Friday 2 May 2008

Sex, race, class, politics

David Cameron has been trying to persuade northern English voters that he's no 'namby-pamby': with some success, it would seem. Meanwhile, in the US Democratic primary campaign, Barack Obama has been attempting to overcome the perception that he is something of a 'wimp'.

Much of the coverage of the primary campaign has inevitably focused on issues of gender and race - not surprising, given that Clinton and Obama are, respectively, the first serious female and non-white candidates for their party's nomination. But the discussion has tended to be quite simplistic and (dare I say, without turning off those of you whose antennae are trained to pick up the merest hint of academic post-modernism) essentialist: will men vote for a woman, can white voters be persuaded to support an African-American candidate, etc.

Less attention has been paid to the ways in which gender, in particular, has become a key factor in shaping public perceptions of both candidates, regardless of their actual identity. As the gender theorists say, masculinity and femininity are not so much fixed, biological attributes, as clusters of meaning that float around in the cultural atmosphere, and get tangled up with other sets of meanings.

The set of meanings that gender got tangled up with in Pennsylvania was class. So the fuss following Obama's 'bitter' speech, and more trivially his weak performance in the bowling alley, was simultaneously about him being not only elitist and 'out of touch' with the working class, but also somehow not a 'real' man.

Meanwhile Hillary Clinton, who previously had no qualms about capitalising on her femininity by shedding tears in New Hampshire and complaining about the 'big boys' ganging up on her, overhauled her image in Pennsylvania and emerged as a keen hunter and hard drinker. In other words: not only as apparently more working-class than Obama - but also as somehow more masculine. (Incidentally, did the young Ms. Rodham ever dream, when she was working for a radical law firm in the '60s, that one day she'd be running for president - as the redneck candidate?)

We saw something similar happen in 2004, when Karl Rove's campaign to get George Bush re-elected managed to paint John Kerry as effete - once again, a term that has gender as well as class overtones - when contrasted with George W. the good old southern boy. This despite Kerry's war record and Bush's cosseted upbringing. 

And, as the campaign against Kerry showed, this particular cluster of meanings around masculinity and working-classness also contains a racial component. In Kerry's case, it was his French tastes that did for him, enabling Rove and his associates to portray the candidate not only as elitist and wimpish, but also as somehow alien and unAmerican. In the case of the Clinton/GOP attacks on Obama, I think the racial element is more insidious, since attacks on the masculinity of black men have long been part of the toolkit of racism. 

I wonder why it's become so important for modern political candidates in the US and UK, whether they're biologically male or female, to prove their masculinity to the public? And why, at a time when traditional, working-class masculinity is said to be increasingly redundant, is it such an outdated form of masculine toughness that has to be proven?  Finally, in a period of heightened awareness about gay rights, surely terms such as 'namby-pamby', 'wimp' and 'effete', which disparage public figures by making implicit suggestions about their sexuality, should be well and truly binned?

No comments: