U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Clinton and Obama as Personifications of Gender and Race

Sometime in late 2007 or early 2008 I attended a talk by the literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels entitled “The Trouble with Diversity: Model Minorities and the Minority Model.” What stood out most to me in his talk was a detour he took from his controversial style of literary criticism into the more mundane realm of contemporary presidential politics in the United States. After knocking down such literary giants as Philip Roth and Toni Morrison, he switched gears to what initially struck me as a facile form of historical contextualization. Using the escalating Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, Michaels sought to demonstrate that race and gender, as well as identity politics more generally, were overwhelming our ability to address the more important category of class. To him the success of Clinton and Obama and the decline of Edwards in the Democratic race exemplified the skewed priorities of the forces left of center in America and their complicity with neo-liberalism. Despite my initial negative response to this all-too-easy comparative scheme, it struck a chord and has remained with me ever since—though probably not in the way that Michaels would have liked.

Though Michaels cast his argument as quite novel—as most academics are wont to do—it is of course a very old argument on the left. And to anyone familiar with the history of the 1960s mirrors the dynamics that helped consolidate the forces of radical feminism and the radical Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, there was nothing new about a white Marxist-inclined male advocating against “identity politics”—in many ways it was quite predictable. Both then and now I disagree with this construction of class as a more fundamental category of power; indeed, in my dissertation I argue that gender and race were more formative in United States history. Precisely for this reason, however, I found Michaels’ formula (candidate = category of power) compelling, especially with regard to Clinton and Obama. For though certainly a bit simplistic, there was something very suggestive in examining how Americans react to the categories of race and gender using their most conspicuous contemporary signifiers in American public life.

In this vein, I think this model could still be put to quite productive use. For if Obama’s nomination and election put to test and fleshed out many tacit and latent racial anxieties, Clinton’s nomination and possible presidency might function quite similarly for gender. And to all appearances both Clinton and the public view her as a woman, first and foremost. For many liberals her nomination serves as a barometer for progress, while in many others—especially white men, though far from exclusively—Clinton seems to excite both explicit chauvinism as well as coded responses associated with “gender-blind” ideology. Thus, though such a comparative scheme is in some ways hopelessly reductive, in other ways I think it could offer some curious insights.

Perhaps the most counter-intuitive observation this comparison lends itself to is that in some regards Americans seem more sexist than racist. On its face, at least, it appears that the vitriol coming from the right in America targeting Clinton has eclipsed the anti-Obama backlash. No less telling perhaps, is the left’s response to Clinton when compared with Obama. I have no solid evidence for this, just anecdotal impressions, but more leftists seemed to line up behind Obama than behind Clinton. Some might say that Obama came with less of a baggage than Clinton has; others might suggest that after eight years of Bush, which many leftists viewed as a colossal catastrophe, it was all too easy to fall prey to Obama’s candidacy; but I have a hard time shaking the feeling that sexism has something to do with Obama’s seemingly electric charisma and Clinton’s supposed lack thereof. Furthermore, it seems that in both liberal and leftists circles electing the first black president loomed as a much greater achievement than the first woman president.

I wish to be clear, this is not an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, or Obama, or anyone for that matter, but an impression that both ideologically and structurally Clinton and Obama are of the same mold. They are both institutional candidates that share very similar priorities and agendas. I hypothesize, in other words, that two white men with similar backgrounds, credentials, and agendas would have probably elicited very different—and far from disjointed—responses from American voters.

Perhaps even more surprising—to me at least—these were some of the first thoughts I had after watching the new Ghost Busters movie and reading about some of the reactions to the movie by both critics and the public at large. One of the great assets of this very successfully executed movie, I thought, was its unabashed feminist subtext and the grand comedic performances of its female actors, especially Kate McKinnon. To my chagrin, however, the movie received many mixed reviews and very little sympathy for its feminism from the mainstream media. Perhaps less surprising was that the troll-infested internet was awash with hateful bile towards the movie and anyone associated with it. Particularly the “Gamergate” types lashed out violently against the movie and even went after one critic who reviewed the movie very favorably.

Such anecdotal evidence is far from conclusive, but these recent impressions lead me to suspect that in some regards sexism is more pervasive than racism in America, today and over its long history of sexism and racism.