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July 16, 2011

Girls Gone Mad: the Wild-Eyed Lunacy of Bachmann, Palin, Pelosi, Clinton . . . Etc.

The image accompanying a recent Rolling Stone profile of Michele Bachmann and her presidential prospects casts her as a wild-eyed crusader whose homicidal mission is undertaken with manic zeal. The article refers to Bachmann’s brain as “a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions,” and it features a link to a slide show of “Michele Bachmann’s Craziest Moments.” I’m no Bachmann apologist, but I am concerned about a troubling trend in which political women are critiqued as crackpots and lambasted as lunatics. This approach relies on a specific set of visual cues that are applied to women of various ages and ethnicities across political parties.

The first and most significant feature of political “girls gone mad” is their bulging eyeballs. Eyebrows stretched to unnatural limits frame eyes that protrude with either rage or glee. As the “windows to the soul,” eyes are particularly important markers of character and credibility. When exaggerated expressions are captured in journalistic photographs and video stills, the implication is that the camera has uncovered the “true” nature of the subject—the unruly woman who exists under the veneer of conventional beauty or disciplined experience. The frenetic expression belies the political female’s authentic self.

The version of Bachmann created by the Rolling Stone artist has been deployed in other contexts. Consider the following stills culled from a broadcast of MSNBC’s Hardball. The first shot appeared in a Huffington Post article that described Bachmann as a “saucer-eyed looneytune.” Conversely, however, the Minnesota StarTribune featured a still taken from the same interview in which Bachmann looks normal. The article that accompanied that photo referred to controversy over Bachmann’s political statements and views but stopped short of dismissing her as deranged. In this case, the images function as tacit character witnesses—testifying both for and against Bachmann.

The reason that the image of a crazed female politician is so powerful, and powerfully dangerous, is because it stems from a much older story about women. Whether burning them as witches or dismissing them as bitches, Western culture has always disciplined women who transgress established societal and political boundaries. One way in which this discipline has historically been meted out has been to classify women who resist traditional roles and boundaries as insane (or possessed) and burn them at the stake (18th century), consign them to sanitoriums (19th century), or encourage them to self-medicate with alcohol and anti-depressants (20th century). During the 18th and early 19th centuries, women were widely regarded as incapable of the rational thought required for democratic deliberation and, thus, denied the right to vote. Nearly 100 years after women won the right to vote in the U.S., female politicians are still trying to prove that they’re sane enough to be trusted in high office. Those with presidential aspirations are particularly vulnerable to being depicted as crazy—and not just run-of-the mill crazy. Both Bachmann and Sarah Palin have been denounced as “batshit crazy” and the corresponding images bear the distinctive markings of female political psychosis: bulging eyes, gaping mouths, exaggerated expressions, and uncontrolled fury or glee:

Women candidates are not the only ones derided as deranged. One blogger serialized the “wide-eyed zealotry” of conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, including the following two screen shots in his pictorial representation of the “Full-On Crazyface” that ostensibly characterized her 2009 book tour. Even Glenn Beck looks composed next to her.

Of course, some liberal audiences may not be too bothered by the preceding depictions of three women who routinely make specious arguments. Yet the “crazy” frame is becoming a shorthand indictment of women political figures from both sides of the aisle. Consider these three images of Michelle Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton:

All three photos invoke societal anxieties about a female influence on presidential power—whether once removed (in the case of Michelle Obama) or direct. A “Bat Shit Crazy” Nancy Pelosi was only “Two Heartbeats Away from Being President” when she was Speaker of the House, and Hillary Clinton was inappropriate both as a political spouse and a presidential candidate. When Democratic insiders lamented her refusal to cede the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama, they compared her to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction—just another crazy lady who doesn’t know when to quit.

What is particularly disturbing about all of the preceding images is that when placed in context in the blogosphere, they don’t stand out as abnormal. The image of the unruly woman politician is normalized by the constant barrage of images like these—photos and cartoons that remind us that all women are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Not only do the photos seem more normal and authentic than the polished and posed photos on candidate websites, the gross depictions of uncontained female emotions give many audience members pleasure—they’re a funny comeuppance to uppity political women.

Attacking female politicians by making them look crazy is bad politics and bad strategy. It levies an argument every bit as specious as the positions the images are designed to critique, and it does so in a way that perpetuates outdated stereotypes about political women. At least, that’s my take on it. But, then again, maybe I’m crazy.

– Karrin Anderson

(Image credits and sources: Bachmann drawing: Image by Victor Juhasz/Rolling Stone; Bachmann Hardball screen grab: HuffPost; Bachmann Harball screen grab 2: StarTribune; Bachman “Batshit Crazy”: Image by PunditKitchen.com via PoliticalTramp; Bachmann and Batboy: (no image credit) via MaxDad; Bachmann for President demotivational poster via eforwards; Palin demotivational poster: Image by zirgar.blogspot.com; Many crazy faces of Michelle Malkin via Oliver Willis; Michelle Obama: Image credit FunnyObamas.com; Pelosi demotivational poster: original source (archived image/link no longer live) motivatedphotos.com; Clinton: no credit available via nicedeb.)

  • tinwoman

    I have NO problem in depicting Bachmann in this manner, because it’s accurate.  Bachmann is a dangerous and barely coherent lunatic who thinks she’s on a mission from God.  And I’m a Clinton supporter who was outraged at some of the ways Hillary was portrayed (as shrill, menopausal, or whatever).

    • Enoch Root

      +1

    • Anonymous

      Well then, nothing will ever change, will it? People like you will go on justifying sexist demonization as long as it advances your own political ideology, and women of all political orientations will remain marginalized.

    • Startle

      You’re right! That lunatic thinks it’s wrong to suck the brains out of the head of a baby one minute from nursing at her mothers breast. Who the hell does she think she is? Kill the little bastards, it’s your right! 

    • Sciencewho

      you’re a fucking idiot.

    • Teresa

      so women are only women if they agree with you?  I am a Clinton supporter too.  It is 2011 and we couldn’t even get a floor vote for Hillary or a fair hearing of DNC rules.  Women only make up about 15 percent of congress.  You are part of the problem.  You say you supported Hillary Clinton, but women like you are part of the reason we all got cheated out of the choice of the people.
          Ask yourself why none of the male candidates are getting the same treatment as Bachmann. Don’t you think some of them are anti gay and anti choice?I would love to know what you base your assessment of Bachmann on other than all the other democrats say so and you want to be part of the partisan kool kidz.  Don’t you realize that only boyz get to be in charge of the kool kidz club?  Women get to be secretary and nothing more, kind of like my High School student government.  You know anyone can be portrayed as a barely coherent lunatic.  Obama once said we had 57 states and he can’t talk without a teleprompter.  But I guess saying so would be racist…..

    • HP Loveshaft

       In other words, tinwoman, you’re a small-minded hypocrite who whines when tactics are used against people you like, but applaud when the very same tactics are used against people you don’t like.

    • Myavast1

      Only dangerous to dumb liberal f*cks who are afraid of poerwful women.

  • black dog barking

    Not a witch.

    Not crazy either. But the notion of United States Senator Christine O’Donnell is crazy.

    Or President Sarah Palin:

    He who warned, uh, the … the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringin’ those bells and, um, by makin’ sure that as he’s ridin’ his horse through town to send those warnin’ shots and bells that, uh, we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free … and we were gonna be armed.

    • Anonymous

      While we’re on the subject of political imagery, I would also note the use of what is called “eye dialect” in quotes like the one from Palin above. President Obama sometimes drops his g’s as well, and his unscripted speech abounds with “uh” and “ah” and “um” filler words. Yet sympathetic reporters and editors will always give him the benefit of courtesy editing to make him sound more crisp and coherent. Palin, by contrast, is routinely quoted verbatim in eye dialect in order to advance the progressive narrative that she is stupider than any male politician who ever lived.

    • HP Loveshaft

      Paul Revere DID warn the British, genius.  Historians agree with Palin’s assessment.  PAUL REVERE’S OWN JOURNAL agrees with her assessment.

      The way you neo-comm liberal drones keep pounding this shows you’d rather continue to publicly makes fools out of yourselves and continue to be wrong, rather than admit Palin knew MORE ABOUT HISTORY than you did.

      You’re drowning in your own willful ignorance.

  • Glenn

    The picture plus the crazy talk makes it OK in my book. Bachman, Malkin, etc. look like that AND they say crazy things at the moment of being photographed – and Malkin is particularly animated with hateful malice when she appears on Fox News.

    Michelle Obama doesn’t appear on TV constantly saying hateful things or haranguing. Pelosi’s speaking appearances are almost always measured and business-like, whether you agree with the content of her speech, she is never very animated. So to take an out-of-context unflattering shutter-capture of these women is just the kind of manipulation you are talking about.

    I don’t know the vintage of the Hilary picture, athough I’ve seen it many times in the blogosphere. Is it a campaign shot? Any proof-sheet of someone speaking forcefully is going to have the odd capture.

    • HP Loveshaft

       Nice pinko-tinted glasses you have on there, neo-comm. 

      “Duh!  Every Republican is bad, and every Democrat is perfect.  Duh!  I’m a well-trained libtard!”  That’s how you sound to reasonable people.

  • batboy lives

    ok,ok, point well taken. but the side by side of Bachmann and Batboy? now that’s just funny no matter where you’re from.

  • Karen H.

    One of my favorites is the California special election ad portraying Pelosi as the plastic surgery-addicted mother in Brazil.  It wasn’t as offensive as the ad itself, but interesting that she alone of the group of those in the still was singled out for mockery (except for Weiner, but I guess that joke wrote itself).

    BTW, that was also a post written by Karrin:  http://www.bagnewsnotes.com/2011/06/pimp-my-politics-front-groups-already-down-and-dirty/

  • cburell

    I teach high school history, and have students give TED-style talks as speech assignments. I’ve seen the “crazy Hillary” photos more than once in those student presentations–often from young women attempting to give feminist perspectives. They tell me they chose the image because it had entertainment value. They only realize it possibly undercuts their own authority when I bring it to their attention.

    All the same, batshit crazy is batshit crazy, gender aside.

  • Rikkitikki

    Thank You. You’ll have to excuse me now…as I have to check on my bulging eyes in the mirror.

  • shootist MP

    Of course, editorial cartoonists and photogs have been doing the same to men since there WERE editorial cartoonists and photogs.

    • KVAnderson

      Of course, both males and females are subjected to unflattering characterizations in photos and editorial cartoons. What’s really interesting is to see what stereotypes those characterizations reveal. It is much less common for men to be portrayed as crazy–they may be drunks, or sexually aggressive, or corrupt .  . . each gender has its “go-to” stereotypes. But it’s typically the outlier male candidates (think Mike Gravel) who are depicted as crazy when it comes to men. Mainstream female candidates are routinely depicted as crazy, even when (like Hillary Clinton) they have a reputation for disciplined wonkiness. Why? Because the narrative of the unstable female runs so deep in our culture it seems to “fit” any and all women.

    • KVAnderson

      Of course, both males and females are subjected to unflattering characterizations in photos and editorial cartoons. What’s really interesting is to see what stereotypes those characterizations reveal. It is much less common for men to be portrayed as crazy–they may be drunks, or sexually aggressive, or corrupt .  . . each gender has its “go-to” stereotypes. But it’s typically the outlier male candidates (think Mike Gravel) who are depicted as crazy when it comes to men. Mainstream female candidates are routinely depicted as crazy, even when (like Hillary Clinton) they have a reputation for disciplined wonkiness. Why? Because the narrative of the unstable female runs so deep in our culture it seems to “fit” any and all women.

  • Jackson254

    “Western culture has always disciplined women who transgress established societal and political boundaries” 

    And rightly so, it is men who build civiliization, contrary to the blather about women’s civilizing infulence.  Women are not capable of sustaining civilization,  they’re barely able to contribute to it,  and any civilization that has given them freedom has been destroyed by them.  Look at America and the West today.   It’s not for nothing that a decadent nation is universally descibed as effeminate.   Women in positions of power are a temporary by-product of wealth, and after they destroy that wealth, after they destroy their societies with their childish emotionalism things will return back to their natural order.

    • http://ralfast.wordpress.com/ Ralfast

      Wow, misogynist much?

    • tinwoman

      wow, just wow…who ‘liked’ this crud.

      Jackson—take it from a woman.  You are a FUCKING ASSHOLE.

  • http://www.bagnewsnotes.com Michael Shaw

    Michelle Malkin responded to the post with a tweet saying: ‘I’d rather have “crazy eyes” than willfully blind ones.’ http://bit.ly/qmhp19 . Hmm, and I thought the post was fairly complementary to her.

    • http://ralfast.wordpress.com/ Ralfast

      “Willfully blind?” Really? Isn’t the whole Tea Party spiel based on large amounts of willful blindness?

  • LanceThruster

    Is anyone truly free of the selective editing involved in the choice of photographs? I’ve seen pictures of Bush the lesser looking wise, studious, and in control when I know that the reality differed greatly with the images presented.

    One of my favorite citizen-statespersons is Cindy Sheehan. She has been presented as frumpy, dumpy, unattractive and/or inarticulate. Yet I have heard her talks and interviews where even in the midst of a presentation less than polished, the content was incredibly strong. Her looks are inconsequential to me (short of acknowledging the physical toll her efforts take upon her) and I feel if Rep. Pelosi puts that much weight on her own looks, then she is fair game if her looks turn out to be a bit…artificial.

    The media itself is the master of sound bites, snapshot glimpses, and determining what resonates in the echo chamber. Sen. Lieberman sounds like Droopy Dog. Sarah Palin sounds like Gladys Kravitz of “Bewitched” fame. If one is a darling of the media, these things are downplayed. If one is to be demonized by this same media, these traits will always be front and center with the intent to marginalize the target.

    Though Bill Maher made an atrocious comparison that night of GOP debt ceiling obstructionists and the Palestinans of the Oslo Accords, he was spot one when he pointed out that “these women aren’t ridiculed because they have t!ts, but because they are b00bs.”

    • HP Loveshaft

       ”One of my favorite citizen-statespersons is Cindy Sheehan. She has been
      presented as frumpy, dumpy, unattractive and/or inarticulate.”

      Is there any other way to portray her?  The woman who demanded U.S. forces stop “occupying New Orleans”?  The woman who made a sign with what she thought was a peace sign, but was really a Mercedes Benz logo?  The woman who dishonors the memory of her son, who SIGNED UP and also RE-ENLISTED and who SUPPORTED THE IRAQ WAR?

      I won’t say anything about her looks, but Sheehan can be made to look crazy simply by giving her enough rope to hang herself (figuratively, clowns…no violence or incivility here).

  • LanceThruster

    Is anyone truly free of the selective editing involved in the choice of photographs? I’ve seen pictures of Bush the lesser looking wise, studious, and in control when I know that the reality differed greatly with the images presented.

    One of my favorite citizen-statespersons is Cindy Sheehan. She has been presented as frumpy, dumpy, unattractive and/or inarticulate. Yet I have heard her talks and interviews where even in the midst of a presentation less than polished, the content was incredibly strong. Her looks are inconsequential to me (short of acknowledging the physical toll her efforts take upon her) and I feel if Rep. Pelosi puts that much weight on her own looks, then she is fair game if her looks turn out to be a bit…artificial.

    The media itself is the master of sound bites, snapshot glimpses, and determining what resonates in the echo chamber. Sen. Lieberman sounds like Droopy Dog. Sarah Palin sounds like Gladys Kravitz of “Bewitched” fame. If one is a darling of the media, these things are downplayed. If one is to be demonized by this same media, these traits will always be front and center with the intent to marginalize the target.

    Though Bill Maher made an atrocious comparison that night of GOP debt ceiling obstructionists and the Palestinans of the Oslo Accords, he was spot one when he pointed out that “these women aren’t ridiculed because they have t!ts, but because they are b00bs.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/George-Mokray/767686527 George Mokray

    One could make the case that anyone who runs for a national political office is a sociopath with extreme narcissism.  Don’t matter if it’s male or female.  

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  • 14All

    OK, I deplore the tendency in the media to take photos of female politicians at their widest-eyed, but I still think Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin are batshit insane.  That’s based on the content of what they say, not their looks. 

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  • Anonymous

    There is a great fear in both sexes of being led by a powerful woman.

  • Vic Anderson

    Billary’s only 4 heartbeats, NOW (that’s crazy)!

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  • http://ralfast.wordpress.com/ Ralfast

    Say what now?

  • http://ralfast.wordpress.com/ Ralfast

    Actually, it is the content of what she says that makes her look stupid, not the fillers.

  • black dog barking

    The former half-term governor of Alaska’s speech patterns are an intentional affect to convey folksiness to her cohort. (My perception, she catches more Jed Clampett folksy than Tom Joad.) Conversely, BHO’s public diction aims for aural legibility, an occasional dropped “g” is not the same as dropping every “g”. Were sympathetic reporters and editors to courtesy edit Ms Palin’s quotes they would be undermining her intentions.

    BHO does pause frequently when speaking off the cuff and it doesn’t show up in later print quotations. Editing Ms Palin’s account of Paul Revere’s ride for dropped g’s and pauses:

    He who warned the British that they weren’t gonna be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and by making sure that as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free and we were gonna be armed.

    doesn’t significantly improve it. IMHO.
     

  • HP Loveshaft

    “Really? Isn’t the whole Tea Party spiel based on
    large amounts of willful blindness?”

    This is irony.  A willfully ignorant neo-comm regurgitating the spoon-fed propaganda that has no basis in fact, not realizing his own hypocrisy…

  • bowlweevils

     There was no bell ringing. Robert Newman, sextant of North Church, was instructed to signal from the belfry with a lantern to Revere whether British troops were heading to Lexington by a land route (1 flash) or by crossing the Charles River (2 flashes). This was not intended to warn the British about anything. The plan was intended to warn John Hancock and Sam Adams in Lexington that the British were on their way to arrest them.

    Thus the plan relied on the British not knowing anything. Revere had to cross the river in a rowboat under secrecy, since the British had banned night time crossings, and would have stopped him if he was discovered. He also evaded a British patrol later in the night while on horseback on the way to Lexington. So no shooting warning shots or riding through town yelling warnings to the British that the colonists were ready to fight.

    No bells. No warning shots. No shouting “The British are coming!”. No concern that the British were going to take the militia’s arms in Concord. Secret plan to allow Adams and Hancock in Lexington to escape arrest.

    You, sir, insult the fine name of Miskatonic University. May the Elder Gods snack upon your soul.

  • German

    And actually, it is the fillers that make president obama look stupid…

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