The comedian's support of Hillary Clinton, and his disdain for Trump supporters, is admirable. But why are we giving him a prize for participation?
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Ever since last Friday, when FBI director James Comey decided that he had to very publicly one-up J. Edgar Hoover’s more subterranean efforts at undermining elections with his letter to Congress about Anthony Weiner’s Sexts of Doom™, my social-media feeds have been awash in liberal bed-wetting. But in between frantic posts about continuously refreshing FiveThirtyEight.com and hating Nate Silver for his electoral pearl-clutching, my friends have started sharing a video of Louie C.K. on Conan, telling the eponymous host why he’s voting for Hillary Clinton—“I think she’s great … it’s not about the first woman, it’s about the first mom … She feeds you and teaches you, she protects you, she takes care of shit”—with rapturous captions like “This!” or “Louie gets it!” C.K.’s vision of the Caretaker-in-Chief as a hyper-competent cape-wearing badass might have an obvious appeal when compared to the harried caricature of the sleep-deprived, undersexed working mother juggling bottles and briefcases, but both are equally insipid and essentialist. So, why, then, were so many of my feminist friends ballyhooing a clip that equated Clinton’s preparedness for the presidency not with her tenure as a United States senator or as a secretary of State, but with her ability to get fish sticks and green beans on the table and read bedtime stories?
Being a Clinton supporter—and not just one of those equivocating come-latelys with their mealy-mouthed spiels about the lesser of two evils, after having been a ride-or-die come-at-me Bernie Bro from back in the primaries—has often been lonely, particularly (ironically enough) if you’re a woman. We’re told that we’re “voting with our vaginas,” that we aren’t real progressives, and that we’re terminally uncool. So when someone like Louie C.K., who has bona fide hipster cred and XY chromosomes, vouches for Clinton, even in the simplest way, it’s treated as a revelation—earning far more attention than any nuanced, substantive commentary about Clinton’s actual policies and proposals that have come from writers and commenters like Amanda Marcotte, Joy Reid, or Ana Marie Cox. One could argue that C.K.’s celebrity would naturally guarantee him more headlines than any mere member of the pundit class, but other very famous people, like America Ferrera, Katy Perry, and Jennifer Lopez have written op-eds, made massive donations, and actually campaigned with Clinton. Actress Kerry Washington did the roulette table of Talk TV while massively pregnant—but this shoulder-to-the-wheel work, especially for the very first potential Madam President, is expected of women. Research suggests that Clinton’s gender could cost her up to 24 points among men, even against Donald Trump, a man whose terrifyingly viable candidacy would have been better suited to an Saturday Night Live sketch than our grim reality.
Headline after headline trumpets a gender gap between male and female voters, with women, like the sainted mothers C.K. praises for getting shit done, poised to save America from its darkest impulses. But the men who spread the gospel of HRC, or at least share their plan to vote intelligently, are treated as hyperenlightened bodhisattvas of their sex. Or, as Allie Jones puts it: “The bar for a good male opinion about this election has gotten so low it barely exists.” Back in July, Bill Maher’s “Notorious H.R.C.” clip—in which the Real Time host encouraged Clinton to lean into her persona as “the incredible supervillain named Hillary Clinton, who is a serial killer … a terrorist mastermind” since “voters don’t want America’s nicest grandma, they want the wolf with bits of grandma in its teeth—went as certifiably viral as C.K.’s contradictory call for SuperMom in the Oval Office. Of course, the image of the lady wolf and her savage smirk is so very appealing, particularly when so many male pundits and politicos took it upon themselves to advise Clinton to “smile more” as she delivered the landmark acceptance speech for her party’s nomination. And, on the surface, it’s hard to find fault with any suggestion that HRC clap back at the forces that conspire to keep her, and every other woman, under their thumbs—but Maher’s plea for Clinton to go from Tracy Flick to Michael Corleone, and brag about “running this bitch from the inside” of the jailhouse where Trump and co. keep threatening to send her, is just as reductive as C.K.’s insistence that mothers know how to get shit done: Clinton can be a good mother or a bad motherfucker, but never, apparently, a woman of vision and complexity, whose nicks and flaws don’t diminish her diamond-bright brilliance. Or, in other words, a human being.
In an essay for Vox, Constance Grady describes this kind of support, which traffics in simplicities and stereotypes, as “benevolent sexism,” or “a very old and unpleasant narrative that’s become weirdly popular among liberal men this election cycle: the idea that we need women in government because they are intrinsically morally superior to men.” Allies like C.K., or like Bowling for Columbine documentarian Michael Moore, who argues that this supposed moral superiority makes women the better angels who have never “invented an atomic bomb, built a smoke stack, initiated a Holocaust, melted the polar ice caps or organized a school shooting,” bring a pedestal, and not a stepladder, to help Clinton take her hammer to that glass ceiling. And however cathartic Maher’s image of the smack-talking, gangbusters gangster-chic Notorious H.R.C. may be—it’s mansplaining in the guise of girl power. For his part, Moore has become a mainstay on CNN, MSNBC, where he espouses insights from Women’s Studies 101—that “[Clinton] has been attacked and harassed and abused … honestly, if she were a man, she wouldn’t have had to go through so much of this”—as if he’s just pulled a sword from the stone of radical feminism.
The benevolently sexist man for Hillary is the campaign equivalent of a “Hey Girl” meme from the days of yore (well, more like 2011): An image of Ryan Gosling, shirtless or cuddling a kitten (or, preferably, shirtless while cuddling a kitten), that features a core tenant of feminist theory—like bodily autonomy, wage equality, or the male gaze—slickened into a come-on: “Hey Girl. Keep your laws off my body, but keep your hands on it.” The joke, of course, is that these memes are more about the delightful enlightenment of the hunky man than about the actual feminist theory—because any man who would dare to interrogate his own privilege, even a little bit; who would give the slightest, even the most superficial, damn about half the world’s population; and who would actually cast his vote for a woman, even if she happens to be one of the most imminently qualified candidates of all time, is somehow to be praised, if not sainted. Never mind that the women who make these same arguments all day, every day, don’t receive sainthood; they are strapped to the Catherine wheel. In the same month Maher’s “Notorious HRC” garnered almost 1,500,000 views on YouTube, prominent feminist writer Jessica Valenti left Twitter over rape threats against her five-year-old daughter.
Certainly C.K. and Maher and Moore mean well, but meaning well is not enough. Not when this sort of frothy low-calorie feminism does so little to remedy, or even illuminate, the very real perils that plague women—not the wives, daughters, and mothers who must be idolized and protected, but the very real women who want equal pay for equal work; who want to walk home or get on the bus or go on that date without fearing the constant specter of assault; and who want to see themselves represented at all levels of government, including the executive level. Instead of making pithy soundbites or regurgitating fortune cookie feminism, these men, like all men, should do the deeper, more introspective and complex work of truly examining ingrained misogyny across the culture, and within themselves—just as President Obama did when he called upon other men to, “look inside yourself and ask yourself, if you’re having problems with [Clinton’s ambition], how much of it is that we’re just not used to it? when a guy is ambitious and out in the public arena and working hard, well, that’s okay, but when a woman suddenly does it suddenly you’re all like, ‘Well, why is she doing that?’” Or, as other famous men, like Jeffrey Wright or Mark Ruffalo or Tom Hanks, do, when they speak out in favor of Clinton’s policies and competence without trafficking in lazy, facile assumptions about gender. And those of us who find ourselves all-too-eager to snuggle up to any show of support for our much-maligned HRC need to start insisting that even the Cool Guys offer us something more than ideals of mothers and angels and pant-suited gangsters. We deserve more—especially since the fate of the free world rests, on our shoulder blades, just above the roots of our wings.
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