Isn't it infuriating when women who probably abhor the very fundamentals of feminism suddenly embrace it in order to play victim? And isn’t it so offensive when Gender is used as the convenient and automatic justification for losing?
Watching the otherwise fascinating American elections unfold, I’m stunned by how ‘sexism’ has become a central character in the narrative. First, they argued that Hillary Clinton got booted out because she was female. Never mind her dithering, incoherent positions on Iraq; forget about the surly anger and petty control that her husband brought to the campaign and don't even mention the fact that when they thought the ‘tears’ were working, her managers pushed her into playing it even ‘more female’. If anything, surely that’s sexist?
But no — even the hard-nosed, bright lawyer could not resist the temptation of casting herself in the role of victim and the American people in the role of women-hating oppressors. The subtext was incredulous — Hillary’s camp was suggesting that when it came down to prejudice, being Black was more palatable to people than being Female.
Now, public focus has shifted away from Hillary to a woman deeply antithetical to her — in appearance, personality and ideology. But the charge of ‘sexism’ continues to define the political debate in America.
Anyone who heard Sarah Palin’s feisty and combative speech this week knows that the former beauty queen and hockey-mom who also hunts, is no one’s idea of a poor-little-thing. Palin cleverly positioned herself as an outsider in Washington’s charmed and powerful circle of influence. But, who is she fooling? The small-town mommy persona is entirely deliberate and crafted. With one eye firmly on Middle America, Sarah Palin made sure that the Family Postcard was on perfect display at the Republican Convention. The doting husband; the five kids, the youngest born with Down’s Syndrome; the teenage daughter who got knocked up but is going to do the ‘right thing’ by marrying her childhood sweetheart and the PTA mother-turned politician, presiding like a protective matriarch, over her brood. This, as an American commentator wrote, was Christian country ethos: hate the sin, love the sinner. As strategy goes, it is fair game and may even be the smartest move the Republicans have made so far. John McCain wanted a running mate who would rustle up a storm and he has got one. Palin’s personal history — the kid with special needs, the daughter who got pregnant — speaks to the essential fallibility of the ordinary American family. If the postcard is frayed at the edges, it’s because so is Life. To that extent, McCain may have played an ace.
The problem begins because Palin also wants pity. Scandals have begun to surface in the American media on how the Alaska Governor tried to get her brother-in-law sacked, how she was abusive on a radio-talk show, how she is married to a man who wanted to secede from America and how she really doesn’t know that much about the war in Iraq, despite having a son enrolled in the military. Others have demanded to know how she can justify the Republican policy on teaching school children sexual abstinence over using protection (Republicans do not fund education programmes that advocate birth control) when her own daughter is a living example of why that policy has been a dismal failure. But the moment the fierce public scrutiny and criticism kicked in, Palin’s supporters fell back on that tired old accusation — the Governor, they argued, was a victim of sexist bias.
For god’s sake. Even if Palin were not haunted by controversy, her ideology alone makes her antithetical to the very notion of Feminism. She believes the government should force women to bear children, even if raped. She is on record saying that the pro-life dogma should begin at home. Can this really be the ideology that heralds a new political dawn for women? As the acerbic, left-leaning columnist Katha Pollit wrote in the Nation, “McCain must think we have the collective IQ of a tampax.”
The problem with Feminism in the 21st century is precisely this. It’s got mauled and distorted into being defined by so-called ‘free choice’. If you choose to strip to the skin and make your millions that way, you are ‘liberated’. If you ‘choose’ to be a stay-at-home mom and never become financially independent, you are ‘choosing’ what your mothers were forced to do. If you want to play a born-again evangelical messiah you are not orthodox — by the new mantra of feminism, you are ballsy for saying what you think. Listen to American professor, Linda Hirshman who says caustically, “Choose to exploit your beauty; choose to exploit your brains. Reports from Alaska reflect a serious subset of Palin supporters who just like to look at her legs. Hey, there’s a leg up for future feminist candidates. Boy, everyone’s a Feminist these days.”
And here’s the question: If Hillary’s 18 million voters see a kindred spirit in Palin or an alternative to Obama, should that be branded a feminist choice or just a very stupid decision? What can Hillary’s voters and Palin’s supporters possibly have in common other than Gender? And if that is reason enough aren’t women playing to the worst stereotypes?
Back in India, we may be amused at all the fuss and the fury. But our polity isn’t free from the overweening political correctness that seeks to make potential victims of us all. We saw the first signs of this distorted debate, during the elections for the President’s office. Women in India have enough real issues to battle and real victories to savour. Let’s not get imprisoned by our Gender. Female First doesn’t have to be our motto.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV