Column: Nuances that lead to trouble
WASHINGTON — When it comes to dealing with women — in particular, when it comes to dealing with issues of women, power and sexuality — there is a surprising parallel between bumbling Republicans and bumbling media. Republicans have a hard time talking about women and sexuality. The media have difficulty talking about women and power. Both end up in trouble, in part because they are oblivious to the underlying discomfort that contributes to the offensive conduct or remark.
“Some of our members just aren’t as sensitive as they ought to be” in talking about women and running against female candidates, House Speaker John Boehner said in December. This is the epitome of understatement from the party that has to deal with candidates who spout idiocies about “legitimate rape.”
Now to prove Boehner’s point comes former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, venturing last week onto the treacherous terrain of gender and politics.
In remarks intended to woo women and rebut the Democrats’ accusations of a Republican war on women, Huckabee instead managed to insult a whole heap of them when he criticized the Affordable Care Act requirement that contraceptives be included among no-cost preventive services.
The Democrats’ message to women, he said, is that “they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”
Huckabee’s language — he wasn’t trying to be offensive but he succeeded nonetheless — helps explain the outsized GOP reaction to the contraceptive mandate, even outside the context of how it is applied to religious organizations.
Why, of all the provisions of Obamacare, does this requirement drive conservatives so crazy? Underlying their discomfort, I think, is the sense that good girls don’t need birth control because good girls don’t have sex, or libidos that need controlling. Good girls don’t get raped, or pregnant.
But if Republicans are having a hard time figuring out how to talk about, and to, women, we in the media have our own difficulties when it comes to dealing with female politicians.
Recently Hillary Clinton has been on two major magazine covers, and no doubt there are dozens more to come. Time magazine showed a pant-suited leg and shoe, with a tiny man dangling from the heel, accompanied by the ominous question, “Can Anyone Stop Hillary? How to scare off your rivals without actually running (yet).” The New York Times Magazine depicted a moon-faced, wrinkled Clinton looming over the headline “Planet Hillary.”
Both covers were criticized as sexist and offensive — Time’s, because it played into the stereotype of powerful woman-as-dominatrix, The Times’ because it made Clinton look so bloated and unattractive.
Amanda Marcotte, at Talking Points Memo, called the Time cover “a direct, highly gendered provocation that strongly implies that electing Hillary Clinton would somehow be a tragic thing for men, and even somehow ‘end’ men the way the man in the image is about to be ended through stomping.”
This argument goes too far for me. The Time cover wasn’t sexualized; the heel was sensible, not stiletto. It made a valid visual point: Clinton may indeed trample any opponents.
But the controversy over the illustration underscores the degree to which we (“we” the media, and “we” society as a whole) have not yet sorted out the proper language, verbal or visual, for talking about powerful, prominent women.
Where Time made Clinton appear ominous, The New York Times made her look, to put it bluntly, fat and old. Female politicians can’t be exempt from caricature. Yet editors tread on dangerous ground when they emphasize, even unintentionally, a woman’s age or weight. As NBC’s Andrea Mitchell noted, “When have you ever seen a magazine cover about a male political figure ... that looks like that?”
OK, yes, there is Chris Christie, again in Time, as “The Elephant in the Room” — get it? But let’s be honest, weight and looks matter much more for female candidates than for their male counterparts. This is both true and d angerous to acknowledge, as John Edwards discovered to his chagrin when he commented during a debate about Hillary Clinton’s coral pink jacket.
Someday, when the notion of a female president seems as commonplace as the notion of, well, a female secretary of state, these nuances of language and image will not be so fraught with undertones of sexism. For now, it behooves all of us, politicians and journalists alike, to be a bit more careful with the words we use and the images we concoct.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.