January 26, 2009 / Uncategorized

Framing the Cunt: the use of sexist stereotypes in the 2008 election – Part 1


I don’t usually talk about this, but when I was fifteen years old I read a book called The Social Animal by Elliot Aaronson, which explained how to manipulate and control people. You can get people to do things they might not otherwise do, without them knowing you’re doing it? Amazing! So I did what any curious teenager might: I tried experimenting on my friends.

The results were disturbing. Pretty soon, my friends were doing what I wanted, when I wanted. I wasn’t prepared for this. I hadn’t really considered that my little experiments would work, and now all of a sudden, the people I cared about seemed less like autonomous human beings and more like puppets or pawns that could be moved around a game board at someone’s whim. At my whim. Too late, I realized I had acquired one of those bits of knowledge I might have been be better off without.

As for the experimenting, I didn’t keep it up for long, and I didn’t go to university and study Social Psychology and become a spin doctor, either, in case you’re wondering, but that unexpected success ensured that I would never lose interest in the topic: I have been studying and thinking about the ways people are manipulated for 29 years.

Let’s try it: suppose I wanted to evoke an unconscious association in you. How would I go about doing that?

If I say “white rabbit” — what’s the first thing you that think of?

If next I say “caterpillar,” does that reinforce your first association, or are you wondering if I’m making a zoological inventory of my backyard?

a) White rabbit
b)  Caterpillar

….did you get it?

Isn’t it amazing that I can mention those two common critters and you recall a specific story from your childhood? Of course, there’s probably no unpleasant association attached to your memory of Alice in Wonderland, but if there were, I could use it to evoke an aversive reaction in you: Rabbits are tricksters! Don’t trust them!

Try these:

a)  2 months salary
b) “……forever”

a) Plastic surgery
b) Pet chimpanzee

a) Hamburger
b) “Where’s the….?”

Now consider this:

Aug 29: McCain announces Sarah Palin as his running mate. In the days following, we learn:
— she was nicknamed “Sarah Barracuda” in high school
— she used to help out with her husband’s commercial fishing operation—she was a fishwife, selling the day’s catch.

Sept 3: Gov. Palin’s speech at the Republican Convention
— she makes her famous joke about how the difference between an hockey mom and a pitbull is lipstick. The crowd loves it. The joke is repeated over and over in the press the next day.
— after her speech, Heart’s hit song, “Barracuda,” plays over the stadium’s sound system.

Sept 9: At a rally six days later, Obama says the following:

“That’s not change. That’s just calling something the same thing something different. You know you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. You know you can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, it’s still going to stink…”

From the laughter and applause that immediately followed Obama’s comments, we can safely conclude that the audience made the association with Palin. But did Obama intend for them to make it?

These associations are involuntary. They’re unconscious. It’s not something we’re on the lookout for. But political messages are crafted with utmost care. They are designed to get people to do what you want, which is vote for you instead of your opponent. That is the end game, the desired outcome, the successful result of the influence your message exerts on your audience.

Given the mere eleven days between Gov. Palin’s arrival on the national scene and the comments by Obama, the lipstick and fish juxtaposition is simply too convenient—too elegant, one might say—to dismiss as a coincidence. Like the rabbit and caterpillar I used above, Obama’s references were intended to evoke a specific association for the listener—Governor Sarah Palin: a pig in lipstick, a smelly fish.

It was quite brilliant—exactly the sort of thing I’d be aiming for if I were writing those speeches and my code of ethics was sufficiently flexible to allow me to choose ends over means, and the result was exactly what I might have hoped for: In the days following the speech, by bringing up the offense over and over again, the uproar only served to reinforce the association that Obama had evoked, and then he went on TV to say how silly it was that the media had grabbed on to this ridiculous story when so many more important issues are looming.

It was perfect—a work of art—and the idea that a skilled orator like Obama didn’t know what he was doing when he spoke those words is absurd.

Of course he knew.

Just like he knew what unconscious association he was evoking when he said, “I understand that Senator Clinton, periodically, when she’s feeling down, goes on the attack to boost her appeal.”

Hillary Clinton: hormonal harridan.

Perhaps Obama didn’t like doing it. Maybe he was advised to use these tactics, told, “This is what you have to do to win.” Maybe he didn’t write this stuff himself. Maybe Favreau wrote it, and maybe writing things that were deliberately intended to demean Senator Clinton shaped Favreau’s attitude toward her to such a degree that just days after Obama appointed her as Secretary of State, Favreau would take a cardboard cutout of the senator back to his place as a party prop and interact with it in ways that were intended to humiliate her.

In The Social Animal, Aaronson writes about the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which college students were randomly divided into prisoners and guards, and brought to live in a mock “prison” set up inside the school. The resulting interaction led to such psychological cruelty on the part of the “guards” toward the “prisoners” that the experiment was terminated after just six days.

Prisoners and guards rapidly adapted to their roles, stepping beyond the boundaries of what had been predicted and leading to dangerous and psychologically damaging situations.

The same behavior has been observed in military personnel toward their prisoners: in order to be effective soldiers, they are trained to dehumanize the enemy, but it’s difficult to shift this attitude when the enemy is at their mercy.

Or when the enemy becomes an ally. When Clinton joined Obama’s cabinet, were some of his staff still thinking like soldiers?

One can make an argument for moral relativism: “It’s what you have to do to win”, or ”you gotta beat them at their own game”, but the fact that Favreau likely penned those words about Hillary Clinton before he performed his demeaning pantomime with the Clinton cut-out seems to indicate that they are not “just words.” Words influence how we think and what we do, and that’s the whole point of evoking unconscious bias: to influence people to act in a particular, predetermined way.

So you carefully choose your words in order to give people hope, to make them dream; you want to inspire them, to motivate them to do what you want, because it seems like the thing that is in their best interests. Or you want to activate their shame, to call up their fear and their disgust so they will respond with aversion to the thing you don’t want them to do. If you want them to reject your opponent and vote for you, you evoke the most unpleasant stereotypes available about your opponent. If these are effective, many of the voters who have identified with your opponent will turn away and reject that person out of fear of being associated with him or her.

This works especially well with women, because we’re afraid—deeply, morbidly afraid—to be called pigs or cunts or harridans. We’re mortified that anyone might think we smell like fish. We will draw back from these images as if from an open flame.

Dr. Violet Socks makes it plain:

Where Hillary was a ball-busting bitch, Palin is an airhead fuck bunny. Where Hillary was every(male)body’s know-it-all nagging first wife, Palin is a beauty queen bimbo. Hillary was a vicious lying cunt, but Palin is a stupid cunt. The result is the same: a laughingstock, an anything-but-inspiring figure of ridicule, the kind of woman people would be ashamed to support. The kind of woman that women would be ashamed to support. Yes, of course we’d like a woman vice-president, but not this one because she’s a stupid cunt.

But it’s just politics. It’s how you win elections. And yet Favreau’s mock assault of the cutout of Clinton demonstrates in the clearest, most indisputable terms that the framing works—even for the person who’s doing the framing. Amazing! Just like when I read that book and tried it out on my friends.

How did Favreau decide to mess around with the cut out of Clinton? What mental processes led up to it? What made it seem like a good idea? The incident occurred quite some time after the primaries were over. It wasn’t an immediate effect –- a blowing off of steam after a tough battle. The constant devaluation of Clinton during the primaries was an indirect exercise of power, of dominance. As observed in Stanford’s student “guards” and their “prisoners,” dominance encourages devaluation of the people over whom one exercises power, allowing you to dehumanize them to the point where you can do things to them that you would not do to a person you saw as an equal, possessed of dignity and deserving of respect. The fact that that Favreau could act out in such a manner after several months had passed is evidence that his attitude toward Clinton persisted.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff explains it this way:

A frame is a conceptual structure used in thinking….Every word evokes a frame….Words defined within a frame evoke the frame….Negating a frame evokes the frame….Evoking a frame reinforces that frame….Every frame is realized in the brain by neural circuitry….Every time a neural circuit is activated, it is strengthened [emphasis mine].

“Framing,” he says, “is an art, though cognitive linguistics can help a lot. It needs to be done systematically.” Lakoff has advice for those running for election:

Negative campaigns should be done in the context of positive campaigns. To avoid negating the opposition’s frame and thus activating it, do the following: start with your ideal case of the issue given. Pick frames in which your ideal case is positively valued. The contrast will attribute the negatively valued opposite quality to the opposition as a nightmare case.

Now let’s apply Lakoff’s ideas to the sequence of events in late August and early September: Palin is framed (and frames herself) as a barracuda, a former fishwife, and a pitbull in lipstick. Obama reframes her as pig in lipstick and a smelly fish. When his opponents try to negate the frame, they’re caught—repeating the offensive phrases over and over, they end up reinforcing the frame, while Obama makes a clever follow-up speech about how the media is being fed catnip by his opponents and cluttering up the news feeds with trivia when there are much more important issues that we all ought to be focusing on. That he invoked the “swiftboating” reference shows true audacity, as he was the one doing the swiftboating, and doing it with considerable skill.

Part 2  will look at the collateral effects of this type of framing on the general population of women.