Thursday, July 6, 2017

Women and power? The double standard of the severed head

When TMZ leaked this photo of comedian Kathy Griffin holding what appeared to be a bloody severed head of U.S. President Donald Trump in late May, the Internet exploded. Griffin was resoundingly mocked and trolled and shamed into apologizing. Pundits and commentators expressed shock and horror. She was widely criticized, with only a few voices coming to her defense. Griffin was dubbed a "tool of ISIS" by many conservative and liberal commentators. CNN and others fired Griffin from lucrative gigs and endorsement deals immediately in the wake of the criticisms.

I was left feeling as if I was the only person whose first reaction was to see a double standard at play. Yes, a severed head is a gory, awful image. It's also an image that has been used for centuries in our worldwide culture...often against powerful women. So why, when a woman uses it, is she shut down and shamed?

There were layers of double standards at play here. One was in the world of comedy. For example, comedian Hasan Minhaj earlier in May hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington. Even though the president had said he would not attend, the correspondents' organization asked Minhaj not to roast Trump; normally, roasting the president not only happens, but happens with him sitting right there next to the comedian doing the roasting. In an interview, Minhaj explained why he felt free to ignore that request:
The irony to me was the theme of the night was about honoring the First Amendment, and you want me to censor myself? That to me — I couldn't do it. ... Especially given the fact that the person that I'm roasting, the president, is someone who has so exploited that incredible privilege of free speech. The man who tweets whatever enters his head doesn't even want to honor the amendment that allows him to do it. That to me just blows my mind. So I wanted to make the conscious choice of, Hey, I will roast his merit and I will roast the decisions he's made. I will try to be as tasteful as possible, but I have to talk about this.
Minhaj went ahead with that plan, with no or minimal outcry following. The comedy double standard reminded me of The 'women can't be funny' myth, and the power of making people laugh, in which I quoted Gloria Steinem saying, "...the power to make people laugh is also a power, so women have been kept out of comedy. Polls show that what women fear most from men is violence, and what men fear most from women is ridicule."

So you've seen the ridicule of a man in the image at the top of this post. Here's the violence against women, in its mirror. It demonstrates the gendered double standard at play here. Having written about classics scholar Mary Beard's lecture on women and power for our Famous Speech Friday series, I had this image, shared in her lecture, firmly in mind:


It's a depiction of Trump as Perseus, victoriously holding up the severed head of Medusa as Hillary Clinton, an image widely used in fan-generated promotional material during the Trump campaign, as Beard notes:
This scene of Perseus-Trump brandishing the dripping, oozing head of Medusa-Clinton was very much part of the everyday, domestic American decorative world: you could buy it on T-shirts and tank tops, on coffee mugs, on laptop sleeves and tote bags (sometimes with the logo TRIUMPH, sometimes TRUMP). It may take a moment or two to take in that normalisation of gendered violence, but if you were ever doubtful about the extent to which the exclusion of women from power is culturally embedded or unsure of the continued strength of classical ways of formulating and justifying it – well, I give you Trump and Clinton, Perseus and Medusa, and rest my case.
Let that sink in again: "the exclusion of women from power is culturally embedded...the continued strength of classical ways of formulating it and justifying it." I inserted the link in the quote above so you can see for yourself how these shirts and other products are still available.

Pouncing on Griffin and shaming her so thoroughly, then, reflects something embedded in our culture, just because she is a woman.

Clinton is not the only woman leader to get this treatment, which has been used to depict powerful women over and over again, but depictions of her as Medusa were, as Beard notes, among the "starkest and nastiest" of all. And was there any outcry? Why, no, there was not, save for Beard. Neither did the Trump campaign decry these fan efforts, nor try to stop them.

Imagery is a major part of public speech, and images are important--witness that the severed head of Medusa has been used for centuries, so durable and memorable it is. Comedy, more recently, has been an important area where women have been able to find their voices and say the outrageous, just as men have done for centuries. But when a woman comedian reaches for that durable, memorable, outrageous image, why do we silence her? If only the reaction from the media and the public were as fierce when the severed head was Hillary Clinton's. If only.

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