Tag Archives: politics

Making ‘Em Squeal: Joni Ernst’s “Dangerous” Political Femininity

With November’s midterm congressional elections approaching, most states are currently in the midst of primary campaigns. While these local-level contests usually don’t attract much attention beyond state borders, the possibilities of viral video circulation occasionally introduce a particularly memorable candidate to the rest of the nation. While her five-way senatorial primary is still a close race, Iowa State Senator Joni Ernst recently caught the attention of the national media with a new video ad. The Republican candidate makes a lasting impression – one that could propel her to political meme fame akin to that of former Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell – by opening the TV spot with a sensational statement: “I’m Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”

Given the backlash amongst Iowa voters to Democratic candidate Bruce Braley’s recent statement that current Senator Charles Grassley is just “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school,” Ernst’s appeal to the state’s agricultural base could spell out success, at least in the short-term. The ad’s playful tone demonstrates that the campaign embraces Ernst’s experiences on a hog farm, projecting them as the quintessential characteristics of Iowan life that make the state’s voters and political climate unique. Indeed, it’s unlikely that candidates from other states would include their own blend of Pork Rub in their online campaign store.

Far from the Hawkeye state, however, national media outlets have picked up Ernst’s ad. Notably, it has received play on The Colbert Report and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Fallon reacts with visible disbelief and disgust, stammering that “I don’t know what she’s running for but let’s just give her the job” and parodying her with, “Hi I’m Joni Ernst, and I grew up throwing battery acid in people’s faces.” Colbert, never breaking character, gives Ernst the kind of treatment that his program spares no guest, topic, or controversy. Running with a theme of castration jokes, he imagines Ernst’s girlhood as uniquely shaped by her involvement with the family hog farm, suggesting that she never read Charlotte’s Web and only failed to operate on Ken dolls because of the toys’ pre-existing lack of genitalia. Further, he addresses male anxieties surrounding castration, noting that “Ernst already got Mitt Romney’s endorsement, and she can have mine too if she comes nowhere near me.”

While Fallon and Colbert are, of course, primarily concerned with landing a joke that will resonate with their audiences, I think that the responses of these male TV personalities offer a point of entry into an important discussion of gender and electoral politics. Ernst’s ad is undeniably quirky, and has successfully garnered attention for her campaign, but will likely be grouped alongside both ads and gaffes from other Republican women like O’Donnell, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann. While these candidates cannot be called feminists, the prevailing expectation of their incompetency is indicative of masculinist views on political strength, capability, and subjectivity. What separates Ernst from some of her fellow Republican women is that she has not yet failed; in fact, a campaign that focuses its energy and resources on appealing to the agricultural base in Iowa could be successful. Thus, while the ad is undeniably sensationalist, it takes the work of male comedians to equate Ernst’s statements about castrating hogs with a sense that she threatens masculinity.

Fallon’s comparison of the common farm practice Ernst references to throwing acid at people not only signals the disconnect that has long existed between urban and rural or agricultural voters, but also betrays a sense that women who are willing to participate in such agricultural work do not fit within comfortable, safe gender boundaries. Likewise, the Des Moines Register reported that one political operative has joked that Ernst’s Secret Service codename would be “Lorena Bobbit,” further demonstrating the discomfort that Ernst has caused. And while it may be unlikely that a male candidate would make such a joke in campaign materials, Ernst’s womanhood and willingness to cross boundaries are proving threatening to some parts of established political authority.

While Colbert’s jokes hint at similar responses, they might also leave space for a critique of ‘proper’ girlhood activities even while parodying the ad’s shock-value. In satirically suggesting that Ernst’s childhood involvement in farm work was not a part of ‘normal’ girlhood, Colbert gestures to the need for a re-evaluation of traditional femininity in politics. For Ernst’s agricultural background to suggest that she is not fit for office exposes the thin line that female candidates must walk, maintaining a desirable feminine appearance and demeanor while demonstrating that she possesses the competence, rationality, and focus that are required to participate in what is still very much an old boys’ club.

Constraints on female politicians are frequently up for discussion in the contemporary United States, amongst voters, analysts, pundits, and policy makers alike. Many voters on both sides of the aisle can agree that female candidates as ideologically distinct as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have faced extra obstacles to elected office by virtue of their gender and expectations of femininity and skepticism of a woman’s qualifications, even before she has the chance to demonstrate them. Ernst’s platform is inconsistent with contemporary feminisms, but her ad offers an intervention into particular dominant, masculinist logics operating in Congress, providing a critique that might leave space for much more radical interpretation and citation than Ernst could have ever intended. While I won’t join Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin in giving my endorsement to Ernst, I do applaud her willingness to run this ad – she shows that women in politics don’t need to be ‘ballsy’ to be brave.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Rushing to Judgment: Rush Limbaugh, Bullying, and the Appropriation of Victimhood

This guest post was authored by Antonio Golan, a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Public Culture at Indiana University.

Earlier this month Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that “would have allowed business owners to claim their religious beliefs as legal justification for refusing to serve same-sex couples or any other prospective customer.” Opposition to the bill came not only from the LGBT community and its supporters, but also from a seemingly unlikely source: corporate America. Behind this opposition is the public-relations nightmare that would potentially come along with doing high-profile business in a state with sexuality/gender-based Jim Crow laws. The National Football League, for example, felt compelled to come out against the law, and it has been speculated that they might move the 2014 Super Bowl out of Arizona if it were to pass (this threat is given certain weight by the fact that the NFL already did this back when the state refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday). The potential economic fallout from a corporate boycott of Arizona generated widespread rejection for all corners of the political spectrum, including some of the Republicans who actually voted for the bill (and then turned around and asked Brewer to veto it).

But where some conservatives saw a law that was impractical and economically detrimental (at best), Rush Limbaugh had a different take:

The governor of Arizona is being bullied. She is being bullied by the homosexual lobby in Arizona, and elsewhere. She is being bullied by the nationwide drive-by media. She is being bullied by certain elements of corporate America… in order to advance the gay agenda. I guess in that circumstance, bullying is admirable. In fact this kind of bullying is honorable.

It should be noted that Limbaugh, and many on the right (I’m looking at you Brit Hume), have a history of decrying America’s feminization and portraying manliness as something of an endangered species. Within this context, many have labeled anti-bullying activists as overprotective and accused them of making children soft, while claiming that being teased and picked on is simply a part of growing up. Note for example, the somewhat less-sensitive attitude toward bullying that Limbaugh took when Mitt Romney was accused of bullying a high school classmate who “could’ve been gay”:

You had long hair in 1965, you were gonna get razzed. It didn’t matter. They weren’t gonna think you were in the Beatles.  If you had long hair in 1965, you were gonna get made fun of. See, 1965’s a great year; bullying was legal.

In labeling Brewer a bullying victim, Limbaugh is pointing to the supposed hypocrisy of those who label masculine experiences as “bullying,” while never acknowledging their own aggressive and coercive behavior. He is not only denying the victimization of the LGBT community, but actually appropriating its victimhood. For Limbaugh, the real victims aren’t the LGBT community, but rather those who are forced to treat them as equals.

The reason we should take notice of this (other than obvious), is that it is an example of a rhetorical maneuver often employed by those seeking to bring social change to a halt. We see it in accusations of reverse racism, in lamentations over the death of masculinity, in claims that it is no longer okay to speak English in the United States… (the list goes on). It isn’t enough to deny the victimhood of the oppressed, but rather the perpetrators must themselves take on the role of victims.

It should also be noted that this type of rhetoric has a rich history: Jews were a threat to Germany; black men were sexual threats to white women; Indians were a threat to civilization… (once again, the list goes on). Taking on the role of victim serves to justify the violence (broadly understood) that the oppressor enacts on the oppressed. Through the appropriation of victimhood, normally unacceptable treatment of certain people becomes, not only defensible, but the natural response to a threat.

What Limbaugh fails to acknowledge, however, is that when citizens put pressure on elected officials, it isn’t bullying, just democracy. More importantly, elected officials have more power than citizens, whereas bullying is predicated on the perpetrator having more power than his/her victim(s)—something that establishes an important link between bullying and more recognizable forms of social injustice.

While people like Limbaugh would have us reduce forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia to mere feelings of dislike, in reality, much like bullying, they are deeply rooted in power imbalances. Indeed, what are racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia if not forms of bullying (sometimes on a grand scale)? As the Jonathan Martin scandal reveals, bullying is often intertwined with these social injustices (in his case class and race). Further, we can see some parallels between Richie Incognito’s (the man who bullied Jonathan Martin) response to the accusations of bullying and those who, like Limbaugh, seek to appropriate the victimhood of those that suffer racism, classism, homophobia, and sexism. In a slew of Twitter rants, Incognito not only denied that his behavior constituted bullying, but actually began to portray himself as the victim in the whole ordeal. These responses often took an aggressive tone that revealed them to be an extension of the bullying Martin had already endured.

Admittedly, Rush Limbaugh is on the fringe of the political spectrum (note that even Bill O’Reilly has distanced himself from Limbaugh). Yet he often employs rhetorical moves that are found elsewhere in society. Thinking about social injustices through the lens of bullying might allow us to see old problems in a new light, and maybe even reveal new and more effective ways to deal them. If we were to do this, a good first step would be recognizing the appropriation of victimhood as a rhetorical maneuver employed by bullies as part of their bullying.


Filed under Uncategorized