Barack Obama: Our First Female President?
You may have seen this commentary by Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post by now, but it’s worth singling out for special mention because while she points out the obvious- that gender stereotypes still exist, men and women communicate differently, etc. she still seems to imply that a male style of leadership is more effective in a crisis. Here is an excerpt:
If Bill Clinton was our first black president, as Toni Morrison once proclaimed, then Barack Obama may be our first woman president.
Phew. That was fun. Now, if you’ll just keep those hatchets holstered and hear me out.
No, I’m not calling Obama a girlie president. But . . . he may be suffering a rhetorical-testosterone deficit when it comes to dealing with crises, with which he has been richly endowed.
It isn’t that he isn’t “cowboy” enough, as others have suggested. Aren’t we done with that? It is that his approach is feminine in a normative sense. That is, we perceive and appraise him according to cultural expectations, and he’s not exactly causing anxiety in Alpha-maledom.
Women, inarguably, still are punished for failing to adhere to gender norms by acting “too masculine” or “not feminine enough.” In her fascinating study about “Hating Hillary,” Karlyn Kohrs Campbell details the ways our former first lady was chastised for the sin of talking like a lawyer and, by extension, “like a man.”
Could it be that Obama is suffering from the inverse?
If we accept that premise, even if unseriously proffered, then we could say that Obama displays many tropes of femaleness. I say this in the nicest possible way. I don’t think that doing things a woman’s way is evidence of deficiency but, rather, suggests an evolutionary achievement
The BP oil crisis has offered a textbook case of how Obama’s rhetorical style has impeded his effectiveness. The president may not have had the ability to “plug the damn hole,” as he put it in one of his manlier outbursts. No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn’t. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.
His lack of immediate, commanding action was perceived as a lack of leadership because, well, it was. When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama’s speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.
Granted, the century is young — and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Obama’s rhetoric would simmer next to George W. Bush’s boil. But passivity in a leader is not a reassuring posture.
Indeed, negative reaction to Obama’s speech suggests the opposite. Obama may prove to be our first male president who pays a political price for acting too much like a woman. [emphasis added]
Ok, where to begin? First let me begin by saying that I “get” that Parker is not trying to insult Obama by saying he may be our “first female President,” because she says outright that she means it in a positive way. My problem is that she then goes on to accuse him of passivity, of “deferring, weighing and considering” and suggests that all of these things are inherently female traits and that they are ineffective in a crisis. At least that’s how I read it and in that reading its hard to not come away feeling that both men and women have been insulted by a commentary which casually tosses around loaded assumptions and stereotypes about gender without ever getting past those stereotypes. For example, in one part of her commentary (not in the above excerpt) she refers cattily to Obama as a “chatterbox” when discussing his communication style.
Given that in our society women in leadership positions still face a considerable amount of sexism and have every word, posture, pair of shoes scrutinized in an effort to determine if she is “strong” enough to lead without being so strong as to threaten the status quo, it’s hard to see how comparing Obama to a woman will be construed as anything other than a negative. It would be one thing if Parker cited stereotypically female communication traits which she believes Obama demonstrates and then links them to positive elements of leadership, for example in the area of consensus-building, but she doesn’t. It would seem that Parker, while saying initially that Obama’s more feminine qualities/traits are a plus, perhaps doesn’t really believe that given she spends the rest of the commentary essentially arguing that those qualities have hampered his ability to do his job. In addition, I feel like she’s insulted by men by making sweeping generalizations about their apparent inability to apparently do anything other than act like a bunch of Alpha males, particularly in the communication and decision-making department.
Another problem I have with this commentary is it conveniently fits nicely into the whole “Democrats are weak” meme- a little too conveniently if you ask me.
I realize that perhaps Parker is arguing that the traits are not a negative per se but rather that the problem is with how they are perceived by a public which still harbors contradictory and at times outright sexist views. But the problem is, I don’t really see/hear that in her analysis. I took a quick trip around the rightie blogosphere and as you can imagine, they are having a ball with this whole “Barack Obama is our first female President” idea, which speaks to what I said above about the whole Democrats=weakness meme. It also probably speaks to a hefty dose of sexism, given that many of the blogs clearly equate “female” or “woman” with “wimp” and “ineffective.”
Basically, I found her whole analysis overly-simplistic, a bit insulting and completely disjointed.