Down and Out in Denver

Blake’s Book Nook, Vol. III

Posted in books, gays, politics by Blake on September 20, 2010

Following the positive review of her new book in the Sunday Times book review, yesterday I picked up a copy of Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women.  And I read the whole thing pretty much in one sitting last night. I did pause for dinner.

Traister’s book is an account of how gender politics played out in the 2008 election and what this meant for women then and means for them now and in future elections.  Traister covered the election for Salon and saw many of the candidates in action.  But more than what the candidates themselves said, this book is about how Americans — and the media especially — reacted to what they said, didn’t say, and what some believed they said even when they didn’t really.  It’s about how the media dealt with the issue of gender: with the fact of a woman running for president, the first woman in the history of the United States to win a primary election; with a Republican vice-presidential nominee who claimed to be a feminist but was rejected by most others who claim that name; with the potential of the first African American first lady who happened to be as accomplished as her husband.  It’s about sexism and sexist expectations for female politicians. And it’s a really good read.

Traister is open about her politics.  She is a progressive feminist who votes for Democrats.  At the beginning of the primary season she supported John Edwards, who, she rightly points out, had an agenda further to the left than either Clinton or Obama. As she also points out, he is a white guy, and could probably get away with being further to the left than the black guy or the white woman.  That said, Edwards could not garner enough votes and dropped out of the race. Traister ends up voting for Clinton in the Super Tuesday primary.  But she did so reluctantly, acknowledging that Obama and Clinton actually agreed on much but also that for almost all voters some form of identity politics was at play.  One of Traister’s greatest arguments is about the way that those who might not have supported Clinton initially — in part because of her decision on the Iraq war, her being a Clinton, and her increasing centrism — came to do so precisely because of how horribly everyone was treating her.  And on this count, Traister provides unassailable evidence.  It makes you mad all over again.

And so the book is not an homage to Clinton, who, like all politicians, Traister sees as flawed in certain ways; instead it is an exploration of how Clinton was treated by the media as well as by all kinds of supposedly progressive white men whose vitriol for her struck Traister as pretty misogynist. Hear, hear!  But Traister doesn’t stop there; she also looks at the reaction to Sarah Palin, a polarizing figure in all kinds of other ways.  And to Michelle Obama, who was required — in the tradition of First Lady HRC — to tone down her own individuality and play up her wife- and motherhood in order to meet with much acceptance. Traister is also interested in the role of women in pop culture: feminist bloggers, feminist activists, newscasters, comediennes. The book includes excerpts from her interviews with Gloria Steinem, Shelby Knox, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Samantha Bee, Amy Poehler, and many others.

I have one quibble with the book, or at least one that won’t be too much of a spoiler.  Traister writes about the people who tended to support the different candidates she discusses (by age, sex, race, etc.) and, as I noted, pays particular attention to the ire that many supposedly liberal white dudes had for HRC (also noted by others at the time, including our blogging gal pal Historiann, to whom I will be lending this book). Traister characterizes them, in passing, as straight, but doesn’t delve into that so much.  I would have liked to hear more about that, as it was always my impression at the time that many gay men were pretty enthusiastic about Hillary, even if they also had some of the misgivings that I have already mentioned (I’ll go on record, albeit pseudonymously, and put myself in this camp).  So what might this have to do with being a straight guy?  Why might some otherwise progressive straight dudes have found HRC so threatening, whereas their queer brethren did not? What might this have to do with the ways that straight men and gay men differently interact with (straight) women? I’ve got my theories but I would have loved to have heard Traister’s.

In sum, for those of us who are progressive and feminist, the book is pretty absorbing.  For those of us who hope to see the day when a woman sits in the Oval Office, particularly a feminist woman, it’s a must-read. Traister believes that the 2008 elections actually got us closer to that goal.  I sure hope she’s right.

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7 Responses

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  1. Historiann said, on September 20, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    Thanks for the preview, Blake, and for lending me your copy of the book! I can’t wait to read it and talk to you about it. I too noticed the same queer love for HRC at the time, and even wrote about it on the blog back during the primaries. My GLBTQ commenters agreed, as I recall.

    The best I can guess is that queer folk recognized HRC’s struggles in trying to perform gender in ways that were acceptable to mainstream Americans. But because political power is so gendered masculine, she was really up against a wall. For example: when she cried, she was accused both of being manipulative–as though it were JUST a performance–and of being weak. She couldn’t win, and I think it won her a lot of loyalty and support from the GLBTQ community. (Oh, and she would actually sit down and talk to The Advocate, unlike her male competitors! Little things like that were noticed, and remembered I think.)

    Anyway, we’ll talk more after I’ve read Traister!

    • Blake said, on September 20, 2010 at 8:33 pm

      Traister never addresses the gay question explicitly (that is, if the gays liked HRC, why? though your explanations all make sense) but I’m talking about stuff that is even more elemental (and that she DOES discuss). Many straight white guys, even (especially?) the liberal progressive ones don’t like the idea of women being in power. They’re down with a black guy being president because it makes them feel cool about their own politics but a woman as president is too threatening. Hence all the misogyny cloaked in criticism of her “policies” but that too often was accompanied by ire that seemed unwarranted by policy alone. And that’s the kind of thing that some gay men may not feel, especially younger gay men. Perhaps because some of us might be more apt to think of women as equals? Because we are also not involved with them sexually and aren’t hung up about where the power is supposed to reside between “us” and “them.” In fact, “us” and “them” doesn’t feel all that meaningful. But now I’m just speculating.

      • Historiann said, on September 21, 2010 at 9:05 am

        I see. I guess I don’t have any other tentative speculations other than liberal d00dz are d00dz, and there’s that old devil, patriarchal equilibrium. . .

        But, we historians were probably less surprised by the misogyny of 2008 than others (although probably no less horrified.) Women’s liberation has never been understood as necessary to making good on that soaring Jeffersonian rhetoric that “all men are created equal,” at least not in the way that abolition, civil rights, and even the gay rights movement now (around the marriage debate*) have been and are seen as necessary and virtuous and American. Feminism is always cast as a lifestyle choice, something like a consumer product that women can choose to pick up or put down at any time. So feminism is cast as self-service or selfishness, rather than a heroic struggle for equality in the American grain. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons that the Clinton campaign was reluctant to broadcast the revolutionary nature of her candidacy, and why Obama’s campaign was similarly delighted to do so on his behalf.

        *And all good feminists recognize how constrained and artificial this debate is, of course!

  2. […] Big Girls Don’t Cry:  The Election that Changed Everything for American Women a rave review, and as promised, he’s loaned me his copy already.  (Maureen Corrigan, my former proffie and […]

  3. Jamie said, on September 23, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Hi, I came over here from Historiann’s blog. I’m excited to read the book but wanted to point out that a major gay, male blogger had about as much misogynistic vitriol for Hillary — and much of it based on how he feels about her husband — as anyone else I read during the election. That’s Andrew Sullivan, who also hates Sarah Palin in a similar, misogynistic way, having become obsessed with her role as a mother even more than her politics. Just an interesting outlier from what you’re talking about. Any thoughts on that?

    • Blake said, on September 23, 2010 at 4:23 pm

      Hi Jamie. Welcome! And don’t even get me started on Andrew Sullivan. In a word, ugh. I should say that my observations about gay men and Clinton were partially just impressionistic, though I do recall a couple early-primary studies that indicated a high level of support for her among queers and certainly the very mainstream HRC came out in support of her. The thing about Sullivan is that despite his gayness, he’s really super conservative about almost all issues (including gay ones). And, as you point out, pretty misogynist. So I guess I would say that clearly there are exceptions to my observations but I wonder if it might still hold more true for gay men who are otherwise inclined to be progressive (unlike many of the straight male progressives that Traister identifies as being so anti-Clinton, and of course Sullivan). But again, pure speculation on my part!

  4. Historiann said, on September 27, 2010 at 11:18 am

    Jamie’s right. Another gay male blogger, John Aravosis of AmeriBlog, was also over the top in his Hillary hate. I don’t read him any more, but I hear that he’s now completely disgusted by Obama’s lack of attention/action on DADT and other gay issues. Who ever would have predicted!!! Anyone who paid attention and wasn’t blinded by disgust for Hillary Clinton, that’s who.

    Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind, right?


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