The ‘horse race’ framing of Candidate Search: 2007 may not be dead, but at the very least it’s on a long vacation. The hip, happening, ‘now’ way to view candidates is by asking which planet they’re from! It’s the perfect trendy way to call into question the gender presentation of two Democratic front-runners. Assuming your notion of ‘trendy’ fossilized somewhere around 1992, that is.
But don’t take my word for it, read Michael Scherer for yourself: Hillary is from Mars, Obama is from Venus.
It seems that Clinton’s dilemma is that she must simultaneously capitalize on being a woman without seeming *too* womanly for the job. Cue the comparisons to Thatcher and discussion of how other female candidates of yesteryear were torpedoed for seeming vulnerable on the basis of gender.
While there’s certainly plenty of sexism to go around in our political system, I’m annoyed by the suggestion that her potential for success lies in her ability to out-macho the guys. That formulation creates an exceptional space for Clinton by framing her as an atypical female capable of things usually only expected of men. Such framing also completely ignores many sexist assumptions: men are strong, women are weak, and a woman who seems strong therefore crosses some kind of gender boundary.
Does she come from Mars? I would argue that she’s just an exceptionally capable person, and that she is not really all that different from countless other intelligent, composed, capable women that all of us know from our everyday lives. If there’s anything extraordinary about the challenges she faces in our political system, it tells us *far* more about society’s expectations for women (as candidates, and more generally speaking) than it tells us about Clinton herself.
Conversely, other than choice of soundtrack, what leads the people Scherer interviews to conclude that Obama is from Venus? He’s thoughtful and inspirational. He’s warm and engaging. He’s compassionate. I did not realize that these were ‘feminizing’ traits so much as ‘humanizing’ traits, but I guess that’s my wacky liberal lens clouding my view of what others, apparently, regard as conventional wisdom: caring about other people is *so* girly!
I’m particularly peeved when the way Obama moves through a crowd is described as ‘touchy’, as though he’s the first male candidate to go around glad-handing potential voters. If the piece were about Republican candidates, would the descriptions speak of hearty, manly handshakes instead? Perhaps the problem is that Obama is simply too respectful in his touching? Maybe he should get in touch with his inner frat guy and start rubbing bald heads, a la Dubya.
In any case, Obama’s empathy and ability to connect with an audience are being spun as gender-transgressive when they’re really just the hallmarks of someone with maturity and social intelligence. None of these traits should be remarkable for *any* politician, male or female.
To be fair, it’s not as if the article presents Clinton’s boldness or Obama’s warmth are being discussed as outright liabilities; in fact, it seems to suggest that these atypical traits are part of these candidates’ appeal. The overall tone appears to be generally favorable to both candidates being discussed, even if the choice of metaphors leaves something to be desired.
Unfortunately, the subtext is more troubling than the text. In the process of praising Clinton and Obama, the author suggests that they’re stepping past the bounds of gender, and seemingly argues either that the candidates are somewhat weird for being able to do so – in other words, they’re atypical specimens for their own gender – or perhaps that it’s all an effect of self-presentation – in other words, the transgressive stance is inauthentic and calculated. Either way, it seems like the kind of thing that would make voters worry about what they’re really getting, which makes what might otherwise pass for praise seem damn faint indeed.
If the main point were Obama’s and Clinton’s strong points as candidates, why not just discuss those and skip the silly Venus-Mars allusions? Obviously, some kind of point was being made about the candidate’s presumed appeal on the basis of gender. Since the quotes from interested Iowans seem to be from women, the author seems to be saying that women voters like their female candidates tough and their male candidates sensitive. I’m not sure what to say to that, other than to suggest that as a society we should move in the direction of desiring positive traits in our leaders regardless of the candidate’s appearance, presentation, or biological configuration.
What if we analyzed voters the way this article analyzes the candidates…? I like a candidate who’s thoughtful, empathetic, warm, and personable. Does that make me a girly voter? I also want my ideal candidate to be strong, self-assured, and determined. Am I a macho voter, after all, because I value these things?
Or am I just a human being who wants the best possible traits in my leader, period?