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  This January, Paul Wolfowitz, serving as President of the World Bank, visited a mosque in Turkey.

He must not have anticipated taking off his shoes: both of his socks had prodigious holes in them. Wolfowitz was roundly mocked by liberal media portals, with blogger after blogger posting the picture of his socks, many commenting about how he was previously caught spitting on his hands to groom his hair — with only a few bothering to politicize their message by asking why a man of his station was so ignorant of religious custom as to not have prepared fresh socks for the mosque visit.

People expect certain levels of decorum from conservatives, after all.

Yet male elites on the Left are expected to move in the other direction: to dress down to show their resonance with the “common man.” Wrinkled shirts. Shaggy Sweaters. Casual indifference.

That resonance, no matter how forced, comes at the price of separating them from their female peers who pay a price whether they conform to notions of pretty or not, but doubly so, if “not.”

   
   

Sadomasochism and the Political Beauty Pageant

By Richard Leader

Political humor in the United States is synonymous with sadomasochism. Truth be told, almost all of our humor subscribes to one core belief: we can find happiness in the suffering of others. This paradigm fuels everything from our radio shock-jocks to our supposedly “family-friendly” fare: America’s Funniest Home Videos has been adding public insult to injury for going on two decades now. As a society, we enjoy seeing the contrast between winners and losers. That difference, despite its starkness, is something we view as funny. The higher the “tops” and the lower the “bottoms” in a given scenario, the more entertaining we as a people seem to find it. So it should come as no surprise that internet galleries of political cartoons contain pictures of donkeys and elephants raping one another for our amusement: you get to pick the victim of your choice.


Image from Tripias.com

While such imagery is certainly on the extreme side, it is different only in degree from the genre’s more genteel efforts. There, the anthropomorphic mascots engage in more mundane forms of violence—forms that have become so normalized that they no longer register in our minds as violence. Sometimes, as if to prevent just that sort of realization, the backdrop of professionalized boxing is used to remind us that it is a civilized battle governed by rules and masculine codes of honor. A further typology focuses precisely on the moment of victory, with one animal looming over the battered body of its rival.

In all cases, the same themes are expressed. The act of rape merely takes the ideal of dominance to the most severe conclusion that the system will permit. Death is not an option: to show one of the animals (and its corresponding party) dead on the battlefield would cause viewers to see the system as fragile, rather than inevitable. Rape thus becomes the worst-case scenario of choice for artists wishing to re-affirm our values of dominance and submission. Improper as the depiction of sexualized violence might be for “polite company,” such imagery is nevertheless quite honest about our political beliefs.

The supposed beauty of the American two-party-system—and sadomasochistic sex for that matter—is that while dominance and submission are inherent aspects of society, and that system itself is beyond reproach, at least power roles can sometimes be exchanged. As such, it follows that our political humor is often pornographic. Whether patently obscene or filled with sly innuendo designed for mainstream venues, both methods serve to protect an inviolate two-party system.

Rather than Democrats and Republicans, however, I speak of “men” and “women.” These images seek to enshrine male power across the political spectrum. Only on the most superficial levels are those donkeys and elephants attacking each other: women are the proverbial grass being trampled underneath. Rape is something that is done to women. Their very nature—according to man, his science, and his religion—is defined by their penetrability. Men can be raped, a form of violence perpetrated exclusively by other males, but in being so they become women of a sort, defined by their vulnerability.

Despite the donkeys and elephants of the cartoons being rendered “politely” without genitalia, we presume that they are male. Men are the default agents in our society and our iconography reinforces that masculine standard. The addition of a pink bow is the preferred method of identifying a subordinate character (from Minnie Mouse to Ms. Pac-Man); rape can accomplish the same transformation. Although the gender of the cartoon animals might be in flux, the identities of their authors and readers are not.

The grim misogyny of this humor escapes notice because women are ostensibly absent from the conflicts the cartoons present: it is the men of the two parties jockeying for position, just as it is competing male interests and egos at stake. A male Democrat is equally as likely to post a picture on his website of a donkey being raped as an elephant. After Bush was victorious in the 2004 election, a blogger named Arthur Guray placed such an image on his website at Tripias.com, claiming that he sure felt “like the donkey.” Rape is much more easily a metaphor for men: they are able to freely take liberties with the meaning of the word, not fearing it in their own lives. Women, despite a physical reality for both political parties, are not seen the primary audience for the cartoons or the victorious feelings of entitlement they are intended to evoke. Win or lose, it is a man’s game to relish—and female donkeys and elephants do not make for convincing rapists.

When images of women are included in political humor, they exist as scorekeeping tokens in the clashes between men. Those clashes, despite their ferocity, are ultimately apolitical in the conventional sense of feuding donkeys and elephants. While imagery of Hillary Clinton is invariably malicious, it is rarely seen as sexist given that her presence in such discourse is seen as rational: she “asked for it” by gaining power, even though no man would be attacked in precisely the same ways. As the men of the Left have refused to acknowledge that sexist depictions of Clinton are in fact sexist—and not just part of the political game, brutal in any case, for anyone—caricatures of Clinton have become a covenant between the men of both American parties.

That same covenant exists even without a “rational” justification for the roasting of a woman as a public figure. When Maxim magazine printed a fabricated image of George Bush’s daughters in a state of undress as an “April fool,” one would be hard-pressed to decode any political meaning that has anything to do with donkeys or elephants. James Heindery, then Maxim’s executive editor, tried positioning his prank as a political one, claiming that the women’s presence on their father’s campaign trail made them “fair game” as satire. And yet that game, the eternal competition between the two parties, was actually suspended for a brief time by the image: after all, the only two Republicans harmed by the stunt were Jenna and Barbara Bush. Men on both sides of the aisle happily lined up to buy copies of the magazine.

One of the more revealing humor pieces involves a series of portraits divided into two sections: the likenesses of 18 women, nine to a side, are arranged into pyramids under the headings of Democrat and Republican. The joke is simple: Republican women are more attractive. Yet it is apparent that the contest is not between women, but men, and Republicans win the battle of “our women” versus “their women.” In fact, one version of the image, rather than taking the time to even name the parties, actually states “ours” and “theirs” in plain terms. In the momentary world of the joke, it is the Democratic men who lose to their male peers. In the real world, however, it is all women who lose. The political beauty pageant that the humor piece assembles, much like any number of pageants that involve actual stages and swimwear, does few favors for the women crowned victorious. The real winners, after all, are men.

The women chosen as the property of Republican men are a motley group. Actors Bo Derek and Janine Turner top their pyramid, followed by Laura Bush, columnists like Peggy Noonan, and a variety of pundits, including Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter. The women under Democratic ownership are even more varied: Barbara Streisand and Helen Thomas form an unlikely pair at the top of their pyramid. Hillary Clinton, Teresa Kerry, and Madeleine Albright are positioned in the middle, with Janet Reno, Andrea Dworkin, Nancy Pelosi, and Susan Estrich serving as the base. While the portraits of the pageant winners are all headshots taken from publicity materials, the losers are mostly depicted in stills from civic appearances or debates, emphatically speaking under the harsh glare of fluorescent lights. The comparison attempts to tell but one truth: women are attractive only if they keep their mouths shut.

Although the women placed in the Republican box might be victorious, it is a hollow one. It is readily apparent to anyone, even without a firm grasp on American politics, that they are a far less accomplished group than their competition. Their trophy status both undercuts the things that they have achieved while allowing men—of all political stripes—to resent them at the same time for their success, defined by their celebrity, meager as it might be in some cases.

Nevertheless, the women in the Democratic section are also hated by all men. Susan Estrich now works for FOX News and liberal men enjoy nothing more than attacking her in the most rapacious ways for “selling out.” She might now have a wider audience for her own views, ostensibly unchanged, an argument that many of those finger-pointing men certainly use—especially when they take money from big-businesses such as the sex industry to finance their own blogging careers. That argument is a harder sale for a woman to make. Few liberals have any love for Janet Reno or Madeleine Albright, and Hillary Clinton regularly generates levels of disgust that few mortals have heretofore achieved. While a good number of men on the Far Left justify their seething hatred of her by her waffling on the war in Iraq, their contempt for her is inversely proportional to their love for her husband, who is—despite his own hawkishness—endlessly celebrated by the same crowd for his exploits as a “pimp.”

That, of course, brings us to Andrea Dworkin. She was a woman that most liberal men, in their ignorance, saw as a conservative or even fundamentalist who was opposed to “free speech.” And yet here she is, presented as if she were someone—or rather, some thing—that Democrats should be embarrassed of being connected to, rather than the other way around. Not only was Dworkin never the shame of the Democrats, neither was she their flunky: she once wrote an open letter, “Dear Bill and Hillary,” condemning the actions of both. She did the unpopular thing in those times and rejected both sides. Instead, she aligned herself with Monica Lewinsky, a woman whose own physicality, like Dworkin’s, is routinely mocked by liberal men, even a decade after her political relevance.

In her 1983 Rightwing Women, Dworkin accused Democratic men of purposely failing to protect abortion rights out of their own selfishness, those men being bitter that feminists had abandoned the so-called sexual revolution. She wrote, “When feminist women have lost legal abortion altogether, leftist men expect them back—begging for help, properly chastened, ready to make a deal, ready to spread their legs again. On the Left, women will have abortion on male terms, as part of sexual liberation, or women will not have abortion except at risk of death.”

The beauty pageant image found a quick home on many Republican websites, blogs, and internet forums, where it was triumphantly displayed. It can also be found on the homepage of Neal Boortz, a midlevel radio personality and libertarian. Although Boortz lacks direct ties to either party, and might not be on board with the Moral Majority, he makes it fairly clear who he sees as beneath him: “People who vote Democrat have generally abandoned their adult responsibilities to manage their own lives and to live without having to plunder the pockets of others.”

Libertarians see themselves as the quintessential “tops” in a sadomasochistic system, their inherent superiority rendering them impervious to the system’s dangers and imperfections. While Boortz might not have a personal stake in the battle between Republican and Democratic men over which side has the hotter chicks, he is game for it as long as someone is losing. Those losers exist for his personal entertainment. His website has a section entitled “Neal’s favorite links” and a hyperlink to a voyeuristic picture of a woman’s chest (it is unclear if the woman knew she was being photographed) is actually listed before his link to the U.S. Constitution.

The pageant also has a place on non-aligned websites such as About.com’s “political humor” section, hosted by Daniel Kurtzman. He also includes a copy of the Maxim “Bush Twins” image in his inventory of jokes. As the service is intended to reach men of both political parties, vicious attacks against both are permitted for the site, as a whole, to maintain parity. Men, as a gender, err on the side of viciousness. In American politics, this holds especially true for heterosexual white men as there is no losing: ultimately, both parties satisfy our needs, if not our desires. “Parity,” for About.com, means riding the coattails of that viciousness into more visitors and advertising dollars for itself.

In internet forum arguments over the “results” of the pageant, both sides were aware of its arbitrary construction: conventionally attractive women can be summoned from anywhere to fulfill a male requirement; these days, they can even be generated by computer software. Instead, men took the pageant as license to post further images. Those intended to mock Condoleezza Rice were especially popular, self-described liberal men finding her a safe target for the expression of their own sexism and racism. Other men claimed that the Democratic Party has strong ties to the pornographic industry, something thought to be to its credit, hinting that there are certainly attractive enough women to be found there.

This sort of behavior is not limited to the troglodytes of various underground forums, tucked away in the dark recesses of the internet. Sometimes it makes the front page: JerseyGOP.com has a “Republican BABE of the Week” feature. Starting with Bo Derek in 2002, about eighty other women have been profiled since that time. One babe is singled out, however. They decided to renege on the award they gave to Ashley Judd. Rather than eliminating any presence of her on the website, her name embarrassingly remains with a strikethrough, presumably in retaliation for her feminist affiliations. She was part of Ms. Magazine’s “This is what a feminist looks like” campaign, one that some feminists found problematic in that it potentially created a beauty contest of its own in its attempt to combat unflattering stereotypes.

While JerseyGOP.com no longer links to the page they created in Judd’s honor, it still exists and can be found through search engines. Her reward for being a loyal Republican—or so they thought—was a gallery filled with images of her in various states of undress. Part of Judd’s Republican allure, in their eyes, had been a quote declaring that she does not “go anywhere without the Bible,” a message they saw no irony in displaying when constructing a virtual centerfold for her. This is how they treat the women they like. Strikethrough notwithstanding, they treat the women they hate exactly the same way. Just as Neal Boortz did with his website, the JerseyGOP.com gallery of Ashley Judd images also contains a hyperlink to the text of the U.S. Constitution.

If women are the choice ingredient in the political food fights of white men, the men who supply those women in bulk enjoy an especially lucrative position. A calendar entitled “Babes Against Bush” was unveiled shortly before the 2004 U.S. election. It was a product of one David Livingstone, a freelance writer who evidently specializes more in generating publicity for himself than writing. Livingstone conscripted his young girlfriend into posing for it, along with a variety of hired professionals.

The stunt scored the couple interviews on various cable news networks, metropolitan newspapers, and even a plug by Peter Rothburg at The Nation, who said it was a must-buy for the “political gift giver.” In a feature at Salon.com, Livingstone claims that his bid for attention is backed by feminism: he intones, as the Babes’ “spokesman,” that a group “primarily consisting of women” (emphasis original) speaking up about an issue sets “hordes of button-down establishment pundits” on edge. Only the words were his and the bodies were theirs.

This required a Republican counterattack and thus a much more modest Babes for Bush group was formed, along with its own publicity materials. While both organizations have long since abandoned their websites, “speaking up” only being useful when one is in the limelight and raking in money, the way that women’s bodies were lined up and marshaled into action by men speaks volumes. Representatives of both the mainstream media and even progressive publications such as The Nation declined to acknowledge that such treatments were sexist.

Although men on the Left sometimes invoke the specter of sexism when pointing fingers at their male rivals on the Right (just as American conservatives enjoy doing the same at their rivals in the Middle East), it is clear that sexism, as such, only exists outside of the political game. So long as the fight is between Elephants and Donkeys, and not humans in all of their diversity, sexism momentarily ceases to exist—as women themselves momentarily cease to exist. In the world of the food fight, where people are only extensions of longstanding political parties, differences are ignored in favor of the white male standard that the animal mascots represent.

An image of a donkey being beaten, raped, or even lynched cannot be seen as sexist or racist as such violence is not a politicized part of the white male experience. By “cannot,” I more fully mean that white men will not allow or permit such imagery to be seen as sexist or racist. As the gendered status of the animal mascots is ever mutable, representing everyone and yet no one, the transition from one state to the next is governed by those in power.

The humorous possibilities of rape can be safely explored because the animals are decidedly not women (a group that then loses any standing to object) and are much closer in form to being white men: that is, people who view themselves as having the mental fortitude to accept such renderings of rape as merely flavorful commentary. Yet, it is precisely because women and minority men are, in fact, included under the aegis of the political mascots that white males do not attack the images as being “misandrist” or “reverse-racist.”

Just as Condoleezza Rice has become a safe target for abuse by people who would not normally characterize themselves as sexists or racists, the ambiguous gender of the party mascots allows many to enjoy rape humor that they might object to under other circumstances. Some progressive websites offer an image, sometimes in support of the Green Party, where each animal is shown gleefully raping its counterpart. The headline reads, “Same F**king Difference.”

While some might say the cartoon only illustrates a pun (it is interesting that the text required self-censoring and yet the image did not), it is quite clear that the animals being penetrated are not nearly as happy as those on top, each with a carefully crafted smile. Heterosexual men experience so much anxiety about the respective pleasures of intercourse that they need an entire medium, pornography, to convince them that women enjoy it to the point of writhing and screaming, pain and pleasure being synonymous for females. The image of the two parties raping one another betrays that anxiety.

Cartoons of the Democrat and Republican mascots raping one another are hardly commonplace. Even so, it is apparent that resistance to them for the sake of decorum is ever weakening. In his report on the 2004 Republican convention for Belief.net, Steve Waldman writes of finding a button that asked viewers to “Keep Bush on Top.” An elephant was shown raping a donkey. This, he found next to another button proclaiming “Christians for Bush.” Further merchandise revisited the political beauty pageant, with “Beauty and the Beast” emblazoned next to images of Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton.

While the rape imagery is still a fringe element in political discourse, the thoughts and feelings that inspire it are not. We are a culture that revels in the celebration of dominance. We justify it to ourselves in different ways. For some, this means down-home religion and its strict rules of stewardship over God’s creation, with hierarchies inscribed in eternity. For others, it means ivory tower post-modernism and an endless obsession with the possibilities of performing gender, the realities of life being an inside joke known only to their cabal.

All these solutions are palliative. Whether one believes that the meek shall inherit the earth or that submission itself is a form of power (provided one understands the rules of the game), both are uneasy with revealing the truth about their fealty to a system of dominance. Honesty comes with great difficulty. After all, only a complete and utter sociopath could look upon another person and demand their subordination. The average sociopath—the average person—has a much easier time with cartoon animals.

 

 
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