August 8, 2011

Return of the Bug-Eyed Bachmann

The blogosphere is abuzz with commentary about Newsweek’s bug-eyed Bachmann cover. Indeed, the shot could be used to illustrate the Urban Dictionary’s definition of “crazy eyes”:  a state in which “the white part of the eye (the sclera) is clearly visible above and below the colored part of the eye (the iris).” That definition also notes that crazy eyes are “typically found in women.” In an earlier post (all of three weeks ago), I explained why the meme of the crazed female politico is problematic, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum. As this frame moves from the margins to the center of political dialogue, it’s worth using the Newsweek cover as an opportunity to examine the frame in more depth.

First, the photo is oddly dissonant with its corresponding headline “Queen of Rage.” Bachmann looks neither regal nor enraged in the photo. Her navy jacket, perfectly ironed collar, and prim pearls are designed to make Bachmann look the picture of disciplined conservative leadership. Her make-up is camera appropriate—nude lips serving as a counterpoint to earlier photos of her in a more garish pink glaze. Like Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and John Edwards, Michele Bachmann is photogenic, so Newsweek editors presumably had to dig for an unflattering shot. They settled on one that makes her look manically bright-eyed.

Indicting a female as both bubbleheaded and unstable is a time tested way to slam women politicians. In her book, Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership, Kathleen Hall Jamieson explains how this played out historically:

In ways that defy logic, women are treated as if they are governed by their bodies and men as if they are ruled by their minds. So, although it was President John Kennedy who took mood-altering steroids to control his Addison’s disease, Senator Hubert Humphrey’s physician Edgar Berman ruled out the possibility of a female president on the grounds that the mood-altering effects of her “raging hormones” would disqualify her (p. 53).

Most people believe that we’ve moved beyond this level of sexism in our political culture, and many liberals are sanguine about the sexist implications of the recent Bachmann depictions, adopting a sort of “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck . . .” mentality. The problem with this logic is that virtually identical images have been used to indict a long, diverse, multi-partisan list of women, including (most recently) Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton. The trend illustrates the tenacious intransigence of this sexist narrative and the ways in which it can be applied to any woman—regardless of age, race, party affiliation, or level of intelligence. Remember that during the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton’s so-called “coronation” was disrupted by characterizations of her as obsessed with the presidency, as Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, as “America’s Lady Macbeth.” Critics of Secretary Clinton continue to repeat that old saw, recycling images like the following from in a March 2011 post:

By  featuring the “crazy-eyed” photo of Bachmann on their cover and dubbing her the “queen” of rage, Newsweek editors are resurrecting the stereotypes that plagued Clinton, reinforcing the narrative that says that women are unstable and (therefore) ill suited to leadership. The imaging is sexist not because women politicians are attacked (male politicians get attacked all the time—there’s plenty of vitriol to go around). It has to do with the ways in which political women are attacked. Women candidates are much more likely than their male counterparts to be characterized as crazy because women historically have been viewed as less rational then men. Notably, when male politicians are derided, it’s their manhood, rather than their rationality, that is called into question. The charge that President George H.W. Bush found toughest to shake was that he was a “wimp.” Opponents of a Hillary Clinton presidency satirized her by feminizing Bill:

Barack Obama’s failure to connect with the Tea Party constituency resulted in this gendered satire:

So, when women are deemed unfit to lead, it’s because they are crazy. When men are deemed unfit to lead, it’s because they are . . . women.

You don’t have to be a “liberal feminist” to see the pattern—in fact, many avowed liberals and feminists  (like conservatives and anti-feminists) remain determined to explain away the pattern, steadfastly convinced that their political opponents really are crazy. When it comes to campaign-season crackpots, I guess it takes one to know one.

— Karrin Anderson

(Clinton image credit: via truthfrequencynews.  Bill and Hillary image credit: via . Obama cartoon image credit: Mike Lester vi )

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Karrin Anderson
See other posts by Karrin here.

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