On Culture

Boxed Into a Corner, Men Can't Punch Back

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008

From the moment Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stepped onto the national stage as the Republican vice presidential nominee, she has been rhetorically body-slamming her Democratic opponents.

She has punched and jabbed and engaged in sarcastic -- and sometimes vicious -- trash talk. Whether one believes that her behavior is merely par for the course as a campaign comes down to the wire or that her opponents deserve the verbal pummeling or that she has demonstratively gone off the deep end, one thing is clear. Most observers seem to agree that the two men in the line of her fire -- Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden -- are not allowed to hit her back. Even in today's post-Hillary Clinton world of presidential politics, boys still aren't supposed to hit girls. Even if it's the girl who starts the fight.

The point is not to suggest that either Obama or Biden should come out swinging ugly slurs, half-truths or outright lies. But the conventional wisdom seems to be that the men on the Democratic ticket can't tell Palin precisely what they think of her moose, her hockey pucks and her Joe Six-Pack-isms. If a fella should try, he will be perceived as a bully, as condescending, as ungentlemanly.

As Palin smiles and winks and throws right hooks to the jaw, the men are worried about looking mean. It was no surprise that part of Biden's debate preparation included how to share the stage with a female opponent. How should he adjust his body language? What facial expressions should he avoid? The underlying theory? Don't get too butch and macho or little Miss Palin might burst into tears. Never mind that she had already likened herself to a breed of dog made famous for its willingness to lunge for the jugular and rip it out.

There is a difference between being a lout of the sort who invades his opponent's personal space during a debate in the manner of Rick Lazio, Clinton's onetime competitor for the U.S. Senate, and merely being tough and letting voters know when he thinks a woman is being a brute, a pissant or just plain incomprehensible. Yet in politics, the idea of getting ferocious with a woman has been fraught with anxiety and over-analysis, and tinged with the kind of prejudice that once labeled women the weaker sex. During this presidential campaign, there have been all sorts of strategies for dealing with gender, all of which seem to boil down to gingerly tiptoeing around it. Don't insult the lady. Don't belittle the lady. And please, don't mention her clothes.

As Palin continues to throw wild punches, analysts have suggested that perhaps some Obama surrogate should strike back. Of course, that surrogate should be a woman. Catfights, it seems, are perfectly acceptable.

The political world so often seems to lag behind the culture at large. And on the question of gender, politics continues to be strangely tortured and stubbornly retro. The idea that a woman can be tough, ruthless or just plain mean comes as a kind of head-scratching revelation in the political arena, especially to men, even though it is a common theme everywhere else. Political types had a difficult enough time grappling with the notion that a woman -- Clinton -- could be flagrantly ambitious without it signifying the end of civilization as we know it. Didn't these people ever watch "The Practice"? Or "Sex and the City"? Haven't they ever seen a single episode of a soap opera?

Politicians -- and the various pundits, analysts and aides who orbit around them -- are still squeamish at the notion that a woman can be a straightforward bully, that she doesn't always play passive-aggressive or engage in "mean girl" strategies, the kind of baffling betrayals portrayed in Margaret Atwood's "Cat's Eye." Those sorts of indirect, malicious mind games still exist in plenty of female relationships -- and some male ones, too. And some women try to have it both ways: playing rough, then playing delicate, whichever benefits them.

But the reality is that women can deliver a straight-up beatdown as well. In a post-feminist, Title IX culture, there is significant evidence that women are fighting more like men -- and men don't know how to respond.

Whether it's the giantesses of "American Gladiators" or female boxers like Laila Ali, popular culture has made a place for female muscleheads, those who can equate female beauty, strength and power with brute force, bench presses and arms that resemble carved limestone. There is greater respect for female physicality and the idea that a woman can fill a room the same way a man does -- with size, swagger and charisma. And women, by the way, understand the difference between charisma and charm. Charisma, so often applied to men, suggests leadership potential. Those who possess it have the upper hand; they command attention. Charm is fizzy and delightful. Charming people are invited to parties. Charismatic ones are invited into boardrooms.

The music industry, particularly hip-hop, is home to women who talk tough, carry big sticks and brag about using them. Women have proved themselves willing to go to jail for perjury or obstruction of justice, rather than be perceived as weak. In that regard, women have proved they can be just as misguidedly stubborn and stupid as their male counterparts.

Television has given audiences female characters who can slash and burn colleagues with invective -- see "Grey's Anatomy," "Lipstick Jungle" or "Entourage" -- and men who are willing to spew verbal shrapnel in retaliation. The point isn't whether it's mature or even professional. But at least it's a fair fight. There's an understanding that everyone has access to the same arsenal of ammunition. The only question is whether they choose to use it.

The real test of equality isn't in the ability of men and women to tell each other how great they are, but in the freedom to express anger, dismay and even disgust -- and to do so without fear of repercussions.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company