In the excerpt below, the editors of Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics argue that the way we engage with female political leaders, particularly at the highest levels, is informed by popular culture, by the forms of media we consume and by the way female political actors “perform” on the job. The book calls for research into gender and politics that is informed by real-time political developments and multi-disciplinary in approach. —Eds.
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The 2008 election saw significant interaction between gender-driven popular culture and politics, from Hillary Clinton’s shot-and-beer visits to working-class bars and Hillary nutcrackers in airport gift shops to Sarah Palin’s self-identification as a ‘hockey mom’ and T-shirts with pictures of pit bulls wearing lipstick. Add to that Saturday Night Live sketches (including those declaring “Bitch is the new black”), fashion breakthroughs, and the cementing of female-driven programming as an important political battleground, and the battle to become the forty-fourth president took on gender implications of significant proportions.
All excerpt text from Introduction, by Justin Vaughn and Lilly Goren.
Excerpts from Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics, edited by Justin S. Vaughn and Lilly J. Goren, 2012, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky
Cultural observers pay so much attention to popular culture because it is rich with information about the political disposition of a particular time or era and can often convey a variety of messages—sometimes competing messages—to cultural consumers. It is also important to consider popular culture’s varied and numerous venues, from the most obvious (films, television, music, books) to the less often considered (magazines, newspapers, video games, fashion, all manner of interactive technological experience, even cultural occasions—such as royal weddings, sporting events, inaugurations, etc.), since all of these cultural artifacts contribute to the way that we, as citizens, think of ourselves, as members of particular communities, groups, parties, and nations. In this regard, although we often consider that there is a distinct separation between popular culture artifacts and ourselves, in reality we regularly interact with and shape popular culture, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unconsciously, while we are also influenced by popular culture. In this way our understanding of popular culture also contributes to our understanding of the working of democracy, be it a particular democracy (as in the United States) or democracy as a form of citizen rule. Democracy reflects the contributions of citizens to the shaping of norms and opinions not merely through overt political engagement (like voting) but also through cultural interaction (buying tickets to a movie on its opening night and contributing to its establishment as a “blockbuster,” adopting particular forms of fashion and contributing to a new trend as a result, etc.) These dimensions of democracy, though based in consumer culture and often considered more economic than political, contribute to the same fabric within society and contribute to the way in which citizens view themselves and their fellow citizens.
The election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president was obviously a watershed event. At the same time, both before and since Obama’s election, there have been women and minorities in growing numbers in positions of political power in the United States. Over the past half century, there have been a number of “firsts.” President Ronald Reagan’s appointment of Sandra Day O’Conner to the Supreme Court is a landmark example. Geraldine Ferraro’s run as Walter Mondale’s vice presidential candidate in 1984 was another important moment, and though it took place across the Atlantic Ocean, the long and notable tenure of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was yet another watershed for the reality of women in political positions of power and significance. Further, the actual administrations in Washington, DC, have included greater gender diversity with each new administration.
It has really been only during the last twenty years or so, though, that women have been appointed to cabinet-level positions that are not “naturally” associated with their gender. It should be noted that a parallel story can be told about the evolution of race in the presidency. Although President Franklin Roosevelt appointed the first woman to a cabinet position (Frances Perkins as secretary of labor from 1933 to 1945), most of the cabinet positions that were held by women tended to be directly connected to what are generally perceived to be the “natural/innate” issue areas of their gender, such as the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services. The cabinet positions that are the oldest and thus among the most important in the functioning of the administration and advising the president have only recently started to open up to women. Janet Reno became the first (and, thus far, only) female attorney general. Furthermore, both a Hispanic (Alberto Gonzales) and an African American (Eric Holder) have held the post. Madeleine Albright became the first female secretary of state, followed by Colin Powell as the first African American secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as the first female African American secretary of state, who, before that, served as the first female African American national security advisor. Hillary Clinton came to her position as secretary of state from her elected position in the U.S. Senate (and after her run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008). The presidential administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama opened up significantly more positions of power to more women than any previous presidential administrations.
The president himself has always been a symbol of many things—including power, patriarchy, virtue, ability, popularity. This office is defined by patriarchal characteristics and qualities—from the capacity of the president as commander in chief to the unbroken 225-year streak of only men filling this position (which distinguishes it from both monarchies, which are often led by women, and most other developed democracies, many of which have elected women to the highest executive office of prime minister, president, or chancellor). The president’s particular role in foreign affairs (the appointment of ambassadors, the making of treaties, etc.) also reflects the acutely patriarchal qualities of the office; as Charlotte Hooper has noted in her Manly States: Masculinities, International Relations, and Gender Politics, “The focus on war, diplomacy, states, statesmen, and high-level economic negotiations has overwhelmingly represented the lives and identities of men. This is because of the institutionalization of gender differences in society at large and the consequent paucity of women in high office.” Although Hooper herself rejects the term “patriarchy,” what she analyzes is the patriarchal nature of executive leadership. Linda Horwitz and Holly Swyers explain that “the notion of what a president should look like, or what is presidential, is fundamentally masculine… Leadership is a masculine domain as established by God.”
There are still clearly entrenched ideas about different capacities that men and women have, especially with regard to the conduct of war and defense policy. For example, Jennifer Lawless has found a distinct difference in perceptions of abilities based on gender, with a substantial majority thinking that men were much better equipped to handle military issues and defense policy decisions than were women. According to Lawless [$], “Citizens prefer men’s leadership traits and characteristics, deem men more competent at legislating around issues of national security and military crises, and contend that men are superior to women at addressing the new obstacles generated by the events of September 11, 2011. As a result of this stereotyping, levels of willingness to support a qualified woman presidential candidate are lower than they have been for decades.” This is particularly important when considering the essential character of the American presidency, which, as Alexander Hamilton asserted, is to be characterized by unity, decision, secrecy, activity, and dispatch. The office requires many of the qualities, at least to a degree, of a traditional “executive”; in the minds of the Founders this meant an emphasis on issues of war, martial conduct, international relationships, and, particularly in Hamilton’s opinion, the economic policy of the republic. See Federalist Papers 69 through 77, particularly 69 and 70.These are issues that are defined as masculine in quality and characteristic. Feminine issues tend to be those more closely associated with the home and family: education, health, human services, labor, and housing. Although research has indicated that male and female candidates are treated similarly in many respects, there remain fundamental conceptions of policy areas that are more specifically masculine and areas that are more specifically feminine. The particular emphasis of the presidency is on the issue areas that are generally defined as masculine.
Taken together, [the chapters in this volume] provide a multifaceted approach to the powerful and profound linkages between gender, popular culture, and the American presidency. The intersection between these subjects connects many avenues of research. By examining the ways candidates for the nation’s highest office are gendered, the ways the institution itself is gendered by Hollywood and other important sources of cultural understanding and the ways that gender has exerted influence over the people within the actual White House we emerge better equipped not only to answer the common question of when the United States will elect its first female president but also more substantive questions such as what the public will expect from that trailblazing chief executive, how gender will affect the way she governs, and what tests and challenges she will face as both presidential aspirant and Oval Office occupant.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.