Rebecca Traister talks about “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women”
Rebecca Traister found many of the gender conversations during the 2008 elections painful but necessary.
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We would not have seen the same things at work between two men. But that’s not to say that men escape an aesthetic scrutiny. We still talk about John Kennedy beating Richard Nixon in a [1960 presidential] debate because Nixon sweated his way through it. You saw John Kerry get into a flap about Botox during his 2004 campaign. You saw John Edwards get called the Prell girl for his expensive haircuts. We cannot behave as though men don’t get examined for these things, too. However, we can point to the differences between the ways that these conversations take place. It’s important to note that when a male candidate’s looks get criticized it’s often in a way that feminizes him. That’s a crucial difference.Skip to next paragraph
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I was not as horrified by the fact that we were discussing what Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were wearing as by the way in which it was being discussed. Many people just thought, "Oh, we shouldn’t talk about it at all." I understand that argument but I just don’t think that it’s realistic.
I was perfectly willing to have conversations, for example, about how Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were dressing and part of those conversations involved being critical of some of the angles that people were taking. For example, when you talk about Hillary’s cackle or when Rush Limbaugh worried about how many lines were on her face or when there was a kind of jeering about the pantsuits, that’s when you can say that’s where the sexism comes in. [And there was] a sort of point-and-hoot festival of making fun of Sarah Palin and how much she was spending on her clothes. That kind of stuff is sexist and it’s worth pointing out that it’s sexist.
[But] I don’t think that we should police [these conversations] to the extent that we’re not having them. We should be having these conversations. It’s just that these conversations are not always that fun.
Q. Was the 2008 election more triumphant or painful?
If you look at the story of 2008 as its own election narrative, there was a lot more pain than there was triumph. When you’re talking about women, when you look back at the sexist conversations – the conversations themselves in some ways were just agonizing. However, I am of the belief that to move forward in this country, which is the ultimate triumph, to continue to progress to a state of further inclusiveness, to something closer to racial, gender, and sexual equality, you have to work through the pain. You cannot just pat yourself on the back and tell yourself that you’re over these things.
So, in a sense, the amount of pain provoked by 2008 is totally salubrious for us. Because it’s forcing us to get our hands dirty in a way that we might not have chosen. We might have chosen to have taken an easier path, to have pretended that these were things of the past. But we wouldn’t be getting very far if we had chosen that.