Earlier this month, America’s satirical newspaper, The Onion published an article with an entirely naked picture of Hillary Clinton. “Hillary Clinton appears before rally completely nude in bid for authenticity,” ran the headlines. Some readers found the morphed picture with sagging breasts and misshapen tummy funny, while others read it as a tongue-in-cheek liberal endorsement of Clinton. What struck me, however, was the use of the word “nude”. In his book Ways of Seeing, cultural theorist John Berger draws a distinction between nakedness and nudity; to be naked is to be unconsciously oneself, while nudity is nakedness objectified through the male gaze and put on display for vicarious public consumption. While Berger’s critique is directed at European oil paintings, he connects it with women’s lived experiences, and the patriarchal lessons on respectability, shame and sexual double standards that women are expected to internalise. And dear progressives, here’s the hard part: religion and capitalism are not the only sites of misogyny.
Progressive United States is rooting for Bernie Sanders, the socialist (whose politics, by the standards of Communist parties and the radical Left in India, is really just left-of-centre if not centrist.) Sanders is the choice of progressive youth who support gay rights and critique traditional gender roles, rising college debts, America’s wars, Wall Street excesses, and mass incarceration due to the corporate-prison complex, among others. Those who have studied Economics will be able to draw quite a few distinctions between this socialist wave that comes on the heels of massive capitalist expansion, and socialisms elsewhere, especially if we include other socio-cultural differences. That said, the sexist attacks on Clinton in the run-up to the elections not just by Trump’s chest-thumping supporters but also by a section of Sanders’ supporters, and indeed her whole life, share something in common with socialisms elsewhere.
When a leaked e-mail informed us that Clinton asked a colleague to stay warm and wear socks to bed, the smirk on the faces of macho America was hard to miss. Why? Because this is not a “proper” trait for a President? (This is a challenge for women in general; appear loving and you are considered weak or fake. Appear aggressive, and you are a bitch. Anything in-between, and you are stereotyped as moody, “just like a woman”.) Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can yell, but she must always be graceful. Reports say Clinton appears “tense,” whereas Sanders is “calm”. Where? The interview with Bill Maher? Then we are told Clinton accepted a bundle of jewels from Saudi Arabia. Oooh. So the responsibility of the long US-Saudi alliance, and America’s turning a blind eye to the human rights situation there while wagging a finger at countries whose rising economic power it considers a threat, now rests squarely on her shoulders? Growing up in India, I heard Hillary Clinton’s voice; we all heard of her work for women’s leadership, reproductive rights, and women’s perspectives to be heard loudly in every sector. We didn’t know who Sanders was.
In Kolkata, the capital of Left-dominated West Bengal in India, I have experienced firsthand the social pressures on middle class women to dress conservatively, much more so than in Mumbai, which is safer for women travelling at night too. Other socialists cling to their outdated belief that the kitchen is the sole domain of women. Recently, some progressive Indian male intellectuals decided that the ultra-right was justified in denying menstruating women the right to enter places of worship. And we all know liberal and socialist males who engage in sexist public commentaries on women’s bodies and impose their sexual attentions on unwilling women on social media. Is this socialism or brocialism? And more broadly, a bromance between hetero-patriarchies across left, right and centre, to exercise ownership over errant women of “their own” class, caste, community, religion, nation—and dictate agendas? Progressives want to teach us about social class; how about they also learn some lessons on gender? Given that bodies are consumed very differently in the public sphere on the basis of gender, what The Onion has done to Clinton is sexual violence, a combination of sexism and ageism. We will all vote according to our conscience. Meanwhile, let the misogynies of progressive narratives not pass unnoticed.