One of the main things I do here at the Houston Press is study and report on the way people interact online, and this looooooong election cycle is chock-full of interesting data, especially regarding unexamined sexist attitudes. To me, nothing sums that up better than a sentence I’ve seen repeated hundreds if not thousands of times on social media, mostly from people called out on problematic statements regarding women. That sentence is, “I would happily be voting for Elizabeth Warren.”
Elizabeth Warren is everyone’s political girlfriend who lives in Canada. She’s the perfect female candidate for president in 2016 in that she isn’t actually running, and thus her danger to the patriarchal power system is just a thought exercise rather than the reality embodied in Clinton. Because Warren decided not to run, it is perfectly safe to project all our hopes for a liberal utopia on her and dump all our vague anxieties regarding the rise of a woman to the last great seat of traditionally male power on Clinton. It’s win-win because it's imaginary and we control all the variables.
Truth is, most people who hide behind voting for Warren in a hypothetical presidential run know only two things about her: She is serious about reforming the financial sector and she is a woman. That, for a lot of people, makes her the Ms. Male of Bernie Sanders, which is a very, very unnuanced view of Warren. Point out that Warren has expressed critical support for Clinton’s financial reform plans and you tend to get a lot of disbelief back.
The idea that if Elizabeth Warren were running for president we’d all be holding hands and singing songs while Clinton skulked off into the shadows, never to be remembered or heard from again, is a fantasy so extreme that George R.R. Martin is already killing someone off in it. Fond as Sanders supporters (and yes, the horse-race-loving media) are of claiming that Clinton has been dogged by an opponent she just can’t quite beat, she hasn't been behind Sanders since Nevada. If you count superdelegates, she’s never been behind at all. She’s winning easily, and by a lot, always has been, and there is zero reason to think she wouldn’t put up a similar fight against Warren.
Which means we’d see the same sexist bullshit against Clinton as we’re seeing now; it would just be from the support base of another woman. Warren would have her own Bros, and probably Clinton as well. It would be a duel of different manifestations of entrenched misogyny and fear of female empowerment. Sexism doesn’t vanish because you do it in a Democratic woman’s name, and if Donald Trump does get the Republican nomination, you’ll see how right I am as the slut-shaming of his wife reaches truly disgusting levels. None of us are above the gendered culture programming.
And if Warren had run with Sanders in the field? Well, we already saw how quickly Sanders fans viciously turned on their imaginary political girlfriend when she refused to endorse him (or Clinton, for that matter), and some accused her of costing him a win in Massachusetts. That’s the problem when imaginary or symbolic women turn out to be real people. They often have thoughts and feelings and motivations of their own that are out of sync with the folks using them as a shield, and that means they are a threat to power. Even Republican women will only put up with anti-woman nonsense so far. I always say, the girl who can hang, will hang if she ever becomes inconvenient to the bros she hangs with. It happens all the time.
That’s not to say lots of people wouldn’t happily vote for Warren if she were running, or that she couldn’t be a more unifying figure than Clinton or Sanders, or that there aren’t good reasons to want her to be president. I like Warren and in no way am I trying to paint her as unqualified or a bad choice. I’m saying the Internet breeds mobs and meme-think, and the level of anti-Clinton online mob behaviors has a lot of precedent in the anti-feminist backlashes that have dominated the Internet over the past several years. Sometimes, it’s virtually impossible to distinguish between the shadiest and angriest of Sanders supporters and GamerGate.
Like GamerGate, with their cartoon girl mascot and their collection of rather tragic female supporters, Warren becomes a figure of safety, a vaccine against questioning our thoughts and actions. It’s okay to hate that woman running for president, because we like this woman running for president, even though this woman is only running for president in an alternative universe where sexism is dealt with and Prince is still alive and where am I going to put all these unicorns? Voting for Warren in that universe asks absolutely nothing of you in this one, which is why people are able to do so freely and without concern.
There are plenty of valid reasons not to want Clinton to be president, but there are also a lot of invalid reasons based purely on centuries of gender bias and decades of smear attacks aimed at her. The only way to know which ones you’re basing your perception of her on is to examine yourself deeply and often, and if your stock response to when someone points out sexism this election cycle is to hide behind your completely imaginary vote for Elizabeth Warren, then you need to do a little less arguing on the Internet and a little more coming to Jesus. These problems will not go away by your ignoring them.
Jef's collection of stories about vampires and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is available now. You can also find him on Patreon, Facebook and Twitter.