The good woman/bad woman dichotomy is nothing new. We’ve all seen it play out in advertisements, television, and politics for our entire lives, probably most commonly as a Madonna/whore type of thing, but it’s much more extensive than that. Most of us saw it play out in our homes growing up and in the schools we attended. It’s “nice girls don’t…” and it’s dress codes that target girls. It’s “nice guys” who think women are sluts if they sleep with other men and not them. It’s: “In a world of Kardashians, be a Diana/an Audrey.” It’s a well-known scholar saying that unlike Beyoncé, Aretha Franklin only needed to use her voice to captivate audiences. We see it everywhere. In politics, I thought of it for a long time as mostly an issue with conservatives – married housewives versus single moms, welfare queens, sluts who wanted birth control and abortion rights, and career women. But I got to a place in my life where I didn’t ever have to spend too much time with conservatives who spoke in those terms. I still get flashes of it here and there in the media and online, but conservative sexism is not deeply embedded in my daily life. I can turn it off when I want to do so.
Not so much with the sexism and misogyny that I see from progressives.
It’s been a struggle to limit my exposure to the good girl/bad girl sexism I see used against women by liberals. In liberal Facebook groups, they pass around sexy photos of Megyn Kelly with words that describe her as not intelligent and not a real journalist. They pass around sexy photos of Melania Trump with words that describe her as not worthy of the role of First Lady. Liberal pundits regularly refer to Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachhman with gendered slurs. Most liberals on these pages, including women, seem to be okay with this type of sexism, or at least, very few people appear to feel that it’s necessary to speak out against it. But the thing about sexism is that when we allow it to be used toward any women, we perpetuate it against all women. No woman is all good or all bad, and we can never fit into a perfect mold of goodness that protects us from that good woman/bad woman dichotomy.
Sarah Ditum wrote an excellent piece a couple of years ago about “cool girl feminism,” where she mentioned the quintessential cool girl, popularly described by Gillian Flynn in her novel Gone Girl:
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”
Ditum went on to say that the cool girl feminist was an extension of Flynn’s cool girl. “She can move in the world without disrupting the gender order because she respects the man code.” You know, she’s “not one of those feminists.” Many progressive men have a need to be seen as supporting equality and even to be seen as feminists. So they want to be around women who identify as feminists and they want to be accepted and celebrated by them. To these progressive men, conservative men who more blatantly show their sexism are insecure and unmanly. In progressive circles, it is manly to be seen as so secure in your manhood that you are not threatened by women. But if you call progressive men out on their sexism, you do threaten them, and you become one of those feminists. Your place is to be the type of feminist that supports the progressive man in his view of himself as manly enough to not be threatened by equality. But equality has to be his idea, something he decides to bestow upon you, and he should never be questioned on his commitment to it.
This type of cool girl feminism and good woman/bad woman sexism has become a defining feature of the Sanders campaign, and of its followers. Women are good if they agree with and support Sanders, and they are bad if they don’t. One example I saw of this was when a man told me that he did not support Hillary Clinton because she had come around too late to gay marriage. (Never mind the fact that Sanders was late to the game, too.) The same man told me that he would support Tulsi Gabbard for Sanders’ Vice President. Gabbard is the U.S. Representative from Hawaii who quit her leading role at the DNC so that she could endorse Sanders and campaign for him. I am from Hawaii, so I happen to remember that Tulsi Gabbard used to be against gay marriage and even fought to stop civil unions from being legalized in Hawaii. She had a transformation and changed her beliefs around that, as did Hillary Clinton, as did President Obama, As did Bernie Sanders, and as did a lot of people who have progressed in their views over the years. That my friend (and numerous other Sanders supporters that I’ve spoken with and read articles, posts, and comments by) would support Gabbard but not Clinton over gay marriage told me that this wasn’t about gay marriage. It was about which one was a good woman, playing a supporting role to the progressive man. The goodness and badness were decided before the facts were cherry-picked for support. And make no mistake – Gabbard will find herself in exactly Clinton’s position if she ever seeks more power beyond her supporting role to a progressive man, and especially if she has an actual shot at getting that power. As will any other progressive good woman, including Elizabeth Warren and Jill Stein, who we constantly hear anti-Hillary progressives say they’d support for president. Conveniently, Warren is not running for office, and Stein has no shot at winning the race, so these claims of hypothetical support ring hollow.
Sanders has endorsed three women in their races for Congress: Zephyr Teachout of New York, Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and Lucy Flores of Nevada. (*He has endorsed more candidates since this was written, all who have endorsed him publicly.) All three of these women have endorsed Sanders. These are good women. They are playing a supporting role to the progressive man, not asking for too much power, but just enough to be of support to the progressive man. But if they ever ask for more than their role as support to a progressive man, they’ll be in the same position that Clinton and other women are in now. The most recent bad women we’ve seen attacked by Sanders and his followers are Hillary Clinton (obviously), Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Barbara Boxer, and Roberta Lange. These women have not served in supporting roles to the progressive man. Clinton is obviously more powerful, successful, and intelligent than the vast majority of people, and many progressive men can’t stand that. She has stepped up and said that she is the best person for the job of president, and a woman that asks for that much power is not a good woman. We all know what a sleazy smear campaign progressives have picked up from the GOP and waged against Clinton. Schultz has also been extremely successful in organizing the DNC, such that we are looking to win the presidency and probably take back control of the Senate in the fall. She has bent over backward to remain neutral during the primary, but Sanders and his supporters have scapegoated her as the reason for Sanders’ failures, and so his followers have vilified her and Sanders has done the unthinkable and publicly endorsed her primary opponent. Barbara Boxer, in the Top 5 of the most progressive members in Congress, was called various gendered slurs because she was at the Nevada convention representing Clinton. Lange served in a neutral role at the Nevada convention, and when the result wasn’t what Sanders supporters wanted (because of their own lack of preparation!), they called her home and made death threats against her and her family, among other things. These are the bad women, and they are insulted and threatened when they don’t play the role of supporter to the progressive man, whether their actions against the progressive man are real or imagined.
Women lose whenever we participate in these good woman/bad woman scenarios. In order to remain good, in order to remain a cool girl feminist, we have to commit to always being in supporting roles, rather than demonstrating our experience and expertise and asking for power and asserting that we deserve it. Let’s not sell ourselves out like that. Refuse to participate in it and call it out when you see it.