Monday, November 2, 2009

Leslie Sanchez on feminism and media sexism - a balanced picture?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Last week, Equal Writes received its first review copy of a book: CNN correspondent Leslie Sanchez’s You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe, an exploration of the media fiasco surrounding Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama during the 2008 election. I was excited, and took the book on vacation with me. It was a good choice for fall break reading – at 194 pages, it goes pretty quickly – but because I don’t know much about Sanchez’s politics (she’s quite conservative – maybe the shout-out from Sean Hannity on the back cover should have tipped me off), I didn’t expect the book to be quite so unbalanced.

Sadly, rather than being a candid exploration of the sexism of the media, the book was a thinly disguised rant about why Clinton did not win (and did not deserve to), and why Palin should have. Michelle Obama, relegated to a chapter titled “Ladies First,” where she was extensively compared to Clinton and Laura Bush and actually criticized by Sanchez for her fashion choices (one hates to say it, but – media sexism…?), was completely hung out to dry. There were moment where Sanchez tried to be balanced, put aside her evident distaste for both Clinton and Obama, and pointed out the nasty realities about the way sexism and gender are perceived in America, as when she compared the “iron my shirt” incident at a New Hampshire town hall to a hypothetical scenario, where a heckler shouted “shine my shoes” at Barack Obama. “My bet is,” Sanchez wrote, “that if ‘shine my shoes’ had been the slogan of the day, it would have galvanized us as a community and fomented protests in a way that just didn’t happen when Clinton was asked to iron shirts. In a way, that couldn’t happen because she is a woman, and as a culture, we don’t yet take sexism nearly to heart the way we do racism.”

Okay. So Sanchez is conservative, and I’m not. She still acknowledged the fact that Clinton, Palin and Obama were subjected to an unfair media circus, and that most of these attacks were sexist. Where the book started to go off the rails, for me, was when Sanchez began to indict “traditional feminists” (a term that she never really defined, but still freely associated with adjectives like “brash” and “shrill” – even “pushy broad”) for refusing to defend Palin. Sanchez seems still to be puzzled by the fact that many women did not immediately jump on to the McCain bandwagon when Palin was added to the ticket, that Palin’s “energy and passion…her incredible story of hard work and independence” did not lead people like me to completely overlook her lack of qualifications and terrible policies. Yes, some of the noise surrounding Palin was sexist – but some of it was genuine concern over the idea that this intensely underqualified woman might actually become vice president. Being a feminist does not require that I immediately support whatever female candidate is thrown on the ticket – and had feminist groups like NOW and the Feminist Majority Foundation, who Sanchez pillories for not leaping to Palin’s side, actually defended Palin, they would immediately have lost my support.

The most interesting part of the book, for me, was Sanchez’s focus on younger women – what they want from a candidate, and why they “abandoned” Clinton and Palin for Barack Obama. She suggests that this is because we (meaning younger women) are in some sense post-feminist, and don’t want a candidate that represents second-wave feminism, like Clinton. As for Palin, she seems to blame the media coverage for not presenting Palin as a serious candidate rather than acknowledging that young women might have preferred to elect Obama, who was much more pro-woman than McCain (and let’s not forget that it was McCain, and not Palin, who was going to be president). The thing is, Obama had the right policies, and the right message of change. Young women didn’t “refuse” Clinton because she had the label of “feminist.” They chose Obama because he was equally a feminist, an idea that Sanchez never airs. Instead, she chooses to indict young women for criticizing Palin’s policies on abortion, guns, taxes and national defense, instead making it a question of Palin’s “femininity and womanhood.” Let me make this clear: I was one of those young women who criticized Palin, and was frightened by the thought that she might be elected. And although I was disgusted by the accusations that she might have been unqualified for office because of her young child, or the constant references to her “beauty queen” past, I was able to separate that disgust from reasonable criticism – because I am a feminist.

I agree with Sanchez that “feminism” is not something that is particularly appealing to young women. But that’s because of books like this that repeat and reify the idea that all feminists are shrill and pushy, and that there is a more appealing (and apparently, conservative) alternative. Was Sarah Palin a good alternative to feminism? Absolutely not. Is the media, often, sexist? Yes. Let’s separate out the two. Sanchez could have written a shorter book defending Palin, and it would have been a more concise version of You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe – because by the end she degenerated to criticizing Michelle Obama’s “too-tight dresses” and calling Hillary Clinton “whiny.” Media sexism is a complicated issue, and one that deserves to be discussed. But this book only skimmed the surface, and was too interested in defending one woman at the expense of another to add anything new to this conversation. I also can't help noticing that this book's release coincides suspiciously with the release of Sarah Palin's memoir later this month (something I'm sure we'll be covering when it comes out) - but maybe I'm just being another hysterical, paranoid feminist.


At November 2, 2009 at 4:40 PM , Blogger Zoe said...

I posted a link to this review on my facebook page - wish you had a share button - but it worked anyway.
Thank you for this thoughtful review and saving the rest of us from having to delight in the title and then slog through the bias.
Maloney's book is so great, Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated. A better choice to be sure.

At November 4, 2009 at 10:38 AM , Anonymous AC said...

In other news, Maine voters again rejected a gay marriage amendment:

AP: "Maine voters repealed a state law Tuesday that would have allowed same-sex couples to wed, dealing the gay rights movement a heartbreaking [no bias here!] defeat in New England, the corner of the country most supportive of gay marriage.

Gay marriage has now lost in every single state - 31 in all - in which it has been put to a popular vote. Gay-rights activists had hoped to buck that trend in Maine - known for its moderate, independent-minded electorate - and mounted an energetic, well-financed campaign."

Yet, you know we're going to end up with gay marriage anyway, no matter what the voters want.


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