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November 10, 2011

“Blame the Victim”: Stalking Horse for Cain Visualizes Accuser As “Ugly Bitch”

With unbridled speed, the Herman Cain sexual harassment controversy has shifted already from the “he said/she said” (and she said, and she said, and she said) stage to the unfortunately predictable “blame the victim” phase.

In an environment where social media is sometimes as consequential as mainstream media, this image (unearthed by Murdoch’s “The Daily” and up to 1700+  Facebook “likes” and counting) is notable. It appeared on the official-sounding but dubiously credible Herman Cain PAC website (the site carrying weight for its high Google rank as a Cain PAC, the fact Cain’s campaign hasn’t disavowed it and the attention its gathered by those taken in by it).  The headline launches two blistering attacks on Karen Kraushaar, who became a public figure only after being outed by the media: she “works for Obama” (and by “Obama” they’re referring to the Treasury Department) and she’s “ugly.” Despite the fact that being “ugly” is a nearly unpardonable sin for any public woman (as is being over 25—the nerve), that slur was not sufficient to condemn Kraushaar. The operative that posted this particular photo likely chose to include it because it provided a way to dehumanize Kraushaar by comparing her to an animal. Animal metaphors have long been used to describe women, in ways that both diminish (“chick,” “kitten,” “bunny,”) and insult (“bitch,” “cow,” “shrew”) them. Herman Cain Pac delivered a one/two punch, by decrying her as an “ugly bitch” and noting, “Just to be clear, Karen Kraushaar is the one on the left.”

A closer look at the photo that Herman Cain Pac found so “incriminating” reveals the biases against which public women routinely contend. A happy Kraushaar is pictured alongside a horse. In U.S. visual culture, we are unaccustomed to seeing women genuinely happy, preferring the pouty, vacant look of fashion models. Uncontained emotion is frowned upon in politics, so Kraushaar’s wide smile is used to disparage her, prompting the poster’s accusation, “Who the hell does this ugly bitch think she’s fooling?” It would be difficult to launch such a virulent attack against Kraushaar without an accompanying image that, at some level, runs contrary to dominant norms. What else, one wonders, qualifies Kraushaar to be a so-called “ugly bitch”? She appears to be fit—thin even by contemporary standards. Her hair is cut simply but stylishly and there are few (if any) grays. Her teeth are white. The photo, however, appears to be free of airbrushing—we see the natural fold of Kraushaar’s skin and the presence of veins. She is wearing little, if any, makeup. She is neither an ingénue nor a MILF (both more widely accepted roles for public women).

Objectively speaking, Kraushaar is (of course) neither “ugly” or a demonstrable “bitch.” In the current political climate, however, dehumanizing women with whom one disagrees politically is not just allowed—it has become expected, been made routine, and turned into entertainment. Even if  the Herman Cain PAC is a specious organization, this image was shared favorably on Facebook by hundreds—soon perhaps thousands—of people, and many of the associated comments were highly favorable. “LOLOL” said one user, demonstrating the ways in which the dehumanization of women is consumed as light entertainment. Another (female) poster chided, “I am thinking she will regret that she accused him. She opened a can of worms about herself.”

The can of worms opened by this controversy has, unfortunately, been opened many times before—every time a woman is casually dismissed or viciously dehumanized because she doesn’t conform to the narrow norms of femininity that privilege inexperience over maturity, aloofness over joy, and weakness over strength. So far, Herman Cain PAC has been vastly outclassed by Karen Kraushaar—and her horse.

– Karrin Anderson

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