Hillary Clinton is a lion. I mean – lioness, the “Hear Her Roar” issue of Newsweek exclaimed last month. Aside from the possible similarity of her blonde mane, one wonders what the editors were trying to suggest. A woman crashing through politics, king-of-the-jungle style? The female voice usurping, once and for all, control of the patriarchy, as man’s misogynist snarl fades into history? Let’s not be naïve: Hillary Clinton’s candidacy signals as much of a turning point in the feminist movement as the image of the lioness taking over the pride. Somehow, it’s just not real. We all know the lions still rule. That’s the natural order of things. Right?
2008 marks the centennial of the birth of one the greatest philosophers and feminists of the 20th Century – Simone de Beauvoir. The timing of Hillary’s candidacy is oddly appropriate, and yet few seem to have noticed. (Simone de who?)
But de Beauvoir aside, what are the real implications of Hillary’s image-as-candidate? We’ve heard the radical screech that any woman who denies Hillary is a traitor to her sex, and the simultaneous insistence, “America is not ready for a female president” (also Newsweek), but what does it all mean?
It’s no secret that Hillary has relied upon white women as her strongest voting base. Why shouldn’t she? This race is the first chance any voter has had not only to vote for a woman, but to vote for a woman that holds a very serious chance of taking the White House. And what woman isn’t excited by that? But what those words really come down to is voting for a candidate based on sex; in other words, succumbing and playing into the same system that has sustained and perpetuated male domination for at least two millennia.
It is, of course, this history of sex discrimination that drives women to the polls in the first place. “The time has come,” they cry, for the ‘second sex’ to be represented in the oval office. “I just couldn’t pass up voting for a woman,” seems to be the excuse. And yet, if Hillary’s rise means anything, it shouldn’t be long before a woman runs for office again. In fact, insisting that this is our chance – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – assumes the attitude that Hillary’s candidacy is not a ‘sign of the times,’ but a fluke, a passing fad, ephemeral to the last degree. (Remember the time we thought a woman might become president?)
But there still exists this idea that putting Hillary in office will somehow secure a voice for women in a powerful sphere. To what extent is that really going to be meaningful? Policies in favor of gender equality are already in place; legally, women are equal. But that’s exactly the problem. Too many of us live under the illusion that laws alone render this society free and equal, and that illusion is what makes it so easy to cast issues like feminism aside.
Where change needs to occur then, or at least where it starts, is in the subconscious of society itself, in the subtleties of social relations where constructs of masculinity and femininity are re-created and perpetuated daily; in other words, on the lowest, most obscure level.
The deconstruction of these concepts of ‘male’ and ‘female’ is a daunting one, and has been on-going for several decades. Daunting, on a basic level, because we often fail even to recognize that our lives are saturated by these rigid roles. Almost every action and choice we make (or sometimes, more importantly, do not make) is a performance, a re-enactment, of gender, and yet we carry on, largely oblivious to our own complicity. One might say, then, that the first step is mere consciousness.
And yet, there is nothing wrong with being either ‘male’ or ‘female.’ The problem lies in our culture’s consistent devaluing of the female and the feminine over the male and the masculine. But the beauty is exactly that difference. Women shouldn’t strive to be the same as men, no more than men strive to be like women (something they, of course, do not do, for fear of being labeled girly, pussy, a wimp, a “Women-Influenced Male Person”, according to Limbaugh). In fact, insisting that a woman “can do anything a man can do” immediately implicates not only woman’s inherent inferiority, but, to reference de Beauvoir, her perpetual need to compare herself to the “other.” So let’s rephrase: “a woman can do anything a woman can do.” Rather than imply something limiting, such a statement denotes equally infinite possibility as, “a man can do anything a man can do.” Or at least it should.
But as social theorist Jean Kilbourne explains, along with the devaluing of women comes the devaluing of all qualities labeled ‘feminine’ by the culture. And by these, one might include compassion, cooperation, nurturance, empathy, and sensitivity. Ultimately, we all suffer when we are told that one gender can have one set of human qualities and one gender, only the other. We end up being less than, even half of, what we otherwise might be, and this dehumanizes all of us – men and women.
So must we really stoop to the level of ridiculing Hillary’s pantsuits? Yes, she’s a strong, assertive, powerful woman, but does having these ‘masculine’ qualities really make her a bitch? Or are we just unnerved by her refusal to conform to a single non-gendered role, a single set of human values? It’s time that these values were distributed equally across the human race. But when it comes to man versus woman, why not praise the difference rather than seek perpetual comparison?
But the need for comparison persists. We use it as a tool to demonstrate ‘equality,’ but in the end it only cripples the equality we seek. In this sense, pointing to Hillary as proof that women have achieved ‘equality,’ is a completely false construct. After all, if we really were equal, no one would be pointing at all; no one would need to compare. The media wouldn’t notice. This article, and all the others like it, would never be written. The phrase “woman president” or “woman in power” wouldn’t exist. (Do you ever hear anyone talking about a “man in power”?) We wouldn’t see her as the ‘female runner.’ She would just be another candidate. So when people point to Hillary to say, “See? The problem’s solved,” they are in fact only highlighting the degree to which it isn’t.
In a recent article entitled, “Is America Ready?” the author made the claim, “a woman president would show the rest of the world that the United States is not a sexist nation.” In fact, it would show nothing of the sort. The image that Hillary-as-candidate presents is, to borrow from Marxist theorist Guy Debord, nothing short of a “spectacle.” As Debord argues in The Society of the Spectacle, the history of social life is best understood as “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing,” this juncture constituting the “historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life.” We have bought into Hillary’s image; reality has been supplanted by a flimsy representation of what we might like it to be. But the thing is, the representation sells: the spectacle becomes not just a collection of images, but a “social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”
Yet, this spectacle, as clouded and distorted a version of reality as it may be, could provoke very legitimate, very real reactions. Hillary’s image may not be real, but the response to it is. Will the pride accept a lioness? Or will it just accept her image?
Either way there exists a reality beyond the spectacle. A touch of estrogen in the Oval Office won’t change our status as the ‘second sex.’ As de Beauvoir established, “no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself…otherness is a fundamental category of human thought.” It will take much more than a lioness at the head of the pride to overcome the otherness of being female. After all, the problem is the pride itself.