spun. By now, her bizarre filibustering, discomfiting blank stares, weird locutions, and general tendency to trip over herself verbally are familiar. First, there was the painful Charlie Gibson interview, in which Palin adopted a Toastmasters-style technique of repeating her interlocutor’s name in a vain attempt to sound authoritative. Then Katie Couric, with a newfound air of gravitas, smothered Palin with her simple questions and soothing manner: Palin appeared stunningly uninformed, lacking a basic fluency in foreign policy and economic theory. Even if she had frozen up out of nervousness, or fell into the category of smart-but-inarticulate, it was still unacceptable that she couldn’t recall Supreme Court decisions she disagreed with or name a single periodical she reads. Time? Newsweek? Hello?

But among the darker revelations of this election is the fact that the vice-grip of female stereotypes remains suffocatingly tight. On the national political stage and in office buildings across the country, women regularly find themselves divided into dualities that are the modern equivalent of the Madonna-whore complex: the hard-ass or the lightweight, the battle-ax or the bubblehead, the serious, pursed-lipped shrew or the silly, ineffectual girl. It is exceedingly difficult to sidestep this trap. Michelle Obama began the campaign as a bold, outspoken woman with a career of her own, and she was called a hard-ass. Now, as she prepares to move into the White House, she appears poised to recede into a fifties-era role of “mom-in-chief.” It will be heartbreaking if, in an effort to avoid the kind of criticism that followed Hillary Clinton, the First Lady is reduced to a lightweight.

Many will say we’ve come a long way this year. The truth is we have a long way to go.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 17, 2008 5:37 pm

    I think part of the problem is that women and racial minorities are expected to be perfect. They’re held to a higher standard than white men. So Palin is a “ditz.” So what? So was Dan Quayle. So is George W. Bush.

    But it’s okay for Quayle and Bush to be ditzy, because they’re white male politicians in America. There are so many white male politicians in America that one or two ditzy ones don’t ruin it for their entire gender or race.

    If a woman candidate is any less than perfect or at least perceived to be less than perfect, it’s somehow a blow to all of womankind. Likewise for a racial minority candidate.

    That is a heavy, heavy burden for any candidate to carry.

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