In the wake of November’s presidential election, many people are still trying to figure out how a candidate who has behaved in such explicitly sexist ways could have won. We seem to have made huge strides toward gender equality in the past several decades. What does Trump’s election tell us? Is gender equality a vain hope? Is the country still deeply mired in misogyny?
To begin to answer those questions, it’s helpful to step back and consider how a society provides a basis for broad social coördination. Incentives do part of the work: we create laws that discourage harming others and encourage prosocial behavior. However, laws are only a small part of the picture. For example, no one is legally required to have the day’s main meal in the evening, but most Americans do. This is a cultural practice that promotes coördination: workday hours, retail hours, meal breaks in schools and workplaces, family time, and homework time are (or used to be) organized around breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In cultures where the main meal happens at midday, work and leisure are organized differently. Social institutions and policies are often constructed to accommodate expectations established by culture and, in turn, reinforce cultural norms.
Culture facilitates social coördination in part by providing narratives and, with them, identities. Those cultural narratives are deeply entrenched and shape values. A common song on American playgrounds teaches norms for family formation: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.” The song normalizes what, in fact, are local terms of coördination. In cultures where marriage is arranged, love comes after marriage; until recently, love was followed by marriage only for heterosexuals; babies don’t always follow, now that birth control is readily available and many couples marry later; and babies sometimes come before marriage, and marriage doesn’t always happen even when there are babies. The narratives, however, persist. And they are a source of expectations—of order and, potentially, of social stability. They are also a basis for condemnation and control.
In the past several decades, the narratives that organize American social life have been disrupted by feminism, the civil rights and LGBTQ movements, globalization, economic crisis, and other social and political developments. Migration and immigration considerably complicate the task of coördination, and economic pressures have impinged on every aspect of life. Society feels fragmented, and coördination is difficult. That’s partly because the established narratives about family structure, class mobility, gender roles, and American values—narratives that provided a basis for coöperation in the 1950s, or even the ’80s—don’t work well anymore; laws and policies that once undergirded them have been overturned. Many people have benefited from this, but meanwhile, globalization and the economic crisis have caused others to suffer tremendously.
Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 promised a path to healing our social fragmentation. He wove together multiple narratives on a theme of overcoming hardship and injustice together. The resulting vision offered unity across diversity: “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.” E pluribus unum.
The speech was moving, but it didn’t work … or hasn’t yet. During the Obama administration, unemployment fell considerably and millions gained health-care coverage. But the hoped-for unity was blocked, and we are far from living the American dream. The wealth gap is enormous and increasing, secure jobs are scarce, child poverty is devastating, health care is costly, race relations are worsening, and women’s reproductive rights have been steadily undermined. Hillary Clinton tried to revive the narrative of “stronger together,” but it was no longer convincing. More convincing was Donald Trump’s backward-looking narrative that America could be great “again.” Doubters have asked: When was it great, exactly, and what specifically was the nature of the greatness? But the slogan’s very vagueness triggers any number of nostalgic longings, however misguided.
Still, it takes more than simple nostalgia to explain why the “Great Again” narrative proved more compelling than “Stronger Together” in the 2016 election. Gender also served as an important lens for evaluating both Clinton’s and Trump’s fitness for office—and gender narratives often intersected with the broader issue of whether we should look back for our model of how to move forward. Many were shocked that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, despite substantial evidence of Trump’s sexism and misogyny (see www.technologyreview.com/election-sexism for my previous essay on this topic). But one reason so many women were able to overlook Trump’s sexism is that there are two starkly different ways of reading Trump’s behavior toward women.
According to one gender relations narrative, women have an equal right to power and prestige, and men’s harassment is an abuse of power that women should not endure. This “power” narrative offers several options for interpreting unwanted advances:
-That was illegal harassment/abuse—don’t let him
get away with it!
-He clearly hates women; otherwise he would show
-Your feelings of violation are completely warranted;
he is untrustworthy.
-This is just one way that men keep women in their place.
Another narrative, however, is based on the idea that men’s harassment of women is about male sexual desire gone a bit too far. This “bad boy” narrative yields alternative interpretations:
-He just finds you sexy—you should be honored!
-He is just showing off.
-He wasn’t really harassing you; it was in your head.
-That’s just the way guys are.
-Don’t pay attention to him and he will stop.
-Get over it and stop being so sensitive. There are more
important things to worry about.
-He’s just like that around women who “ask for it.”
These competing narratives represent two very different frames for coöperation. The “power” narrative suggests that at least in the public space, men and women are (or should be) just persons, viewed and treated the same way; this is held up as a source of our strength. The “bad boy” narrative is backed by the nostalgic idea that men and women are different and their behavior should conform to different norms.
Ironically, Clinton’s campaign was hurt because it seemed to rely on the “bad boy” narrative as well as the “power” narrative. While Hillary Clinton stood for women’s right to power and prestige, neither she nor her party addressed her husband’s history of sexual misconduct as an abuse of power. Instead, it was treated as “bad boy” behavior. The resulting cognitive dissonance—is Hillary really trustworthy when it comes to the uses and abuses of power?—affected voters on both the left and the right. So even some voters who believe women do have an equal right to power and prestige resolved this dissonance by rejecting Hillary’s bid for the presidency.
Trump’s slogan that America can be great “again” seems to promise a return to a time when gender roles were clear—when boys would be boys, and girls would understand and forgive them. For those in need of a familiar and enduring narrative, Trump’s “bad boy” behavior was not enough to sink his campaign, for it actually met and affirmed traditional expectations. But was that yearned-for “golden age” all that it is cracked up to be? Historian Stephanie Coontz has argued that “the male breadwinner family of the 1950s was a very recent, short-lived invention and that during its heyday, rates of poverty, child abuse, marital unhappiness, and domestic violence were actually higher than in the more diverse 1990s.” Nostalgia is often a trap.
It’s worth noting, however, that some of the “bad boy” scripts that allowed women to vote for Trump are, in fact, affirmations of women’s strength and resilience in the face of sexism. Women survive stupid, offensive, and illegal treatment by men on a regular basis. Of course we shouldn’t have to, but we do. And because women’s material interests are strongly linked to their immediate family and class position, under economic stress such material interests tend to dominate. At a time when many families and communities are facing unemployment, illness without affordable health care, crime, and police misconduct, Trump—partly because he used the familiar narratives—seems to have spoken more effectively than Clinton to the burdens of class and identity (at least on white voters). Sexism remains the background condition for women’s lives, and narratives that excuse men’s bad behavior and blame women protect it from challenge. The election made this more visible than ever.
The limits—and power—of narratives
Simplifying devices are inevitable if we are going to coördinate; we must start from some common ground that frames the possibilities for action. But relying on narratives to make sense of our lives limits what we can know or even think. It’s critical, therefore, that we evaluate those narratives carefully. Some work, others don’t; some are apt, and others are not. The narrative that harassers only harass those who “ask for it” is false; the idea that sexually grabbing or kissing women without their consent is illegal is true. We must always examine the aptness of the narratives we rely on and ask whose interests they serve.
But the challenge isn’t only about what’s true and false. Narratives provide a lens through which we interpret the social world, and to the extent that we act on them, we make them true. Dinner is our main meal; this is both a script and a fact. Because narratives are constructed to aid coöperation, our first priority should be to craft narratives that will make it possible for us to live together in justice. Developing such narratives and helping them take root, however, is no simple matter; it is a long, and often painful, process. Crafting more just and accurate narratives is not the job of talking heads or politicians. It is our job, together.
Sally Haslanger is the Ford Professor of Philosophy at MIT and an affiliate in the MIT Women’s and Gender Studies Program.
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