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Piñatas, the War On Women, and Other Reductive Things

May 24, 2012

We’ve all heard a lot about the “war on women” that Republicans are allegedly waging due to recent ramp-ups in their efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and limit access to contraceptives and abortion. Doug and I have even written about related “campaigns” on this here blog in the past few months (see what I did there? Because in a war they have campaigns but it’s also election season? Get it? Do ya?). But as our dear friend and erstwhile (and hopefully future) contributor Kurt Sampsel pointed out to me the other day, we haven’t ever talked about the phrase itself even though doing so would seem to be right up our alley.

And now seems like as good a time as any, as conservatives are beginning to fight back with a strategy roughly akin to saying “I know you are, but what am I?” to a schoolyard bully. See, a couple days ago a video surfaced of South Carolina AFL-CIO president and woman Donna Dewitt whacking a piñata fashioned in the likeness of Nikki Haley, SC’s anti-union governor who is, you guessed it, also a woman. This horrifying event of woman-on-woman-shaped-piñata brutality has prompted righteous indignation from such online bastions of conservativism and, apparently, feminism like Townhall.com, whose Katie Pavlich refers to this as an event in the “‘civil’ war on women” and Human Events, whose John Hayward wonders “what would the constipated liberal guardians of ‘civility’ say about video of a Tea Party event where Sandra Fluke was clubbed in effigy? Or Michelle Obama?” Which is a question that I can’t answer because knock on wood I’ve really been quite regular lately, but I can say that the whole thing seems a bit disingenuous to me.

See, there’s no other reason for Tea Partiers to hit a piñata of Sandra Fluke other than because of her stance on women’s health issues. This isn’t in any way meant to discount that stance, but Sandra Fluke came to national prominence because she is a woman; if you recall, her name initially made the news because she was removed as a witness from a no-girls-allowed discussion of contraception and religious freedom (and also cooties). If not for this and her eventual testimony on the issue, said Tea Partiers wouldn’t even know who she is. So, constipated or otherwise, I think that liberals would have pretty good reason to assume that a Fluke piñata was motivated by her femininity, or at least her particular brand of feminism, and was therefore anti-feminist if not outright misogynistic. Still, that doesn’t unequivocally make it so; more on this later but there’s obviously a lot more to Sandra Fluke than her womanhood. Michelle Obama is an even more complicated story; she’s a public figure for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with her second X chromosome (and Tea Partiers don’t like her for just about all of them) so maybe it’s just my impaction-free bowels speaking here but I’d be hesitant to say that sexism would necessarily be the motivating factor behind a first lady piñata. That said, you better believe that the wonderful irony of stuffing a Michelle Obama effigy full of candy isn’t lost on me.

But I digress. What I’m trying to get at is that equating an event like this with allegations of systematic misogyny really misses the point. It’s certainly a bit crass to mutilate someone in effigy, but if the person in question happens to be a woman that doesn’t also necessarily make it sexist. In fact, it’s almost sexist in its own right to imply that it does. There’s more to Nikki Haley than her gender. Ditto Donna Dewitt, Sandra Fluke, Michelle Obama, and every woman ever. To imply that every time anyone anywhere does something mean to a woman it’s because they’ve got it out for women in general trivializes women’s individual identities, as well as the argument that women are systematically discriminated against at the level of national health policy, whether you buy that argument or not.

That said, the very idea of a “war on women” is in itself reductive. As a linguistic construct and as an idea, it has more in common with “the war on Christmas,” “the war on drugs” and “the war on terror” than “the war in Afghanistan,” in that it is a metaphorical description of matters of policy as opposed to, like, actual armies shooting at each other and fighting over territory and stuff. Not that systematic misogyny is something I’d ever be okay with, but if we begin to think of “war” as a word for just “a series of policies we don’t like,” it trivializes the actual human and financial cost of real wars. It’s obviously a useful metaphor; in cases like women and Christmas, it creates solidarity through the idea of persecution, and with drugs and terror it achieves the same through the idea of a common, dangerous enemy. Still, for everything the metaphor buys us in fomenting indignation over a given subject, it costs us a lot in our shared understanding of war itself. Especially if the idea is expanded to include every single incident involving said subject.

If you want to know more:

  • Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf wrote extensively on the notion that habitual language use shapes our understanding of the world, and vice versa. My concern is that using “war” in this way can nudge us towards understanding war as something less horrible and ultimately less fatal than it actually is. Also, no discussion of metaphors and their effect on thought would be complete without referencing Metaphors we Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.
  • Doug is our go-to identity category guy here at The Silver Tongue, but it’s a pretty common sense notion that our identities are obviously multi-faceted and we fit into more categories than our gender. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman writes about how we try to control the ways others think of us by presenting particular things about ourselves in order to guide their opinions. To imply that every time someone has some sort of reaction to a woman it’s because of their gender denies women the ability to present themselves as anything but (e.g. union leader, anti-union politician, reproductive rights advocate, public health advocate, etc.) and is therefore kind of a douchey move.
  • One last word to those constipated liberals that Hayward talks about: I find that a good, hearty breakfast cereal high in fiber really helps. Kashi makes a bunch and they’re all organic; I know y’all go for that.
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