Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Attack of the Big She-Cats

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

What's with all the big-cat metaphors for women of a certain age? Unless you've been in an induced coma all this week, by now you've heard the acronym PUMA - "Party Unity My Ass" - for intransigent Hillary supporters, which as we all know, are all foaming-at-the-mouth, ferociously menopausal women.

Never mind that Katha Pollitt looked for these legendary beasts in Denver and couldn't find any. They were all circling around Chris Matthews like a pride of lions around potential meat, I suppose. Here's what Katha saw:
I thought I might find some PUMAs at the Equalitea-- like every other journalist here, I want to track down those elusive felines. (Later I learn they have spent the day hanging with Chris Matthews, getting enormous amounts of exposure and making women look like lunatics.) In the powder room I run into Ellie Smeal and Mavis Leno. "What about those PUMAs?" I ask.

"There has to be some reality here," Ellie says exasperatedly. "Personally I think a lot of these people were McCain supporters all along. I know plenty of women who gave heart and soul to Hillary who are with Obama now."

(The Nation has the rest of Katha's amusing PUMA hunt.)
Yeah, it's not that to-the-death Clinton loyalists don't exist. They do. They have legitimate gripes against the media's sexism during the primary; not so legitimate against Obama's campaign. Those few who are still holding out on Obama are just playing straight into the Republicans' paws. As Nora Ephron writes in today's Huffington Post, preserving Roe v. Wade ought to be argument enough to sway every remaining Clintonista into the Obama camp.

But most of these alleged PUMAs are the product of Republican machinations. Amanda Marcotte has been exposing the thinness of the PUMA narrative for nearly two months now. At least some of them are this season's version of the Roveian Swiftboaters or the Nixonian ratfuckers.

And then there are the even wackier PUMAs who've crept out of the LaRouche wilderness. Some followers Lyndon LaRouche showed up at Obama's Berlin speech, as my friend Kevin at Rumproast reported a few weeks ago. LaRouchians in Berlin? Not exactly my idea of a broadbased American movement.

The PUMA appellation comes on top of "cougars," those predatory over-the-hill gals on the hunt for tender young man-meat. And with two data points, I think we've got a budding metaphorical field - a new way of framing aggressive, powerful femininity.

I dunno. It's no secret I love cats. I'm fascinated by the big ones, too. But there's no shortage of condescension and misogyny in both of these terms. As Kate Harding acidly observes at Salon, by some definitions, a 40-year-old woman dating a 35-year-old cub already counts as a cougar. A PUMA is by definition shrill and irrational.

So there's no question that pumas and cougars are yet another expression of backlash against feminism. These cats aren't meant to evoke beauty or grace. They're an expression of fear. My gut says it's mostly male fear, but that may be unfair. Lots of women, too, fear powerful female politicians (who put their own powerless into relief or just get branded as bitches). Or they worry that overtly sexual women might steal their man.

The metaphors draw on the current of cultural ailurophobia that goes back at least to the witchhunts, and that has been wed to misogyny ever since. If a pussycat can be a witch's familiar, how much worse these big kitties! In a world where insect bites account for far more disease, death, and misery, we still hold these shared fears of the great cats as - tellingly - "man eaters."

And yet there's an optimistic way to view these big she-cats, too. By definition, backlash only occurs when there's something substantial to oppose. It's no coincidence, I think, that this frame is appearing in parallel with Clinton's candidacy and media reports of women have sex just because they want to.

And didn't Helen Reddy sing it first? "I am woman, hear me ROAR!"

So we've got two options, as I see it, which aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. We can ironically appropriate these catticisms, much like feminists have taken back "bitch"; we can be tigresses and lionesses, or at least mama ocelots. Or we can mock them altogether. You've probably already seen this wonderful spoof that ran on the Daily Show last month, but if you haven't, it'll be your best-spent five minutes of the day.


Laura said...


I'm a political junkie and a policy wonk, first and foremost. I can't help but feel a certain distaste for the PUMA narrative and the counter-narrative alike.

That having been said, anecdotally, I have observed ambivalence of Clinton supporters towards Obama. Yes, I'm describing myself, but I'm also describing most of my friends.

As for McCain, say what you want, but he isn't a moralist. And I don't think he's really anti-choice. In 2000, when he gave unprecedented access to press on his straighttalkexpress, he was asked how he'd react if his daughter, Meghan, got knocked up as a teen. His reply: "The final decision would be made by Meghan with our advice and counsel."

Also, I don't think Roberts has it in him to repeal Roe v Wade.

Sungold said...

I totally understand that you and lots of other Clinton supporters are ambivalent. That's really OK. What I object to is the sort of purism that might keep people home on November 4 - it's too reminiscent of people voting for Ralph Nader in 2000, and look where *that* got us.

At the same time, I *deeply* object to the depiction of Clinton supporters as hysterical and shrill. The media have a lot to answer for, and the sexism hasn't stopped just because Clinton is now out of the race. The PUMA narrative is part of that.

No, McCain isn't a moralist. Sadly, though, I'm afraid he's become an opportunist. He knows this is his one remaining shot at the presidency, and I think he's making lots of compromises. The "maverick" has ridden off into the sunset, leaving a panderer in his place. (To be fair, I've seen Obama pander to the mushy middle in recent months, too, and I've called him out on it, not that I've got his ear!)

So it doesn't matter if McCain personally supports abortion rights. What matters is what he'll do to appease the religious right. And so far, that's definitely meant taking a strong anti-choice position.

The next president is likely to appoint more than one Supreme Court justice, and if they are all Scalitos, then Roberts' natural caution (which you might read correctly, I'm not sure) would be irrelevant. Then again, plenty of appointees have surprised us once actually on the bench - first and foremost, David Souter. I'm just not willing to bank on that, though.