Milwaukee County Supervisor Deanna Alexander has taken to referring to Hillary Clinton as “Ovary.” Alexander hopes her Twitter hashtags #OvaryClinton and #OperationOvary will be mistaken for insightful political commentary.
They are anything but.
Alexander’s rhetorical move to name-calling based on body parts is not only gender bullying, but reveals a self-loathing and desperate desire to gain the approval of misogynists. Her attempt to act like “one of the boys” by insulting women actually insults the boys. Not all men fear women (or ovaries). Not all men think of women who trash other women for being women as being particularly shrewd and nuanced.
If Alexander wants to play with the big guns (or at least bigger guns) of political leadership of any gender, she needs to engage with issues rather than deliver sniggering asides about female anatomy.
Argue policy, voting records, and decision-making, by all means. Have at it. Smart and incisive debate is required by democracy, and voters are hungry for and responsive to it. Let’s talk issues, please. But not gonads.
Naming a body part and treating it as a witty riposte is what mean third-graders do at recess. It is unbecoming of a public official and about as droll as calling someone an ear lobe. Alexander’s tweets are embarrassingly self-congratulatory—is she hoping for a phone call from Fox News?—and she pats herself on the back for her “call-it-out attitude” in identifying the presidential candidate as being female. We caught on to Hillary’s gender a while back, Alexander. But thanks for the tip.
All name-calling in politics comes off as cheap; it doesn’t matter who is doing it. It demeans the demands of public office and convinces voters that candidates are less sensible than the rest of us. But making that name-calling a reference to gender is particularly sinister. It implies that ovaries signal difference and defect. It is a claim that a woman’s anatomy is adequate grounds on which to castigate and discipline her. It is a judgment of a woman, not on the content of her character, but on the contents of her abdomen.
Retrograde attitudes and cultural blind spots can often be revealed by performing a classroom trick that I teach my students. I call it an identity flip. Look at an advertisement, a media message, or a cultural attitude and reverse the genders or the races or the classes of those involved. Flip White and African-American, flip rich and poor, flip heterosexual and homosexual. Doing this reveals unfairness and inequality that cannot otherwise be seen. When we are blind to how women are sexually objectified in advertising, replacing a half-naked woman in a vodka ad with a half-naked man makes us laugh—and then makes us ponder.
Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan is credited with saying, “We don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t the fish.” The very attitudes that we swim in have been held so long by so many that they feel natural and right and are all too often invisible to us. But flip the identities, and arrogance and entitlement is exposed.
So if we think that gender bullying is appropriate for a public official, let’s flip the gender. Let’s imagine that a male county official tries to skewer Jeb Bush by calling him “Testicle.” What a perceptive critique! It is no offense to Bush, who is surely aware of possessing this biological equipment. But it does make that male county official start to look a little suspect, and the focus swings to the strangeness of one man berating another for being male.
Fear of difference is initially useful. It is a primal fear that helps us all sort friend from enemy in a preliminary, quick assessment. But then we apply logic and reason, we consider experience and ethics, and ultimately allow our initial fear to be informed by sound judgment.
Alexander’s moniker of Hillary does not argue intellectually or even lucidly; it simply points to difference as if that is a sound foundation on which to base a democratic decision. But democracy is ever about difference, Alexander. #GetOverIt.