“I know that I don’t look like everybody else on television,” she recently told The Washington Post. “Women on television are over-the-top beauty-pageant gorgeous. That’s not the grounds on which I am competing.” – Rachel Maddow (pictured below)
Originally I was going to write about this older article in which MSNBC and Air America pundit Rachel Maddow talks about surrendering to wearing “lady clothes.” But in doing a Google search today on her, I came across another article, “The High Heel Vote,” in The Independent on how the US election is is “really all about women.” (The connection is the quote at the top, to which I’ll get in a moment.)
The Independent claims that what’s going on in the US election is a sea change in punditry and politics–recognizing that instead of “chest-beating masculinity”, what’s taking place is interesting reporting from women, such as Rachel Maddow. Maddow has a “no-nonsense crop” and “minimal make-up”, reports The Independent, and yet attains an “extreme fangirldom.”
Other women noted in the article include Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Samantha Bee, and of course, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton. There’s quite a lot to talk about, but I wanted to single out one implication: that masculinity is attached to male bodies.
Take, for example, the contrast between Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton in the brilliant SNL clip in the key moment when:
“… both women outlined their take on sexism. “Stop using words that diminish us, like ‘beautiful’, ‘attractive’,” said Fey as Palin; “Or ‘harpy’, ‘shrew’, ‘boner-shrinker’,” replied Poehler as Clinton. And in that moment the difference between the public views of the two women was sharply defined. For, where Clinton faced a variety of personal attacks on everything from her personal appearance to her public demeanour, Palin has been celebrated as sex object.”
Masculinity is out of place on Clinton (and note, too, that Clinton is read as “masculine” by way of personality traits, not physical/dress characteristics) and there’s a sense in which sexism is justified against women taking on inappropriate traits. Palin has caused confusion in liberal men, since her “sexy librarian” style interferes with their rational response to her. I suppose I wonder what would be happening if Clinton looked/acted like Palin and vice versa…
Then there’s the fact that while Maddow has “minimal” makeup, as a butch lesbian she still feels like she’s putting on “lady clothes” in order to minimize her masculinity. (It couldn’t be, could it, that many, even straight female, Maddows fans find her masculinity one of the appealing things about her?) Along with this, the article notes that instead of a “chest-beating masculinity”, there is now a “feminist revolution” on the airwaves. While most feminists would happily applaud getting rid of the kind of masculinity denoted by “chest-beating”, there’s no recognition that the phrase is not a tautology.
Feminism has an ambivalent relationship to masculinity, I think (and lesbianism, but the two are not inherently related). We want to have “feminine” women who look like Sarah Palin to be seen as intelligent by a wide audience. Why? Because they’re not taking on “male” characteristics by acting in a “masculine” manner. When someone read as masculine, like Clinton, is successful, there are some sighs and complaints that (I think) she’s capitulating in some way to a male-dominated culture.
This puts women like Maddow in the position of needing to dress in a more “feminine” manner, for the sake of the revolution (as well as ratings, let’s not forget). Obviously, the overarching concern is that women–whether masculine or feminine, biological or transgendered–are receiving equal opportunity in society and not subject to systematic bias. However, I think that until we can detach masculinity from maleness (and femininity from femaleness–as another important thread in this election is “effeminacy”), that goal will remain out of reach.
Orlando is the nom de plum of an analytic philosopher-in-training in the United States. She is a PhD student focusing on topics in language and mind and likes to think she looks something like Rachel Maddow.