Today we begin discussing our fourth book club selection, Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women. Traister’s been writing consistently insightful pieces on gender and politics for Salon since 2003, and this book is both a synthesis of her comprehensive election coverage and a personal account of her response to what she witnessed on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin. We’ll have more posts about the book later in the week, but for now, Lindsay and Mia share their initial responses.
Lindsay: So, Mia, having just finished Rebecca Traister’s terrific Big Girls Don’t Cry and becoming all critical of my 2008 self (it feels like ages ago!), I must ask: were you a Hillary supporter? And if not, has this book made you all conflicted about why you weren’t?
Mia: I’m actually going to abstain from saying which candidates I’ve supported, on the grounds that I’m a journalist (believe it or not!) and have got some journalism ethics to uphold. However, I will say that since reading Traister’s book, I’ve realized how much the sexist media narrative about Hillary became THE media narrative about Hillary. I mean, whether or not you’re the kind of person who roots for the cold-hearted bitch, it’s hard to deny that Hillary was characterized as a cold-hearted bitch, and that perceived lack of compassion definitely took over her public image. Now, I’m sort of like, “Duh. Where were the conversations about policy? Did most voters even know what Hillary stood for?”
Lindsay: Ooh, yes, I forgot to mention that over the course of this discussion I will also abstain from talking about which candidates I’ve supported, because I too am a journalist (as in “livejournalist”). But suffice to say, my biggest emotional response to this book came from realizing, basically for the first time, how complicitly I bought into the Hillary media narrative too. I had issues with her policies and voting record, but I feel like I was also influenced by what Traister admits to having been influenced by too: spin. And more specifically, the notion that during her candidacy Hillary seemed “practically mechanical, someone who didn’t have anything to do with me or my women’s movement.” Or, as Traister puts it more succinctly, “Darth Vader.” For the sake of our readers, shall we sum up Traister’s personal journey from Hillary skeptic to supporter?
Mia: Sure. Super condensed version: Traister starts her election journey as a supporter of John Edwards, who she – and, I think, many others – characterizes as the women’s candidate. So suave! But mostly, so (relatively) progressive. Traister initially resists Clinton, for the reasons you just outlined, but as she begins to follow the candidates and sees them speak and interviews them, she starts to see more of Clinton’s humanity. And then, of course, Edwards is out, and she has to choose between Obama and Clinton, who, she begins to realize, are politically pretty similar.
Lindsay: Yep, and I’ll add that a big turning point in Traister’s personal election narrative (over the course of the book she so swiftly navigates between her own impressions and the larger implications of what the American public was thinking; personal and political!) was after Hillary won the primary in New Hampshire. It seems like she was ultimately driven to choose Hillary over Obama not so much because of “Clinton’s humanity,” but because of the way she had been treated by the media and people around her. The weird, sexist rhetoric lobbed against Clinton seemed less to have to do with Hillary herself and more to do with the notion that she was a woman. And while most of the sexism wasn’t quite as overt, can you believe that men wore t-shirts to her rallies that said “Iron My Shirt”? Get real.
Mia: There’s this great quote from Nora Ephron in the book, where, addressing an audience of women, Ephron says, “Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you.” So, you’re right: for as much as seeing Hillary as a real person with real emotions was powerful for Traister, more important was seeing how people refused to treat Hillary as a person worthy of any respect. Which definitely reflects a societal attitude towards women in power. And obviously a lot of women are going to take that personally and vote accordingly. Though I think the media sort of simplified that reaction to mean that women will vote for a woman simply because she’s a woman.
Lindsay: Absolutely. Speaking of media simplification, so much of this book is about how quick and superficial news cycles are these days — how little time there is for recognizing and analyzing historical moments as they happen. Like, on the night of Hillary’s win in New Hampshire, you could see pundits sensationalizing all the elements and imagery of the night (dramatization: “here’s the exact word in here speech where her voice quavered and her eyes brimmed with steely robot tears!”), but there was one thing that staggeringly few people were even saying aloud: the fact that for the first time in American history, a woman had won a presidential primary. Somehow the significance of that got completely glossed over.
Mia: I want to note that, somewhat ironically, I cried so many times while reading this book (like, there were tears in my eyes by the third page), including when I read about Hillary winning the primary, because I’m such a sucker for moments of historical significance for underprivileged groups and/or women.
Lindsay: While I didn’t cry, I was moved to write in my copy’s margins such exclamations as “Oof!” “Ugh!” and “Wow.” Which is basically my equivalent of crying. In print, and in real life.
Mia: Internet speak IRL! Speaking of the Internet, one aspect of this book that I naturally loved was how much credence Traister gives to online feminists. This is one of the first books I’ve read that name-drops not only the Greats, like Gloria Steinem, but also MY Greats (aka the Internet’s Greats), like Jessica Valenti and Melissa McEwan. And seeing them quoted so much was like, “Wow. Traister really gets it. She knows where feminism is going and where the conversations are happening.”
Lindsay: Yeah, I’ll agree that the amount of space she devoted to the feminist blogosphere was really heartening – she was validating something that a lot of older feminists seem intent on brushing off. I valued Traister’s generational perspective in that she doesn’t belong to either group. She was 34 when she wrote this book: old enough to be knowledgable about the Internet (she’s been writing for Salon for almost a decade so, naturally), but she’s also old enough to remember life and feminism before it. So I found her gentle criticisms of The Blogging Life to be really valuable as well.
Mia: Right. Like, she criticizes bloggers and the Internet in general for having a short attention span. But she also recognizes that many bloggers aren’t making a lot of money from it and have other jobs that prevent them from doing in-depth research.
Lindsay: Wait, say that again? I got distracted because I was tweeting @justinbieber. #feverish
Mia: We’re just yucking it up over here! Actually though, this is a good segway to talk about how the 2008 election allowed a wide audience to finally see that feminists have a sense of humor. I mean, 2008 had to have been the first time in a long time that so many people were loving “Saturday Night Live.” And it was because the show had these amazing female cast members who were mocking Hillary Clinton (Amy Poehler) and Sarah Palin (Tiny Fey) from a very feminist perspective. It wasn’t like, “Oh let’s make fun of Gerald Ford for tripping all the time.” It was an actual critique of the very gendered way that the media and the American public were trying to pull these women down:
FEY/PALIN: Stop photoshopping my head on sexy bikini pictures!
POEHLER/CLINTON: And stop saying I have cankles…
FEY/PALIN: Reporters and commentators, stop using words that diminish us, like “pretty,” “attractive,” “beautiful”…
POEHLER/CLINTON: “Harpy,” “shrew,” “boner-shrinker.”
Lindsay: Yeah, I also loved Traister’s analysis of that Amy Poehler Sarah Palin rap – that Poehler not only performed in front of the real Sarah Palin but while nine months pregnant and “just fifty-five years after Lucille Ball’s pregnancy could not even be mentioned” on television. Once again, it’s unfortunate how sometimes the historical weight of little moments like that can pass us by. Still, this brings us unavoidably to Palin, a woman that we are almost as reluctant to have to discuss as Traister seemed to be.
Mia: I was a little bored by the Palin sections of the book, not because they were badly written, but because we’re still hearing so much about Palin that I didn’t really require a refresher. And that’s sort of sad to me – that Palin, who I saw on a TLC show recently spearing a fish, is getting more legitimate media attention than Hillary Clinton, who’s, like, the secretary of state and who’s championing really important women’s issues. And, honestly, I’m tired of the “Is Palin a feminist?” debate. Because she’s not, though someone in the book makes an interesting point that, Palin could have been one of us. I mean, she’s a strong woman in a leadership position who knows how to galvanize women. Wouldn’t it be great if she could use that ability to implement policy that actually helps women?
Lindsay: Well, yeah. But I liked that Traister offered the helpful reminder that while we certainly shouldn’t feel like we should support Palin just because she’s a woman, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t defend her when people say sexist things about her. Though believe me, sometimes that’s a hard thing to remember. I have to say, too, while I felt very empowered about the future reading Traister’s acclaim for feminist bloggers, there was something dampening about the fact that she had to end on such an ominous note, with the dominion of the Mama Grizzlies looming on the horizon like a sinister, abortion-hating Armada. How did you end up feeling about the future of feminist representation in politics after reading this?
Mia: What stuck out to me at the end of the book more than the ominous Mama Grizzly reference, was a conversation Traister had with Gloria Steinem, post-election, in which Steinem says about Hillary, “I’ve always known she wouldn’t win.” Which is sort of a crushing sentiment to hear from one of the major voices of mainstream feminism. But Traister chalks it up to a generational difference – Steinem’s seen a lot, and she’s surely been let down so many times that she’s become a little jaded. Whereas someone like Traister – and like you and I – is still hopeful. And she concludes that, at the very least, we can hope that women in the future will be surprised that a female presidential candidate provoked such passionate hatred simply for being female.
Lindsay: Yes! I have hope too! And I also get the feeling that we’re only just scratching the surface of this book. So much left to discuss later in the week! So much more Steinem!
Mia: Yes! And there are so many excellent tidbits in this book that I assume won’t be topical to our posts this week, so I’ll just say them now: People have been declaring feminism dead at least since 1919! John McCain is grumpy! One of the entries in the index reads, “men: Hillary hated by”! Get ready, Canoneers: this week, we’re partying like it’s 2008!