How Lucy Berrington accidentally became the enemy of the left and the darling of the right.
When the President wept openly as his campaign wrapped up, the national chit-chat shifted from politics to sexual politics—but only for a moment. One tear doesn’t give Obama a mandate on tears, nor signal a new American masculinity. Still, he’s a guy who’s always been willing to break apart gently the macho of the presidential office. We’ve known this since he challenged Hillary for the presidential nomination—a political landscape that was the setting for one of my earliest forays into U.S. journalism—and his tears took me right back there. Knowing little better, I had headed straight for the mother of all minefields, a place where politics, racism, sexism and gender were rigged to explode. Explode they did. When I emerged, my friends hardly recognized me, my enemies mistook me for their friend, and my home terrain looked a lot less comfortable than before. There are risks in going back and surveying the wreckage–but doing so might be instructive, so I’ll try.
At that time, Obama’s flame was starting to burn with a brightness that seemed potentially eternal but which would later fizzle under the combined urine stream of the congressional GOP. He’d won the Iowa caucuses, his poll numbers were good in New Hampshire, and his popularity was surging among women voters (an advantage he has held ever since). This last development surprised the many political pundits who’d assumed the women’s vote would go to Clinton–since she was (they were pretty sure) a woman. I listened with a friend, Jeff Onore, also a writer, to the startled prattle of the analysts, and we wondered what was working so well for Obama. His language, manner and approach, we figured, embodied some of the characteristics traditionally regarded as feminine: consensus-seeking, relationship-building, empathic, elegant, polite. This was a striking contrast to the traditional “machismo and swagger that Americans expect their president to reflect,” as Clarence Lusane, author of The Black History of the White House, later put it.
Not that my friend and I approved of this gender stereotyping of the sexes. But it is the verdict of our culture and many others besides, and such imperfections in thought and language are what we have to work with–we and all mankind. (Mankind. I rest my case.) Don’t imagine, either, that we considered these “feminine” characteristics to be negatives. We admired Obama; I’d donated to his campaign. It was rare that a politician presented as a well-rounded adult, and the potential benefits were perhaps never more evident than during that wrap-up year of George W. Bush’s vengeful, testosterony presidency.
Entertained by our theory, we banged out 650 words commending Obama’s androgyny. Just as Toni Morrison had famously described Bill Clinton as America’s first black president, we concluded, we might now be looking at America’s first woman president–and it wasn’t necessarily Hillary.
This theme was later picked up and played with by other writers. Newsweek ran a two page spread headlined The First Woman President? Obama’s campaign bends gender conventions. In a column titled ¿Quién Es Less Macho?, Maureen Dowd at the New York Times wrote, “The first serious female candidate for president was rejected by voters drawn to the more feminine management style of her male rival.” Three weeks earlier, she’d praised Obama’s “not-blinded-by-testosterone ability to object to a phony war.” Kathleen Parker treated Washington Post readers to a column headlined Obama: Our First Female President, and academic analysis appeared in the Denver University Law Review: Our first unisex president? Black masculinity and Obama’s feminine side. Dana Milbank at the Washington Post revisited this six months ago in a column repetitively headlined Barack Obama, the first female president?
Still, as far as I know, my friend and I were there first. I emailed our piece to several op-ed editors at news publications that spanned the political spectrum. We heard back within five minutes from the New York Post. Did it go through our minds that celebrating Obama’s feminine side in a conservative tabloid could be interpreted as criticism? Fleetingly. To us post-feminism feminists, the misogyny of that position seemed too shameless to be seriously problematic. Other people’s prejudices, in any case, were surely their responsibility. And so we allowed public debate to run its dignified course.
That was the headline a day before the New Hampshire primary. Briefly, the online edition read BAM: OUR 1st CHICK PREZ? (Never, sorry to say, BAM: OUR 1st CHIC PREZ.)
The good news about online assaults is that they don’t start to hurt immediately–not until friends call, suggesting you search your name online. The result of that search was eight pages of links to websites accusing me and my co-author of being anti-black, anti-women, anti-gay and anti-Democratic. Oh, and shameless agents in Murdoch’s effort to upset Obama in New Hampshire (never mind that the Post has limited circulation there). Surprisingly, much of this criticism is unavailable now, contradicting the common belief that once online, forever online. Perhaps those electoral blogs didn’t outlive the campaign. Still, enough comments survive to convey the flavor, if not the force, of their response:
“I love how Obama’s candidacy forces them to reveal the idiots trying desperately to prop up white supremacy.”
“Just partisan hacks as far as the eye can read, doing the bidding of their corporate masters.”
“Their blatant anti-intellectualism is the reason for the appeal of bozos like Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, Malkin, et al.”
“The article basically boils down to this: Democrats? The men are all gay little boys who like to wear dresses, and the women secretly hide beards in the shadow of their chin.”
“I’m really just tired of people using ‘fag’ and ‘that’s so gay’ as insults, even if they think they’re being clever.”
It’s the boomerang effect. You think you’re playing, and then the thing comes flying back and cuts your head off. This is not to say our contribution to political science wasn’t making us any friends. To online conservatives–like those in the NYPD chat room–we were all-American heroes.
The biggest shock was the sexism of the left. It isn’t that the liberal landscape had previously impressed us as a gender-free utopia, but the progressives who took for granted that our piece was an attack on Obama–and vented at length–had nothing to say about the alleged weapon. They accepted almost without question the egregiousness of likening a man to a woman. Perhaps they would protest that the issue was not their own sexism but the assumed sexism of the Post’s readership–yet virtually none that we saw made this distinction, or defended those “feminine” qualities. In retrospect, then, my co-author and I were not the only ones for whom our BAM! piece unwittingly set a trap. This comment was an exception:
“WHY IS BEING A WOMAN BAD ?????????? Why is it an insult to call someone ‘feminine’?”(ironically, our point exactly).
For a musical rendering of this argument, check out What It Feels Like For a Girl, by Madonna: “For a boy to look like a girl is degrading / ‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading.” (This lyric lost its resonance at the Golden Globes in January when Madonna insulted both Ricky Gervais and Elton John by likening them to girls–a sorry example of how even our great cultural analysts wrestle with these issues.)
The racism accusation initially seemed part of a random, untargeted bombardment of criticism and was difficult to take seriously. But then an eloquent verdict on the liberal site No More Mister Nice Blog got our attention. The blogger suggested the Post editors had been searching for a means to attack Obama that was subtly rather than blatantly racist: “Calling him a woman is perfect –it’s the exact opposite of the usual racist attack on black men’s sexuality, and yet it has perfect plug-and-play compatibility with the usual attack on Democrats.” This seemed a reasonable criticism, reasonably delivered.
The most dedicated bloggers had scoured the web for evidence of our racist, sexist, homophobic hearts. Their prime exhibit (actually, their only exhibit) was my former employment at the London Times, which came with the assumption that anyone who has ever worked for a Murdoch paper in any capacity has been politically vetted. This is untrue. It’s difficult to grasp, perhaps, in this age of Fox News, extreme political polarization, and phone hacking at Murdoch’s British newspapers, but nearly twenty years ago I’d gone to News International straight from college, and thus was hardly more influential than the bathroom mop. My politics didn’t matter. Still, it is widely assumed that the most cynical explanation must be the correct one–so even as I commend these bloggers for their services to Democratic candidates in 2008, forgive me for envisaging some of their number as the young unwashed searching grimly for a conspiracy theory as to why the dog just vomited on the carpet. This was a collision between post-feminism feminists, in our naivety, and post-journalism journalists, in theirs.
As that week rolled on–Clinton narrowly beating Obama in New Hampshire–the commentaries seemed to change in tone. Perhaps this was because the later participants were reading our piece on the blog sites rather than in the hostile terrain of the Post. The same story, in a different context, can be a different story. This is especially true if it has gender and racial implications. There’s no objective test for sexism and racism: we know them when we see them, and we expect them more in some contexts than others. (The columns on Obama’s androgyny by the liberal Maureen Dowd and the conservative Kathleen Parker were both criticized for sexism, but Parker’s, as far as I can see, much more vehemently.) I’d have liked to compare the reaction had we also published our argument in a liberal paper, but editors’ insistence on exclusivity prevented it.
None of this is to say my co-author and I didn’t screw up. Still, we’ve been struck by the stylish calm with which Obama has since obliterated a slew of opponents. The collaborative leadership he demonstrated during the killing of Osama Bin Laden prompted Maria Shriver and CNN’s John Blake to ask whether the model of masculinity is changing in America. Let’s hope so. The GOP’s assault on women’s rights and dignity reveals more than the chauvinism and boorishness of that party. It reveals Obama’s feminine side as an ever more valuable national asset.