Powerful Women in Politics
By Wil Forbis
March 5th, 2020
Fair warning folks: I started writing this piece which looks at female candidates in the current Democratic primary in late Feb. By the time I finished and published it, they'd all dropped out. That said, I think this article still contains great wisdom.
How does one examine and analyze the society in which they live? How does one come to understand the complex interplay between issues of wealth, race, gender and politics that comprise the modern zeitgeist? Many people find this to be a long and arduous process. They compile data, track trends, read polls and attempt to boil that information down into a meaningful statement that can be said to capture the essence of the current moment.
I have an easier solution: Look at comic book movies. Like the the crystal waters of a glistening pond they reflect our current tribulations and triumphs back at us. Do we live in an era threatened by runaway technology and automation? According to Iron Man we do. Are long firm political and cultural structures disintegrating and being replaced with anti-establishment fervor? That's what Joker argued. Have we realized that on issues of racism and poverty we have miles to go? So says Black Panther.
What comic book movies have been saying recently is that we are in an era of powerful women. The gauntlet was thrown down on this #metoo point in 2017 with the success of Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot as the titular DC Comics character. Marvel Studios responded with the Captain Marvel film starring Brie Larson and will soon up the game with a Black Widow movie starring Scarlett Johansson as the same super spy we've seen in several Avengers films.
The female heroines in these films embody power in by fitting into a particular archetype. They are strong and agile (as are all most superheroes) but also confident without being cocky and entirely un-intimidated by their male peers (in fact, one could fairly say they probably consider themselves a bit superior.)
These movies are often touted as evidence for the rise of a kind of corporate-embraced feminism. Of course, one can immediately wonder about this. Does making movies that hew closely to formula designed to entertain teenage boys and then swapping out the gender of the main protagonist really designate a meaningful change? In the end, isn't it simply adding a bit of eye candy to all the other stuff - explosions, spaceships, spy gadgets - designed to capture male viewers' interest? Are these movies women want to see?
I don't know the answers to these question but I'll leave them hanging there because I like stirring things up.
Of course, the desire of some is not that we get powerful women only on film but that we get them in real life too, particularly in the realm of politics and---even more specifically---in the field of candidates the Democratic party is offering to defeat Donald Trump. The current contenders are Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klochubar, neither of whom is polling well. We should also consider Kamala Harris even though she dropped out of the race a while back. Do any of them present as powerful women*?
* What about Tulsi Gabbard, you say? Well, I'll discuss her towards the end, but it's fairly obvious she's not really a contender.
Let's hang on to that question for a bit and examine what we really mean by "powerful", particularly as it pertains to politics. What does it mean to be a powerful politician? Clearly, one has to capture the public imagination in some manner. Donald Trump is the most recent politician to do this, but recents examples would also include Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. In their prime they had a particular kind of... let's call it charisma that stirred adulation in their fans (and intense animosity from their detractors.) George W. Bush, I would argue, never really had it. Neither did his chief competitors, Al Gore and John Kerry.
Beyond charisma, politicians need to be taken seriously. When they say they will do something, they must be believed*. It must be obvious that they have the force-of-will and strength necessary to enact their proposals. They need to be formidable.
* There are some caveats to this. Donald Trump said he would build a wall (and Mexico would pay for it) and that hasn't happened, but he seems to have suffered little for it. But I would argue that what he was really saying is "I will fight hard on the issue of immigration," which he has done, to the great dismay of his foes. Similarly, I'd argue that when Bernie Sanders says he will create a system of Medicare for All (almost an impossibility while Republicans control the Senate as they likely will for years) he's really saying, "I will fight hard on the issue of lowering health costs." One has to parse out what is really being said in these statements.
But wait---what does formidable mean? Well, a couple things. I'm going to go off on a tangent here and argue that part of presenting as formidable is something that has remained unchanged over eons of man's evolution; it's the appearance of physical strength. When choosing between two or more politicians, the one who is tallest, who appears the healthiest, who has some muscle on his frame, who possesses endless amounts of energy will appear to dominate.
In this realm, female political candidates are clearly at a disadvantage. Few of them can appear to dominate over a male opponent*. In the current democratic primaries I think Warren, the quickest thinking of the bunch, suffers from appearing somewhat hunched over as well as sounding continually anxious. Klochubar suffers from a lack of height and an inability to dominate a conversation. I'd argue Harris, who stood tall with her shoulders back, was the one who, at least initially, best captured that Wonder Woman vibe. (Exactly what went wrong with her campaign could be a book - and likely will be.)
* It can happen though. In recent debates Elizabeth Warren earned accolades for vociferously denouncing Micheal Bloomberg's misogyny but I'd argue she did the most damage by simply being taller than him. He looked like a munchkin. (See damning photo here:)
(I should note that how one reacts to these perceptions can vary---female voters might see a Sanders attacking Warren and be more likely to support her against this oppression.)
Of course, pure physicality can't simply be the only explanation. Politics is a sport famously dominated by old men. If it was all about strength it would be easy for a spritely 40 year old to come in and knock off the competition. There are other factors as well. One might be called leadership. Does a politician inspire people to believe in his or her cause? Trump clearly does, and so did Obama. Bernie certainly does.
How fare the women of the democratic primary here? Not particularly well. In an era demanding authenticity, Warren suffers, I think, from being seen as a slightly more audience friendly copycat of the original, Bernie Sanders. I think many people ask, "If I support progressive views, why wouldn't I just vote for Bernie?" And Klochubar has similar dilemma with the establishment foil of Joe Biden. Neither candidate has been able to establish themselves as an original, and originality is valued in leaders (not just in politics but in music, film, academia, etc.).
So are powerful women not to be found in the Democratic party? Perhaps for this primary, but not long term. Several hopefuls come to mind and they even have a superhero name: The Squad. I speak of rising superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Congressional cohorts Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. To varying degrees they all possess a star quality that is a rare find. Their ability to appeal across a broad spectrum still needs to be tested but I wouldn't count them out. I'm also not convinced Tulsi Gabbard, who has a backstory right out of comic books (military service), can't mange a comeback if she can smooth out her relationship with the Democratic establishment.
What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.