Monday, October 13, 2008

Obama Talk: Why I like him

Deborah Siegel has up an interesting post XY FILES: Presidential Masculinity (as part of her on-going series on “myths and facts about a new generation of men”). She gets us thinking again about “masculinity / femininity” constructs with respect to Hilary Clinton / Sarah Palin but more with respect to John McCain / Barak Obama.

(UPDATE: Check out Virginia Rutter's astute comment on "hybrid gender performance" and "multiple statuses all at once... for race as well as gender... not androgynous in that misfit, uncomfortable “Pat” sense (remember, Pat on [SNL])... [but with a] repertoire...wide, and... using all sorts of masculine and feminine skills." Esteban Vasquez makes a similar, usually clever point in his comment below. Why the "either/ or" binary?)

That's a lot to work through. Let me focus right in on Obama, and then I'll come back to some of the things Deborah is getting at.

One reason I like Barack Obama is this: the people who want to box him into some this or that just can't. It's usually their negative box they want to cram him into:

  • his middle name is Hussein, and therefore . . . (he's gotta be Muslim or at least antiIsrael)
  • his associates are terrorists and black-racist-Christians, and therefore . . . (he has to be dangerously extreme like them)
  • he voted down a partial-birth abortion bill in Illinois, and therefore . . . (he is a baby killer and wants to increase the number of abortions--never mind the number of abortions has increased during the 'prolife' GWB presidency)
  • he has relatively little 'experience,' and therefore . . . (he is the unknown, bad candidate even if the other is a known bad candidate)
  • his supporters are 'Obam-bots,' and therefore . . . (he is a charmer who can be 'soft' or 'waffle' on the issues)
  • he is 'nuanced' in his speech, and therefore . . . (he is a sissy woman or some new kind of black man)
I could go on. You've heard this stuff before, and more. Let me offer a few reasons why I'll vote for Obama a second time:

  1. Obama is a candidate who has, not because of a war or fighting, spent time in other countries and among peoples of other cultures dear to him; the world is not a threat to him, and peoples of the world seem to respect that about him.
  2. He is a listener and a learner, someone who profoundly identifies himself with a minority group in America; and he learns from those in Honolulu, in Chicago, and in Washington.
  3. He wants fairness and equality and equal rights, for his daughters too.
  4. He's been already too much in government but much less than the other candidate.
  5. He is his own person, yes African American, but neither Alan Keyes nor Jesse Jackson.
  6. His speech.

So let me say a bit more about Obama's speech, his 'rhetoric.' Obama does not use patriarchal, masculinist language. His discourse is not about 'power' and 'bullying.' He does not fall into abrupt, agonistic, antagonistic talk. So what's his discourse style? I'll say again once more, it's womanly discourse.

The “masculinity / femininity” construct seems to vary depending on who's talking, especially when talking about Barack Obama.

Jackon Katz says this (in a UCSF Today piece that Deborah cites):

“It’s just white masculinity versus person-of-color masculinity.” And, “With Obama, you have a new kind of masculinity. . . his [ethnic] heritage, but also his style. He shows that strength can be about brains, making good decisions – not just physical force.”

Katz (at HuffPo) illustrates a different construct from Rush Limbaugh:

“Limbaugh's . . . latest anti-Obama line . . . is . . . 'I don't think Barack Obama is half the man Sarah Palin is.' . . . 'He can't take a punch, he's weak, and he whines,' Limbaugh says of the Democratic nominee. 'I'm sure some women find that attractive because they would look at him as a little boy and would want to protect him...But it embarrasses me as a man.'”

I just hope Katz isn't letting Limbaugh set the agenda. In other words, Katz is right to show how ridiculous Limbaugh's “femininity” construct is for Obama. But, really, is that Obama's only choice? Doe he have to EITHER possess (A) Limbaugh's “femininity” OR (B) Katz's “person-of-color masculinity,” which is “a new kind of masculinity”?

Why can't Obama have good feminine discourse without being like Limbaugh's “girl”?

He can. He does. After the Saddleback Civic Forum, pundits were rightly exclaiming how “nuanced” Obama's speech is. For the Muslims and Christians out there, let me just throw in this zinger: Jesus's speech is as nuanced, as feminine. In contrast, McCain's discourse is abrupt, agonistic, antagonistic too.

So more questions for Katz, who I really like anyway:

Since when is “person-of-color masculinity” “new”? Isn't “person-of-color masculinity” painting with a big brush stroke? And what binary is assumed when “masculinity” is “strength” that is also “about brains, making good decisions”?

Is “femininity” not “strength” and is “femininity” not “about brains, making good decisions”?

What's interesting is Limbaugh's calling Palin a “man” with respect to Obama. Her lipstick shtick, her whole male-fantasy “femininity” is what lets her get away with using abrupt, agonistic, antagonistic (masculine) speech. (April DeConick has a great post on that). Hilary Clinton was in a double bind. She was not the male-fantasy feminine but was still required to talk like a man--and was ridiculed for her public tears. Biden choked up in the debate with Palin--no ridicule for that man.

The double standard is that women cannot have legitimate womanly rhetoric: “feminine discourse.” Clinton cannot be a woman and use such discourse; Palin a fantasy woman won't use a woman's speech style, even though or maybe because she's the Republican man's “man woman” (as Charlotte puts it at Far From Ole's) .

But then Biden (showing some emotion in public) and Obama (nuanced and irenic), as men, cannot get real credit for their “feminine discourse.”


Esteban Vázquez said...

I despise the expression "person of color." I am Puerto Rican, but I have white skin. What the hell am I supposed to be, then?

J. K. Gayle said...

So words really do matter, Esteban? Thanks for your passion and your passionate comment! Point well made. I rather despise the expression "white person," and I too have white skin.