f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

September 11, 2008

the Lipstick Lynch Mob and the Girl Who Cried Wolf

Filed under: viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 8:54 pm

Over the last twenty years, I’ve often professed and confessed that “the average woman is considerably more mature emotionally than the average male.”  The current campaign season has, however, reminded me of another point I frequently make: “politics will change you more than you’ll ever change politics.”  The confluence of the two maxims is on mind today, after seeing the silly firestorm over Barack Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” remark yesterday (e.g., npr links, and WashPost coverage), especially in the wake of the McCain wolf-pack ad, which tries to inoculate his vice presidential candidate from criticism by warning that Obama “will try to destroy” Sara Palin (see CNN coverage).  It has all led me to sadly conclude:

  • In the political realm, far too many women have let politics lower their EQ — and far too many political strategists and candidates of both genders are exploiting that fact. And,
  • As happens on many issues, as soon as a good man (especially a liberal) is accused of sexism for something he said, he waffles and either retracts the statement or tries to give it an innocent, innocuous spin — which allows the virus of false accusations to spread and the meaning of sexism to be distorted and co-opted as a political weapon.

Sexism — real sexism (see our post “trumping reality with the sexism card”) — is far too important a concept and serious a vice to be devalued in order to gain political advantage.

Despite considering myself a liberal, I’ve complained for years about the leftist and feminist habit of seeing sexism in far too many situations (e.g., here).  But, it’s clear that folks on the right are also going to milk the sexism cow for all its worth in Election 2008.  Just as women should have been insulted and felt diminished when Hillary Clinton and her supporters over-played the sexism card in the primaries (prior post), women — and men who believe in gender equality — should be insulted by the McCain campaign’s constant cry of sexism now that they are wooing Clinton voters and have a woman on their ticket.  Maureen Dowd got it right last week:

“Hillary cried sexism to cover up her incompetent management of her campaign, and now Republicans have picked up that trick. But when you use sexism as an across-the-board shield for any legitimate question, you only hurt women. And that’s just another splash of reality.”

As f/k/a said in 2006 about feminist neo-puritanism:

Being seen as thin-skinned, humorless proponents of iffy legal analysis and bad attitudes is scarcely the way to win over the hearts or the minds of those who might still want to perpetuate the unwarranted stereotypes.  Indeed, it might just lose you a few allies or make them wary to come to your assistance every time you “cry wolf.”   Even the most open-minded and fair people can find it rather difficult to think of whiners (and those who insist on special protection) as equals.

– beneath the fold, you’ll find much more, including  

  • Corralling the Lipstick Lynch Mob
  • Carly Fiorina Cries Wolf
  • a few lupine haiku

Let’s Corral the Lipstick Lynch Mob. When he used the term “lipstick on a pig” yesterday, Barack Obama was not calling Sarah Palin a pig. Period.   Of course, he had to know that the oft-used phrase would now be even more powerful and wry because it evokes or alludes to Palin’s newly-famous soccer-mom-lipstick joke.  The cosmetic connection to Palin makes the old cliche (which he and John McCain and thousands of other politicians have used before) tickle and resonate more than ever with his supporters. That verbal link helps make the charge stick that the McCain campaign is trying to disguise the same old, bad ideas.  But, that doesn’t make it sexist, nor does it mean he’s being mean to Gov. Palin and calling her names.

Juxtaposition is very often at the core of humor and of debate.  You score points by turning your opponent’s language back on him or her.  There was nothing to apologize for and nothing to spin when Barack used the newest L-word — and that is what he should have said, instead of claiming blissful ignorance and innocence, and acting like his own lipstick metaphor now exists in a vacuum in Election 2008.

No More Lipstick Lynching: McCain’s new Palin-defender-in-chief, Jane Swift (not related to the boat of the same name), is wrong that the lipstick phrase was an insult and forbidden as sexist because Palin is the only candidate in this race who wears lipstick. So was Heather Higgins, chair of the board of the Independent Women’s Forum, wrong yesterday on the Diane Rehm Show, when she said that Obama’s statement “comes across as calling her a pig.” (“Governor Sara Palin and the Media,”  September 10, 2008)

Obama advisor Anita Dunn was correct that “This phony lecture on gender sensitivity is the height of cynicism.”  Indeed, behind the scenes, I bet the strong and witty Sarah Palin smiled and nodded her appreciation when she heard Obama turning the lipstick theme back on her; she might have even been embarrassed that their campaign staff chose the silly tactic of playing the sexism card so shamelessly.

We shouldn’t impose — and no self-confident, strong woman would want — a sexism rule that prohibits any candidate or campaign running against a woman from referring in a negative or joking way to any item, activity, or role that is closely tied to women — not even if it is strongly linked to a particular female candidate.  Context and intent matter, and like I argued last May:

[S]exism does not exist unless the actor/speaker has hatred or contempt for the other gender, or believes that one gender is superior to the other, or is attempting to maintain or impose stereotypes of masculinity on men or femininity on women in order to limit their freedom by restricting the gender to particular roles.  Indeed, although it can be annoying and juvenile, even gender-joshing — which these days is very often aimed at males — is not sexism (absent the requisite hatred, superiority complex, or intent to stifle gender freedoms).

. . Carly Fiorina Cries Wolf.  I was quite surprised last week to discover that someone as accomplished as Carly Fiorina holds a stacked deck of sexism cards and is the house dealer for the McCain/Palin campaign.  Fiorina’s role as Sexism Maven became clear during the Republican National Convention last week, and was on display at the Charlie Rose show on September 3, 2008.  Right after Sarah Palin gave her impressive acceptance speech, Charlie brought together a group of pundits and campaign operatives as part of his “Live Coverage of the Convention.”

About 23 minutes into this video of the show, Fiorina begins a five-minute interview. She had given a press conference on the issue of sexism in the campaign earlier in the day and was clearly prepared to speak on the topic.  She quickly told Charlie that the treatment of both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin has been “outrageous” and “I think we’ve had enough.”

Let’s look at a few of her explanatory statements, with each followed by a reaction by me (plus a few haiku from our poet friends sprinkled in):

  • Fiorina set the stage by saying “I think women are now finely-tuned to detect sexism in the way women are talked about.”  It seems to me that there is a fine line between “finely-tuned” and “over-sensitized,” “paranoid,” or “loaded for bear [or wolf],” and the McCain campaign has crossed that line. [Disclaimer: Yes, I support Obama, but I was not the least bit reluctant to take him to task in July for the analogous Politically Correct reaction of his campaign to the New Yorker cover.]
  • When Charlie asks her “What makes it outrageous, where is the line?,” Fiorina’s first example was:

CF: “Well, for example, when someone calls the Governor of Alaska ‘the cheerleader from the West,’ that’s sexist, just as it was sexist with Hillary Clinton to say that she reminded men of their first wife, that’s sexist.'”

My First reaction, is: Give me a break, how trivial can you get?  This doesn’t even merit a response. My second  (if you insist on a response) is: Throughout the history of our nation and its presidential campaigns, the VP candidate and in office is indeed expected to be a cheerleader for the person at the top of the ticket. (see, for example, this op/ed piece from July, long before Sarah Palin was even a gleam in McCain’s eye; and this book, which describes Fritz Mondale calling then Vice President George H. W. Bush a cheerleader).  Third: As he proudly states in his White House Biography, President George W. Bush was in fact an actual cheerleader while in college. Fourth: Are we supposed to stay away from the word simply because Sarah Palin is the sort of attractive, athletic, out-going woman who is so often admired when they play the role of cheerleader for a sports team? Or, because a lot of educated women look down their noses on cheerleaders?

Similarly, as for the “reminded of his first wife” complaint: What if that really was happening, why can’t it be mentioned?  Surely, if a male candidate reminded a lot of women of their first husband (or a childhood priest), it could and should be mentioned without the slightest complaint of sexism. Should we say “of their first spouse” when it’s a woman?  Are we supposed to ignore the fact that female spouses are called wives?  This complaint is simply silly and degrading to the entire notion of sexism and gender equality.

retreating glacier–
how long since we’ve heard
the black wolf’s song

……… by [Alaskan] Billie Wilsondust of summers: RMA 2007 (Red Moon Press, 2008); orig. pub. Modern Haiku 38:1

  • Here’s Fiorina’s next example of “outrageous” sexism aimed at Gov. Palin, and the one that would seem to go directly to her qualification to be Vice President:

“It’s sexist any time the experience and the track record of women is dismissed and women are somehow described as some kind of Show Horse instead of a workhorse.  I think it’s very legitimate to have a debate about relevant experience, but honestly I think it’s dismissive of a woman to say that a man who has been a one-time, one-term U.S. Senator and has never made an executive decision in his life, has more experience to be President of the United States than a woman who has made many executive decisions in her life is qualified to be Vice President of the United States.

“. . . what is sexist is to simply dismiss the experience of this woman as inadequate or irrelevant, it is both relevant and adequate.”

For my money (and psyche), Ms. Fiorina surely doth protest too much and sounds like she wants the scales weighted heavily in favor of female candidates (or at least hers).  Simply imagine that John McCain had chosen a man with exactly the same political experience as Sarah Palin.  Now, imagine what the opposing party and some pundits would have surely said.  That’s right: “He does not seem to have the kind of experience that should put him one (old) heartbeat away from the presidency.”  Whether executive experience is what is important (and on point), and whether a former small-town mayor and short-term Govenor of Alaska has dealt sufficiently with the kinds of issues important if you are suddenly President, would and should be part of any campaign, no matter the gender of the VP candidate.  Fiorina and her lynch mob want to make that debate irrelevant and off limits simply because Palin is a woman. Of course, it’s really simply because she is their candidate.

winter nears –
in the dog’s eyes
the wolf

…. by (Alaskan) Billie Wilson – The Heron’s Nest (1st Runner Up, Readers’ Choice 2002)

  • Fiorina then went on to describe what she calls “the most sexist thing of all”  — “that it is questioned whether she is a good mother although no one ever questions whether a man who also had children and ambition is a good father.”  This might come the closest to a valid claim of sexism, with a big if — If those raising the question considered themselves superior to women, hated them, or were trying to keep women in certain gender-specific roles.  That does not, however, seem to be the case.  From what I have heard and read it is mostly mothers with kids and jobs asking that question, because they know how hard it is to simply hold a 40-hour a week job or a run-of-the-mill salaried professional position and still be a mother.

It seems to me that a similar question would be asked of a man who claimed to be the primary child-care-giver in his household, had been doing a very demanding job, and had a special-needs newborn at home, plus a few more kids, and then signed on for a gruelling cross-country national electoral campaign on behalf of The Family Values Party.

The fact that Gov. Palin was asked the question should be seen as an opportunity to explain how a modern family can work, how a woman can have a top political office and either continue to be a main provider of hands-on care for her children, or appropriately choose to hand that job over to her spouse and others.  In America, the reality is that the mother spends the most time caring for the children in the vast majority of families. Branding the people asking this question sexists and thereby cutting off discussion and debate seems foolhardy, if you want to help our society move toward that goal.  It’s also a good chance to say to any “Family Values” candidate or one putting the spotlight on his children, “Hey, Mr. Candidate, just how good of a parent are you?”

Finally re Fiorina: Despite — or because — I’m a big fan of his, I have to ask Charlie Rose (and all the other men around his table that night, Mark Halperin, David Brooks, Al Hunt, Charlie Cook, and Byron York,):  Why did/do you give Carly Fiorina such a pass on her claims of outrageous sexism? Would you have acquiesced to any man making such extreme accusations and outrageous claims on any other topic, when there are so many reasonable or alternative explanations?   This looks like an example of how easily we’ve all allowed ourselves to be penned in — like sheep, not wolves — on a set of issues favored by the successful, educated, professional women with whom we make our lives.  Is it Lysistrata-phobia?  Are you “being a gentleman,” the way condescending men did to mollify their otherwise-subservient women throughout all of human history?  This curious mind wants to know.  Gender equality for interviewees goes both ways, doesn’t it?

update (11:45 PM): Charlie Rose and his guests are back at it tonight, in a “discussion of the Presidential Election.”  Bob Schieffer says it sure sounded like Obama was calling Palin a pig, and though he gives Barack the benefit of the doubt, Obama should never had said “lipstick on a pig.”  Jonathan Alter says, if you were there you know Obama did not mean that, but he still should not have said it.  Sigh.

…  To conclude, and at the risk of being called a Male Chauvinist Pig and banished by some of my very best friends, I want to summarize: The minority of women who want to be treated with special kid gloves because of their gender are living in the wrong century.  Ditto those who see sexism behind every opposing argument, tough question, or undesirable result.  They shouldn’t expect the rest of the nation to constantly tread on egg shells because they are feigning — or are actually still afflicted — with easily-bruised egos or readily-shocked sensibilities.  Wanting such special rules and protection is not very becoming a group of equals.  Of course, the Lipstick Lynch Mob that makes such demands purely for political gain can be proud: they’re just as hypocritical and detestable as the big boys.

update (September 14, 2008):  Law Prof. Ann Althouse, in a posting yesterday focused on McCain’s “How Disrespectful Ad” (which she seems to like as effective campaigning), reflects “But I want to talk about sexism. Is this ad playing on the notion that women should be treated with special respect?”  Ann argues (correctly): “[T]hat notion offends me. If a woman is going to seek great political power, she must be scrutinized and attacked just as harshly as a power-seeking man.”  She adds:

“You shouldn’t be able to get away with the contradictory arguments that a woman is capable of handling the presidency and a woman must be accorded special respect. You shouldn’t, but you probably will, and I can certainly see why you’re trying. I just hope it doesn’t work on me.”

afterwords (September 16, 2008): Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg makes a lot of sense today in his Fresh Air commentary “Lipstick on My Choler (Or, Did You Call Me a Pig?)”  (listen here to the 5-minute podcast from NPR).  As Fresh Air notes, Nunberg asks “who’s responsible when words get misconstrued — and whether there’s an irony when a cultural conservative complains that a progressive has been insufficiently sensitive.”  For example, he notes:

“So if you were an upstanding cultural conservative, you might see something undignified in the McCain campaign’s reaction to the lipstick-on-a-pig remark. At times it seemed like a send up of radical feminism drawn from a satirical novel by Christopher Buckley or T. Coraghessen Boyle — the keening indignation, the burrowing for far-fetched meanings and unconscious motivations, and above all the insistence that what matters isn’t what someone actually says, but the way we take it.”

wolf’s howl
the heat of the campfire
on our faces

……………… by ed markowski (Shiki Kukai, May 2007)


lipstick on his
coffee mug –
steam rising


p.s. For some reason, I feel the need to reprise this disclaimer, made when I complained last year about then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s low EQ:

I confess: When it comes to my family and friends, I’m biased — I expect much more from them (e.g., better behavior, reasoning and argument) than from other human beings. The same is true for people with whom I share a political party and/or philosophy.


  1. a truly sad state of affairs. all this coverage and phony outrage over the lipstick remark, when the united states is facing some truly awful national problems.

    was surprised by fiorina’s remarks as well. instead of pushing for what i thought would be issues more substantial (like equal pay, for example), she focuses on the trivial. disappointing.

    Comment by kouji — September 11, 2008 @ 10:04 pm

  2. “Is it Lysistrata-phobia?”

    YES! I must find a way to work that into every conversation I have over the next two months. I’m sure to be quite popular during that month.

    Comment by Liesl — September 11, 2008 @ 10:05 pm

  3. Thanks for chiming in Liesl and kouji. You know, “Lysistrata-phobia” just seemed a lot classier than something tacky and scary like “fear of castration.”

    Comment by David Giacalone — September 11, 2008 @ 10:48 pm

  4. The silly thing is, she called her*self* a dog w/lipstick.

    Comment by Anne — September 12, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

  5. Hi, Anne. Yea, I thought that, too — Palin told Hockey Moms that they are pit bulls wearing lipstick. Most folks like those cute little piggies more than pit bulls, methinks.

    Comment by David Giacalone — September 12, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

  6. Nobody ever tried to ban a pig.

    Comment by Anne — September 12, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

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