After last night’s vice-presidential debate, political analyst Frank Lutz met with a focus group of 13 undecided voters on Zoom. Nine of those voters were men. They described Pence’s performance as “presidential” and “calm, cool, and collected.” And they described Harris as “evasive,” “nervous,” “snarky,” “rehearsed,” “abrasive,” “unsteady,” “rigid,” and “unpresidential.” Twelve of the thirteen participants declared Pence to be the winner.
The vast majority of these participants were white — and the dissenting voice, as Vox’s Nicole Narea points out, came from the one black woman in the group:
“I think we have to understand the difference of how we equate male and female,” she said. “Last week, we saw Mr. Biden and President Trump make all types of facial expressions and that was never an issue on last week’s call. Now that we have a woman, I believe that people are inadvertently looking at her a certain way.”
She added, “But as far as [whether she seemed presidential,] it all depends on who you’re asking and why you’re asking, especially when you’re asking males.”
Like every woman who’s run for political office, Kamala Harris is well aware of the needle she has to thread in order to be perceived as a leader but not too bitchy, assertive but not too shrill, capable but not too bossy. As a black and Indian woman, she’s aware of how much smaller that needle eye hole has become. Women know this. (Even women who don’t believe in sexism and think feminism is unnecessary know this — why do you think they wear the same uniform?) Women of color have no choice other than to know this. Queer women know this. Unmarried women know this. Young women, women of an unfuckable age, older women — we all acquaint ourselves, knowingly or unknowingly, with the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
To be able to push those boundaries in any capacity? That’s privilege, afforded by age, by race, by class, by a body’s ability to conform to dominate standards of femininity. Again: women know this. It blows and yet we deal with the every day trauma of it because we still live in a patriarchy and any attempt to dismantle is usually greeted with the word “bitch.” But watching it happen to women on the political stage feels like insult to injury — a graphic reminder of an everyday struggle.
It’s even more difficult for black and brown women, who have to deal with various iterations of “misogynoir,” the term coined by queer black feminist Moya Bailey and the artist/writer/creative Trudy to describe the intersecting oppressions of sexism and racism, and, even more specifically, misogyny and anti-blackness. The prevalence of misogynoir allows black women three general lanes in public life: they are either “Mamies,” portrayed as cuddly, asexual, and wise caregivers; “Angry Black Women,” who are domineering and conniving; or Jezebels, who use their sexual prowess to seduce and doom all men in their path. (Harris also has the intersecting expectations of docility and “model minority” status associated with additional identification as an Asian-American woman).
It is very difficult, in other words, for Harris to find an acceptable lane on the public stage that also positions her as a capable leader. As a former Harris aide explained before the debate, “From Day 1, the expectations for her have been stratospheric, and the margin for error has been minuscule.”
Harris has thus far attempted — and, I think, largely succeeded — at forging a path forward that subverts these classic misogynoir stereotypes. But that doesn’t mean that viewers aren’t frantically attempting to map them onto her.
The first and most obvious? She’s illegitimate, a conniving, dishonest foreigner who’s faked her way into power and wasn’t even born in the United States. This Birtherism 2.0 was so bald-faced racist and so tired that it would be laughable if it weren’t so reprehensible. Yet the completely false suggestion circulated even faster, and with greater reach, than the Birtherism around Obama. It spread, like most falsehoods spread, because people wanted to believe it: that if a black woman got this far, it had to have been built on some sort of falsehood.
The second, on display in tweets like Fox News commentator Harlan Z. Hill’s, is equally transparent: she’s an angry bitch. (Also, sorry if you’re a feminist and you think otherwise, it’s true.)
What makes her insufferable, lying, and bitchlike? She’s not acting like a (bourgeois, white) woman. When Megyn Kelly says “Take it like a woman. Don’t make faces,” she’s prescribing a very specific understanding of how women should behave in public spaces: always calm, non-reactive, un-angry. Like Kelly herself — or Karen Pence, or Melania Trump. To take it like a woman is to, well, take it — whatever men throw at you — without complaint or recourse. Kelly should know: her failure to do so with Trump effectively ended her career in conservative media.
But Harris’s face is a coping mechanism and a defense strategy. Women know how to set their faces in semi-placable smiles that contain but do not eliminate their rage. We learn it at a very young age, when talking with fathers, teachers, pastors, and classmates. If white women adopt it to deal with condescension and paternalism, then black women adopt it to deal with that bullshit plus covert and overt racism bullshit.
These criticisms — recirculated across Twitter — are easy to recognize. But the one you might not have seen in your social media feed is equally transparent, and stems from the assertion that Harris slept her way to power in the ‘90s, and has continued to do so now. More specifically: Harris had an extra-marital affair with former San Francisco Mayor and California State Assemblyman Willie Brown, which led to her appointment to positions that set her on the trajectory for the vice-presidential nomination.
Snopes has a solid explanation/exploration of the claim, but the abbreviated form is yes, Harris had a relationship with Brown; yes, he was still married, but had been estranged from his wife for a decade; and yes, he appointed her to the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the Medical Assistance Commission. They dated from 1994-1995; her first run for office was in 2003.
Immediately after Biden picked Harris as his running mate, The Gateway Pundit interpreted that information as “Kamala Harris Launched Her Political Career in Bedroom As Mistress of Married Mayor Willie Brown.” Since then, the information has recirculated in various memes and hashtags, including #heelsupharris, a smattering of which I’ve collected below:
Before last night’s debate, a Republican staffer in Wisconsin promoted a watch party by posting “If there are any questions how to sleep your way to the top, Kamala will have an advantage,” paired with the meme that read “She will be an inspiration to young girls by showing that if you sleep with the right powerfully connected men then you too can play second fiddle to a man with dementia. It’s basically a Cinderella story.”
The actor James Wood, who has 2.6 million Twitter followers, called her a “smug former courtesan”; claimed “she started on her knees and she’ll step over Joe Biden so fast she’ll look like an Olympic hurdles champion”; and wrote “To depict Barack Obama’s foreign policy with Iran as anything other than a joke is unimaginable. I guess if Kamala is elected, she’ll be sending more pallets of cash. Knowing her background I guess they’ll all be singles,” followed by the high heel emoji.
The memes are about as bad and dumb as you might imagine. Here’s a moderately bad and dumb one, and you can find others for yourself if you’re really into ideologically transparent clipart.
And that’s the thing that’s so tiresome, especially at this point in our political cycle: it’s all so obvious. It’s paint by numbers cliched, it’s ham-fisted, it’s kid-puts-his-head-under-the-bedspread-while-playing-hide-and-go-seek-and-thinks-he’s-invisible and Great Gatsby Clifs-Notes-essay-on-the-green-light obvious.
My former BuzzFeed colleague Hayes Brown has a now classic tweet from back in 2017 in which he simply declared: “This is going to be the dumbest dystopia.” That’s how I feel about this framing of Harris. Oh you’re calling an attractive, successful black woman who has little tolerance for bullshit a bitch and a prostitute? How SURPRISING!!!! Every turn is telegraphed without any form of grace or any attempt at subterfuge. If you’re going to try and gaslight millions of people, I wish they’d at least try to be a little clever about it.
This is ideological banality. And, most importantly, it is a sign of belief system without beliefs other than “different is bad.” Trumpism and its dark internet heart, #MAGA-ism, is hollow at its core. It literally does not have a political platform. There’s no there, there — other than fear.
Are these attacks on Harris abominable? Of course. Should we denounce them plainly at every opportunity? Absolutely. Are they evidence of overarching attitudes towards the value of women in our society and black women in particular? Yes. But those attitudes are — very gradually — changing. That Harris was on that stage last night is evidence of as much.
When an animal is cornered, it lashes out. It makes desperate, doomed moves. That’s what all of this feels like: vivid manifestations of misogynoir that betray a party trapped within its small, suffocating conception of America, patriarchy, and whiteness. If it stinks, it’s because it’s not only in decline — it’s rotting from the inside out. ●
Postscript: I found this thread by Lauren Michele Jackson to be a useful critique of the way I employed misogynoir in this piece, and it’s worth your time. I’ve also added credit for the development of the term misogynoir to Trudy, who writers (including myself, here) have elided from the conversation about misogynoir. This article in Feminist Media Studies, in which Trudy and Moya Bailey interview each other about the use of their term (and the elision of Trudy from the conversation) is excellent, and a good reminder to do even more research about the language we/I use.
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