Monday, December 16, 2013

The patriarchal lens that distorts the media's perception of President Obama

Years ago the world of media and pundits landed on a frame for understanding the difference between our two national parties...Republicans are the "Daddy party" and Democrats are the "Mommy party." While that framework bore some resemblance to the truth (Daddies are associated with structure and Mommies with nurture), it places the same kinds of limits on the lens through which we view politics that patriarchy places on men and women. Its an either/or frame that distorts our perceptions.

Over the last few years we've seen that frame applied to President Obama as various pundits try to understand him. How that mostly plays out is that they come off as children in search of a Daddy. No one does this better than Maureen Dowd. But other pundits from across the spectrum have told him he needs to "man up," gone in search of his leadership defects for failing to dominate the Republicans, and labelled him as weak in negotiations that sought compromise on both sides. Those are all Daddy frames.

Of course the reality is that we're dealing with a President who focused like a laser beam on getting Osama bin Laden and who has been excoriated by many on the left for his prosecution of the war on al Qaeda. These folks want to cast President Obama as the ultimate Daddy by suggesting that he's a the same time that they yearn for a Daddy to lead us in battle against the Republicans.

Perhaps you're beginning to see how our concepts of Daddy/Mommy - which mirror patriarchal views of men and women - have infected much of the way our media attempts to understand this President. More than anything else, our patriarchal legacy tells us that to be strong and wield power is to dominate. While we pay lip service to the nurturing of Mommies, we tend to see that as weak and something to be exploited.

All of those frames are completely useless when it comes to understanding President Obama. The only way anyone will be successful in capturing how he operates is to do their best to throw it all out.

This is a man who is strong enough to take on Osama bin Laden, but also strong enough to cry when 20 beautiful children are brutally gunned down in their classroom. He's the counter-puncher who will do everything he can to find common ground, but crush you if you try to take advantage of that. He's secure enough in himself to let Putin take credit for a win on the international stage if it means that Syria gets rid of its chemical weapons.  He's savvy enough to play the long game of using Republican obstruction to so marginalize their positions that even Speaker Boehner breaks away in anger. He's grounded enough to say to Mitt Romney, "Please proceed, Governor" - knowing he'll get the last word.  He's confident enough in his own positions that he can reach out in empathy to try and understand someone like George W. Bush.

But perhaps most importantly, President Obama knows that dominance is not the means by which to achieve the power that is necessary for change. Whether its reaching out to the rest of the world to work together in pressuring Iran to the negotiating table on nuclear weapons, or reminding us that "nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change," this is a President who believes in the power of partnership. As Rianne Eisler (author of The Chalice and the Blade) said:
Underneath all the complex and seemingly random currents and crosscurrents, is the struggle between two very different ways of relating, of viewing our world and living in it. It is the struggle between two underlying possibilities for relations: the partnership model and the domination model.
Our current-day expert on community organizing, Marshall Ganz, relates that to leadership:
Another important distinction is that between leadership and domination. Effective leaders facilitate the interdependence or collaboration that can create more "power to" -- based on the interests of all parties. Domination is the exercise of "power over" --a relationship that meets interests of the "power wielder" at the expense of everyone else.
Here's President Obama talking about the importance of partnership on the international level:
For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes -- and, yes, religions -- subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.
And here he is applying that same concept to our domestic politics:
We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe.
The reason most media analysis of this President falls short is that they continue to cling to patriarchal notions of strength as a Daddy issue and dominance as the only form of power. Its not surprising because that's how we've all been taught to understand the world. Meanwhile President Obama is at work transforming what leadership will mean going forward in the 21st century. Its going to take a while for the media to catch up.


  1. Great analysis. Thank you.

  2. White capitalist patriarchy--- clearly, a whole lot of whites don't see how a black men could legitimately be their daddy, and can't see how anything but a zero sum competition that we "win" could benefit us.

  3. Can't stand litcrit babblespeak, but very fine on highlighting how Obama's complexity, nuance, and texture greatly outruns simplistic models.

  4. Hey, SP, funny you should mention it! (Based on your long ago recommendation) I finally bought 'The Chalice and the Blade' a couple of weeks ago! I kept looking for it in used books stores but couldn't find it anywhere, so ordered it for Christmas along with 'The Spark'. Of course, now I'll have to wait to be moved to read it ;-) - maybe in the new year.


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