The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.
In his recent Huffington Post piece, Mike Edison made his case for “How Sex Magazines Made the World a Better Place.” His conclusion? In addition to supposedly holding “pictures of naked ladies” in a “more sacred light” than does today’s internet porn, Edison asserted that magazines like Screw and Hustler were “ground zero for relentless freedom of speech in the form of tasteless comedy, brutal political satire, and, of course, naked ladies.” As an amateur First Amendment scholar, I’m sure that Edison is aware that another group that has benefitted from key freedom of speech court decisions is the Ku Klux Klan, but I doubt that Edison would argue that they, therefore, “made the world a better place.” Indeed, it’s possible to be an unabashed supporter of free speech and still question the cultural value of magazines that mainstream the sexual objectification and victimization of women. Of course, people have been debating whether or not pornography has deleterious effects on society for decades, and women who identify as “feminist” and “pro-woman” often come down on opposite sides of the issue. What this debate has thus far ignored, however, is the pornification of U.S. political culture, where women’s images are often hijacked for prurient purposes, further degrading political dialogue.
This trend emerged forcefully during the 2008 primary and general election campaign cycles, at a time when women were making historic political gains. (Want all the gory details? The full version of the study is available here.) Hillary Clinton was the first woman to be a major-party frontrunner for the presidential nomination, but she was also repeatedly called a term that “rhymes with blunt”:
Sarah Palin was the first woman to be a Republican vice-presidential nominee, but shortly after being attached to the McCain ticket, Palin became the MILF next door:
It wasn’t just women candidates who were pornified, however. Women voters were personified as needy nymphomaniacs in BarelyPolitical.com’s “Crush on Obama” viral video, touted as a top 10 viral video of the year by Newsweek, People, the Associated Press, and YouTube. The video, which launched the internet career of Amber Lee Ettinger, aka “Obama Girl,” features Ettinger pole dancing on a public bus, performing on a desk for male coworkers, and writhing onscreen as she professes her personal and political fealty to candidate Obama:
Perhaps the worst offender of 2008 (and the one that employed imagistic strategies closest to those employed in porn magazines) is the “Declare Yourself” get-out-the-vote campaign. Its “public service ads,” aimed at the 18-25 year old voter, use a “torture porn” aesthetic to convince ostensibly disengaged citizens that when they fail to vote, they limit their own political agency:
Interestingly, when Declare Yourself’s images of violent victimization are combined with the campaign’s tagline, “only you can silence yourself,” they reinforce the “blame the victim” mentality that minimizes both violence against women and the sexism that runs rampant in U.S. political culture.
Declare Yourself is not the only political organization attempting to seduce new supporters with sex and violence. PETA has featured scantily clad models in many of its campaigns, slyly winking at the audience with clever taglines such as the following:
Unfortunately, the rhetorical force of PETA’s message is often achieved by portraying sexually attractive, vulnerable women in violent situations. The following images are meant to critique bullfighting and eating meat, respectively. Unfortunately, the stylized violence is designed to titillate as much as it shocks.
Men are also sexualized in PETA’s literature, but they are rarely, if ever, victimized or degraded. Instead, vegan men are the paragons of strength and sexual dominance. Recently, PETA announced that it will launch an .xxx site designed to “promote the organization’s animal rights and vegan diet message, and reach a broader audience,” bringing the pornification of its political appeals full circle.
So far, there have been fewer examples of pornification in the 2012 presidential campaign—perhaps because the one woman candidate in the Republican primary, Michele Bachmann, has been framed with a different c-word: “crazy.” Whether appearing bug-eyed on magazine covers or being referred to as “Tutti Frutti” by a fellow contender, Bachmann’s candidacy reminds us of the continued utility of the “nuts or sluts” charge—originally popularized by attorneys defending accused rapists.
You don’t have to look far, however, to find persistent pornification of political women in 2011. Elizabeth Warren was heckled as a “socialist whore” at one of her campaign events. When Sarah Palin failed to confirm or deny her intention to run for president in 2012, Meghan McCain derided her as a “tease.” Janice Hahn, a candidate for California’s 36th congressional district, was lampooned in an attack ad that the conservative Daily Caller describes both as “the most racist, fear-mongering, sexist sing-a-long the political world may ever see,” and as “horribly hilarious.” In the video, titled “Give Us Your Cash, B—ch,” Hahn is cast as a pole-dancing “ho” who funnels funds to menacing gang bangers.
Hahn won her election, Warren continues to lead in the polls, and Palin’s Facebook page is as popular as ever, so is there really any harm coming from the pornification of politics? As I argue in my academic research, the pornification of political women is “indicative of the persistent, pernicious backlash against women’s political gains. Even—or perhaps especially—as women approach the last glass ceiling of U.S. electoral politics [the presidency], they are disciplined by increasingly base, vile, and violent discourses that reinscribe the worst kind of misogynistic patriarchy.” Popular culture serves as one measure of popular sentiment, and the continued pornification of political culture may be one reason why 90 years after women secured the right to vote in the U.S., women still comprise a meager 17% of the senators and representatives in U.S. Congress, 24% of state legislators, and are 6 of 50 sitting governors. Sure, voters profess the willingness to vote for a “qualified” female presidential candidate—funny thing is, no one has managed to quite clear that bar yet. In our postmodern political environment, it may be tough to define misogyny . . . but I know it when I see it.