Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Elections and the Problem with the Female Vote

The election cycle in the US has been replete with one-dimensional messages about the women's vote being a deciding factor in the outcome. Obligatory pandering has included Mitt Romney's binders and President Obama's overflow of pro-women's rights ads, with polls analyzing the norms of what the swinging women's vote will mean for both candidates: if only women voted, President Obama would win by a landslide.

In the United States, voting blocks are the norm. Compartmentalized into even more specific groupings than society already creates and assigned characteristics from which they cannot subtract themselves, these interest groups churn out statistics and variations in polls that the media enthusiastically reports on, fitting people into digestible boxes. And yet, as has become clear through a closer examination of cross-cutting segments of these voting blocks, too many issues are at play to keep such a generalized partitioning of social groups.

It it difficult to know how to report on trends otherwise. When taking countries such as China and India into account, the question of how best to identify the wants, needs and actions of diverse billions of people borders on the ridiculous; and the sorting of people into collective groups based on the aforementioned markers and on social expectations is imperative to forming basic understandings of trends. It can, however, be ignorant to do the same in an underpopulated and developed country such as the States, where the absent-minded political regroupment of people can lead to discrimination and oversight.

Using key words to create a homogeneous understanding of a group of people undervalues the importance and complexity of the diversity in experience, needs and actions that this group represents. The crude analysis labeled 'identity politics', most often smeared over the black vote following the 2008 elections, it is now the female vote getting the same treatment.

A good example of the problem with homogeneous imperatives is the patriarchal structures that govern our politics and our capitalist economic imperatives. Within patriarchal social structures our gender roles and identities are defined based on power. Men's role are as multi-dimensional as women's are one-dimensional, although they too are given little variation even within wildly differing contexts: put simply, they are emotionless leaders, strong and fearless. They devolve into beast-like leaders when women are introduced into their camp, unable to control themselves, making sexual abuse not entirely their fault. They are divided stereotypically by race and class: white men are religious, privileged and close-minded, black men are violent and oversexed, all other races are ill-represented and curiously regarded, at best, with a strong 'otherness' placed on them, creating shame and a cycle of misplaced migration. Above all, only white men are able to look at the world with a blind eye - creating an invisible race to satisfy their privilege.

One of the best representations of these patriarchal norms is found in what the media feeds into our senses. Now an inescapable part of our everyday, the media's effects on our actions and thoughts are hardly inconsequential; they strongly articulate what our gender roles should be. My favorite reaffirmation of the dominance of the hyper-masculinity is the new McDonalds steak and egg breakfast bagel ad. How does McDonalds get a bagel to promote patriarchy? By putting down the 'other' kind of man that might stick to a leaner, more nutritious meal (and therefore is a 'sissy' and a weakling) and parading the 'beastly' man as the all-powerful only choice. It's ridiculous, but perfectly in line with the expectations of men in a patriarchal society. (Of course, women in the media are still only seen as sexual, objectified or the product of reality television.)

If you take a moment to look, you'll see these gender normative representations are present in almost all media content.

Feminism, contrary to the misunderstandings of many, allows for a diversity of behaviour within men's roles, because it understands that women take on multitudes as well. Instead of gender being two defined boxes, it is instead viewed as a continuum where individuals are allowed to define for themselves the roles and identities they can embody within different social contexts. Feminism makes room for this complexity because it has also (albeit recently) begun to understand that different histories and realities make up a wider spectrum of female experience - just as different class, history, race and purchasing power in the States makes for a wider range of female decision-makers and voters. The term for this is intersectionality.

It is highly essentialist to assume that our new post-2008 economy makes for political debates that can speak only to the 'waitress generation' instead of the 'housewife/soccer mom generation,' that all women care about is the economy - or that by reducing women to their uteri capabilities, women's voting patterns will be channeled into one common child-bearing understanding.

This new economy is far more complex for women, just as the lived experience of women in the workplace and their male colleagues is far more complex than a patriarchal structure allows for. This new economy to the forefront of the household while impoverishing many others. It has placed additional burdens on single mothers while childless, unmarried women with education are finding themselves saddled with college debt and this generation's burden of overactivity, while still others have succeeded despite the gender wage gap, at the expense of a family life.

This is not a homogeneous group - and while they are swing voters (men decide their allegiance early, women wait it out), it could be because some of them (and their families) bear the brunt of many of the cuts to the social programs : education, healthcare, childcare, and especially - access to any and all of the above - as well as having  very female-centric concerns about the economy, energy, and foreign policy.

This is one of the leading principles of development work: thinking of groups as homogeneous undercuts their competency and agency and defines them through assigned behaviors by people who are usually in more advantageous positions. The result is a detriment to any understanding we hope to garner from their actions and our interactions. In short, it is far more important to understand the diverse ways different thematics cross-cut each other and affect and burden privilege and disadvantage, and how these experiences will shape individuals and groups within different social contexts. Perhaps more time-consuming yes, but with a greater, more inclusive and sustainable understanding of our society and its ebbs and flows. 

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