May 21, 2008

Cultural Iconography

Julia Keller examines the history behind the long-held cultural icon of "woman as monster" and relates it to Hillary Clinton's treatment in the public square, in this Chicago Tribune column:

The over-large, over-ambitious, overbearing creature who irritates everybody, the death-defying witch who just won't go away—and who therefore must be destroyed.

She's a vampire, a zombie, an alien, a werewolf, a psychopath, a serial killer. She's Alex, the Glenn Close character in "Fatal Attraction" (1987), who ... keeps ... on ... coming. She's the looming, clutching, stifling mother or wife or girlfriend in a Philip Roth novel. (Which novel? Take your pick.) She's the eerie, outlandish creature in the Sylvia Plath poem "Lady Lazarus" (1965), who proclaims, "Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air." She's the vengeful giantess in the 1958 film "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman."

[...]

Revealed in the coverage of Clinton's campaign is the persistence of an ancient and distasteful cultural theme: the powerful, ambitious woman as cackling fiend, as fantastically terrifying ghoul threatening civilization. And because this creature (or "she-devil," as MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews called Clinton) is not human, the only solution is to kill it. Not just derail its career—obliterate it. Smash it to smithereens. Vaporize it. Leave not a trace of the foul beast behind.

Hence the appalling preponderance of violent, death-infused imagery in conversations about Clinton, smuggled into otherwise ordinary political discourse like a knife taped on the bottom of a cake plate: On CNN, pundit Alex Castellanos said democrats must realize that "it's time to take the family dog to the vet." Matthews' MSNBC colleague Keith Olbermann expressed the hope that "somebody will take her into a room—and only he comes out." CNN's Jack Cafferty gleefully floated the specter of Clinton being run over by a flatbed truck. A recent Tribune editorial compared Clinton to a euthanized Kentucky Derby contender.

[...]

This is not simply sexism or racism. Those prejudices are familiar, if still repugnant, and leaders as strong as Clinton and her opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, have faced them many times. This, though, is something different and more sinister, because it is not just a commentator's opinion about a person's fitness or unfitness for public office. It is not about using colorful, vivid language in order to wish that a person might or might not continue a campaign. It is an unprecedented public call—albeit metaphorically, but still violently and persistently—for a person's death.

[...]

Death, death, death. The steady, depressing drumbeat continues. What these commentators seem to seek is not just a proud female's withdrawal from a political contest—but her outright annihilation. They evoke the nightmarish vision of a commanding woman intent on destruction—thus she must be destroyed before she can launch her evil scheme.
Read it all. It's fantastic.

(H/T to Donna Darko)

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