The Doc Marten Vote (masculinity & feminism)

“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.

19 thoughts on “The Doc Marten Vote (masculinity & feminism)

  1. Fascinating stuff that makes my head spin a bit. But I also suspect that Clinton’s success in politics is in itself one of the things that gets her seen as masculine. Which in a way makes the Palins of the world very interesting– they are successful in politics without being read as masculine. Though maybe it’s too quick to talk about Palin not being thought of as masculine– there’s all that stuff about moose-hunting, all those photos of her with guns, etc. Perhaps also interesting to think about the way that Al Gore, John Kerry, John Edwards and Barack Obama have all been criticised for femininity. Yes, it would be good if if masculinity and femininity could be less strictly associated with the sexes– especially if instances of that dissociation weren’t viewed so negatively. (Actually, the Palin/Gore contrast is constructive. Elements of masculinity in Palin are viewed as appealing, while elements of femininity in Gore are not.)

  2. Yes, there’s a lot going on and I didn’t try to unpack it all in the post–it makes my head spin, too!

    – On Palin, masculine attributes like moosehunting seem to be read as sexy, perhaps because of her physical attractiveness. Images like this one making the rounds give me that impression.

    – I definitely think that the criticisms of liberals as “effeminate” are useful contrasts, too. One writer at Salon tried to argue that Obama had feminine traits and it was read as an attack, when he was trying to portray it as a counter to the machismo of Bush.

    It would be interesting to look in more detail at what instances of dissociation are allowable or encouraged (the bikini photos with the gun) and what are condemned (Obama as a girly-man). My first impression is that it revolves around protecting ‘real’ masculinity as something only men have–since Palin is sketched as inherently feminine, but just skilled in ways that make her attractive, and Clinton gets read as a ‘ball-buster’ because she’s taken on a masculine role in a different & perhaps deeper way.

  3. US culture already has a trope that Palin appears to fits: the frontier mother who has to be skilled in some segments of the ‘male domain.’

  4. Orlando, I’m not sure what you mean when you say the following:

    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.

  5. jj, the “frontier mother” trope is very helpful, yes. (Incidentally, what are some good resources for a discussion of these tropes?)

    Here’s what I was trying to say about Clinton:
    – Unlike Maddow, she’s not read as masculine because she wears “mannish” clothing. It seems that she’s called a ‘harpy’, ’shrew’, ‘boner-shrinker’ etc. because she is seen as dominating over men.
    – In contrast, Palin’s “frontier mother” isn’t encroaching inappropriately on male territory, really.
    – So sexist remarks are grounded in the idea that Clinton is overstepping her role. And in that sense, they carry some kind of implicit justification. She had to show that she is really feminine.

    At least, that’s what I’m seeing–but I could be misinterpreting or missing something. Do you have any thoughts?

  6. Palin is viewed as feminine because she protects conservative values, she protects the hearth as jj pointed out with the pioneer woman trope. Clinton is masculine because she challanges traditional values and so is a bad mommy to the nation. A woman can be as aggressive as she wants as long as its not in her own defense which makes me wonder if this masculine/feminine analysis is really the best one.

  7. on second thought maybe it is. feminity is defending the interests of others and masculinity is defending the interests of oneself. that would be why powerful men protecting the rights of others are viewed as feminine. in any case, i’m not sure that feminity and masculinity really merit preservation. if someone does think so it’d be interesting to hear

  8. Thanks, Orlando. I was really wondering about the statement “there’s a sense in which sexism is justified against women taking on inappropriate traits.” I just wasn’t sure what you meant.

    I tried a couple of sources and found a number of articles in google scholar where I did an advanced search and ask for things with both “gender” and “trope”. Enjoy!

  9. “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…”

    I agree that the problem here is that “masculinity” is associated with (and only seen acceptable for) males, whereas “femininity” is associated with (and only seen acceptable for) females. Then, when important figures such as politicians adopt (or are seen as adopting) “masculine” roles, they might be criticized, not only by traditionalists, for adopting the “wrong” features, but also by some feminists, for allegedly “capitulating in some way to a male-dominated culture”.

    I think this reaction fails to see that “masculinity” and “femininity” are (mostly) socially constructed and arbitrary, and that there is no necessary connection between “masculinity” and maleness, nor between “femininity” and femaleness. Therefore, those women seen as “masculine” do not have to be interpreted as suggesting that in order to be successful, you have to be male. They should rather be interpreted as some refreshing evidence for the claim that females can adopt roles other than the traditional “feminine” one, and still be successful.

  10. Really interesting discussion!

    I think that the two reactions to Palin and Clinton (played out so wonderfully in that SNL sketch) illustrate what we could call the double bind of sexism: powerful women are seen as threatening, and the fact of their being women will be used against them to diminish them. But this can happen in (at least!) two ways, ways that map here onto masculinity (or transgressing femininity) for Clinton, and femininity for Palin. Either one is a means of diminishing a woman as an agent: either calling her a ball-busting bitch, or a MILF. You can be feminine and still be powerful, but your femininity will be used against you. You can challenge standards of femininity, in order to try to take it off the table, in order to be taken more seriously (for a long time the standard, I think, for women in political campaigns; remember that its only recently that female lawyers in the states were allowed to wear pants in court), but your failure to accede to femininity will be used against you.

    This is to say that feminists, at the very least, should and I think do understand this. If Clinton was read as masculine, and if she was castigated for it, that is *not her fault.* I would therefore question the “we” that appears in this analysis a little bit: who is it that wants feminine women to be taken seriously, but worries and sighs and sees Clinton as capitulating to male-dominated culture? Perhaps some of those liberal men confused by the “naughty librarian” aspect of Palin- a lot of those guys did not exactly prove to be allies in the primary fight. Feminists know better.

  11. Also, Maddow may have to femme it up for the ratings, but I reject that she has to femme it up for the revolution (are the two not mutually exclusive in some sense?)- butch lesbians have been at the forefront of challenging and expanding womens’ possibilities. Butch it up, Rachel!

  12. Hey all, thanks for the comments. I haven’t read nearly enough feminist philosophy–primarily Halberstam, Haslanger and Fausto-Sterling), hence the “bleg” for sources. I’ll try sifting through some of the Google Scholar stuff, jj, and maybe see what’s frequently cited.

    M adds a good point about self-preservation versus other/familial-preservation. Although when extending the metaphor to nation as family, I’m not sure what to say about that.

    Esa says what I was trying to get at, but much better!

    sk wonders if I set up a straw feminist–I don’t have lots of sources immediately at my disposal, but this article cites one female Dem as calling Hillary the “male candidate — in your face, authoritative, know-it-all.” Then there was the infamous Elizabeth Edwards remark, which implied Hillary was “behaving like a man.” Of course, we could argue that these aren’t representative of actual feminists.

    And I agree with sk that Rachel should “butch it up!” I’m just concerned (again, anecdotal stuff here) that it might not go over well with some factions.

  13. I love it. I’m so glad I found this website. Yep, it’s making “my head spin ” too….but it’s so fascinating. Women who like to think and who have brass clits (daring) are sexy. Keep it coming.

  14. I’m unhappy with excusing anyone saying Clinton is masculine, unless there’s some pretty special reason given. My main reason is that over the last year such comments have been taken to bear on her candidacy and I think which gender-flavor one seems to have is irrelevant to one’s qualifications for the presidency. Secondly, her masculinity seems to reside in a no-nonsense, assertive, bright and indeed quite powerful personality. I am really distressed to think that we can’t accommodate that within what is female or even feminine.

    I’ve painted a black and white picture, and I do realize there’s some grey. But not much on this topic!

  15. Orlando, thanks for your kind words!
    Just one small point on jj’s last post:
    If we understand ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ as gender roles (as opposed to the presumably biological features of femaleness and maleness), then the claim that some of Clinton’s features are ‘masculine’ does not entail in any way the claim that those features cannot be accommodated within what is female. What it does entail, we can assume, is that it cannot be accommodated within what is ‘feminine’. But this depends on how the feminine gender role has been constructed.

  16. Nice point in general, Esa, though I think there are good reasons for resisting assigning “bright,” “assertive,” and “strong” to either the male or the masculine.

  17. Does it help that a straight guy is just fascinated enough to want to shag her rotten and look forward to talking to her afterward?

    Seriously, Rachel is the smartest commentator on TC today anf you ladies do her a disservice for talking about her clothes.

  18. OK~

    Clinton is valuable in her way.

    Maddow~ is f*cking awesome in every way possible! Serious, intelligent, well-read, upbeat, politically in-tune….

    Not to mention- f*cking gorgeous! So intriguing & sexy…OMG~ tell me that not one of her right-wing detractors (male or female) hasn’t imaged a tryst- I mean, pulll-eease!

    I don’t care what RM wears (tho boyish suits her more, of course)- she is still tops to me,


Comments are closed.