Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Term "Social Issues" Should Be Retired

Often, we become so detached from the original meaning of political catch phrases that we forget  to evaluate whether or not they still have value. The past informs the present, and the term “social issues” is one of those terms, repeated ad nauseum to the point that we forget its origins. The term describes an array of controversial topics from crime to illegal immigration to gay marriage and abortion. No matter how varied the topics were, they were all rounded up into “social issues,” because conservatives found a way to make them revolve around one thing: social order.

Being “hard on crime” has always translated to comforting those suburban white voters who find poor inner city blacks threatening. Immigration makes our nation increasingly more diverse, whittling away at the political power that has long been concentrated in our majority white population. Positions opposing gay marriage and abortion are, supposedly, designed to keep the nuclear heterosexual family intact.

            There is a reason why one of the men who coined the term in 1970, Richard Scammon, said social issues were issues that appeal to the average voter, who was decidedly “unyoung, unpoor and unblack.” In Scammon and Wattenburg’s book, “The Real Majority: An Extraordinary Examination of the American Electorate,” they argued that conservatives owned social issues, and if the Democratic Party intended to survive it needed to focus on issues that concerned voters in middle America.

Economic issues ruled American politics for the first half of the century, the two argued, but priorities were changing. Concern about increasing drug abuse, violence, racial tension and sexual promiscuity helped Nixon win the 1972 election by a landslide. He stood in opposition to abortion and became “hard on crime,” which appealed to blue collar voters George McGovern needed to win the election.

Fifty-seven percent of people polled by Gallup in November 1972 supported the death penalty, increasing from only 50 percent in March of 1972, suggesting that fear of crime and social disorder grew in those years, fueling a need for law and order.

The Nixon campaign’s strategy of focusing on social issues was a recipe for success that Republicans continued to use to their advantage in 1980, 1984 and 1988.  In regards to abortion, Reagan helped popularize many of the talking points conservatives continue to use today. In his 1984 Louisville, Kentucky debate with Walter Mondale, Reagan established which party was on the right side, the moral side, of the issue:

            “I believe that until someone can establish that the unborn child is not a living human being, then that child is already protected by the Constitution, which guarantees us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all of us.”

            Both parties took ownership of the phrase and brought it into the popular political lexicon. But, in the near-term, that was a mistake on Democrats’ part. Because Republicans brought the term into existence, it was defined by their agenda. A debate couldn’t be had, because foundation of the conversation on social issues was founded upon what were thought to be distinctly Republican principles – The protection of the white middle class nuclear family from disorder, crime and loss of moral character.

            If social issues were defined by the opposition to abortion and punishing criminals with no hope of serious rehabilitation, Democrats would continue to be on the defensive as long as the term was used, and largely, they have.

Once the economy took center stage again in 1992, Democrats’ used their command of economic issues too woo voters. Clinton tried to walk the line on abortion by stating that he was not “pro-abortion,” because he sought to make abortions rare, a tactic Obama repeated in 2008, but one that, again, cedes the conversation to Republicans and assumes Democrats must operate on their turf.

Nevertheless, social issues became a topic of conversation again when George W. Bush won reelection in 2004 and the media perpetuated the idea that “family values voters” decided the election based on one exit poll question. You know the Republicans have won the perception game when national news reporters interpret “pro-moral values” as opposing abortion and gay marriage.

It became a catch-all for any issue adversely affecting people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, poor people and women. After the Reagan era and the emergence of the religious right, these groups carried other connotations as well: Lazy, entitled, criminal and promiscuous. Social issues also became code for tangential issues, or issues that don’t affect white middle class America. The demographics of the U.S. hadn’t changed wildly enough to convince the press that these were anything but “niche” issues. Social issues remained second-tier for this reason, with presidential debate questions on national security and the economy taking center stage.

Journalists hadn’t considered the economic ramifications of women not having safe, affordable, or legal (in case Roe vs. Wade were overturned) access to abortion. Only four short years ago, I recall being the only person in a room full of reporters to ask a newly announced candidate for U.S. Senate where he stood on abortion or gay marriage. The pattern continued for the remainder of my reporting on U.S. Congress and Senate races that spring.

The conversation has come a long way since then. Although both Democrats and Republicans kept a safe distance from the topic of abortion and gay marriage in 2008, and continued to remain cautious in the 2010 elections, the truce didn’t last for long.

Now Democrats have reclaimed the content of the debate on these separate issues, and presented their point of the view as the moral and humane one.  As a Republican-led House and many statehouses across the country continue to cater to what they believe are the fears of middle America, middle America itself is changing. Reproductive health care in its entirety is mainstream now. Having premarital sex is mainstream. Being gay is becoming more and more mainstream.

 According to Gallup polls, 89 percent of Americans believe contraception is morally acceptable and 50 percent of Americans support same sex marriage in comparison to 27 percent in 1996. More than 7 million unmarried couples are living together in contrast to 450,000 in 1960. Now that the concept of morality has shifted for a large number of the population, conservatives find themselves on the wrong side of it.

The Democratic Party’s choice to invite Sandra Fluke to speak at the convention shows the degree to which Democrats have embraced social issues, especially women’s reproductive care. The White House’s slideshow, “Life of Julia,” shows Julia standing in a pharmacy, ready to buy birth control covered under the president’s health care plan. I can’t imagine either of these events happening in 2008.

As the country’s social mores continue to change, Republicans strive to maintain their last frontier, “decency,” only to find that Democrats have redefined it. Democrats have steered the discussion on these issues, separately, however, not as a pack. What were once considered background issues are now at the very forefront of the president’s, and the Democratic Party’s, agenda.

That is why I believe the term “social issues” has become useless and should be retired. We don’t rope all of these terms together now because they’re important enough to stand on their own. Democrats aren’t siphoning off these issues, trying to hide them as if they are the collective red-headed stepchildren of the party platform. For politicians of all stripes, it is finally sinking in that women are 50 percent of the population, not a niche group, Latinos are a huge voting bloc, that most Americans know at least one LGBTQ individual and the legalization of marijuana is becoming less and less controversial.

            It doesn’t mean that Democrats have won ground for decades to come, or that the Republican Party’s epitaph should be written. It means that Democrats have become successful by gradually bringing these issues to the table one by one, taking control of each argument piecemeal and flipping the narrative accordingly.

Republicans have helped enormously in this regard, by raising these issues in the national news media all on their lonesome, as Democrats waited the right moment to swoop in and take advantage. The discussions began with Congress incumbents or challengers, or state legislative bodies, moving to pass laws limiting abortion and birth control at a rapid pace. Backwards comments on immigration from Mitt Romney, some during the onslaught of way too many primary debates, and others made behind closed doors, served Democrats yet again.

And most recently, a wave of politicians came out in support of gay marriage, as if they all received the same memo, shortly after the 2012 election made more cautious Democrats (and a few Republicans) see the writing on the wall.  Now, as the challenges of the 2016 presidential election for both parties become clearer, Democrats have to decide if they want to erase all of the progress made in 2008 and start playing by Republican rules again, or retire the term, and idea, of social issues, and finally write their own agenda.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Stop Trying to Follow Rape With a False ‘Happy Ending’


           In some ways, we should be thankful that rape, outside of a stranger jumping out from the bushes, is depicted at all. Depictions of rapists as acquaintances, friends or former significant others help people understand that rapists aren’t boogeymen, but men considered “good” in many other respects – a person who is considered family-oriented, kind and involved in their community.

            But it isn’t good enough to simply depict rape – We have to consider how the way we depict rape reflects the reality of many victims, and that we consider our own prejudices in the process. A person can be an outspoken advocate for rape survivors and still struggle to understand how their views are shaped by rape culture and in some cases, certain American values.

            Three fairly recent depictions of rape or its aftermath (outside of courtroom dramas) stand out to me – Mellie’s rape by her father-in-law on Scandal and Anna’s rape by a visiting servant on Downton Abbey. Both women follow similar paths following their sexual assaults: They stay mum. And to be clear, that choice is the choice of the majority of rape survivors, with 60 percent never reporting their rapes to police, according to the Department of Justice’s Crime Victimization Survey from 2008 to 2012.

            But my concern is whether or not television writers are pushing what they believe is the acceptable kind of victimhood, based on what we’ve been taught about how women (although men are rape survivors as well, women are the most common victims) should respond to what is considered an assault on her dignity, whether it be rape or something far less threatening but still misogynist and hurtful - such as calling a woman a whore or a bitch. Let me separate the fact that rape is absolutely an assault on someone’s dignity and discuss the difference between the damage done to the victim and what society perceives to be the victim’s damage.

            One of the reasons that rape is used as a weapon of war is that the rapist knows the survivor will be perceived differently by society – as tainted by their own sexual assault. Being seen as a victim first and as a full person, of which their rape is one of many experiences that have shaped them, second, is one of the many consequences of telling the wider public that you have been raped. In our culture, one of the worst things that an a person can suffer is the indignity of being pitied, and these shows have found a work around: Instead of putting the show through a trial, during which a painful he said/she said will continue for several episodes until creators can craft an unlikely outcome where the rapist is sent to prison, or show the rapist walking out scot-free, they choose two special routes. 

          One possibility is that the (usually) female protagonist refuses to call herself a victim or give the man who wronged her any more power over her than he already has. It feels like a faux-empowerment message though, and one that undercuts the reaction of many survivors, who could never sit across the table and smile lovingly at the man who raped them, as Mellie does, or withhold the fact of their assault from their husbands, as Anna withholds from Bates.  It is a sort of martyrdom that is expected of female rape victims on television, especially married ones. The other possibility is that the male significant other, friend or family member exacts vigilante justice on the rapist, as happened with Bates, removing any agency from the rape victim, and making it all about the person exacting revenge on their behalf.

            Sons of Anarchy’s matriarch, Gemma, is gang-raped and similarly withholds information for a long time before telling her son, Jax, and her husband, Clay, what happened. Like Anna fears they’ll attempt to exact revenge on her rapists and endanger themselves. Her son Jax eventually ends up killing one of the rapists, AJ Weston. As with Mellie, the rape seems to function as a device to make the character softer and more sympathetic.

            Their decision not to tell the police, or even others close to them, at least at first, is portrayed as self-control, a great quality that is to be admired. But what does that make the rape survivors who don’t fit this mold? Are they less dignified, less in control of their emotions? In a culture where we consider it manly to experience pain, both emotional and physical, and let that pain wash over you, only to become stronger from enduring it without complaint, it’s easy for some to paint such a reaction to rape as empowering to women.

            By refusing to exact vengeance, it appeared that Mellie in particular, and also Anna to some degree, was refusing to "let" the rapist take her mental stability from her, but that assumes other survivors are letting rapists rule their lives, simply because they are acknowledging their truth to the public or pursuing justice in the courts. And that seems unfair, to say the least. Whether or not the rape survivor decides to tell the police, the rape still happened, and it can’t be erased as an experience, just like any other experience.

            There are mountains of reasons not to step forward - the exhausting process of a trial, during which you'll see your rapist, have people question you on your sexual past, be judged for not wearing the proper facial expressions after your rape or not remembering the story as clearly as you should have remembered it and so many more. Even if you tell only family members and friends, there is a chance some of them won’t believe you either, putting an incredible strain on your relationship. In the case of Mellie, her husband already felt unadulterated rage towards his father, a former president. Mellie was protecting him from the damage her rape would do to her husband’s political aspirations. Anna protected her husband from possible imprisonment.

            Their decisions are never presented as decisions made for themselves – that they actively decided this was the best decision for them and their own mental stability. Those decisions were made on behalf of others, and although their husbands are part of their emotional stability in many ways, I wonder if this is at all a symptom of how we see women, as an extension of the men around them. It is almost a vision of a saintly rape survivor, a suffering wife, who values her husband’s well being above her own. How would viewers react if the survivor actively sought out vengeance or justice, no matter how her actions affected others? It is stepping outside of the feminine role, in many ways.

            Viewers may eventually turn on the rape survivor if she continues to pursue some form of justice on her own (in Mellie’s case a political one, and in Anna’s case likely a social and economic one). It is far more traditional to watch a rape survivor on television (outside a courtroom drama) simply tell her husband to calm down, until the husband takes actions into his own hands on her behalf, usually outside the law.

            I thought House of Cards’ Lady Macbeth, Claire Underwood, would go this route as well, until she decided to transform a political nightmare into an opportunity to punish her rapist. In an interview with a reporter, she was badgered into admitting she had an abortion, and decided to the use the rape, and outing of the rapist, a general, as a distraction from the abortion. The lie, while damaging because it discredits rape victims further, was perfectly in keeping with the character. Her husband did not defend her “honor” as Bates did, although she could have requested some action from him.

            The manipulation and lack of concern she showed towards the young private, another woman raped by the general, as she worked with her on a campaign to change the military’s handling of sexual assault, was well thought-out. It reinforced Claire’s character: a ruthless pragmatist blind to the emotional wreckage and compromising of ideals that pragmatism costs, and serves to remind people of the way in which rape survivors may be treated by political figures in real life – as political props whose emotional well-being is secondary to the abstract cause. Her story was left unsettled, despite the prosecution of her rapist, showing that the classic TV model of punishing the rapist and proceeding as if everything is fine – is false.

Looking further back at The Sopranos, Jennifer Melfi, Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, is raped by a man she later discovers works at a fast food restaurant, and has been named “Employee of the Month.” Although he is arrested (and his arrest may have been aided by the rape being a stranger rape), he is released on a technicality. She has a chance to tell Tony to take the man out, but decides not to. This is a great example of a more nuanced rape survivor story. The man isn’t considered a monster in his regular habitat. He’s a hard worker, and respected. There isn’t any happy ending; no closure on a legal or vigilante level. It sends a message to viewers that even though Jennifer went through a horrible life event, she isn’t defined by that event, as much as she may continue to struggle with it.

            What I am suggesting is not that there should be one correct model of how rape victims on television should be depicted reacting to their rapes - that would be ludicrous. But I think it would validate more rape victims' experiences if we portrayed a wider range of experiences on television that don’t simply exist to create a beleaguered spouse’s revenge plot or show a character as strong or noble because she was raped. The scenario that is depicted today feeds into ideas about how women should react to violence and abuse - that there is always more dignity in "not giving power" to that person, but that is the same line of reasoning that people use to dismiss sexism and racism. The idea is that by acknowledging injustice, we are somehow allowing it to continue. It's completely illogical, but remains very popular argument, nonetheless.

            Even though the majority of rape survivors don’t report crimes to police, 40 percent of rape survivors come forward, and to leave them out of the equation is to deny telling valuable stories. These stories usually aren’t uplifting in reality, with only 10 percent of reports leading to an arrest and 97 percent of rapists never spending a day in jail according to the 2006 to 2010 FBI Uniform Crime report. But if you watch today’s most lauded shows, many of them aren’t tied up with a neat little bow. Orange is The New Black, The Big C, Nurse Jackie, Mad Men and the recently ended Breaking Bad, are all quite dark in nature. Why can’t we represent rape as the reality it often is, when we portray so many other parts of life in a raw and honest format?

The Problem With The Media's Reporting of L'Wren Scott's Death

L’Wren Scott was 49 years-old when she died yesterday, but from the headlines you read yesterday, you would have thought that the past decade plus she spent with Mick Jagger were the only years that mattered. I was surprised at the consistency with which so many major news outlets identified her as a girlfriend in the headline: CNN, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, USA Today, Fox News. Even her Wikipedia entry began with her relationship with Mick Jagger. Reuters was one of the few news outlets to simply mention her career as a designer in the headline.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I knew her name without the mention of Jagger. L’Wren Scott is a designer whose dresses have appeared on Nicole Kidman, Naomi Campbell Michelle Obama and Uma Thurman, to name a few. She was a towering woman with an interesting past. She grew up Mormon and left Utah for Paris following high school.

She doesn’t need Mick Jagger to make her interesting.

But this isn’t a problem that begins and ends with L’Wren Scott. The media has a problem covering women’s careers when they’re alive, and unfortunately, those problems carry over to reporting their deaths. Women continue to be identified by the men they are linked to, whether through marriage or a long partnership.

A recent example is New York Times Magazine’s cover featuring a picture Wendy Davis, asking, “Can Wendy Davis Have it All?” The question, which wouldn’t exist had the magazine covered a male politician, also served to accuse her of being selfish. It could also be substituted for any prominent woman in the media.

We also have the example of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s chief spokeswoman Lis Smith, whose dating life quickly became bigger news than her work with the mayor. Smith had to leave her position after the New York Post viciously attacked her for dating Eliot Spitzer.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when the media highlights a woman’s dating life above her accomplishments once she has passed. If we brought more attention to the absurdity of this practice when women are alive, I’m sure it would be far less common once a woman’s entire life story must be written.

We saw it most glaringly in the case of Yvonne Brill. The New York Times obituary chose to highlight her cooking before mentioning what she did for a living, which isn’t customary for an obituary. The way the obituary was written, with the word “but” leading the next sentence, the writer made it appear as if Brill’s wonderful mothering and cooking skills were surprising once you realize she was a brilliant rocket scientist.

Perhaps the outcry over L’Wren Scott’s lack of recognition will convince editors to look inward and consider why they choose the headlines they do, and what informs their point of view when they do. Our attitudes become especially clear in the case of a tragic death like this, in which news outlets race to report the information as quickly as possible.  It’s when we’re running to the finish line, acting almost on instinct, that our prejudices are most exposed.

Originally written 3/18/14