Thursday, May 29, 2008

How the Media Frames a Candidate

I'm reading an interesting book right now, which sheds light on the fading battle between Clinton and Obama. In The Press Effect, Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories that Shape the Political World, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Professor of Communication and the Walter H. Annenberg Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, writes about how the press first comes up with a frame for covering a candidate, and then fits all facts into that frame. She writes, "Reporters covering the campaign create simple frames, based on one or two characteristics of personality, and channel their coverage through those frames."

So in the 2000 campaign, the press reduced Gore's flaw to "trustworthiness", "while Bush's was reduced to lack of knowledge, translated ultimately as inexperience."

Jamieson writes that, fortunate for Bush, inexperience can be remedied by experience, or by selecting a cabinet or vice president with experience. On the other hand, a lack of trust is much more difficult to overcome. Jamieson writes, "Once the untrustworthy lens was locked in, any move on Gore's part could be interpreted as a cynical attempt to hide his true self."

It's kind of strange how these same two frames reappeared in this campaign between the two Democratic contenders, with even Hillary Clinton herself touting her experience, and her detractors and critics throwing the damning critique of "sleazy" or "untrustworthy" onto her. (This "untrustworthy" label has also cropped up a bit in reference to Obama, but only on the part of voters, not so much on the part of media commentators, whereas the press has applied the "untrustworthy" label to Clinton.)

Knowing how it is so difficult to re-frame how the press portrays a candidate, and how it's so hard to remove the stigma of untrustworthiness, Hillary Clinton would have been fared better if she had not herself made the metric one of experience versus inexperience. Unfortunately for her, from the beginning the media has criticized her for allegedly not showing her true self. Perhaps that's why back in New Hampshire she declared that she had "found my voice." She was trying to shake that "untrustworthy" label much as Gore tried to. But once the press nails a candidate as untrustworthy, and fits all subsequent statements into that "frame," it's impossible to remove.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Is Political Charisma Gendered Male?

In today's New Republic, as excerpted by the Columbia Journalism Review, TNR senior editor Michelle Cottle, and Amanda Fortini, a New Republic contributor who recently wrote about Clinton and feminism for New York magazine, discuss Clinton's historic run:

COTTLE: The thing that I worry about is that Clinton had certain advantages because of her celebrity that helped her to overcome certain other things—the charisma issue in particular. There are charismatic women, but when you’re talking about “presidential charisma,” or projecting both strength and warmth, overwhelmingly the people who tend to possess this are men…

FORTINI: Even if we had a female candidate who had this ineffable, intangible charisma, I think it would be perceived very differently than it would be in a man. When you think about the kind of ease with which Barack Obama conducts himself, I don’t know if it would be received as well if he were a woman. The “I want to have a beer with him” factor that we look for in our male candidates—I don’t think we necessarily want that from a woman. I don’t think we know what we want from our female candidates, frankly.

It's interesting that both Cottle and Fortini use the word "charisma".

Recently, a professor of history and women's studies suggested to me that I write a piece "on how charisma is gendered male – unless you are, maybe, mother Teresa. All these attractive men – Kennedy, Clinton (Bill), Obama, are “charismatic, “ -- which means that people want to follow them anywhere. It’s ok for women to fall in love with a male candidate, but it is not ok for men to fall in love with a female one."

She mentioned that Max Weber wrote about charisma, and that none of his examples of political charisma were female.

So why is charisma, and political charisma in particular, gendered male? Is this surmountable for a female presidential candidate? What would female political charisma look like?

Julia Keller on Hillary Clinton and Death Imagery

An article that Julia Keller published in the Chicago Tribune last week, "Devil in a Pantsuit or the demonization of Hillary Clinton," really resonated with me.

She write about the death imagery that repeatedly crops up in political commentators' references to Hillary Clinton, and puts it in the context of novels and films that similarly feature tropes and imagery of a monstrous woman. Keller sees behind this imagery a "notion of a powerful, driven, influential woman as a hideous threat—a threat that can be curtailed only with her death."

I find it fascinating how these old archetypes continue to reappear in cultural portraits of powerful women. There's the archetype of the "witch," which I wrote about once in Bust Magazine (I compared the prosecution of Martha Stewart to the Salem witch trials, finding similar imagery in both). There's the "Marie Antoinette" archetype, which I wrote about in a Chicago Tribune piece. Both are images of women who are wielding too much power. I hadn't thought about death imagery. What are some other old archetypes that are still with us today, still in our subconscious and seeping out into our media and other cultural texts?

Washington Post's Ruth Marcus on Why Fewer Women than Men Run for Political Office

Marcus writes in an interesting op-ed in the Washinton Post today that women impose their own glass ceilings. She cites a study that shows that far fewer women than men feel they are qualified to run for political office. She doesn't address why this is so: why do we impose limits on ourselves and our qualifications, why are women less "cocky" than men?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Clinton's Mentioning "Assassination" isn't Racist at all

Now the headline popping up on Drudge and elsewhere on the blogosphere is that "Hillary Clinton is raising the assassination issue," but really, when you watch the video, that's not what Clinton is doing, far from it, in fact. Actually, she's calmly saying that it is "curious" that the media and Obama's camp has been urging her to drop out of the race since Iowa, when historically, that hasn't been the case. She cites her husband's 1992 campaign, saying that he only wrapped it up in California in June, and then she says, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June, during his campaign. She's not suggesting that Obama is going to be assassinated, which is the implication of the headlines on the blogosphere, but she's citing examples of presidential campaigns that extended into June, without any criticism for tearing apart the party, as Hillary Clinton is being accused of, for continuing her candidacy.

But she's already apologizing....Here's a case where race had nothing to do with her statement, but race is read into her words, a context or is supplied that was not intended. This is an example of how, throughout the campaign for presidency, Hillary Clinton has been prevented from mentioning anything about gender, about the historic nature of her run for presidency, without being attacked for raising the gender card, and at the same time, she is often accused of raising the race card when she hasn't actually done so.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Chelsea should have been more front and center in Clinton's campaign

I just re-read a January 10, 2008 draft of an op-ed I published in the Tribune about unfair media portrayals of Hillary Clinton. At the end of my draft, I made a prediction that my editor removed because he said that I wasn't in the prediction business. He was right, I'm not--but I have to say, my prediction was right (read these two paragraphs that were not in my published piece.) And, I have to say, I think if Hillary Clinton had relied on Chelsea more from the beginning, and framed her own image as a "mama bear," as a maternal figure, she would have been portrayed more positively in the press.

Here are the two paragraphs from my original draft:

"Hillary's challenge in the days ahead is going to be how to reach out to those postfeminist twenty and early thirtysomething women who haven't yet suffered much because of their gender. A prediction: the Clinton campaign will feature Chelsea more front and center, and allow her finally to talk to the press. We'll see a lot less of Bill, a lot more of Chelsea. We saw a glimpse of this at the end of Hillary's victory speech Tuesday night: she hugged Chelsea, then Bill, and then Chelsea again, and they gazed lovingly at each other: the shot of mother and daughter gazing lovingly and proudly at each other made the Drudge Report. (Usually the victory speech image is of husband and wife.) Many young women will see themselves in Chelsea in a way they never will in Hillary."

"Bill Clinton (with Gore by his side) could use his sex appeal as a way to attract young female voters in 1993. I remember Naomi Wolf on the Yale campus screaming that "These men are babes!" to the cheers of the co-eds. The “Obama Girl” YouTube video only strengthened Obama's appeal. Hillary can't capitalize on her sex appeal as a strategy. (When she innocently showed an inch of cleavage a female Washington Post reporter jumped all over her.) But maybe she can run on her maternal appeal."

Friday, May 16, 2008

Barack calls reporter "sweetie"

Chicago Tribune's John Kass has a humorous column on Barack calling a female reporter, "sweetie," and not answering her question; there's also a link to the video.

Barack's official response is that he has a "bad habit" of "calling people sweetie." But, really, it's not "people" that get called this diminutive, only women. It's OK to call children "sweetie," but not for a presidential candidate to say that to a reporter asking a question. In this case, the reporter seems to yell out her question while Obama is doing a photo-op at a factory. She's disturbing the peace by asking her question, by putting him on the spot. So Obama's using this dimunitive is a macho way of not answering a question, or quieting a woman.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Hillary Clinton Creates New Archetype for Powerful Women: the Fighter

Susan Faludi wrote an interesting op-ed on Hillary Clinton in the New York Times, May 9th.

She writes about how Clinton has remade her image from the typical female archetype of "hall monitor" who admonishes everyone to abide by the rules, to one of a "fighter" who is in the trenches--an archetype that is typically male, and one that's more appealing to white male voters.

Faludi writes that "[t]he specter of the prissy hall monitor is, in part, the legacy of the great female reformers of Victorian America. . . they were regarded by men. . .as reluctant trespassers in the public sphere who had left the domestic circle only to fulfill their duty as the morally superior sex, housekeepers scouring away a nation’s vice."

This archetype of woman as rule-regulator is repellent in the national imagination, she writes. "In that visceral subbasement of the national imagination — the one that underlies all the blood-and-guts sports imagery our culture holds so dear — the laurels go to the slugger who ignores the censors, the outrider who navigates the frontier without a chaperone."

Of this fighter image, Faludi writes, "Deep in the American grain, particularly in the grain of white male working-class voters, that is the more trusted archetype. Whether Senator Clinton’s pugilism has elevated the current race for the nomination is debatable. But the strategy has certainly remade the political world for future female politicians, who may now cast off the assumption that when the going gets tough, the tough girl will resort to unilateral rectitude. When a woman does ascend through the glass ceiling into the White House, it will be, in part, because of the race of 2008, when Hillary Clinton broke through the glass floor and got down with the boys."

I find it fascinating how women are held to certain standard archetypes, and how these are confining for women. I wrote about the Marie Antoinette archetype several months ago for the Chicago Tribune, and how this archetype of the spoiled rich woman who abuses her inferiors and controls her husband is applied to powerful women. There's also the archetype of the witch, which is also applied to strong women who are in charge of the purse strings: I wrote an article comparing the prosecution of the Martha Stewart trial to the Salem witch trials-the same tropes and themes and symbols arose in both. Faludi's point is interesting that Hillary Clinton has now hewed to a new archetype--the fighter--a traditionally male archetype. Perhaps Clinton has created a new archetype for powerful women, one that opens up new possibilities, new acceptable ways of behaving and being portrayed.

Monday, May 12, 2008

My op-ed in yesterday's Tribune

Here's a link to my article from yesterday's (Sunday's) paper.

Katha Pollitt op-ed in today's Tribune

Pollitt has a well-written op-ed in today's Tribune about how anti-feminism is on the rise.

This would explain the increase in penis references, both verbal and visual, in recent Hollywood comedies. These movies are all made for men, for the "male gaze." Not to say that the male nudity is homosexual at all, but it's all about appeasing male anxieties at seeing themselves naked onscreen, and it's also about asserting the power of the penis.

In "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," the Rachel character says to Jason Segel's character, "I can see your vagina from here," when he is being cowardly. There's a scene in "Baby Mama," in which Tina Fey's character and her new boyfriend acknowledge that for a man, being called a "dick," is a compliment, it means a man is strong and demanding.

As Pollitt mentions, Manohla Dargis wrote a great piece in the New York Times on May 4th, called "Is there a Real Woman in this Multiplex" on how movies are being made now solely with men in mind.

Why is anti-feminism on the rise?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Perhaps Availability of Porn on Internet also Explains Rise in Male Nudity in Movies

Another point I didn't have room to include in my article, was one made by Professor Linda Williams of Berkeley:

She said to me, "The elephant in the room in all of this is that audiences today have all seen pornography-they’ve seen a lot of genitals whether on the Internet or dvd or vhs or whatever-it’s not like it’s unseen, it is just that it is-now that pornography is consumed in a quasiprivate way--the more social situation of the movie theater is still something that can make audiences uncomfortable if they see the things that they [usually] see in a more private context."

Taking her point in a different direction, perhaps director-producer Judd Apatow realizes that he can't avoid displaying visual imagery of the penis on the big screen when audiences today are so accustomed to seeing a wide range of images of penises on the small screen of the computer or television, due to the "pornification" of our culture--so it's ripe time to break this last taboo.

As Linda Williams also pointed out to me in an email after seeing Forgetting Sarah Marshall: "Our hero gets beaten up to retrieve the photos of the new girlfriend flashing her breasts. The film does not linger on those breasts. That is old news in a mainstream American movie. But it does linger on the penis at the beginning as a kind of terra incognita, as if to ask, can this be part of our romantic comedy as visible organ and not just as a word? The answer seems to be yes. This is not to say that the double standard is over, only that a certain hurdle has been leaped."

Regarding that moment in which the hero of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Peter Bretter (Jason Segel), steals the photo of his girlfriend Rachel (Mila Kunis) revealing her breasts from the bathroom wall of a bar, I think this scene, like the movie, upholds the standard virgin/whore dichotomy. Rachel (Kunis) couldn't stay the romantic heroine of the movie, and still win our hearts, without being restored to seeming chaste (hence Peter has to remove the photo at the risk of his bodily harm)and not like a slutty "Girl Gone Wild." Rachel's character is a free spirit, but not so sexually free. Peter is allowed to have a string of one-night-stands after his girlfriend breaks up with him and we, the audience, still like him. But for us to still like Rachel, her chastity, or the illusion of it, has to be restored.

In the same way, male actors are allowed more latitude in their physical appearance. Segel is doughy, a little fleshy; Kunis and Kristen Bell are toned and sleek.

From "Melodramatic" Penis to "Casual Penis"

Professor Peter Lehman coined the term "melodramatic" penis (see my previous post) for displays of the penis in movies of the early 90s. I'd argue that these recent movies which I write about in my Tribune piece tomorrow(Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanomo Bay, Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox story, etc.) marks a shift to the revelation of the "casual" penis.

Why this shift?

Lehman on the "Melodramatic" Penis in 90s Movies

Professor Peter Lehman has written about what he coined the "melodramatic" penis in movies and theater of the 1990s. This is from my interview with him:

"I have traced the history in my book Running Scared- of male frontal nudity—I think what has happened it has maybe come more caught up, more related with the cultural preoccupation with the penis and its presumed importance with definining male sexuality and defining male sexual performance. We live in a more intense body culture than we did then. There is more discourse about the penis and male sexuality [now] than then-bringing this to a different level of prominence and attention—it means something different-different types of bodies—different patterns of nudity. The context in which nudity is shown is different: Starting in 1993 with the Bobbitt case there were a couple of films [featuring] what I called the melodramatic penis, showing the penis became common not just in movies but in other artworks in relation to highly melodramatic situations. The Crying Game shows a penis in the context of an extremely melodramatic moment where the male character finds out woman he is abbut to sleep with is a man. M. Butterfly—[the play] is around the same time. In the theater—there is full frontal male nudity for the audience-a shockingly melodramatic moment-. . . .[Lehman also mentioned the revelation of the penis in Boogie Nights as "melodramatic."]

"These [works] cluster around the same time in the 90s. What is going on in this moment of time is that we are now fascinated with showing the penis to intensive melodrama. I argue there had been a polarity in place before the early 90s-either the penis was the butt of jokes as in [what I described to him in the movie] Harold and Kumar where small penises are made fun of but seldom saw or a presentation of the penis as a large impressive spectacle of which porn was the leading component—this idea of an impressive display that was supposed to mark masculinity—and what I wanted to argue was that films were an attempt to break away from that binary," says Lehman.

Basically, the "melodramatic" penis was when these films in the 90s only showed penises in the most "extraordinary situations", says Lehman.

Adolescent View of Women's Bodies also in Baby Mama

The male adolescent view that I mention in my Tribune piece (this Sunday's paper) also pervades Baby Mama.

There's the scene in which Amy Poehler's character talks to her new buddy, the doorman, about her menstrual cycle and fertility, saying how she was spotting, and thought it was her period, but she must have been ovulating, and that's how she got her period--she was kind of funny in her riff, but then he responded in the typical adolescent male way as the men in the Apatow movies do: oh, stop talking, that's too much information and disgusting.

Two More Penis Scenes in Baby Mama-and what this all means

There are two more "penis" moments in Baby Mama that stuck in my mind:

One, when Tina Fey's character is with her new boyfriend, the fruitshake-making guy, and he points out the graphic of a banana in the window of the shop and asks her if it looks like a penis. Stupid scene in my opinion--unnecessary and sophmoric. Again, it's what Peter Lehman is talking about...

Two, when Tina Fey's character orders a meal from a takeout stand and makes a lot of requests for how she would like her food done. She apologizes to the new boyfriend for being so demanding and controlling and he says, "That's not fair, if you were a man, people would call you a 'dick.' And Fey says something to the effect of, "Aww, no one has ever called me a 'dick' before."

This second joke was commenting on something interesting in society--how if women act too strong they are called names, but this is seen as a strength in men.

But the larger point is that author Peter Lehman is right, "there has been an increased emphasis and centrality on the penis in our culture," e.g. all these increased references, visually and verbal, to penises in recent movies.

As Lehman says, he and his co-author Susan Hunt think this is part of an increase in emphasis on the "body" in our culture, i.e. dieting, physical fitness, an obsession with youthfulness, "an intensification of a particular body culture which devalues the mind, and overvalues the body."

Baby Mama fits into my Penis Analysis, too

I wanted to include some analysis of the new movie, Baby Mama, in the Tribune piece, but there wasn't room.

So here it is:

Surprisingly for a film that is supposed to be about the women's perspective, a "women's" film, there was a lot of emphasis on penises in Baby Mama. While there was no male nudity per se, there were three scenes where penises are mentioned.

In one, Steve Martin's character, Tina Fey's new-agey boss, says, "What's the secret to success? A big penis!" It's supposed to be funny, but it really wasn't, so it stuck in my mind. In a film about a 37-year-old woman who has been focusing on her career and reached a level of success in her career so that she has started fairly late to try to have a baby, it's strange to emphasize the worth of a big penis. Well, maybe it isn't so strange. The film was written by a man, and the anxiety, which I talk about in my Tribune article, about men getting displaced by women, about feeling not needed in today's society due to women's advances into areas of the workforce where men have always dominated, runs through Baby Mama.

Tina Fey's character turns to surrogacy during the film, in one scene, wielding a silver phallic object with sperm inside of it, carefully through the streets of Philadelphia. There's this male anxiety about becoming unnecessary in the act of procreation. But men need not fear, suggests this movie: only the old-fashioned act of intercourse leads to conception in the movie, twice over (I don't want to spoil the plot for you, even though it's quite predictable.)

So, just like the movies I discuss in the Tribune piece, this movie is all about quashing or appeasing male anxieties, even though this one, ostensibly, is supposed to be a "chick flick."

Baby Mama
would have been a better film if it were written by a woman and more from a woman's true perspective.

My Male Nudity Article in Sunday's Chicago Tribune

My last blog entry turned into an opinion piece in tomorrow's (Sunday's) Chicago Tribune on the front page of the Perspective section. Let me know what you think. There was a lot that I couldn't include in the piece because of length limitations, including a great deal of interesting insights from the two professors I quote, Peter Lehman, the director of the center for film, media and popular culture at Arizona State University, and Linda Williams, professor of film studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Peter Lehman has a new book coming out with the working title The Body Guy in the Movies, His Culture, His Sexuality, Your Life , co-authored with Susan Hunt, who teaches at Santa Monica College; the book will be published by Rutgers University Press. Linda Williams has a new book Screening Sex, The Long Adolescence of American Movies, coming out this September or October with Duke University Press.

I wish I could have included more of their insights in this piece, so I will post to the blog more direct quotes from my interviews with them.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Male Nudity vs. Female Nudity in New Movies

The male frontal nudity in Forgetting Sarah Marshall was much heralded in the media before it's release in theatres this past Friday. Every review mentions at the start how the main actor, Jason Segal, is nude at the beginning of the film when his girlfriend unexpectedly breaks up with him as he comes out of the shower. A few reviewers also mentions that Segal is also totally naked for a moment at the end of the film.

Only one reviewer, steadfast Roger Ebert, mentions how incredibly brief these nude scenes are:

Roger Ebert writes, "Between his brief nude scene at the very beginning (a humiliating, emotionally naked break-up and breakdown), and his even briefer final one (a welcome reunion of sorts), he discovers quite a lot about himself through his genitalia."

The flashes to Segal's penis are so split-secondly quick that a viewer doesn't really get a good glimpse of his private parts.

It's no surprise so many of the reviews focus on the nudity. It's rare that a male actor shows frontal nudity in a film, especially the main actor in a film.

In contrast, a few days later I saw "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanomo Gay". No review had mentioned the frontal female nudity that appears in the film. There is one scene, when Harold and Kumar arrive at an old friend's house who is having a "bottom less party" as opposed to a "topless" one, in which a woman greets them at the door wearing no panties. The camera gives a slow shot of her vagina, with its pubes closely trimmed into a landing strip, for a long, slow shot, as if to make sure everyone gets a full, long, look.

Then we proceed to see at least twenty women with their vulvas on full view, a slow pan of the camera to show one after the other.

When we see the fast glimpse of Segal's penis, it's a moment of laughter: the audience guffawed and yelped, even when we just see his backside as he hugs his ex in an effort to get close to her and "feel her body" when she has just broken up with him. His naked body invokes laughter, humor.

I don't remember anyone laughing during "Harold and Kumar" as one women after another showed her private parts to the camera, again, in a much slower, languid pace than the brief shot of Segal's privates. The camera moves so slowly in this scene that there was no way you could miss these vaginas (actually, vulvas) in all their glory, whereas Segal's penis is seen so briefly that one doesn't come away with any memory of what it actually looked like. Ironically, no movie review mentions the female nudity in the film. And, of course, all these women were beautiful, tight-bodied and tan, unlike the fleshy, doughy Segal.

The parallel would not exist: a naked female body in Segal's fleshy state onscreen would invoke disgust, not such empathy or humor.

These naked female bodies in Harold and Kumar did not invoke laughter, even though they were part of the big joke of "the bottomless party." Their bodies were too sexualized, too perfect, too stylized. The only moment of laughter (though also tinged with some disgust) was when Harold and Kumar's friend, the host of the bottomless party, shows his penis, a slip of a thing buried in an excessive mountain of pubic hair--a sight gag. Again, the penis--a source for humor, silliness. The naked female body--a source for sexual arousal and objectification of the female body, but not for humor or empathy.

The naked male body can be used to make the audience laugh, to find humor in it. But the naked female body is always too sexualized to be funny. And it's so common to feature female nudity that it doesn't make the press, whereas the brief nudity of Segal is mentioned again and again as if it's revolutionary for a male actor to reveal himself physically. It is a new thing--but note how it's oddly not a new thing for female actors (Kramer vs. Kramer anyone?)--again Meryl Streep's full frontal nudity was a moment of awkwardness and discomfort, not laugh out loud humor-- and how scared we are to give the audience a good, long look at male nudity without making it a thing to be laughed at.

Wait till Forgetting Sarah Marshall comes out on DVD--there will be a lot of use of the pause button.