Playing the Michelle card: the US elections and the Smurfette Principle

Article @ Anticapitalist Initiative, published on 5 September 2012

If anything is to be said about the upcoming US elections is that it has put the question of gender equality back on the map – even if by accident. And this, in fact, was truer in Michelle Obama’s address to the national Democrat convention, than in Todd Akin’s appalling blunders in human anatomy.

We live in a society that, despite its progress, still discriminates against women (the recent discussions on the nature of rape illustrate this point). Women thus need to be, not only more vocal, but also more visible in all forms and means of media. However, it is also true that a lot of the women we see, hear, and follow, are not there out of merit alone, but also (and sometimes, primarily) as a result of political strategy. They are a token, a trope, an embodiment of the Smurfette Principle. More often than not, they are a deviation from the default and not a full-bodied individual. This is highly problematic in a world that argues women can have it all, but even more so in a political campaign that sets itself the task to deliver opportunities to everyone.

According to political commentators galore, Michelle Obama’s speech has given the Republicans their coup de grâce. But what did she actually do? Were her speech and perspective on American politics any different from her husband’s, or her fellow Democratic delegates? Did she pinpoint any particular policies that she will make sure to be enforced once her husband (ah, the irony writes itself) gets into office for another term? No. The reason why her speech was so iconic (as far as icons can go in our postmodern world) is because Michelle Obama is a woman. A black one at that. And that a black woman delivers a more than pedestrian speech is unfortunately rare and therefore remarkable in this old world.

But what is particularly wrong in that, you might ask. There is nothing abhorrently wicked with a bit of positive discrimination (which is ultimately what Mrs Obama’s success played on). Well, actually there is. The drawback of using women as political tools is that it reinforces the narrative according to which women are, well, tools, and not politicians in their own right. The reason why the media picked up on Sarah Palin, both in the positive as in the negative sense, was that she was the “woman-candidate”. She was the soccer-mum, the sexy firebrand. Yet, the problem does not lie in a media that likes to engender its scoops (even though that is problematic in itself). What the press was picking up on was the very reality of our politics, nay, of our society. That is: that women are rarely in any position of power, and when so, they must be either the “vagined” version of a specific man (Mrs Clinton and Mrs Obama come to mind), or a super feminine version of a politician, someone to make the picture pretty, a back-up (i.e.: Mrs Palin). This rather obvious discourse in our political sphere is both reproduced, as created, by forms of entertainment.

In most of postmodern mainstream literature, film and media, women are awarded one of two roles: the love interest (usually overlapping the deviation from the default principle, in which Lola Bunny is really just a pink version of Bugs Bunny), or the sidekick (typically some kind of inconspicuous, smart-ass kind of girl, that can often turn into a subdued love-interest too, if the audience likes her too much). As surprising as it might seem, stories as different as Harry Potter, Inception, The Big Bang Theory and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all share this characteristic.

This idea that women are auxiliary elements is pervasive throughout our culture. It has subliminally challenged a lot of liberal feminists, who pertained that in order to reach gender equality all we need is to break some glass ceilings and boost the number of women in parliament. Our children (and our adults) are constantly bombarded with the idea that there are male characters that we can all relate to, and that there are female characters that we can only relate to if we are women, or if we are to see them as a buttress for a man. The average public figure is, if a male defined by his name, and if a female defined by her role (e.g.: mother, wife, assistant, vessel of sexual relief). As if the world was divided into 50% human males and 50% female objects. And that is exactly what our culture makes of women – be it in the form of Hermione, be in the form of Michelle Obama – it objectifies women and makes them subsequently subjective to the existence of men.

Until this paradigm is shifted, until a woman delivering a speech at a national convention is nothing more than normal (and thus no longer a political manoeuvre), the feminist struggle has a long way to go.