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January 09, 2008

The Gender Card?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Very weirdly enough, my first published academic article was on Western feminist discourse toward the Middle East (I have no idea why either). It's probably been two years since I actually wrote that, or even really thought seriously about the state of feminism (what "wave" are we at now?). So maybe I'm missing something, but the criticism of John Edwards for how he responded to Hillary's tearing up strikes me as so genuinely baffling that I'm issuing a plea for clarification. To fill you guys in, Amanda Marcotte threatened that she might shift her support from Edwards to Obama because of, as she termed it, "completely unacceptable amounts of sexism." (Michael lodged a similar complaint earlier today). For Marcotte, former Edwards blogger, to get this steamed, I thought it had to be pretty bad. Edwards' offending comment was:

I think what we need in a commander-in-chief is strength and resolve, and presidential campaigns are tough business, but being president of the United States is also tough business.

I read this once. Then I thought: am I missing something? I didn't feel my sexism radar go up. So I read it twice and three times, thinking that it might eventually settle in. After sufficiently convincing myself that I had parsed each word carefully, I got confused. Isn't sexism when you treat someone differently on account of their gender? Edwards' comment seems to be the opposite of that. Just think: if Obama started tearing up on the campaign trail, do you think Edwards, or any other candidate for that matter, would have ignored it? No, they would have jumped right in, attacked, and questioned Obama's readiness for the job. Can you imagine if Mitt Romney teared up? McCain would make him into mincemeat, grind him in a blender, and drink it, and chuckle uncontrollably while burping to adoring reporters on his Straight Talk Express.

And last time I checked, male candidates have lost campaigns on account of their crying. Remember Edmund Muskie? He got decimated for his apparent "weakness" because he had the audacity to show emotion on the campaign trail. I'm not an expert on the 1972 race, but I'm told that Muskie's crying was at least one nail in the coffin. It wasn't fair, but I guess that's how political campaigning works.

So, actually, it appears Edwards treated Hillary just as he would any of the male candidates. Isn't that ultimately what feminism was going for - to erase the double standard, and to have women and men treated the same without regard to gender? In short, if men get criticized for crying, then so do women. Edwards applied this standard. While this may mean Edwards is anti-crying, it doesn't mean he's anti-women. On the other hand, though, wouldn't it be sexist if he decided to withhold any comment on Clinton's tears precisely because she was female? As for Marcotte, something else should be said. She is actually going to shift her support because of one isolated comment, as opposed to making her choice based on substantive policy differences? You got to be kidding me.


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Shadi -

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Romney and Giuliani have both teared up (not cried - Hillary didn't actually cry, either) on the campaign trail. I think Romney's was on Meet the Press in December but I can't remember the other one.

I don't find much sexism in Edwards comments, but I also don't think the media played it the same way. Maybe because it was on the trail at an event when asked about her campaign? Dunno.

It is a fact of American politics today that self pity works.

It doesn't work for everyone all the time, but it works effectively for some candidates, inspiring a sympathy from large numbers of voters and a negative response toward commentators (and other candidates) who appear in some way unsympathetic. Why this is, I don't know. I honestly have no idea. In an earlier generation a candidate's expression of self-pity could work only if it was made with great cleverness and a touch of humor -- as, for example, Nixon's Checkers speech in 1952. That plainly isn't required anymore.

George Bush has milked his supporters' sympathy for all the mean things said about him in the press for all it has been worth, for more than seven years now. And Sen. Clinton has for the moment succeeded in something very similar. The media has been utterly credulous about her claims to be experienced and accomplished in various policy fields from Day 1 of this campaign; when this spin seemed for a time powerless to stop the Obama boomlet, she complained -- and of course, her husband complained -- about how unfair it all was. It evidently worked, according to polling data best with older, lower-income non-working women (Oprah's audience?), but at any rate well enough to swing a race that had been trending toward Obama to Clinton.

As I say, this phenomenon is a more or less complete mystery to me. I suppose it's possible Obama could turn the tables and use it to his advantage, for example with black Democratic voters in South Carolina. We don't, and probably can't, know whether some white New Hampshire voters who told pollsters they supported the black celebrity candidate switched to the white celebrity candidate once inside the voting booth, but some black Democrats in South Carolina are bound to believe this. If he played his cards right, Obama could exploit this belief -- by my standards a low and somewhat degrading tactic, but it could be that my standards are not as relevant as they may once have been.

I don't think Edwards meant to be sexist but for some he strayed too far towards claiming that Hillary is overly emotional. In short, a girl. And then there's the frustration that Hillary has had to deal with that no othr candidate gets confronted with: when she cries, she's weak. When she talks tough, she's accused of being, well, a bitch. If you're running against her it's probably best to accuse her of neither quality. In all fairness, that's because she's neither weak nor a bitch. But it's also because either accusation gets people to sympathize with her, and for good reason.

Yes, Edwards muffed it. He should have just left it alone and said something like Obama did: that's not something I care to comment on.

I really don't think race was a factor in the discrepancy between polls and outcome. Why would the polls be so accurate in mostly-white Iowa and not in mostly-white New Hampshire? I think it really must be the crying incident that accounts for the change. The polls were wrapped up on Sunday, and the incident occurred on Monday, too late to catch.

Thank you for telling us women what's sexist and what's not. I'm sure you express the same gratitude when white people tell you something isn't racist. We couldn't actually decide that on our own, nor could we recognize our own stupidity in thinking the very *idea* that you shouldn't cry as president is sexist. And let's not kid ourselves that this pointed comment about the need for 'toughness' was directed at Hillary's brief moment of emotion. If he'd applied it to Obama it would have been homophobic as well so he would have hit the double jackpot. OHMIGOD A PERSON WHO CRIES CAN'T BE A LEADER! Why might that be? Because crying connotes weakness and emotion. Who are weak and emotional? Women and fags. Ironic of course that Edwards himself has been pilloried as a fag.

And in case you think I make this point because I am a GIRLY GIRL, let me direct you to Glenn Greenwald, who said the same thing. I've heard he's a man.

@ Crybaby

While I don't necessarily agree with every bit of Shadi's analysis, I'm even more confused by yours. Are you saying that men are not qualified to comment on or analyze accusations of sexism? If so, why do you point do Glenn Greenwald's analysis? Or are men only permitted to address the subject when they agree with you? I don't mean to sound flippant, and I thought the coverage around this "crying" incident was absurd, but your response seems to lack logical coherence.

Furthermore, Shadi has a point. Crying on the campaign trail is bound to elicit criticism (though in this case, some are saying it actually helped Hillary - I just think the whole thing is over-hyped and that Americans are capable of making voting decisions based on marginally more significant factors, but that's me) whether you are a man or a woman. If Obama had cried, or looked like he was about to cry, or if his voice had broken or [insert similar event here] he would have been eviscerated for it. Clearly, the fact that Hillary is a woman gives political barbs about "toughness" a certain inevitable sexist edge, but I don't think Edwards was applying a double standard.

You can argue, convincingly in my view, that showing emotions other than steely, stone-faced resolve on the campaign trail shouldn't be construed as a negative in voters' eyes. Unfortunately, the electorate hasn't accepted your argument to this point. You can argue, convincingly as well, that empty displays of "toughness" shouldn't be the primary means of demonstrating psychological fitness for the Presidency. The voters haven't been particularly receptive to that line either.

Finally, your logic about the reasons people respond negatively to crying (crying=weakness and/or emotion=female and/or homosexual ergo negative reaction to crying=sexism and/or homophobia) strikes me as a bit of a stretch. Americans are in the process of choosing a person to inhabit what is perhaps the most powerful position in human history. I for one understand the impulse, irrational though it may be, to want somebody in that job who ALWAYS looks like they know EXACTLY what to do, who can take the ship of state through a tempest and back without flinching. I would like to think that the electorate is capable of moving beyond the most superficial factors in making that choice, but right or wrong, perceived emotional equilibrium still enters into the equation. That isn't ipso facto sexist.

All that said, Obama handled the issue with a lot more class than Edwards did.

Thank you for your sharing! I like i very much!

I would say politics is a tough game.I have also noticed they are treating her as they would each other because she is a woman which seems some people want to say they cannot be as firm with her in their comments as they would with a man. sorry you feel this way...

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