Curls and the Patriarchy


It would be a stretch for me to try to connect the U.S. election to beauty, or personal appearance, or anything truly germane to my focus here. There's plenty of research out there about height advantage in presidential elections, and how candidates' facial looks don't matter as much as we might think—which is better for democracy and a fair vote, given that Mitt Romney's "high-quality face" is apparently in the 99th percentile of attractiveness, making him, as Zoolander might say, really really goodlooking. (Presumably Obama is too familiar for study respondents to accurately rate his face, though that hasn't stopped us for, say, George Clooney, so.) But really, so much of the research is contradictory and can be spun in pretty much any way you'd like—and, I mean, we're talking about two conventionally attractive candidates here, not JFK and Nixon, knowwhatimean?

So I'll leap from my usual soapbox onto another and say something that has little to do with the issues (which overall are of greater importance than my bone here) but everything to do with the debates: Was it just me, or did the candidates respect the rules and format more with Bob Schieffer moderating than they did with Candy Crowley, or than the veep debate with moderator Martha Raddatz? (And do I need to point out what makes Candy and Martha different than Bob?)

Granted, they both also ran over Jim Lehrer in the first debate, which probably set the stage for the following go-rounds, so it's not just that they sit up and obey for the distinguished white man while trampling all over the ladies. But given the disregard for the rules displayed in every debate until last night, I don't think the candidates reined it in just to tone down the levels of rabidity. I watched them both essentially obey Schieffer, and then I looked at Schieffer—his grandfatherly eyes, his dignified manner, his tone that commanded respect. I contrasted it with the way they appeared to regard Crowley in the town hall debate, and then I looked at her.

And at this point, I realize that this does have to do with looks, at least a bit, for I went back and watched part of the town hall debate to accurately report on what I myself saw in Crowley, and here it is: full, maternal cheeks dotted with bright blush, arched eyebrows, curled hair. That is, I saw the signs of conventional femininity more than I saw a moderator. It pains me to write this—it pains me to think that after a year and a half of arguing here of the desire to reconcile hallmarks of conventional femininity with hallmarks of power, even I still have these thoughts, but there it is: I saw her bouncing hair and wondered how much of an invitation that was to the candidates to talk over her. I'm not blaming Crowley for this, or her hair; I'm blaming...hell, I suppose I'm blaming the centuries that came before us, whispering and yelling and ruling and singing that women—you know, the people who curl their hair and wear ribbons and darken their eyelashes and all that jazz—are better seen and not heard.

Listen, I'm voting Obama; I could expand on why but the fact is I'm pretty much a cookie-cutter liberal as far as this election is concerned. But one of the core reasons I'm happy to be voting Obama is that I find him to be a president who appears to have listened and internalized and understood the larger context of women's rights, reproductive and otherwise, in the U.S. and beyond. But that doesn't mean that he, or anyone, is immune to the subtle and insidious ways that sexism creeps into our day-to-day lives. Talking over Candy Crowley and then reining it in with Bob Schieffer certainly wasn't reflective of any conscious dismissal of Crowley, but rather something akin to what I notice happen to myself when I'm in a room dominated by men: Even when I know what I'm talking about, even when I feel confident, even when I'm fairly certain I'm better-educated on the topic than the men in the room, sure enough, I hear my voice dwindle. I'm a feminist who "knows better," and I do it anyway; I try to stop myself from piping down and playing good girl, but it's difficult enough to recognize it in the moment, and even more difficult to summon the voice to continue once my mental self-admonishments of be polite and honey not vinegar and maybe you've got the facts wrong anyway begin to kick in. It's not a stretch of the imagination to think that Barack Obama, despite his genuine dedication to women's rights and opportunities, despite what appears to be a genuine understanding of gender issues, might have internalized the inverse of the messages that find me silencing myself. (And yes, it is often me silencing myself; there have been plenty of times that I've been shushed by a man, yes, but they're outnumbered by the times I shush myself. I'm guessing that much of the time, men around me would be chagrined to know how often I stay silent.) It's not a stretch to think that he—and Romney too, though his record on gender equality is more questionable—subtly felt more within protocol to interrupt or ride roughshod over Crowley, not because they wish to dismiss her but because talking over women when they have something that feels urgent to say...well, that's just how conversations go. (And they'd be right to think that, as far as lived experience; linguistic studies have repeatedly shown that men interrupt women more than women interrupt men, and that when women do interrupt men it's likelier to be in the context of a supportive interruption, not a competitive one.)

I had several thoughts last night watching the debate, but only one as definitive as this: Judging from their behavior toward the moderators, both candidates long for a patriarch. That doesn't mean Obama has governed like one, nor does it necessarily mean Romney would. It's not like our political arena has done a stellar job of offering alternatives to patriarchs in leading roles—and judging from my own niggling thoughts about Candy Crowley and her hair, it's not like all of us feminists always do a stellar job of looking elsewhere for leadership either. Maybe right now this is the best we're going to be able to do. That doesn't mean I'm not going to question it. And it certainly doesn't mean I'm not going to question my own complicity in upholding the signals of patriarchy as what I myself unconsciously obey.