Notes from the Perimeter

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Don't Be Mean to the Girl: Gender, Power and the Politics of Pretty



When Christine O'Donnell upset the Republican applecart in Delaware on Tuesday, Karl Rove called her, among other things, "nutty." Oh Karl. That's just not nice. One thing that seems to be true in these through-the-looking-glass days of American politics is that you can't be mean to the (Republican) girl.

It's difficult to evaluate the candidacy of O'Donnell without the calculus of gender. In a day-is-night kind of way, O'Donnell would seem to benefit from the fact of being a woman in the way that her flaws and missteps are apparently tolerated. For example, last year O'Donnell's financial disclosure statement for last year indicated an income of $5,800 (although later she said she made "more" but refused to say how much). Would a man in those circumstances be considered anything other than fiscally questionable? Probably not. Perhaps unfairly, we equate masculine power with material substance. But how do most people define feminine power? This is an overstatement, but in O'Donnell's case it seems to less about having things than getting away with them.

The Weekly Standard recently unearthed new details about a nearly $7M gender-discrimination lawsuit O'Donnell filed in 2005 against the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative not-for-profit think-tank. The claims she makes in the lawsuit are revelatory, of her character and modus operandi. In it, she asserts that she was fired due to the organization's policy that women were not allowed to be in leadership positions (a charge the company denies). She insists that she suffered such pain and mental anguish that she lost her ability to make a living and enjoy life (poor baby). Her career was thwarted, she proclaims, since the organization reneged on its promise to pay the tuition for her master's degree at Princeton, tuition, by the way, that would likely cost the organization about as much as O'Donnell's yearly salary (a statement from Princeton noted that she was never enrolled in a master's program there). Ultimately O'Donnell dropped the lawsuit; however, to read the text is to see emerge the portrait of an unstable, histrionic, incompetent and whiny woman on the warpath for someone to blame.

When I was coming of age, in those heady days of "women's liberation," what mattered was strength: of character, of action, of ideas and ideals -- the willingness to fight not just the traditional forces of oppression and reaction arrayed against us but also the secret traitor within.

As Simone de Beauvoir aruges in her seminal work of feminism and existentialism, The Second Sex, women are too often party to our own enslavement. In accepting traditional roles with their trade-off -- the chilly landscape of autonomy for the promise of refuge -- we are choosing security over risk, status over disenfranchisement, the known (however limiting) for the unknown (however exhilarating). To be self-governing is to accept responsibility: for our choices and decisions, for our successes as well as the many mistakes we will make. It can be a tough and perilous road -- far less daunting to let others make the rules.

Christine O'Donnell and her fellow Grizzly-ettes turn all of that on their well-coiffed heads. The female power they wield is less a matter of integrity than wiley-ness, but it certainly comes in a pretty package. Good looks with its currency of sexuality apparently are a requirement of this particular sorority. As one commenter said in response to an article about Rove's dismissal of O'Connell's chances, a lot of Delawarians might vote for her anyway because she's "attractive and gorgeous." Subvert female sexuality and you have female compliance -- and a kind of collaboration that ultimately is nothing more than betrayal.

The image of woman that O'Donnell embodies is one that most of us fought fiercely to repudiate: manipulative, amoral and fragile. We are not to mind the inconsistencies, the emotional lash-outs, the prevarications, the glib oversimplifications of issues. When she plays the woman card, O'Donnell is asking for indulgence, not respect. Don't be hard on me, she says -- don't be mean to the girl. And even an old misanthrope like Rove ultimately caves.

(First published in www.care2.com in September 2010)

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