Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and self-described conservative Kathleen Parker recently wrote a piece titled “Obama: Our first female president” for The Washington Post. Throughout the blogosphere, I could hear the litany of “OMG’s” and “WTF’s,” amid gagging and face-palming. “In the nicest possible way,” Parker explains Obama exhibits “tropes of femaleness” in his passivity as commander in chief. Citing Toni Morrison’s christening of Bill Clinton as the “first black president,” Parker says:
Generally speaking, men and women communicate differently. Women tend to be coalition builders rather than mavericks (with the occasional rogue exception). While men seek ways to measure themselves against others, for reasons requiring no elaboration, women form circles and talk it out.
Parker claims that when responding to the BP Oil Crisis, Obama:
“[Had] the authority to intervene immediately and he didn’t. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.”
Parker further asserts, “His lack of immediate, commanding action was perceived as a lack of leadership because, well, it was.” Hampered by “feminine communication styles,” Parker concludes, “Obama may prove to be our first male president who pays a political price for acting too much like a woman.” But, of course, she means this “in the nicest possible way.”
There are several severely misguided presumptions in Parker’s column. I’m really not digging how Parker presumes:
- that there are definitively male and female styles of communication
- that female implies feminine and that male implies masculine
- that someone’s identity as a man or woman can be rationalized in a traditional binary framework
- that Toni Morrison was correct about Bill Clinton’s “blackness” (“she cited the characteristics he shared with the African American community,” after all.)
- that sharing characteristics with a community makes one a part of said community (“Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”)
- that passivity as commander in chief is inherently feminine (“suffering a rhetorical-testosterone deficit when it comes to dealing with crises.”)
- that bold political strokes are preferable to considered actions (It isn’t that he isn’t “cowboy” enough, as others have suggested. Aren’t we done with that? It is that his approach is feminine in a normative sense. That is, we perceive and appraise him according to cultural expectations, and he’s not exactly causing anxiety in Alpha-maledom.”)
I could go on and on with the predictable charges of gender stereotyping and heteronormativity, but I think you get it. Parker’s criticisms of Obama within the context of his feminine demeanor reveal how ubiquitous such gender norms and expectations still are. It’s bizarre, insulting, and frightening — for both men and women.
Parker’s article is jarring not only because of its appeal to such seemingly conventional and dated gender norms, but also because she is nostalgic for the melodramatic and, at times, theatrical rhetoric of George Bush. Parker sharply expounds, “Granted, the century is young — and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Obama’s rhetoric would simmer next to George W. Bush’s boil. But passivity in a leader is not a reassuring posture.”
In the past, Parker has maintained similarly gender normative positions. She described young women’s sexual habits on college campuses as a “mental health crisis” and maintained that women in the military should expect rape for “… overt sexual aggression may be the product of something few will acknowledge, at least on the record: resentment.” She continues by saying:
“Off the record, in dozens of interviews over a period of years, male soldiers and officers have confided that many men resent women because they’ve been forced to pretend that women are equals, and men know they’re not.”
Clearly, Parker and I aren’t going to agree on much in the first place. I find her piece somewhat funny but ultimately revolting. What are your thoughts?
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