Friday, August 1, 2014

President Obama poses a deep threat to patriarchy

I found it fascinating that yesterday Russia's Deputy Prime Minister tweeted this:

The truth is, he was just picking up on a meme that has been floating around our politics for a while now. For example, here's what Michael Crowley of TIME tweeted when Russia first went into Ukraine.

This is the same message the Republicans send when they call our President weak on foreign policy and lefty purists used when they caricatured his dealings with Congress ( for example, remember when Michael Moore said that President Obama should take off his tutu and put on his boxing gloves?)

Here's how Adam Gopnik summarized the messages we've been hearing for years now:
Barack Obama is not a tough guy. Everybody rolls him. He’s a wimp, a weak sister; he won’t stand up for himself or his country. Vladimir Putin, a true tough guy, blows planes out of the air, won’t apologize, walks around half-naked. Life, it seems, is like a prison yard, and Obama cowers in a corner. “It would be a hellish thing to live with such timidity. … He’s scared of Vladimir Putin,” one Fox News contributor said about the President. But this kind of thing is not confined to the weirder fringes: Maureen Dowd pointed out a while ago that former fans of Obama “now make derogatory remarks about your manhood,” while the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page runs a kind of compendium of “weak sister” pieces every morning, urging the President, at one point, to make more “unambiguous threats”—making unambiguous threats evidently being the real man’s method of getting his way.
(Note: you should go read Gopnik's whole column because he proceeds to tear apart this notion of our need for a "tough guy.")

Its important to note the way this framing is tied to gender. Men are strong and women are weak. The worst insult to a man is to compare him to a woman. Some of you may have assumed that we'd gotten beyond all that in the 21st century. But we haven't. I'm here to say that the reason it persists is that, for too many of us, the cause of feminism has been reduced to reproductive freedom and equal pay. As important as those things are, we've lost sight of the big picture.

These things can be difficult to talk about because conversations usually devolve into caricatures and stereotypes about what it means to be masculine or feminine. Somewhere along our evolutionary path, some things got conflated that don't belong together:

Masculine = Dominance = Strength
Feminine = Nuturance = Weakness

Until we can unpack those things, we'll remain trapped in a patriarchal system that devalues women and demands that men prove their manliness via their ability to dominate.

Just as President Obama threatens the system of white supremacy, he is also challenging the notions we have absorbed from patriarchy. I have often written about how his power (or strength) is not based on dominance - but partnership, and he regularly talks about the importance of empathy (another way of expressing nuturance). Those are just a couple of examples of how he scrambles all those notions about masculinity and femininity from within the body of a man. That confuses a lot of people and triggers some deep fears about a challenge to the way we've come to expect the world to be ordered. In other words, he's dealing a death blow to the old patriarchal system.

So the next time someone accuses the President of being a "girly man," I'm thinking a great response would be, "Yes, isn't that wonderful! And what a strong girly man he is!" 
A strong woman is a woman who loves
strongly and weeps strongly and is strongly
terrified and has strong needs. A strong woman is strong
in words, in action, in connection, in feeling;
she is not strong as a stone but as a wolf
sucking her young. Strength is not in her, but she
enacts it as the wind fills a sail.

What comforts her is other's loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness
from which it issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns. In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only water of connection remains,
flowing through us. Strong is what we make together...

- Marge Piercy


  1. One of the more interesting phenomena I have seen in my neighborhood (a heavily Christian one in the Netherlands) is that a post on entering a park was written on (just about 2 months ago): "Smash the Patriarchy".

    I have passed this post weekly for the last twenty years - this is the first time something is written on it ...

  2. Michael Crowley may want to ask Osama bin Laden and some Somali pirates what they think of Obama's toughness. Also, too, if Crowley really wants to play this game, Manboobs Putin riding a Shetland pony looks about as tough as my Uncle Sid playing shuffleboard.

    1. LOL. I was thinking the same thing. Many guys have "manboobs", but I never thought it was an indication of "manliness".

  3. odd in another way: he's a basketball player. reality is, there ARE no wuss basketball players. wusses leave the game quickly by attrition.

    so even aside from the sexism aspect, the zomg he's not manly crap is really just from either a) the SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY monster truck hicks, or b) from never-done-anything-physical-themselves douches

    1. Part of it is the scramble. Combining empathy with competence at basketball confuses the sexists.

    2. aye. tv, movies, etc. are big on the greek motif of each person only has *one* thing about them. someone like Obama who has a manifold of facets, yah folks aren't gonna be able to navigate that kind of a person very well.

    3. I'm glad you brought up the pundits having anything to say about real toughness. Which one of them have ever risked anything?


  4. Excellent point....I always saw this as part of the "Do Not Belong" meme....

  5. On the first tweet: Putin is a derogatory reference to a small cat.
    On the second tweet: If you've got it, you don't *have* to flaunt it!

  6. Definitely agree with the second tweet. The guy on the left is putting in effort and actually working towards his destination; the guy on the right just makes his horse do all the work while looking nice on it.