Like everyone else in America, I was waiting to see how the match up between Palin and Biden would transpire. Beyond the giddy atmosphere that was building (somewhat between a sporting event and a game show), was a deeper, darker space. It was a low, wide valley occupied by symbols and ambiguities of murky distinctions — the roles of gender and race in the 2008 election.
Those specific issues were discussed and debated at a two-day symposium at St. John’s University. As I sat down to watch the two Vice-Presidential contenders, the presentations of the conference’s speakers reverberated in my head.
Presented by the university’s law school, there was a heavy representation of scholars focusing on media and law, election law, and legal theory. In addition to those emanating from the academic world, there was a cross section of journalists and activists.
Perspectives on Gender in the 2008 Elections; The Role of the Media in Shaping Perceptions of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the 2008 Elections; The Intersectionality of Race, Gender, Media, and the Political Process; A Dialogue on Legal Constructions of Race, Gender, and Identity in the 2008 Elections, were some of the panels which I attended.
The concerns that had been come up earlier in the election season got turned on their heads once again with the placement of Sarah Palin onto the McCain ticket. Charges of sexism, reverse sexism, populist feminism, anti-feminism — and permutations on the theme — were doled out in abundance. Prominent in the mix was the role of the media, both amplifying and exacerbating misconceptions to the public.
Several themes coalesced over the two-day period. A prominent one was the oft repeated, “Did race trump gender?” Dr. Cynthia Neal-Spence, Associate Professor of Sociology at Spelman College, spoke about the dilemma of the black female. Asking, “Are we as a group more gender conscious or race conscious?” she then suggested “the media coverage had helped black women to choose sides.” Despite Obama offering a post-racial approach, she sensed the same “tensions resurfacing that were in place during the suffragette movement.” She also saw the media’s analyzation as being “racialized.”
Valorie K. Vojdik, Professor at the West Virginia University College of Law, acknowledged that with women as the minority of politically elected representatives, exclusion of women from political power was still in play. She spoke of Hillary Clinton as having challenged and transcended gender when she won her seat in the Senate. Having left the White House and the female sphere of “home,” Clinton entered the realm of competence (male driven) with her inclusion in the Senate. She “cracked the ceiling and the gender structure of power.”
However, Vojdik said, “Those in the media insisted on gendering her candidacy, taking her from the public sphere to the private construction of her identity as a wife and a mother.” This was often accomplished through the use of specific language. She gave as examples the terms, “shrill, emasculating, castrating,” with oft used analogies of Hillary as “the hectoring mother,” or “the wife as ball-buster.” Hillary was not male, but she “had failed as a female.”
On the other hand, Vojdik saw Sarah Palin as seeking to be elected because she was a woman in the “good wife and mother” mode. Projecting herself as stereotypically feminine, albeit a “pit bull with lipstick,” she “appeals to the 80’s concept of the superwoman.” “But,” Vojdik asked, “where are the supports for ordinary women?”
Her masculine hobbies don’t appear “gender bending,” instead they conjure up an image of her as a frontier woman. By that token, it is ironic that when you place Palin’s gun in the hands of Michele Obama (as on the cover of the New Yorker magazine), you have a totally different image. Donna Rouner, Professor at Colorado State University School of Journalism, pointed to the masculinization of Michele Obama as too strong, angry, scary, and the militant who used the “whitey” epithet. Neal-Spence concluded that the sexism toward Hillary Clinton had been “more palatable for some, because she was white.”
With Sarah Palin dealing the “motherhood card,” but only wanting to play it her way, she created a dichotomous situation. While claiming the right to trot out her family, she stepped away from discussing work/family issues. Enabled by her own specific circumstances, her connection to struggling mothers who are faced with untenable survival choices, was strictly superficial. As moderator Rosemary C. Salomone, Professor of Law at St. John’s University observed, “If we talk about it [working women’s issues], we would have to do something about it in social policy.
Carolyn M. Byerly, Associate Professor at Howard University, questioned if the press was “meeting its social responsibility” to provide coverage of issues and events that affect women’s status. She emphasized, “You can’t underestimate the invisibility of women.” It was clear that she didn’t believe women’s concerns were being explored, and backed that up with citations on the lack of story lines about women’s economic concerns (i.e. 1 in 8 women lack the money to take a sick child to the doctor.).
There was a strong consensus of displeasure on how female candidates were observed. Elizabeth A. Skewes, Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism, characterized the coverage as “hair, hemlines, and husband headlines,” with a spotlight on personal traits.
Jennifer L. Pozner, Director of Women in Media and News, showed visuals of gender bias in the media. My favorite example of what Pozner qualified as “passing for public debate” was the clip of Donny Deutsch exclaiming about Palin, “I want her laying next to me in bed.”
That thread was picked up in the ecstatic reaction to Palin’s presentation of self in the debate by National Review‘s Rich Lowry who gushed, “I’m sure I’m not the only male in America who, when Palin dropped her first wink, sat up a little straighter on the couch and said, ‘Hey, I think she just winked at me.'”
Although feminine for Sarah Palin is an asset, “feminine” attributes in general are considered a negative. “The process of gender,” as phrased by Vojdik, is a methodology employed by the Republicans where they “feminize” a male candidate – to his detriment.
Like Hillary Clinton, Obama also faced challenges. Meta G. Carstarphen, Professor at the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism, stated that race has “always been a element, even as a subtext.” Bryan L. Adamson, Associate Professor at Seattle University School of Law, talked about the use of Obama’s religion (Is he a Christian?) as a race proxy. It was a natural stepping-stone to the coded language of outsider and otherness.
Frank Rudy Cooper, Associate Professor of Law at Suffolk University, spelled out that “Obama had to deal with the media representation of black masculinity.” He posited that Obama had to be “a unisex president.” Despite trying to run a “post-racial campaign, Obama had to be careful avoid “the angry black male” stereotype by not being too aggressive. Cooper explained that in pitting McCain against Obama, the masculine vs. feminine style is emphasized. Obama’s empathetic style has been criticized, and as “feminization is a slur,” he is forced into a precarious balancing act.
The “other” category was not a hurdle for Obama alone. Nancy Wang Yuen, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Biola University, spoke to the “media pattern of racialization.” She asked, in reference to an article in Time (2/17/08) entitled, “Does Obama Have an Asian Problem?” why the media was “not likely to racialize why a white candidate wins.”
Laura E. Gómez, Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico, lamented the paucity of coverage in the national media about Latino voters. She expressed concern about the “lack of depth and context about the Latino population,” citing that in the future, 30% of the American population will be Latino. Gómez also characterized the media’s concentration on a black/brown divide as “race baiting.” She named it as a “structural racism,” where the emphasis is put on, “Oh, they [Latinos] are racist too.”
Yet new technology and new media may be transforming the game. Carolyn M. Byerly’s opinion is that “technology is changing” with a huge shift in how people seek information. In her view “the structures of the media are anachronistic” and “alternative media matters.”
That concept was illuminated by Anthony E. Varona, Associate Professor of Law at American University. He pointed out why the 2004 Karl Rove election strategy based on the “unease felt by religious and social conservatives” wasn’t going to work in 2008. Plainly put, “Things have changed. New media and the blogosphere have made it impossible.” Varona discussed the prior use of fear and enmity toward gays “to mobilize voters.” He said, “Trumpeting anti-gay rhetoric” flies in the face of the fact that “McCain has senior people, both open and closeted gays” on his team. Or as Varona succinctly put it, “The Internet has pulled the curtain on homosexuality and the appalling hypocrisy of the Republicans.”
UCLA law professors Devon W. Carbado and Cheryl Harris brought up the question, “Who gets to invoke identity, and what does it mean?” Discussing identity and politics replacement strategy, they presented construct examples such as: “Sarah Palin is to Hillary Clinton as Clarence Thomas is to Thurgood Marshall.” The audience immediately got it.
A particular exchange during the Vice-Presidential debate put the issue of identity on the table when Sarah Palin spoke about how her role as a mother has given her “special insights.” Biden, in his visceral response, challenged Palin’s claim. Speaking emotionally about the car accident that changed his life he said:
“Look, I understand what it’s like to be a single parent…When my wife and daughter died and my two sons were gravely injured – I understand what it’s like as a parent to wonder what it’s like if your kid’s going to make it.”
He went on to say:
“But the notion that somehow, because I’m a man, I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone, I don’t know what it’s like to have a child you’re not sure is going to — is going to make it — I understand.”
Throwing off the mantle of constrictive masculinity to create his own paradigm, Biden created a 2008 perspective on gender that was worth noting.