Tuesday, July 17, 2007

What do Hillary and Obama's Gender Performances Say About Us?

SteveG sent me this interesting gender analysis of Obama and Hillary at Salon. The gist of the analysis is that Obama is the more femininie candidate, or what Lakoff would call the "nurturant parent," while Hillary exhibits more traditional masculine characteristics.

"Obama is the female candidate. Obama is the woman," she said, after admitting that she was one of his supporters. "He is the warm candidate, self-deprecating, soft, tender, sad eyes, great smile."

So what does that make Hillary Clinton? "She is the male candidate -- in your face, authoritative, know-it-all." To be clear, Oleson was not doubting the symbolic power that Clinton retains as a woman. But she was calling it as she saw it, using the language of Iowa City, a university town. "It's what the academes would call the difference between sex and gender," Oleson explained.

This might be true, and I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about this, but sure, let's go with it. However, even if it is true, the analysis isn't very deep or interesting. If you really want to get in there and analyze the "gender performance" (see Judith Butler) of Obama and or Hillary, you need to think a lot more about context. After all, running for political office is indeed a performance, and one that requires that the performers think more self-consciously than ever about what sort of gender they project and how this will put off or attract supporters. There is nothing unconsciously designed in the performance. So if you want to surmise that Hillary is performing as a "strict father," while Obama is a "nurturant parent," you need to ask yourself why they have self-consciously adopted these poses? What are they calculating about us and our preconceptions and stereotypes of traditional gender roles? Moreover, how might traditional roles, intersecting with race, influence our preference for candidates?

While Michael Scherer does pick up on how off-putting traditional feminine characteristics--exhibited by women--sends a message of incompetence to the voter:
But she must also be careful to avoid gender traps, like the question famously put to vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in 1984: "Are you strong enough to push the button?" She must also avoid the pitfall of congresswoman Pat Schroeder, who teared up in 1987 when she announced that she would not run for president. ("She cried," announced the New York Times two days later.)

"The first woman absolutely has to out-masculine the man, kind of like Margaret Thatcher did," says Georgia Duerst-Lahti, a professor at Beloit College who has written extensively on gender in presidential politics. "Men have a lot more latitude. Just think about Ronald Reagan when he would tear up. Could a woman ever tear up? No. But a man can tear up."

He doesn't muse on how a black man, exhibiting hyper masculine traits comes off to American voters. In fact, the Obama people might have adopted the more "feminine" style to his campaigning precisely to avoid the long standing cultural aversion of the terrorizing macho black man. While male aggression is always already culturally loaded, it is all the more so when exhibited by black men who then threaten, rather than instill confidence, in white male voters.

So, if Hillary and Obama are engaging in a little drag to win our votes, what this really reveals is how rigid we, the voting public, are in our ability to imagine a highly competent nurturing female candidate or to feel confidence in a macho, decisive black man.