Owned

Game of Thrones ended on Sunday. For a while — for the last week of its run, in fact — that ending was all I could talk about. This was because I hated it, sure. But more importantly, the ending of Game of Thrones was something to think about. Something that, no matter how awful it may have been, paled in comparison to the shit going down in the real world. 

The fury over Game of Thrones feels like a throwback, doesn’t it? It feels like something we did in a simpler time, when feminists had leisure to examine the stories our culture tells, and parse the nuances of representation, rather than endlessly responding to crises in real time. My first blog, Tiger Beatdown, started in 2008, and at least half of it was pop-culture criticism. I covered electoral politics when I had to, but I often didn’t have to. My writing on movies and TV (and sometimes-but-not-really music) was the first thing anyone ever hired me for, the first thing I ever went viral for; when I was linked to by an outside website, or shortlisted in an anthology, or published in a Really Important Publication, it was always that stuff. 

I know I’m inviting takes about the decadence of feminism in the Obama era — you people think movies and TV are real life! You wasted your time on rape jokes instead of Medicare for All! All you care about are symbolic victories! — and certainly, in the later, more clickbaity iteration of that particular politic, there was a lot of shallow, performative stuff. Mainstream media websites learned how to do the kind of writing my friends and I were doing for free; they rarely hired the people who had pioneered that type of writing or made it popular, and instead hired younger writers without recognizable bylines or a deep grounding in the issues. Those writers were more precarious, more exploitable, and they were able to turn out quick takes on whether something was “problematic” without any deep passion or connection to a wider political movement. It showed. 

Pop-analysis feminism became its own recognizable form, and people kind of thought it sucked, and maybe, by the end, when we were writing listicles on how feminist the Disney Princesses were or weren’t, it kind of did suck, the same way it kind of sucks that I can buy an endless variety of “STRONG WOMAN” dresses for my almost-two-year-old who hasn’t even officially told me what her gender is. It’s probably better to buy her the “STRONG WOMAN” dress than something that says, like, “Flirt” or “Daddy’s Little Tease” or “I’m A Very Sexy Baby,” which was the previous fad. But it’s still an odd, dissociative feeling, watching this political moment my friends and I worked to bring about become a pin, or a baby onesie, or a motto woven into some novelty socks. 

Today, picking up some summer clothes for the baby, I found a little T-shirt that showed a “diverse” group of little girls (a white redhead, a white blonde, a brown girl) riding rockets through the sky, leaving a trail that said “OWN YOUR POWER.” I thought it was a nice message, but I also thought $13 was a high price to pay for it. I thought about how it must be vastly more marketable to create a T-shirt about women’s power than to actually be a feminist who analyzes and advocates for women’s power in the public sphere; how my income is dwarfed by the incomes of the people who sell these shirts, and yet I’m expected to give them money to reflect my own points back to me; how so many women swam out, in the early and mid ‘00s, way ahead of the wave, writing full-length essays every day for no money, trying to bring the culture to a place where girls didn’t begin all their sentences with “I’m not a feminist, but…”

No-one invested in those websites. You couldn’t even get ad money or sponcon partnerships for them. Some of them pulled more traffic than sections of the Huffington Post, but according to the experts, they just weren’t “marketable.” Then, somehow, with no support, and no-one taking them seriously, those women changed the culture to the point that Beyonce was sampling feminist lectures in her hit singles. And not only did most of us never become famous for it, or even earn a living wage, we didn’t even get the stupid T-shirt. We still have to go to the mall and pay up. 

So I thought about that. And I thought about how effective it would be for my daughter to wear an “OWN YOUR POWER” t-shirt in Georgia or Alabama. How much power you can really own, or purchase at Old Navy, when your own government is taking your sovereignty over your body away. 

I don’t know what there is to say about Georgia and Alabama (and Ohio, and Michigan, and Missouri, and) that I didn’t say last week, or that a thousand people haven’t said for me. People have been saying the same thing, myself included, for years now. Last summer, when the news broke that Justice Kennedy would retire, I remember sitting numbly in a coffee shop, staring at my computer screen, not moving. The way you do when something horrible happens; when you’re afraid to move, because then linear time will commence, and you’ll have to live in the horrifying future where this has already happened to you. Eventually, the spell broke. I saw a headline where Bernie Sanders said something stupid — “in many ways, we did win the election,” I believe it was — and I snapped back into the moment, and I swear to God, my ears started ringing. The whole world was silence and whine, like some cheesy movie portraying the aftereffects of a bomb blast. I was so angry it briefly shifted the pressure inside my skull.

So I felt it all then, and I’ve known what would happen ever since, as we all did. This past week — the one where I keep making fists and remembering I don’t know how to punch walls without breaking my hand — is just the fulfillment of a prophecy, an echo of the original feeling I had in that coffee shop. The anger that hit like a bomb. 

I find it impossible to know how much my friends and I actually changed the culture. So much of it has moved in response to our pressure, given us what we asked for: Superhero movies, baby clothes, pop stars. These aren’t minor symbolic victories; something like Wonder Woman is a multi-million dollar franchise. This means it can never be radical, or substitute for political action, but more importantly, it means that the people who make multi-million-dollar franchises are betting that feminism can draw a crowd, and they are winning. That victory connotes a massive level of popular support, which could potentially be turned to more practical ends. When I first started, there was one (1) press that routinely published books by young feminists, and the advances were so small that some literary agents refused to deal with them. Now, we’re on the New York Times bestseller list, on TV, on every cheap baby shirt at the mall.

But reality grinds on apace, and it is brutal. Another state with a total abortion ban. Another ban with no rape or incest exceptions. Another rapist very publicly getting away with his crimes, flaunting his invulnerability to the law. (Between Game of Thrones and abortion, there was seemingly no room for another big story this week — but speaking of throwbacks, Julian Assange is out and trying to evade rape charges again, which I wrote about.) You can bet on feminism and win big. You can bet against women and win bigger. You can tell a baby to “OWN HER POWER.” But when it comes to adult women and childbearing people, and their power to decide whether to have babies, well: There’s nothing left to grab. The state owns it all. 

I don’t know where we are: Progressing, backlashing, or just stuck in place on some moral and ethical hamster wheel, whereby the faster we run, the more stuck we are, and the more I bitch about girl-power t-shirts, the closer all those “FUTURE SEX MISTRESS” baby clothes get to coming back. I don’t know how the symbolic and the real fit together; if our stories, like our dreams, reflect our deepest beliefs and run ahead of our conscious knowledge, or if stories only distract and tranquilize us while the world crumbles. I had a lot of anger this week, and I put 98% of it into Game of Thrones, because it was a remnant of a time when we had the luxury to care about stories. Because the story it told reflected all there is to be angry about in the world.

Game of Thrones, in the end, was the story of a woman who began the series being raped by her husband, and ended it being stabbed by her boyfriend, and both men were framed as heroic despite these actions, or because of them. It was the story of a woman who tried to escape the violence; who soared through the sky, bearing a message written in fire and smoke; a woman who OWNED HER POWER. And it was the story of how she failed to deserve that power; how she had to be destroyed because of her ambition, or her trauma (“madness”), or her anger, or just her sheer inability to step down and let a calmer, more reasonable man take her power away.

It was a story about how women do not own our bodies and shouldn’t try to. And it was the most popular drama on television, for almost ten years. I don’t know whether that’s a symbolic problem or a real problem. It seems like both. I am angry about Game of Thrones because it feels less threatening than the real crisis. But that only means I am angry at us all.

The Powerful

I felt powerful when I was pregnant. It wasn’t what I expected to feel. I’d been taught that pregnant women were fragile: Balloons about to pop, eggshell-thin teacups that would shatter if you dropped them. People certainly treated me like I was fragile. They gave up their subway seats for me at least 40% of the time, more if I sighed and heaved my balloon belly around; once, when I puked after taking two incompatible supplements together, five or six people rushed over to tend to me and offer to take me to the hospital. But they also treated me as public property. For the last three months, in particular, male strangers kept stopping me on the street to say “I bet it’s a boy!” 

Hope. They hoped it was a boy; they assumed that I hoped for a boy, too, which is why they thought they were paying me a compliment. I couldn’t argue with the reasoning. A few hundred years ago, that would be my whole purpose: Get married, get pregnant with a boy, maybe get pregnant with another boy in case my husband needed a backup, and then I’d be cleared to die. We’re supposed to be past all that, but in 2017, men who wanted to be nice still assured me I would bring my husband an heir for his land and name. 

There were moments like that, when the world crashed in on me; I saw myself as others saw me, A Pregnant Woman, and felt the full weight of history descend. But when I was alone with my pregnancy, I felt the opposite of helpless. I was putting on weight, growing large, beginning to take up space in ways I never had before. My body was curving out of anything you might call feminine, and into some primordial, animal shape, shedding its decorative value to become pure function. I felt like the brontosaurus in Jurassic Park, large and marvelous, making passersby stop and stare in awe: When I walked, my step was heavy. When I moved, people moved out of my way. I was directly responsible for the continuance of the species; I was part of nature, I was nature, in fact, because if people like me stopped doing this, humanity would cease to exist. 

I don’t know what to make of that sense of power. It could have been hormonal. Or maybe I just felt good because pregnancy forced me to quit living on cigarettes, wine and Chinese takeout. I could have been in touch with the wellspring of all life, but I also could have been in touch with adequate nutrition. But I think I was right; I think there is some power, terrible and primordial, in childbearing bodies. If we didn’t have that power, men wouldn’t spend so much time trying to take it away. 

The Georgia abortion ban feels new, but it’s only the culmination of something that’s been happening for years. Not even a culmination: A new high-water mark, a new Biggest Outrage, which is sure to be erased in a month’s time by something worse. 

Other total abortion bans have passed elsewhere — in Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, and my home state, Ohio — and like Georgia, they’ve used the language of “fetal heartbeat” to disguise what they actually do. (By the time a doctor can detect a “heartbeat,” at six weeks, the patient is about two weeks late on her period. At that point, many people don’t even suspect they’re pregnant.) Newer and nastier legislation is already on the way in Alabama. All of it is intended to trigger the overturn of Roe v. Wade, in which case, restrictions just this bad or worse will be instated in half the country. What makes Georgia stand out is not its aim, but its sheer punitive viciousness. This bill makes it exceptionally clear that banning abortion is not about limiting doctors’ ability to practice, it is about controlling and punishing women.

You’ve probably heard some or all of the implications already: Women who self-administer abortions — either safely, through medication, or through the bloodier methods that we had before Roe — may receive life in prison. Women who miscarry can be investigated and charged with second-degree murder if it’s found that they were “endangering” their fetuses (read: themselves) through drug use or other “irresponsible” behavior. This is a state ban, but pregnant women are not allowed to leave the state; “if a Georgia resident plans to travel elsewhere to obtain an abortion, she can be charged with conspiracy to commit murder,” writes Mark Joseph Stern. The same sentence, and the same 10-year prison term, will apply to anyone who helps her cross state lines. 

I’m using the terms woman and she, here, because that’s who the lawmakers were aiming at — some imaginary cisgender woman, who’s pregnant, and who must be stripped of control over that pregnancy. A woman who must have her power ground out of her, and her body taken away from her, even if it means investigating the loss of a wanted pregnancy; even if it means locking her in prison for eating sushi or soft cheese or having a glass of wine at her sister’s wedding. 

Cis women aren’t the only ones to have their bodies or power stolen by patriarchy. Trans men who are required to sterilize themselves before transition also experience this invasive, degrading control. (And, of course, some American trans men will need abortions, or be jailed for them.) Trans women live with being defined down to their genitalia every day of their lives, not just for the nine months of a pregnancy. But there’s a specific kind of hatred in laws like these, and it helps to place that hatred in its ideological context: A worldview in which human life and civilization is male, and women are not people, but the faulty tools men use to create more men.

I bet it’s a boy! Yeah, buddy. I bet you do. And if it weren’t a boy, I bet you wouldn’t quite see the point. As a woman, I am presumed to be a pause between two men; the one I must marry and the one I must raise. My body is a conduit through which men transmit names, money, history, property, lives. Who I am doesn’t matter. A road doesn’t have feelings about the cars that travel along it. A faucet doesn’t consider the water.

There is power in pregnancy. But rivers are powerful, and men dam them. Electricity is powerful, and men use it to run microwaves and razors. Childbearing people are powerful, and men damn us, too. They use us, because we are part of nature, in fact we are nature, and “nature,” in modern capitalist society, is just a collection of resources for men to acquire and exploit. One of the ways men maintain the upper hand is by passing laws in which it is illegal for us to use our own bodies. They take all that power, and turn it into a weapon they can use to keep women in line.

I knew this, in an abstract way, before I had a baby. So does everyone who knows the meaning of the word “reproduction.” But it wasn’t until I got pregnant that I actually felt it, held the truth of it in my body: Humanity depends on me, on bodies like mine, consenting to carry it forward, one baby at a time. 

The fate of the entire species rests on the bodies of people we’ve been trained to see as less than human. In fact, we may be trained to see those people as subhuman because of how important they are; because of how dangerous it would be if they recognized their leverage. If women and AFAB people stopped having children, or stopped having them with cis men — since, after all, a lot of women could plausibly serve as sperm donors — then cis men would be irrelevant. There wouldn’t be a point to them any more. If sufficiently provoked, women could end the whole human species; without a large number of pregnant bodies, humanity just sputters out, doomed by our collective refusal to cooperate. The power I felt in pregnancy wasn’t fist-pumping, go-girl, feel-good power. It was supervillain power: We could end the world.

Of course cis men respond to women’s reproductive agency violently. It’s an existential threat. So is queerness, so is gender transition and legal recognition of trans people. Patriarchy is a system wherein cis men have assumed control of a biological process in which they play no truly necessary role. The service they offer, “protection” — from poverty, with their higher wages and better career tracks; from sexual exploitation or male violence, on the theory that men won’t touch another man’s property — is only necessary under conditions of male domination. If we end wage inequity and male violence, the protection racket dissolves. We only “need” men because of problems men have created to make themselves feel needed. It’s brutal, but it’s true.

Of course want is not the same as need. Plenty of women will still want cis men around, even when they don’t need them, myself included. Sex strikes are no-one’s idea of a good time. But many cis men are not okay with just being wanted. Everything in patriarchy is set up to place women in positions of crushing dependence, to gain “security” at the cost of being sequestered in the home, or to be destitute, even criminalized, if they live and raise children without a man. Under these conditions, as Andrea Dworkin could tell you, “want” is a lot more complicated than it looks. Do you want the man, or do you just want to live? It’s okay to want either, but it’s a problem that women can’t treat sex and survival as separate drives. 

Yet, strange as it sounds, women could destroy men. In fact, women are destroying men, albeit very slowly, and while meeting lots of resistance. Any feminism worthy of the name has the destruction of manhood — the idea of a “man” as we’ve inherited it, the ideals of success and dominance and authority we’ve packed into “masculinity” — as its ultimate goal. Cis men often seem to recognize this better than women do; they work to legislate our power out of existence, or they terrorize and intimidate women into a state of learned helplessness, which means they understand they have something to fear. Men brainwash us and belittle us and raise us to take their side. They tell us there are no sides to take, that we’re all on the same team. They demand solidarity. All the while, that primeval power rests beneath the surface, more visible in the things done to contain it than in any use women have made of it. For now. 

You would think, having just written a whole book about this dynamic, that I would have a clear idea of what to do about it. But it’s tricky, trying to claim the power I felt in my pregnancy. Defining womanhood down to the ability to bear children leaves a whole lot of women out, and not just trans women. Assigning motherhood an elevated moral status, or trying to claim it as a source of political insight, neglects the fact that many mothers are neither moral nor feminist, and some are just as heavily invested in systems of male domination as the men themselves. There are systems of power that are not merely reproductive; black men are not more powerful than white cis women. Then again, white people have committed plenty of atrocities in the name of controlling black women’s fertility, or preventing black men from having children with white mothers.

In the past, whenever feminists have tried to tap that chthonic, Jurassic-Park power I sensed in childbearing bodies, it’s turned into TERFiness and mysticism, which — though I happen to like the mysticism — doesn’t leave me with much in the way of practical, on-the-ground suggestions. I know the power exists. Whether I can tell you what to do with it is another thing. 

But if sex strikes won’t work, childcare strikes might. (They already have, elsewhere.) Voluntary single motherhood or communal parenting, for those who can afford it, might; so might universal childcare and universal basic income, everything that makes living with your co-parent a choice, a want rather than a need. Celebrating and supporting trans parenthood and queer parenthood will work; helping pregnant people end their pregnancies when necessary, no matter what the laws are, will always work. What works is an ethos of disloyalty; when we realize that our individual bodies and lives and choices exist in service to the system, we can start to betray and sabotage that system, whenever the chance comes to hand.

The system, when it is working perfectly, produces a nation of Georgias. A place where the power of childbearing bodies is placed out of reach, and turned into their greatest vulnerability, over and over again. But even under those conditions, cis men’s vulnerability remains open. Because their vulnerability is us. They just have to hope we don’t realize that, or act on it — and the more they push us, the more likely it gets that a reckoning will come.

Happy Mother’s Day, by the way. It would be pretty sad if I let the day pass without offering you something, so — since we’re almost to the number of subscribers I need before I can friends-lock this baby — here is a coupon that will give you, or anyone you forward this email to, a month’s subscription for free. It’s good until May 18.

Subscribe - first month FREE

Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention (again) that I just wrote a book about reproduction and power, and that it’s coming out this August. It’s called Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, it’s very metal, and you can pre-order it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or IndieBound.

Mirrors, Mamas, Warren, Trauma: A Grab-Bag

Contrary to appearances, I have not, in fact, disappeared shortly after promising to write you once a week. What I have done is fallen into other work. (Among other things, I have a book coming out this summer that I need to prepare for.) This is a looser newsletter than usual; I might start sending these out, just grab-bags of quick thoughts and links, so that I can stay in touch even when I don’t have a full essay in me. First up, a reader question:

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I’ve been trying to find thoughts from good thinkers on a topic you’re well positioned to think about: being a white woman raising kids of color. My spouse’s family is mixed Filipino and Burmese, and my twin girls are going to grow up in a world that will see them differently than it saw me, but also differently than it saw their dad. 

The unfortunate answer to your question is that I’m trying to figure it out myself. Obviously, I think about it a lot, just in a “how do I raise a human being without traumatizing her or making her hate me” sort of way. And I think about it more now than I used to, in Brooklyn. Up there, we were just another family. Here, in a smaller town, we move through a much whiter world.

What I feared for Lulu, initially, was isolation. When I’ve spoken to biracial friends, or transracial adoptees (like my husband), they all mentioned that painful feeling of being stranded; they thought there was no-one else like them in the world, or at least, no-one in their neighborhoods, which is the same thing when you’re a little kid and the neighborhood is all you know.

We didn’t have to think about this in Brooklyn, because families like ours were so common. To give you an idea: My husband and I were one of three interracial Asian-white couples in our friend group, we all had babies within two years of each other, and all of our babies were assigned female at birth. Lulu was the youngest, so not only were we never short on hand-me-downs, we never had to worry about finding other biracial Asian toddlers for her to hang out with. She could always see herself reflected in her surroundings. 

Just as importantly, she could also see grown-up Asian ladies. It’s early days, still, for Lulu’s gender identity; my understanding is that kids don’t fully wrap their heads around gender as a concept until pre-school, and even then, it takes them a while to develop a firm sense of where they fit on the spectrum. Right now, though, she is very stereotypically girly. She likes pink, and she likes dresses, and she likes mermaids and unicorns and taking care of her baby dolls; she calls herself a “girl.” She has an idea that different genders exist; she calls some adults “mamas,” and some “daddies,” and she likes pointing out which is which. (Again, rude, but we’ll work on it.) And — watch, now, as I very slowly come to my point — she absolutely LOVES spotting Asian mamas.

She gets excited to see Asian ladies at the store. She gets excited to see Asian ladies at the library. When we hung out with our friends, she was sometimes more enchanted with their mothers than she was with the other little girls. Once, at an airport, we went through security just behind a whole line of international stewardesses. The combination of a dozen Asian ladies and the fact that they were all wearing the same outfit was the high point of her entire life, entertainment-wise; she was squealing and pointing and laughing like a rowdy audience member at a comedy club until the moment they were out of view.

Some of this applies to friends her own age, too; she likes everyone, but she seemingly gravitates more toward kids of color. But I would be a fool not to get the message. It matters to her to know that there are Asian mamas out there, and it will matter even more as she gets older. Assuming she keeps calling herself a girl, she will need to know, and see, that her Asian girl-hood has Asian womanhood on the other side of it, and that she can be proud of who she’s becoming. 

I’m her mother, and I want to be everything to her. It’s what mothers want; she was part of my body, she used to be inconsolable if we were separated for more than a few minutes, even now there are things that only Mama can fix. I don’t want that closeness to go away. And I always wanted a daughter, because I thought I could share things with her, understand her, in a way that would be more difficult with a boy. But raising a healthy human being means raising them to be okay without you. And some part of raising this particular daughter will be knowing how to get out of the way. 

Of course, she’ll need me for some moments; of course, there will be things I understand that her father just doesn’t. But there will also be things she can only share with him. He can already interpret parts of her experience in ways I can’t; he mutters to her about white people when he thinks I can’t hear. That’s fine. She will, at many junctures in her life, need to commiserate with someone about white people, up to and including her white mother. Sometimes, my job is just to leave the room. 

The other part of my job, the more difficult part, is to make sure she grows up seeing Asian mamas. Her father works to resist his training in patriarchy, I work to resist my training in whiteness, but Lulu’s life will be a whole lot easier if she has actual Asian women to look up to, who don’t have to cross any sort of divide to understand what she’s going through. In other families, this is probably easier; the moms are Asian themselves, or there’s extended family with grandmas and aunts and cousins. My husband doesn’t know anything about his biological family. Even our basic knowledge of Korean history and culture is pretty limited. Our ability to create a supportive space comes down to the two of us making friends. 

I was less worried when we had friends already made, and nearby. Now, I have to start all over again, and somehow do so without being a creepy white lady. So your question is also my question; I am still figuring it out, and probably always will be, and the best I can do is to keep my ears open for when someone with actual experience — including, as she gets older, my daughter — speaks up. 

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Other notable things:

  • For Medium this week, I wrote about women who are too anxious about “electability” to support a female candidate, and how the 2016 election has traumatized us in ways that are both real — all that sexism was enough to make anyone nervous about another woman’s chances — and misleading in several important ways.

  • If I were feeling collected enough to write a big essay (and I may, eventually) it would be about the rise of the new patriarchy — the one where jobs are changing their requirements to push mothers back into the home, and men are so resistant to changing gender roles that it will take 75 years for men and women to approach an equal share of parenting work. (From that last article: “A San Diego dad said his wife did more because she was so uptight.” I BET HE DID.)

  • One thing that would change much of this is (a) San Diego Dad getting served with some San Diego Divorce Papers, and (b) universal childcare. I invite you to read my latest very, very intense fan screed about Elizabeth Warren.

  • This is not a “mommy blog,” because (a) it is not a blog, (b) it’s about electoral politics half the time, and (c) “mommy blog” basically seems, like “chick lit,” to be a derogatory term for women’s writing that happens to cover the common conditions of female experience, i.e. parenting. (Since, as we’ve previously established, men are too cool and relaxed to do any of it.) But this excellent profile of Dooce, “queen of the mommy bloggers,” is a good look at the long-term trauma caused by Internet harassment, and at how we treat women who talk about their lives online.

White Knights

"You need a white guy to beat a white guy," and the inevitable, depressing return of patriarchal politics

I was pretty certain that, if Hillary Clinton did not become president, we would not see a female president for generations. It does not make me happy to say I told you so.

This is the outcome people consistently told women not to worry about, right? A woman, but not this woman. I’d vote in a heartbeat for Elizabeth Warren. We were supposed to understand that we could easily vote against Hillary Clinton, without damaging the larger feminist project of putting women in power, because another female president — a better female president! A real, truly feminine, truly feminist, truly female president, who represented all women! — would be along any second now, that we only had to wait our turn. In 2008, the argument was that we could just vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In 2016, the argument was that a better candidate would come along after the revolution. Everyone was sure that sexism had absolutely no bearing on the outcome of presidential elections, despite the fact that in 2016, Congress was 85% male, only 28 states have ever had female governors, and, unless I’m missing something really important on the fact-check, a woman has literally never been elected President of the United States.

Of course, in an increasingly loud corner of the left, the argument was that we didn’t need to think about voting for a woman at all — that factoring in a candidate’s gender was unserious, frivolous, not indicative of any substantive political agenda, “identity politics” — which, if you followed the line to its logical conclusion, meant it would be perfectly fine if we never voted a woman into the Oval Office. Centuries of unchanged male power would not indicate any bias or injustice whatsoever, as long as all those men came with a stamp of approval from guys who host podcasts about socialism.

Well. I bought the line in 2008 — thought Obama was the better candidate, that Hillary had time to run again, etc. — and by 2016, something had started to smell fishy. Now, in 2020, with the white male backlash in full swing, it fucking reeks.

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For my Medium column this week (which I hope you’ll read) I wrote about the depressing reality of the 2020 race: Both of the Democratic frontrunners, along with the sitting Republican president, are white men over age 70. All of them have troubled records when it comes to women, and have exhibited troubling attitudes toward feminism, to some extent. They aren’t just problematic along one axis. You can just as easily mine their records for horrifying things they’ve said about race: Joe Biden called Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean,” Bernie Sanders sympathized with “a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable… about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American,” and Trump is, well, Trump.

Still, the gender part of the equation matters. Particularly because, on the Democratic side, these men have been put forward as the best allies women can reasonably expect. Joe Biden has been extremely active in raising awareness around campus sexual assault, and he’s the guy that introduced VAWA. Bernie Sanders has no similar legislative record, but, I am reliably informed, he is a better feminist than any of the women he’s run against.

No-one is praising Trump as an ally to women. (No-one except Trump, anyway.) But what does it say, when even the men we are expected to receive with gratitude are so deeply enmeshed in the patriarchal systems we’ve asked them to overturn? The guy who takes it upon himself to combat sexual violence kisses women without permission. The guy who’s going to lead the revolution reportedly created a culture of misogyny both within his 2016 campaign and — very publicly — within his wider base of supporters. It’s hard to believe Sanders is building a kinder, gentler world for women when criticizing him invariably leads to crap like this:

Why is this woman talking? She must be a housewife! Yikes.

You can argue that every candidate has supporters who are out of line — which they do — but what happens when someone gets screencapped or Reddited by the Bernie folks is fairly specific to his base. I’ve criticized every white man in the running, in equally harsh terms, and only one candidate’s supporters have threatened to shoot me or e-mailed me to call my two-year-old daughter stupid. You can also argue (and many have) that this is a non-substantive argument, unrelated to policy. But Sanders attracts people who think like this because of his core message.

Throughout his time in the national spotlight, Bernie Sanders has done his level best to normalize the idea of power as white and male. When he says that he can represent women’s interests better than women can, when he shrugs off abortion as a “social issue” that is less important or serious than his own priorities, when he suggests that it’s not necessarily racist to prefer voting for white men, he is always making the case for himself, a white man, as the person who should be handed power and allowed to set the agenda. Maybe it’s just that, when he runs against women and people of color, he’s forced to downplay the significance of their candidacies. Nonetheless, that messaging gives people tacit permission to unleash their inner anger toward powerful women. He uses misogyny as a wedge to get votes. Normalizing misogyny, even for purely selfish and circumstantial reasons, always makes life harder for women as a whole. If you want to know where the open animus toward “identity politics” or “culture war” is coming from, a very large percentage of that blame goes directly to Bernie Sanders.

These are the men women are meant to rely on. In point of fact, if the Democratic primary works out as expected, these are the men we will have to rely on to defeat Trump. This is how every previous presidential election has worked out, women being forced to advance their interests by selecting men they hope will be workable proxies — picking “good” men to defend us from “bad” men, even though they are all, well, men, and as such, their power and comfort and status always depends on maintaining patriarchal systems of male domination. In 2019, women are still helpless damsels on the sideline, picking white knights that we hope will do battle for our cause.

*

This is the hard, indigestible core of my politics, the thing that routinely sets people on edge or makes them yell at me: I don’t believe the proxy system can work. Men are always implicated in women’s oppression. There is nothing men can do to not be implicated. Of course, this plays out intersectionally; a black man’s experience of patriarchy, or a white trans man’s, will be very different than a cis white guy’s. Many more privileges will adhere to the latter man. White, straight, cis women, like me, will always benefit from other people’s oppression too, and there is no way we can wash our hands of that, no matter how much or how violently we suffer from misogyny.

But I wholeheartedly reject the tendency to treat sexism as just a disembodied set of ideas, a free-floating magical curse that somehow puts women in violent situations or at the bottom of the pecking order, over and over. Someone has to be doing the oppressing. Someone has to be getting something out of it. That “someone” is men — usually white, straight, cis men, like, say, every President we’ve had throughout the history of this country whose name was not “Barack Obama.” And what they get from it is power.

When men’s continued welfare relies on keeping women down, men will keep women down. They are never going to be fully trustworthy proxies for our interests, because at some point, our interests will always come into conflict, and at that point, the vast majority of men will choose themselves. No matter how hard Biden works on VAWA, he’s not going to rethink where he puts his hands in a photo op, because that means losing some portion of his personal comfort in social settings. Sanders supports women’s political representation in the abstract, but we’ve seen several times that when supporting the cause means losing an election — or not running at all — Bernie Sanders will always choose a potential victory for himself over putting a woman in “his” spot. If he comes to a point where advancing feminist interests requires genuine self-sacrifice, Sanders will always choose the thing that benefits him, which is also the thing that benefits men, and most men will do the same.

Do I hate men? No. Not unilaterally. But I know how power works, and I know how people work, and I know that no matter how high-flying our rhetoric may be, we are mostly fueled by self-interest. The vast majority of people will always take a concrete gain for themselves over an abstract gain for someone else — if you were voting to give every person in France free college, you would probably be less motivated than if you, yourself, stood to be absolved of your student loans. I want women and queer people and trans people and people of color in power, not because it’s “fair,” but because I want decisions made by people with skin in the game — because I think, when you put marginalized politicians on the spot, they will decide in favor of their own self-interests, which are closer to ours.

I know there are exceptions. I know that white women, in particular, tend to identify with the oppressor and angle for white privilege rather than boosting women as a whole. I know who Phyllis Schlafly is; I’m not new here. (When patriarchy reigns, women who uphold patriarchal values are making their own form of self-interested decision — it just tends to have a more short-term payoff.) In a competition between women, you should always choose the woman with the most comprehensive and well-thought-out feminist vision.

But we know the proxy system doesn’t work. We’ve proven, over and over, that the Sanders line — that only ideology matters, that politics is abstract and impersonal, that as long as you declare allegiance to the right set of ideas, your lived experience will never inform or distort your judgment — is profoundly wrong.

How wrong is it? Joe Biden is a product of the proxy system — he clearly had huge problems with women. He was “personally” anti-choice, he was touchy, he was paternalistic. Yet women kept voting for him and letting him be the face of their anti-rape initiatives, because he was willing to endorse feminist causes in order to cover his own ass. Bill Clinton is a product of the proxy system. You want to know why older feminists put up with him? It wasn’t that they were bad people. Things were so dismal, after the backlash of the ‘80s, that Bill Clinton was the best they could get. One Bill Clinton gets you one Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and no, it’s not a fair trade, but when men hold a lock on institutional power, women are given no choices that do not ultimately reinforce male domination.

I don’t think voting for one more white man, no matter what he promises me, is going to solve that problem. Call me a misanthrope. You’re right. I do not have stars in my eyes; I do not see any future where we all hold hands and sing kumbaya together. This is always going to be a fight. What I want is a fight where women aren’t outnumbered.

*

There are reasons that women are lagging in the polls. Again, sexism is not magic; female candidates are not cursed, and their struggles to break through do not derive from some mystical “will of the people.” Female candidates are straggling behind white men because men are less likely to fund them, a bias which is aggravated by the fact that people within the Democratic party are pushing the line that it takes a white man to beat a white man. This messaging is mirrored by a political media that is up to 74% male, and which either refuses to cover these female candidates, or holds them to a vastly different standard.

Kamala Harris holds at a relatively steady third in the polls, and is near the top in terms of fundraising. Yet a look at her Google News results since the beginning of the year shows that she receives vastly less coverage than her competitors: Joe Biden has been the subject of 14,800,000 stories since January 1 of 2019, Bernie Sanders has 1,240,000 stories, and Kamala Harris has only been the subject of 98,000 stories. Harris receives 7.9% percent of Sanders’ coverage and 0.66% of Biden’s. The coverage she does get, notably, downplays her success compared to white men’s: When Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke raised less money than Kamala Harris, pundits wildly overpraised them for it, while simultaneously downplaying Harris’ numbers, conveying a message that those white men’s objectively lesser achievement was somehow worth more.

Why aren’t women “electable?” Because it is in men’s best interests not to elect them, and those men control the conversation. The only woman who even got close to winning the presidency had to spend decades sucking up to the guys in charge, had to become so deeply enmeshed in these patriarchal systems that she was literally married to another president. (A depressingly common way for women to finagle their way up and out — most of the “first female” something-or-others in American political history inherited their seats from their husbands.) Then, the second she got close enough to win, the entire game changed so that being enmeshed in systems of power was now disqualifying. When you write the rules of the game, you can change them at will to disqualify anyone you like. If a woman gets close enough to success, that itself will be framed as failure.

Men have each other’s backs, and though it may start off as mere selfishness, it looks a whole lot worse by the time it’s all over. If men were going to liberate women or protect us, they’d have done it by now. We wouldn’t be sitting here, in 2019, looking at three white men in their late 70s as the face of power. I don’t think it has to be that way. We have the power to save ourselves, to be players in the game rather than to keep selecting men to fight our battles for us. It remains to be seen if we will.

Mod note: I’ve been telling myself that if we get to a certain number of paid subscribers — not that many; maybe 100 or 200 — I can make this newsletter a weekly commitment. We’re a little past the halfway point on that milestone, so I’m making the subscriptions a bit cheaper. Until April 20, subscribers can get 50% off the first 3 months, so you’re paying $2.50 a month just to see if you like the thing.

I know this is salesy and obnoxious, but I genuinely do just want to make this newsletter cheap, so that when the paywall goes up it’s not a huge obstacle for anyone.

As always, if you know someone you think would like this letter, please forward it — the more the merrier.

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