Monday, September 24, 2007

Katha Pollitt on Women and Power

There were two thought-provoking quotes in Katha Pollitt's interview with Deborah Solomon in Sunday's New York Times:

Deborah Solomon: "Really? I think you’re underestimating the value of living in the Age of Britney Spears."
Katha Pollitt: "Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, poor Britney Spears — I feel sorry for all of them, because they are being made into these icons of female ruin. Everyone watches them collapsing in public ways that are tremendously humiliating."

DS: "Are you a Hillary supporter?"
Katha Pollitt: "In this country we have a real problem with women and power. If people don’t stop saying incredibly sexist things about Hillary Clinton, I may just have to vote for her."

Me (Laura): So, someone else who thinks people who have a problem with Hillary Clinton really have a problem with women wielding power. Which raises the question, why are college-educated women less fond of Hillary than less well-educated women, as a recent poll showed? It must be because women are each other's harshest critics, and there's that natural survival instinct shaping our behavior, that if another woman has power that means there's less for us to hold onto, an instinct that has left women in the work force without the "old boys' network" that men profit from.

Me, again: What Pollitt said about Britney and Lohan being "icons of female ruin" is also fascinating. I'm captivated by how there are certain female archetypes that keep coming up again and again in the media. I wrote about the Marie Antoinette archetype in the Chicago Tribune a few weeks ago (think Martha Stewart, Leona Helmsley, Barbara Amiel.) There's also this sexed-up, debauched archetype of the ruined woman, also a woman of wealth - Paris Hilton; Britney Spears; Lindsay Lohan - which keeps re-appearing. What does this say about our culture and our views of women? It's a reaction to women in power, the same kind of aversion to women in power that's operating in the case of Hillary Clinton, but a completely different archetype, a sexualized one.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Hillary Clinton as a Cuckold?

Judith Warner had an interesting post last week in her blog comparing public reaction to Hillary Clinton as a "cuckold", or "cuckquean", to the French reaction to their new President, Nicholas Sarkozy, a modern-day "cuckold," and his unfaithful first lady, Cécilia.

As she writes:

"In case you missed it, Sarkozy last year greatly entertained France by running a campaign in which his wife was almost entirely absent. Cécilia, a former model whom Nicholas first eyed, in his previous incarnation as mayor of the city of Neuilly, while administering the vows that consecrated her last marriage, left him in 2005, eventually showing up – and being photographed – with her lover in New York City."

"The Sarkozys ultimately reunited. But life together remained rocky. Cécilia made major headlines once again last May when she pulled a no-show on the night of her husband’s final run-off race against his Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal.
She was rumored not to have voted at all."

"Yet by summer, in the press at least, all was forgotten. When I was there, every major magazine featured glowing profiles of the new first lady. They praised her charm, her fashion sense, her break-the-mold modernity."

She writes that for Sarkozy, "perhaps one of his boldest, cleverest and most successful [gestures] has been the fact that, by keeping his head high, standing by his woman and steadfastly, defiantly, professing his love and desire. . .he has transcended the old role of cuckold. He has instead been something more like a political wife."

In contrast, Warner writes that Clinton, "[a formidable woman of real power and prestige. . .emerged from the Monica affair much more cuckold than cuckquean. Her husband’s perfidy did, in a sense, disturb the natural order of things; in the post-feminist age, women like Hillary are not supposed to be subject to such indignities. Hillary has never been, as she herself once put it, 'some little woman standing by my man.' Perhaps that’s what made the spectacle of her public humiliation so unique and so unsettling and, ultimately, so unforgivable for the many women who came away from it all despising her."

First of all, Warner is wrong that Hillary Clinton came out of her husband's public admission of his affair even more despised. On the contrary, many women seemed to become more sympathetic to her. Indeed, she did win the election for NY senator on the wave of new sympathy coming out of the Lewinsky affair.

Warner asks an interesting question: "Could such public forgiving and forgetting of a wanton political wife [Sarkozy] ever have happened here? And could Americans, like the French, ever elect a cuckold?"

Warner asks an interesting question, as Hillary Clinton is asking us to elect a cuckquean (the female version of the word cuckold) to the presidency.

But Warner should have asked an even more interesting one. Why is Sarkozy a more sympathetic cuckold than Hillary?

Society is more accepting of a powerful man who isn't afraid to show his soft, metrosexual, feminine side, than of a powerful woman who isn't prone to showing her feminine side, who appears "too masculine." That's why people still despise Hillary even though she's been "cuckolded." It's not that she comes out of this looking like a "cuckold," as Warner writes, and that no one likes a cuckold. It's just that she wasn't humiliated enough by her husband's infidelity. She gained power by it--she became a Senator, she got her public voice back, and her own career. Those who despise her would have liked her to have been humiliated, brought low, even further. It's Hillary's power, power that she retained, even strengthened, as a cuckold, not her humiliation, that make people dislike her.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

On Obama's Wife's "Stinky" and "Snores" comment

As reported in today's New York Times:

"In an interview with Glamour magazine, Michelle Obama reveals that her husband, Barack, is so “snore-y and stinky” when he wakes up in the morning that their daughters won’t crawl into bed with him. The interview, in the magazine’s October issue, was conducted by Tonya Lewis Lee, who is married to Spike Lee, the filmmaker."

"Referring to their daughters, Mrs. Obama says: 'We have this ritual in the morning. They come in my bed, and Dad isn’t there — because he’s too snore-y and stinky, they don’t want to ever get into bed with him. But we cuddle up and we talk about everything from what is a period to the big topic of when we get a dog: what kind?'

There has been a lot of criticism from the vox populi, or the peanut gallery, in response to her comments, for being too humanizing, too crude, or basically, just too much information.

One man writes in the online comments to the New York Times piece, "Believe it or not the best thing she can do at this time is pretend she’s the little housewife who likes to decorate instead of trying prop herself up and minimize her husband." So he acknowledges the falseness of the stereotype of the First Lady, the archetype Laura Bush has modeled herself on, but suggests that this is an easier image for people to accept than the one Michelle Obama is trying to project. Another man writes, "The wives of Biden, Richardson, Dodd, Kucinich, Gravel, McCain, Romney, Huckabee, Tancredo, Hunter, Paul, and even Giuliani ALL have shown better political sense than Mrs. Obama, in supporting from the sidelines and not eclipsing the candidate. I’d say the wives of Sen. Clinton and Sen. Edwards are both making the same mistake (although Bill is trying his best not to outshine, he’s the most popular wife of them all)."

So there's a feeling out there that she is not pretending enough, not giving in to the accepted archetype of the traditional First Lady, or potential First Lady, which is to be quiet and stay in the background while she lets her husband be glorified. She's trying to create a new mold, a new image for the First Lady that's more real, more candid, but that's not what people are ready to accept.

Gender Roles Topsy Turvy in This Week's "Damages"

This week, the women seem to be sketched as black and white archetypes. Glenn Close's Patricia Hewes seems completely venal; she does talk to her associate Ellen Parsons about how she needs to find a mate that will not be threatened by her, but one senses that her advice has ulterior motives, that, for some reason, she wants Ellen's fiance out of the picture. (Foreshadowing is at work here: we know the ending, that her fiance is killed, and so Hewes' words of advice about what to look for in a man are not seen by us as supportive "girl talk," which is how Ellen views it, but as Machiavellian, well-thought out words that will influence Ellen to act according to Hewes' mapped-out plans.)

Meanwhile, Ted Danson's character continues to be portrayed in a more nuanced way, designed to elicit viewers' sympathies. (See my post from last week). He has just as dark a side as Hewes; he tells an underling to do whatever it takes to deal with the witness Gregory, including, it seems, kill him. But in this episode, as in others, we see him interacting lovingly with his son. We seem that he cares about what his son thinks of him, about the "legacy," he's leaving him, which is why he is setting out to write his own biography (after punching the assigned ghostwriter in the face.) The only time we saw Patricia Hewes with her son was after she met with the school principal, and they walked down the hall together (with her husband), and when she meets him at a restaurant, then, in the antithesis of a loving mother-son relationship, has him seized by hulking men to take him, without his knowledge or consent, to a behavioral boot camp.

So the writers of the show have chosen to make the powerful female lead character one who is not at all maternal, who compartmentalizes her life so as to block any maternal feelings from influencing her career (which doesn't mimic at all the real-life constant juggling act of working women) but to make the powerful male lead one who is totally driven by his paternal urges.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Thoughts on today's "Modern Love" column

I read the New York Times Modern Love essay this morning (of course, now it's almost 10 pm, my first chance to write anything all day). My first reaction after reading the piece was to think the author has some issues. The whole piece is about the author's realizing that she never says "I love you" to her one-year-old, while all around her other mothers are saying "I love you", to her ears, at unremarkable times, such as when a mom swoops up a child after she goes down the slide. The author wonders when she should say "I love you" to her son; she doesn't want to only say it after he's done a feat, like say some letters (she subtlely shows off that her young son knows his letters already) because then he might think his mother only loves him if he does some great act.

When I was at the pool today, I caught myself saying "I love you" to my son, as I kissed him on the head, and I realized how often I say these words, without thinking about it, just as a way of expressing my love for my children; I don't think about it consciously like this author does. It just comes naturally to me. The author mentions that her parents never said "I love you" to her. She does remember saying it to her father right before he went in for heart surgery. I think how our parents raise us, how they love us, has a great effect on how we express our love for our children. (I wonder how far any of us stray from the mold our parents cast.)

Maybe it comes in part from realizing that we don't choose when to say goodbye to those we love. I didn't get to say goodbye to my father, who died suddenly two and a half years ago. But I know that he knew that I loved him, and that I got the chance to say those words to him every time we spoke.

On a more uplifting note, already my two-year-old daughter knows how to say "I love you" at the right times. She doesn't say it as often as my son does, who, at the same age, was more expressive with hugs and kisses. But she does say it to me, and it's the best feeling to hear her say it. And I hear her say it when she plays pretend with her babies and little animals. And tonight, after the grueling nightly ordeal of putting my kids to bed, specifically tonight's episode of the bedtime 'routine': after my son dumped the stuffed animals out of the Container Store soft-cubey container in my daughter's room and then tried to hide himself inside of it so that I could not retrieve him and put him to bed, and having to pull him out and down the hall and insist he must stay in his room (which included holding the door closed for a minute while he was inside, with him banging on it, to show that I meant business, then deciding he was making too much noise which might wake up his sister, so going inside, and having him do a "yoga breath" to calm down befor we read books) it was soothing for both of us to have our nightly routine of saying "I love you" to each other before kissing him goodnight. So the kid still loves me, I thought, even if all weekend he called me "stupid" when he didn't like something I did.