Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Man Card

Garance Franke-Ruta is starting a visual archive of political advertisements that "play the gender card" to appeal to male voters, starting with this McCain mail piece. The project arose after a brief media flurry over whether Hillary Clinton was "playing the gender card" in trying to appeal to female voters. The coverage took on a vague sneering tone, as if this was some sort of distasteful identity politics that she should be tsk'd at for. Pushing back, some astute bloggers have noted that politicians play this game appealing to male voters all the time. Cf. 2004, sayeth Matt Yglesias:
As long as we're all worried about Hillary Clinton and the 'gender card' we do realize that about 75 percent of the 2004 race between John "I've killed people" Kerry and George "no you're a windsurfing frenchman" Bush was a series of efforts to play the gender card, right?

It's actually stunning how much of thr erstwhile foreign policy debate is primarily an argument about the size of the debaters' dicks.

A bit overwrought, but, actually, not really.

Perhaps what makes this all the more crazy is that, as Ezra Klein noted, the comments Clinton made that provoked this "feeding frenzy" were really quite mild -- just a remark to a gathering of Wellesley alumni that the all-women school really helped prepare her for the "all-boys club" of politics. But, switching back to GFR, she raises the point that Clinton's statement can be seen as part of the "secondary conversation" women have with each other in private -- the one they are actively discouraged from articulating in public circles, lest they damage their professional careers.

So really, there are two lanes of response to this controversy. The first is that Clinton isn't playing the gender card at all, and her critics are just looking to draw blood at any opportunity. The second is that she is playing the gender card, but no more explicitly or distastefully than male candidates do for their fellow men in every race.

While normally I'd segue here into how appeals to men are "invisible" because they are the dominant caste in the American political sphere, in a sense, that doesn't really apply here, the reason being that there is at least a partial awareness among the political class that there are, in fact, specific appeals to men qua men during elections (the way we don't recognize it for, say, Whites). From union men to "NASCAR dads", there are plenty of male blocs that get appealed to. Nonetheless, the Clinton controversy has illustrated the limits to this insight -- even though we all know that male politicians play the "man card" all the time, we still are acting shocked when a female politician tries to swing it for women. That's bogus, but as Atrios says, "this conversation just serves to reinforce the obvious state of things in this country: white males are the most aggressive practitioners of so-called "identity politics" and always have been."

See also: Digby, Shakesville, Matt Stoller


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PG said...

I think the ways in which one can play the "gender card" actually are at least two-fold, and probably manifold:
1) in the sense Hillary Clinton is, where she appeals to voters of her own gender by noting their commonality; and
2) in the sense that both Bush and Kerry were, and that all the GOP candidates currently are in their rush to waterboard people (with the exception of McCain, who talks about being a POW and actually getting tortured to explain why he won't do it to others), which is to emphasize one's own toughness (=manliness) to appeal to both genders in a stereotyped way. Because don't forget that NASCAR dads were perceived as less important in 2004 than security moms, i.e. women who might normally vote Democrat (being pro-choice, wanting to help the poor, etc.) but who voted for Bush because they saw him as better able to protect the U.S. In other words, some women could look at Bush and think "Here is a manly man who can protect me and my children!" That's not a gender card of commonality like the one Hillary Clinton is playing.

In contrast, in the 2000 election Bush tried to play up his having the stereotypically feminine trait of "compassion" in order to appeal to female voters. He didn't eat babies like Cheney; he wanted to help the little children.

I don't think there's any cross-gender stereotype card that it makes sense for a woman to play, at least not if she's running for any significant leadership role. Being nurturing and so forth doesn't get you much further than head of the PTA when it comes to getting men's votes.

David Schraub said...

Am I pathetic for laughing at "manifold" for like 10 minutes in this context?

Yes. Yes I am.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of what LBJ said after some bombing in the Vietnam War: "I didn't just screw Ho Chi Minh, I cut his pecker off." Rather tame by today's standards, but you get the point.

PG, I would imagine that the rhetorical shift from 2000's "compassionate conservative" to 2004's "manly man" had a lot to do with the changing role of national security in those elections. In 2000, when domestic concerns played a much bigger role, the metaphor of the home front helps explain why "compassion" was an appealing quality; your mom works at home, and you want your mom to be compassionate, so it's acceptable, even for men, to choose someone nice and nurturing enough to keep everyone happy at home. In 2004, even women wanted a man because the Bush campaign did such a good job of making us continue to believe that we were unsafe and needed to be protected - invariably, we're protected by a male figure unless we're still in the womb.

David - good luck with applications!