I’ve spent a lot of my adult life thinking and writing about the relationship between feminism and popular culture. One of my specialties has been in thinking about how feminist or anti-feminist stories can become a kind of trojan horse for other meanings and messages.
To take one example: working-woman TV shows from the 1970s and early 1980s like Alice or One Day at a Time were engaged with the changes in women’s roles that happened in the 1970s, and they showed women making it on their own and the challenges and triumphs they experienced. But from another angle, they were also about the economy and what it meant to be lower-middle or working class as the 1970s recession turned into the Reagan era. When they showed their heroines figuring out that, like Mary Tyler Moore, they were going to make it after all, these shows gave new life to the American dream. They showed a woman making it in a man’s world, but they also showed an American getting by when the economy was rough. They reassured us that hard work would take us somewhere; they suggested that, if even single moms could be OK, surely we would all be OK.
The feminist content of these shows was real, because they really did explore issues related to changing gender roles. But they also relied on gender politics to say other things–reassuring things–about America and its future. When feminism serves as this sort of trojan horse, it is often feminists who are the last to notice, precisely because our attention is, quite rightly, caught and held by the feminist or anti-feminist content. We can get so focused on in debating whether the message of Alice is really feminist that we forget to wonder what else is being said.
I was thinking about this as I read about the latest economic crises this morning and then noticed the prominence of Sarah Palin in the tag cloud on this blog. In looking over my posts, I saw that, one way or another, Palin has been the focus of every single one of them. I began to worry that I might be falling prey to the same trap I’ve spent so much time analyzing. I started to wonder if Republicans are thrilled to see women argue over Palin–not just because conservative women love Palin’s rhetoric but also because the debate about gender roles has driven the economy off the front page. What if, by focusing on Republican misogyny, we are getting tricked by another trojan horse?
In particular, I keep thinking about the talking point that became legend with the Clinton campaign: ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ Americans, maybe even especially American women, disagree about gender roles; if we’ve learned nothing else in the last three weeks, surely we’ve learned that. But it’s difficult to be for a failing economy, and remembering that probably won Clinton his first election.
Because gender politics are real and do matter, it is very difficult to fight back when they are simultaneously being used as a distraction. What feminist is going to stop pointing out the sorts of truly appalling statements about women we have been analyzing on this blog? I don’t want to stop, nor am I advocating that anyone else should.
So how do we keep up the criticism of the anti-woman rhetoric that suffuses this campaign, without letting our very feminist beliefs be used as a political distraction by the Right?
One way forward might be to remember that the economy is a feminist issue, something I have noticed myself consistently forgetting. As feministing pointed out, women are particularly concerned about the economy in this election, and the current downturn hurts women more than men on basically every front.
We can also refuse to let the media turn our feminist politics into a cat fight by drawing attention to the areas where women agree. According to a recent study conducted by the National Women’s Law Center:
Regardless of age, income, and education, more than half of women (55%) feel that the government should do more to solve problems and help meet people’s needs.
84 percent of women say it is extremely or very important for Congress and the next Administration to guarantee access to quality, affordable, comprehensive health care.
Three in four women (75%) favor increasing government funding to ensure that parents have access to quality child care and early education.
I have never bought Obama’s rhetoric about there being no red states or blue states; I’m from the midwest, and, trust me, there are red states. And Palin herself makes it clear that I share no core values with some women in this country. But these and similar statistics suggest that, in fact, the majority of women do not tend to support the central belief of the Republican party: that people in trouble need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and that any attempt by government to help provide health care, economic security and quality education is an attack on our putative ‘way of life.’ No wonder the Republican campaign needed to Palin to remind us of our differences.