The cheap shots just keep coming and a popular target these days is Hillary Clinton. All the talk of a possible 2016 presidential campaign is sending her opponents into a frenzy. As if being called too unattractive to be in the public wasn’t enough now she’s accused of being incapable of holding a conversation let alone office because of a tumble she took some years ago. Republican father-figure Karl Rove and America’s angriest rich guy Rush Limbaugh have been spinning tales about the state of Clinton’s health amidst demanding that she address rumors of a sustained brain injury. To add insult to ‘alleged’ injury, Clinton’s recent People magazine cover has become fodder for media speculation about her aging body and apparent need for a walker. Oh, and there’s more. Thanks to Drudge Report there was some pretty unforgiving online images of Clinton’s head photoshopped onto the body of a visibly old, half naked woman à la 16th century oil painting style. The lady-berating doesn’t end there.
Michelle Obama has been the subject of some pretty distasteful and disrespectful jokes about her body. Armchair pundits with nothing better to do have taken to the internet to debate whether she’s really a man because of her tall stature, tone biceps and strong shoulders. Outside the center of the world that is American society, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel has been getting it from all sides too. The media have called her a typical German hausfrau and circulated online images of her donning a Hitler mustache. Former heads of state have been known to use choice words to describe Merkel including Silvio Berlusconi who reportedly called her an [insert expletive] lard. Former Australian PM Julia Gillard was given a real run for her money. Throughout her Premiership she was on the receiving end of relentless verbal attacks from male politicians and media hosts. Besides being called ugly, big thighed and small breasted, Gillard’s unmarried and childless status was a suitable reason for some of her opponents to imply that she was loose and barren.
For sure, the political arena isn’t the only place where women are under the thumb of bodily scrutiny and sexism, ageism, lookism aren’t reserved just for those women who bravely go where only the most influential men go. Women in general always seem to be too this or too that: too young and inexperienced, too old and incompetent, too plain to be in the public eye, too good looking to be taken seriously, too emotional to be effective leaders, not strong enough to be affective about matters of real importance. The list goes on and we’ve heard it all. It seems like no matter how active and productive women are in redefining their status as worthy public contributors, their social presence remains disabled, to a great extent, by the appearance and function of their bodies. This can spin out of control when women attempt anything that looks like transgressing the sexes and the examples mentioned above illustrate this.
Some might say that the stuff of ism’s are a reaction to the distance that women have come; that men, the primary offenders (and complicit bystanders), discredited and disoriented by women’s progress, are just trying to take back what’s theirs. I always have a little trouble with these types of arguments. They’re often too simple and tend to generalize the experiences of men and, by default, women but I do think that there’s something there worth teasing out. Many writers, academic and non, have attempted an explanation for what seems like or is a shift in gender consciousnes. Slate writer, Hanna Rosin has written an entire book about it: The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. She delivers a more generous take on the argument that men today are in a time of transition (i.e. crisis). Based on her conversations with young men she learned that many of them have no desire to live as absentee parents working long hours in thankless jobs like their fathers and grandfathers did, but they’re afraid of letting go of the reins because of what could manifest, e.g. a less prestigious and rewarding job or worse, no job and no purpose. The dilemma for men, says Rosin, stems from the imprint of workforce gender stereotypes. While women are moving into professions historically populated by men with greater ease, men are uncomfortable considering professions typically populated by women like nursing and teaching because of gender stigma.
Men are, for all intents and purposes, confined to a room of their own design that a lot of them want out of and a lot of women happen to want into. The point is, men and women, people, want what they want because they want to be successful and the route to success sometimes looks the same and sometimes it looks different. It’s just that simple. But, stigma and stereotype follow us all around. The most basic of these starting from the premise that men are minds and women are bodies. Minds are limitless and creative while bodies are wieldy and cumbersome. Sometimes we accept this and sometimes we resist, because of course people are much more wonderfully complicated than that, and thankfully so. The tricky bit is when ‘old’ stakes a claim and ‘new’ moves in. What we’re left with is men grasping at something that isn’t all their own as they attempt to disable women with below-the-belt body rhetoric which, by-the-way, can stop even the most self-assured woman in her tracks. This kind of thing doesn’t help anyone. Not even men. But so it still goes and so will we, in a new direction, men and women alike, hopefully.