Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why Isn't America Ready for a Female President?

For over a year there's been quite the buzz over Hillary Clinton's potential for presidency. Newsweek's Kathleen Deveny writes in "Just Leave Your Mother Out of It" that as much as she hates to write it, "America is not ready for a female president . . . It appalls me. It goes against everything I grew up hearing, everything I tell my daughter. But I have come to believe it."

Do you believe that? Many journalists do, opinion editorialists, National Review, even Madonna. It is unfortunate that those who love Clinton and those who hate her have pin-pointed her womanhood as the reason. I think it's time we got a bit more honest with ourselves.

Far be it from me to assert that our sex has no affect on our humanity. It does, our body is the bearer and expression of something interior. However, there is much to evaluate in a presidential candidate. Do please include Clinton's womanhood, but let's not park on this as the deal breaker. Isn't it possible that she is failing because of other key components of who she is, for her tactics, her positions, her tendency to be ruthless in debate and strategy (personally I lose respect for men or women who treat people as means rather than ends), her lack of clarity or conviction when the popular vote leans in an opposite direction. Watching her use of emotional rhetoric, her rise to senator in New York and her calculating strides to grasp at a slice of America' power pie make me distrustful. But none of this revolves around her being a female. I know of several female women I would be excited about running the country, Clinton just so happens not to be on my list.

And yet, I've noticed a double standard. Clint may be about as ruthless and clever as Madonna, but we don't admire her, instead we poke fun at her, deride her, insult her. Why?

I've noticed "anti-Hillary" comments tend to focus on something pitifully unimportant.

Most criticism of Clinton focuses on her body. And I've heard enough to believe that what we're really saying is that a female might be powerful ONLY if she is sexy. This expectation is not, sadly, very new.Attacking a regular-looking woman who seeks power has been an American past-time.

Interestingly, the attacks on Clinton's "cankles" and "pantsuits" are precisely the type of negative censure that faced Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, nearly 100 years ago. McPherson was targeted as not being beautiful enough, identified as the woman with the "thick ankles." During her rise to fame, she looked simple, dressed plainly and kept to the strict message of Jesus as the salvation of each person. This was only at first.

But, newspapers and the American people who demanded stories, could not leave her appearance alone. The Record ran a contest to "identify Mrs. McPhersons' ankles" on the front page of it's paper, featuring 8 sets of ankles. McPherson learned in these years that she must squeeze herself into the slim standards of Hollywood in order to be respected and loved while she continued to break into a male dominate sphere, pastoring, preaching and leading a church, university, radio program. This was in the 1920's when women were expected, as McPherson's own husband asked her, to "wash the dishes", "take care of the house," and above all "act like other women."

McPherson's life shows us how far a woman will believe she must go, how the public can change a woman. McPherson became intentional about altering her image to dazzle her audience with a remade self. She became the perfect picture of a slim, peroxided bobbed feminine beauty. I know its hard to believe, but this second picture is the same woman, Aimee Semple McPherson, remade for her public.

We need to note what the attacks on Clinton's appearance do to us as women. They reveal that we either do not know any issue on which to disagree with her, or we believe appearance is a sufficient reason to disqualify a woman from doing her work. Would you ever tolerate an employer telling you that? "You can't work here because your legs are too fat??" We would not live with that in our own lives, and yet so many women are insisting that it is Clinton's appearance that disgusts them, makes it horrendous to even imagine her as president. We are insisting on the stringent standards of appearance that we are all frustrated and often enslaved by. It's time to stop.

Kathleen Deveny of the Newsweek's article claims that in America we still don't like our women powerful. I'd have to disagree with Deveny, because I know of several powerful women we easily admire: Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Oprah. All have fit bodies, all have marketed themselves as attractive, desirable females and each has about as much depth as a pie tin. Unfortunately this is not the sort of power I care to aspire to. So when Madonna comments about Hillary's difficulties, "In America, men are still afraid. And I don't think women are too comfortable with the idea of a female in charge. I find that really amazing" I think I might have an answer for her. Perhaps women don't like a woman in charge because in America powerful women have to maintain a certain sexiness, too. That becomes a distinct threat and one, ironically, women like Madonna have perpetuated, marketed and exploited.

So while I will not vote for Clinton, let's do away with this nonsense that she must be a dazzling Hollywood vixen. Presidents in this country should not be required to seduce the public with their stunning figure simply because they are women. If you're going to criticize Clinton, and women I'm speaking directly to you, do not start and end with her body, her fashion, or her hairstyle. That is about as objectifying to women as is Hugh Hefner's entire industry.

14 comments:

Renee said...

I wonder if the attacks on her looks are the result, not so much of her not being "sexy" enough (as I don't recall that response to Elizabeth Dole, who is lovely yet not remotely sexy), as that it is more humourous and simple to make those kinds of cracks rather than point out the deeper issues. I think the problem is that most people just don't like her, which makes her an easy target as to her looks. Of course, I think that humans do have a particular fixation on a person's relative attractiveness, but I don't know that that is the ultimate issue here. After all, I've heard plenty of "Obama's big ears" comments. I think it's more that it's easier to get a laugh at someone's expense when their looks are attacked.

ames224 said...

I love this entry Jonalyn....so very true on many levels. thank you hon!

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Renee- I think all candidates for president undergo a certain amount of ridicule because of their appearance. You're right to point out the jeers at Obama's ears, it reminds me of jibes at Perot's ears, and "W"'s ears. But poking fun at ears or a long face or squinty eyes feels different to me than poking fun at actual female body parts, like breasts and thighs as some have done with the "KFC Hillary Special: 2 small breasts, 2 large thighs and a left wing."

It's a direct assault on her femininity, poking fun of sexual organs that does get a laugh, but again indicates how we sexualize females in power. If they teased male politicians for not being muscular or for having an unapproved phallus, then the insults would be comparable.

In regards to Elizabeth Dole, I would disagree with your diagnosis that she is "not remotely sexy." But even she would and has come under attack in sexual ways because of appearance (I've googled "Elizabeth Dole lipstick" and found that people have make quips on her appearance: that she looks like a hag, that no wonder Dole needs viagra, that she's going crazy). Perhaps less that Clinton's received, but that may be due to the fact that she hasn't been running for President or because she is, as you say, "lovely" to us, she more easily slides into the stereotypes of what we're used to looking at for a woman in office.

You make a good point that it is more funny, simple (and I'd add lazy) to point out body parts, than it is to understand her political beliefs.

You're right people "just don't like her." My point is how should we, as followers of Jesus, express our dislike? Through attacks on her body, particularly berating her for not looking like the women who make us comfortable (the motherly type) or titillated (the attractive type)?

Perhaps this is not the ultimate issue for why we don't want Clinton in the white house, but I do think our American fixation on women's appearance has fueled much of the recent "reasons" we don't want a female (meaning this one, who looks like this) in office.

Amy- thanks!

Pam said...

Interesting points...thanks for bringing them up, Jonalyn! While I certainly don't think America is ready for another Clinton presidency, I have never associated that fact (at least in my mind) with the fact that she's a female. Rather, I have based my opinion on my disagreement with her political standpoints on many issues, not the least of which are abortion and healthcare. I agree that it's sad that people are judged according to gender, but we're only human, incapable (and often unwilling) to see others from God's perspective. I'm just curious to see what's in His plan for America vis a vis Election 2008.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Pam,
I have to agree that there are more reasons for concern in the Clinton legacy than in any comments about Hillary Clinton's appearance.

Anonymous said...

...working under a deadline here, but couldn't help but say "I am ready for a woman president, and will vote accordingly if I get the chance!" Random thought to consider: one less thing that a woman pres would have to deal with is the American cultural pressure on male political figures to show their "manliness" by sexual conquest...(from Robin)

Heather Mather said...

Can I just say thank you for bringing up the fact that people attack the way H Clinton looks? I don't like the woman but I don't see why her physical appearance has anything to do with leading a country. I've never understood why people attack Chelsea Clinton's appearance either. To me, it's the nasty attitude of H Clinton that makes her an unattractive candidate.

Pace said...

Such a great entry - addressing valid aspects of public's reponse to Hillary. I think of my own comments and reactions to her, some of which are to her appearance, not necessarily about her being a woman. I agree with you in your statement that "I know of several female women I would be excited about running the country, Clinton just so happens not to be on my list."
As I was reading, Margaret Thatcher came to mind. And some other women who, in positions of leadership in our country and others, have not let their womanhood or their appearance define their capacity for success. I wonder why this is such a focus for Hillary, but given your example of McPherson, Hills definitely isn't the first to be criticized physically. And yes, includes men like Obama, Bush, etc.

I have to say that there is something about a person's demeanor that cannot be ignored, whether they have a nice body or not...that expresses the content of heart and soul regardless of gender, intelligence, agenda, success. I do believe that outward appearance and behavior is at times more of a focus than it should be, but I also wonder if there are times when we respond to someone's physical appearance or public behavior, are we trying to make some spiritual connection with what is expressed on the outside...yet unfortunately end up with the double standard you noted criticism, jokes, etc. Are we more afraid to express issues of a character or spiritual nature such as trustworthiness, integrity, genuity and so on.

I also propose that as a ordinary citizen, there is little I can go by to make an accurate discernment regarding Hillary, and I must fall on what she chooses to reveal of herself. Is it fair to come to a more negative conclusion because of this? Hard to say.
I don't envy her in this, constantly in the public eye...yet it is what she is choosing. Same for your other examples - Oprah, Jolie, Madonna.
I do think it is rather extreme to say that those who are more critical of her physical appearance are expecting her to be a dazzling Hollywood vixen...there is more to physical appearance than actual looks. When someone fake smiles at me, I notice...thick ankles or not. When I fake smile, I know I am doing it, regardless of my gender and what I thought when I looked in the mirror that morning.

Renee said...

But poking fun at ears or a long face or squinty eyes feels different to me than poking fun at actual female body parts, like breasts and thighs as some have done with the "KFC Hillary Special: 2 small breasts, 2 large thighs and a left wing."
That is true. There is a difference there that should be noted.

And I think Elizabeth Dole is a beautiful, classy woman, but I use "sexy" in the Cover Model, Hefner girl, Madonna sense. If that makes sense.

My point is how should we, as followers of Jesus, express our dislike? Through attacks on her body, particularly berating her for not looking like the women who make us comfortable (the motherly type) or titillated (the attractive type)?
Which is an excellent point. I do not think that followers of Christ should stoop so low. I suppose I have only heard non-followers using this type of criticism...but, then, I've been too busy to really pay attention to everything flying through the political air, lately.

Btw, I do agree with your perspective on the ideas, I just don't know that the relative attractiveness/sexiness of a female candidate is enough to win or lose her an office.

Anonymous said...

it is interesting what certain branches of the media tend to focus on... my experience has been that it is only certain news outlets that focus on this facet (i.e., the NYT). I have found that the major players in talk radio have focused on substantive issues concerning both her character and her policies...

in terms of how Jesus would criticize her, perhaps Ann Coulter has it right:

"Liberals lie and are driven by Satan."

;)

--Jordan

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Robin- I understand your desire for a female president. But would you want just any president simply because she is female? If so i'd love to know why here "femaleness" makes her more qualified in your eyes. Or is it something else about Clinton (policies, positions, combined with her womanhood) that make her appealing to you? Also, in light of our conversations, can't a woman skew politics just as badly as a man?

And one note about how a female wouldn't have to show off her sexual conquest power like a man... I'd have to disagree. Women are constantly trying to prove they are just as promiscuous as men (I think most secular feminists think "free" sex proves their equal to men e.g. Sex and the City). Do you think all men in power feel pressured to prove their manhood with sexual conquest? Might be true, haven't thought about it...

Renee- thank you for your graciousness and your points. I think we agree that as you said "the relative attractiveness/sexiness of a female candidate is not enough to win or lose her an office." I wanted to point out that it is possible for a female to be in power and to do it well (as examples in Pakistan, Israel, England have demonstrated). I guess I think America has a unique problem. I've googled "Obama ugly" and "Hillary ugly" and found that sites will call Obama's politics or ambition ugly, but will directly attack his wife as "one ugly woman". It's interesting that women bear the brunt of ugliness attacks.

Heather- yes nasty attitudes turn me off, too.

Jordan- nice point that certain publications fixate on Clinton's appearance. And while I know you were joking, I want to say here that I don't believe all liberals are liars or driven by Satan. But perhaps that's a topic for another day.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

"Pace"
Thanks for posting. I liked your ideas about how a person's soul is expressed through their demeanor ( posture, clear open-faced smile, genuine eyes). This is important for us to notice and evaluate, I wish we could do this more and criticize ankles and pantsuits less. Of course, some people are terribly good at faking honesty demeanor, too. Though I like to think I can sniff them out, I haven't always been able to.

Here is a helpful site of women prime ministers. Encouraging to see. Women Prime Ministers

Dale Fincher said...

I think historians have duly noted that in American politics since JFK's debates with Nixon that the makeup artist is more powerful than the speech writer. That's a given.

And I've a hunch with our media-entertainment driven culture, that the majority of people in America (sadly) are sedated with moving images on the tube. They do judge people by how they look, even if they are unaware. People relatively lack the finer skills of reason (Susan Jacoby documents this in her new book on the Age of American Unreason). When reason dies, sensations rein, including visual stimuli. We don't want to underestimate the power of this, for good or ill, in shaping today's culture and opinion. And there are plenty of psychological and sociological studies to show this. Neil Postman's classic, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," is a good primer.

Of all nations in the world, I expect America to be the first victim to an 'appearance-driven' opinion. Just think of all the American television shows and movies that revolve around 'presidential' power in the last few years. And tell me America doesn't have an entertainment driven idea of who should be in the White House in real life (e.g. West Wing, 24, Air Force One, Commander-in-Chief, etc.). I think this is interesting stuff.

Now besides the googling that will reveal insults to Hilary's physical appearance, I think many are leery of the Clinton family in general and their political games. Apart form Hilary, many are deeply concerned with Bill getting back into the White House spotlight. I know many men who would be willing to vote a woman into the presidency. America is ready for it. But they want a competent one with a different last name.

Regardless if we are aware of how much appearances drive our opinions of influential people, we shouldn't be surprised, of all places, to see it in America. I think Jonalyn's made a good point of that.

Angela C said...

Jonalyn,
I enjoyed your post very much. I find Hillary's energy and facial expressions much more engaging than Obama's or McCaan's. But I agree with Dale about the Clinton name. I had enough of the Clintons in the eight years he was in office. Even if she were the most qualified candidate I couldn't vote for her because of character issues and her husband.

However, I don't think we can point fingers at the media or America because the body of Christ is just as guilty of judging by appearance. The body of Christ, in general, are very enmeshed with our culture. (I know there are exceptions) We define people by their appearance more than by their character or design. We accept or reject people according to the same criteria the world uses.

Romans 12:2 from The Message reminds us "Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity. God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. vs. 3 ...The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him. vs.5 ...So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ's body, let's just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren't."

It makes me wonder how grieved God must be when one of his excellently formed and marvelously functioning daughters is overlooked or rejected for the very thing she is well qualified to do just because she doesn't have the "package." We need to encourage one another to grow up in Christ and pay attention to what really matters.

I realize that your post was not justifying the comparing and judging but exposing it. But I felt a need to have us examine our own hearts while criticizing the media.