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January 17, 2014

Attack of the 50 Ft Ginger Rogers: Sexism and the TIME “Unstoppable Hillary” 2016 Cover

Time magazine  prides itself on having visually provocative covers, but this latest one recycles a worn-out frame from the 2008 presidential campaign: Hillary the Entitled Ball-Buster. It also casts this formidable figure as the inevitable 2016 Democratic presidential nominee. The only thing that seems inevitable about 2016, however, is that the same old stereotypes will continue to shape Hillary Clinton’s public identity.

Following the week’s discussion of Clinton’s so-called “hit list” (if that’s what you want to call a completely routine record of political favors and snubs that folks from Fox News to Media Matters agree was accompanied by zero retaliation), viewers were primed for this image of a stereotypically ruthless Clinton. Feministing’s Chloe Angyal immediately called Time out for the way the image portrays Hillary “in the same old bullshit, sexist tone: she’s scary, she’s pushy, she’s stepping on men—guys, she is LITERALLY STEPPING ON A MAN IN THIS PHOTO.” But for every media outlet coming to Clinton’s defense there are twice as many recycling old stereotypes.

Visual incarnations of sexist stereotypes are powerful because they’re more difficult to debunk than news stories in which specific claims and quotations can be fact-checked. Images encourage audience members to supply part of the argument as they make sense of the picture. If you’re a feminist blogger, this image provides evidence of continued bias against powerful women.  The more common reaction, however, is likely to be a Reaganesque “there you go again,” Hillary—stepping on the little guy in your obsessive quest for presidential authority. As Matt Law pointed out on Twitter, the spiked-heel-squishing-tiny-man meme is really just stock photo shorthand for an overbearing lady boss. In fact, Time’s cover art is so generic it could be a stock photo.

That this image accompanies a story about Clinton’s presidential prospects is critical. Whereas Time’s pictorial coverage of Clinton as Secretary of State touted her intelligence, gravitas, and even “badass cool,” the frame shifts when she’s in the running for a presidential nomination. As women inch closer to the White House, the “end of men” narrative popularized by Hannah Rosin ramps up. Gender relations are cast as a zero-sum game and the truly minute gains women are experiencing in political and professional spheres are cast as portents of men’s demise. This, too, is a recycled story. Early in the 2008 Democratic primary, when Clinton and Obama were duking it out with John Edwards, John Kerry, and other white male presidential contenders, Esquire magazine put Edwards on its cover and asked, “Can a White Man Still be Elected President?” (Answer: of course he can, as long as he doesn’t get caught cheating on his wife who is dying of cancer and then orchestrating an elaborate cover-up that requires his married campaign staffer to pose as the father to his mistress’s baby. But I digress.)

The Esquire cover, like the more recent Time cover, relies on hackneyed gender stereotyping for its appeal—nothing says “white! powerful! man!” like a photo of the subject confidently gazing outward as he is framed by a faceless, lingerie-clad woman.

Despite the gross gender stereotyping that persists in U.S. political culture, however, the potentially more damaging element of this Time cover is its air of inevitability. The headline asks, “Can Anyone Stop Hillary?” even as its art contends forcefully that no one can stall the march of the 50-foot feminist. As Kristina Horn Sheeler and I argue in our book Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture, that culture would have us believe that the gender wars have been fought and that women have won—that we have entered a “postfeminist” era. Postfeminists cite opinion polls that claim, for example, that 95% of respondents are willing to vote for a “qualified” woman presidential candidate from their own party as evidence that the proverbial tide has turned. The argument suggests that U.S. politics are as amenable to women leaders as they are to men—that women “can and do capably run for president. They have the potential to be as popular with the U.S. electorate as male candidates. Any failure of their candidacies should properly be ascribed to their personal shortcomings or strategic miscalculations rather than to the continued influence of sexism in culture.”

The black spiked heel in the image is also rhetorically significant, as women candidates are often depicted as the Ginger Rogerses of political culture—doing everything that the men do, except “backwards and in high heels.” That narrative obfuscates the very real sexism with which women contend on a daily basis–the same sexism that helped make it possible for an untested (male) junior Senator to blow past the more experienced (female) frontrunner in the 2008 Democratic primary. As long as citizens and journalists profess support for potential female presidential candidates (especially the hypothetical ones that populate opinion polls), any opposition to actual women candidates is inoculated against charges of sexism.

The real question that journalists and pundits should be asking in advance of 2016 is not, “can anyone stop Hillary?” It is, “can anyone stop sexism?” Sexism has proven to be an even more resilient feature of U.S. political culture than the inimitable Hillary Clinton. And that’s saying something.

– Karrin Anderson | @KVAnderson

(photo-illustration 1: Justin Metz for TIME. Pants: Don Farrall/Getty Images, Man: BLOOM image/Getty Images, Shoe: yasinguneysu/Getty Images. photo/diptych 2: Corbis via NY Mag caption: Women’s Heels Conquering Tiny Men. image 3: Esquire 2007. photo unattributed online.)

  • bks3bks

    Not buying it, Karen. Compared to the 1992 cover (below), I’d say it’s a remarkable victory for women that Hillary is seen as a force of nature, unstoppable in her quest for the presidency.
    –bks

    http://img2.bdbphotos.com/images/orig/e/m/emiijthpxjrstjpm.jpg?obn5da3o

  • bystander

    I could easily be one of the most linear-concrete people I know, so I might be missing a subtlety in that Time cover. Heck, half the time I can’t even spell subtlety! [ed: Thanks for the help FireFox.]

    I decidedly don’t see that heel stepping on, about to step on, or being planted on a male opponent. The side-by-side images that follow clearly convey the sentiment of a hapless male being squashed like a bug under a woman’s shoe, but – for me – the Time cover does not.

    What I see is this, clearly outmatched, male opponent flailing as he valiantly (?) clings to the heel of that shoe. I guess he’s trying to stop, or slow, her forward march by trying to grab that heel which has pulled him right off his feet. The woman wearing it might not even be aware that he’s there.

    Time has made a couple of limiting assumptions which might reveal a sexist sentiment, or at least a biased sentiment. Presumably, that outmatched male is the Republican candidate. But, are we fully convinced that this candidate c/sh/would be male? Time could have done a better job supporting its question if, in addition to the outmatched male, they had included an equally outmatched female clinging to that heel. But, they didn’t. The sexism exists to the extent that Time suggests, and the complicit viewer agrees, no male can stop her. But, then, is that sexism? Would it be sexism if the image were Clinton clinging to the heel of Christie’s shoe, for example?

    And, a word about that shoe. In my experience, that is the heel height that a woman wears when she is expected to wear heels and doesn’t want her feet to hurt. To me, that’s a pretty conservative woman’s dress shoe – particularly – as compared to the images which follow. The pantsuit and the conservative shoe do not – for my money – add up to a predatory female out to crush her male opponent.

  • Scarabus

    Soon as I saw this cover I figured it would show up here, and I wondered what the angle would be. Gotta admit that this was not the one I was anticipating. But as soon as I saw you were the author, Karrin, I was sure you’d do something with the pantsuit Republicans love to riff on.

  • Thomas

    To say that “sexism helped make possible” Obama’s victory over Hillary in the 2008 primary is just the kind of ungenerous, unverifiable, loaded type of rhetoric you’re complaining about. Which is made even funnier by the fact that it was actually she who floated the disgraceful innuendo that we shouldn’t vote for Obama because his being black made him more likely to be assassinated. Remember?

    Hillary lost because Obama ran a vastly better campaign, made vastly fewer mistakes, kept his cool, kept the message simple and stayed on it, didn’t get sabatoged at every turn by an out-of-control spouse, kept his team organized and motivated, and pressed a centrist strategy that somebody as polarizing as Hillary probably couldn’t have hewed to even if she wanted to. Even his graphics and media output made her look like an amateur sideshow by comparison. Before Obama entered the race the establishment support and the nomination were hers to lose. And Obama blew her out of the water fair and square. If her supporters think sexism is to blame, well, then maybe they’ve just got one more problem on top of all the others to try and overcome next time around.

    • KVAnderson

      Was sexism the sole reason for Hillary’s 2008 loss. Probably not. Did it “help make possible” Obama’s victory. Absolutely. Unfortunately, a blog post does not provide the space to lay out that argument in a careful, nuanced way. But, if what you’re looking for is “verifiable” info, I hope you check out our book (in the library–no need to pay for it). The pic below (which was not a spoof–it was an actual tax-exempt PAC) was just the tip of the iceberg.

  • acm

    Did you see the NYT Magazine cover? eesh.

  • Thomas

    And that’s one of the nicer things Republicans have called her. I mean, they’ve said she should be euthanized like a dog. Their hating her in every way possible is an established narrative foil for her public persona. Perhaps being so long accustomed to such a callous political climate is what led her to think it would be acceptable to make the remarks about Obama that she did.

    If Republicans shouting sexist slurs from the sidelines is just the tip of the iceberg, let’s go ahead and imagine for a minute that the dimensions of the hidden portion of the iceberg are so massive that it vanishes into darkness. How much attention ought candidate Hillary to have given the issue in order to successfully navigate it? Did she not account for its presence sufficiently, or accurately anticipate its importance? Obama sure made a recurring joke about how he didn’t look like other presidents, so he at least didn’t seem to be in danger of underestimating his unfair obstacles.

    Hillary authorized and supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Her campaign was a disorganized and erratic mess, her staff was in open disarray, she couldn’t be a messenger for ending the war or for healthcare reform, and her brand came with so much worn out baggage that she removed her last name entirely from her campaign materials. She even quit the race in a way that was divisive and antagonizing. Whoever the first female president is going to be what she’ll want to learn from the 2008 primary has drastically less to do with how much sexism is in the water and everything to do with having her act together. She’ll want to model herself after Obama.

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