The Democrats get macho

The New York Times argues that the true "milestone in gender politics" is the rise of alpha-male Dems.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published January 8, 2007 8:29PM (EST)

There are more women in Congress than ever before and Rep. Nancy Pelosi has just been sworn in as the first-ever female Speaker of the House, and what important feature led the New York Times Week in Review this weekend? Why, a look at the increasingly alpha male characteristics of the Democratic party, naturally.

Writer Ryan Lizza begins the piece with a disdainful description of how Pelosi's appearance at her swearing in -- "surrounded by children and bedecked in pearls" -- served only to encourage digs toward the Dems for being the "mommy party." And while the author concedes that Pelosi's swearing in was a "milestone in gender politics," it's apparently "the return of the Alpha Male Democrat" that is worth lengthy discussion. The politicos who exemplify this rising tide of masculinity are former "C.I.A. agents, F.B.I. agents, N.F.L. quarterbacks, sheriffs, Iraq war vets." Lizza says the lawmakers are belligerent, infamously difficult to work with and have the vocabularies of salty sailors. Some possess noticeable attributes like a buzz-cut or a missing finger.

As Broadsheet reader Robin Harvey of New York wrote in an e-mail: "[I]t's a bunch of drivel about the 'real men' (my interpretation) now riding in to rescue the Democrats from those nancy-boys!" Indeed, the implication is that these macho men are galloping in to not only save the Democratic Party from their bleeding-heart male representatives, but also the joke that is female political leadership.

Not to mention that the invocation of gender stereotypes here is a bit troubling. As perhaps a few Broadsheeters will attest after reading this article, swearing is most certainly not inherently male. Nor is aggression or an inability to play nice with others, or working for the C.I.A. or F.B.I. or serving in a war. These are, however, attributes that are often presented as male, in accordance with the gender politics of the political sphere. On the flip side, stereotypically feminine attributes aren't generally presented as positive political credentials; "mommy party" is intended as a slur on women's and Democrats' competency. And pretty much anything that reads as female can be thus marginalized; Lizza finds "mommy" resonance in Pelosi's being "bedecked" in pearls, overlooking the fact that pearls are commonplace Beltway fashion for female politicians. Some may say that Pelosi occasionally overplays her hand with the "mother of five" voice and the occasional employment of gender stereotypes to champion female empowerment. But as Debra Dickerson noted in Salon today, Pelosi should be celebrated for balancing career and family and making her "mother of five" voice work for her professionally.

What it comes down to is this: If we're to bemoan the restrictions on appropriate femaleness in the political sphere, we should also lament seeing maleness co-opted as Rambo-like anti-intellectualism. Of course, politicians have always maintained carefully calculated personas, and gender will always be a part of that. But the age-old nature of this story just brings me back to my original question: Why was this the most worthwhile feature for the Times to run this weekend, when Pelosi -- officially the most powerful female politician in American history -- has, as she said, "broken the marble ceiling"?

Tracy Clark-Flory

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