Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Selling Sarah Palin: on post-feminism and the misuse of "feminist"

This isn't so much a complaint about Sarah Palin as it is about the media that is supposedly vilifying her and the fast-and-loose way that people now deploy the word "feminism". Namely, it's a complaint about the insistence with which some media types (and bloggers) sincerely push Palin as a feminist - often, as in these examples, her feminist credentials are posed as a question or debate, though the angle is always a sympathetic one - or at least present her political ambitions as an achievement made possible by feminism and representative of its success.

The first suggestion is, to anyone who knows anything about the broad philosophy of feminism, total bullshit. Feminism is not a politics that aims for the exceptional and symbolic advancement of a single woman, nor can it be reduced simply to the success of women - their ability to perform masculinity while preserving a recognizable femininity - in a man's world. Rather, a feminist and feminist politics are oriented toward gender equity and equality, and accomplishing that 1) by recognizing larger social structures and institutions that produce and reproduce this "man's world", and 2) doing something to change those same structures and institutions. Palin's politics are in no way feminist for the simple reason that she fails to recognize her exceptionalism as a woman who can play the boys' game, and so makes no effort to change that boys' game in order to make it inclusive. (Contrast this with Obama, who acknowledges historical and systemic race barriers - even if he can't explicitly call the USA "racist" - as well as his own good fortune to have been able to access systems of power that are only rarely available to other black men in the USA. Sarah Palin disingenuously describes herself as just a "hockey mom"; Obama would never reduce himself to just an "Afro-American dude".)*

The solution to the problem of the second argument is less obvious - which is merely to say that it's not completely fucking clueless - but equally misdirected. Marketing Palin as the end product of feminism or as a woman who will usher in a "new" feminism is actually a post-feminist position. Hillary Clinton got it right when she, like Obama, marketed herself as a pioneer - her run at the president's office was not indicative of feminism's success, but of its continuing gains and potential to succeed eventually. Conversely, Palin's nomination to the vice-president's office is seen by Republicans as just another reason to declare feminism dead and the feminist movement irrelevant - if a woman can be one step from the highest political office in the country, then surely gender discrimination is a non-issue. (And if you need me to tell you how and why this opinion is woefully misinformed, then you probably realized that I'm one of those self-hating feminist men and stopped reading this a long time ago.)

In fact, the ways in which pundits describe Palin's feminist achievements actually serve to illustrate the persistence of gender inequality. Note how Palin is lauded for her ability to balance family and work - as if she could not be "feminist" if she focused on only one. Conversely, male politicians are rarely celebrated for their ability to be both good fathers and good leaders, nor are they decried for their perceived parenting failures. In fact, it's not really expected that they should have to parent- it's a mostly unspoken expectation that primary parental responsibilities will fall to their spouse, to whom most of the child-rearing questions are directed by the media anyway.

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