March 2, 2016

GROSKAUFMANIS | Gender, Politics and Punchlines

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There’s an old riddle that goes like this:

A father and son have a car accident and are both badly hurt. They are both taken to separate hospitals. When the boy is taken in for an operation, the surgeon says, “I cannot do the surgery because this is my son.” How is this possible?

Spoiler alert: the surgeon is his mother. That’s the punchline. The crux of this riddle is an issue of gender, and a reflection on how society often typecasts powerful, competent women as anomalies—so much so that they warrant a puzzle that manages to stump people’s minds. This riddle isn’t some antique relic that I pulled from the 1800s; it’s still told today. This is where we are.

When I was little—like many kids growing up in the United States—I decided that it would be awesome to be the president’s daughter: you live in a sick house, your life seems glamorous and the likelihood of you getting a dog seems to increase tenfold. The 2004 election rolled around, and I suggested to my Dad that he become president. He then informed me that, in addition to having no political ambitions, he was not eligible to run for president because he is an immigrant. I was bummed.

In retrospect, the only sad part about this scenario is the fact that it didn’t even occur to me that perhaps my mother—who was born in Brooklyn—could become president. I was living a real life version of a sexist riddle, and at the age of seven, had already internalized a million messages that told me what women could and could not do.

The fact that my parents are very similar makes my riddle all the more interesting. They are the same age, with the same level of education and they even work the same job. The only relevant contrast between them—which I can infer was the contrast that caused me to exclude my Mom from consideration—is their gender.

It’s important to consider the fact that I didn’t consciously look at the two of them, side by side and weigh their credentials. I didn’t actively think, “My Dad is a man, and my Mom is a woman, therefore my Dad would make a better president” or anything along those lines. Worse: I didn’t even consider the possibility of my Mom becoming president. The image of her as a candidate never materialized in my young mind. I wasn’t actively, or knowingly, dismissing her— I was overlooking her altogether.

Of course, I didn’t have a sinister, misogynistic agenda to push in second grade. Nor do I think that I viewed my mother as inferior to my father. I simply didn’t know any better, and I didn’t have any evidence to convince me that, as a female, becoming president was a possible feat. In fact, both past precedent and societal norms indicate the contrary. The minds of children are interesting in that they are both honest and attentive—they absorb what they see around them, and they relay that information candidly. They are also incredibly malleable, and the lack of critical thought of my seven-year-old self shows that this implicit sexism wasn’t something I had much agency in, but was something that I learned.

At this point you might be thinking: who cares? Or that I was simply a silly women-in-elective-office-2015_54bfbd1419bb5_w540child, and that this is a silly example.But my story isn’t an isolated incident, it’s an anecdotal representation of a trend that has presented itself in numerous forms for generations: from riddles, to disproportionate representation of women in office, to my own “silly” experience.

Lately, there has been a lot of buzz about Hilary Clinton, about how she is a woman and how her gender performance has been both an asset and a grenade throughout her campaign. Media reporting on Clinton has often been sexist, condescending or dismissive. This isn’t a commentary on the 2016 election, but rather a meditation on the gender imbalance that continues to be evident in both politics and in society. Women make up 50 percent of the United States population, but only 20 percent of the seats in Congress. I’m not advocating for quotas, and I’m not even necessarily advocating for Clinton; what I’m advocating for is the empowerment and representation of women, until female power is no longer a confusing concept.

Photo Courtesy of Ueatexas

Photo Courtesy of Ueatexas

Something needs to change – not just for these candidates, but also for the seven-year-old girls who don’t think that their Moms can be president, and for the seven-year-old girls who then, transitively, don’t think that they themselves can be president either.

Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a freshman studying English and Government in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her posts appear on alternate Tuesdays this semester. She can be reached at jag427@cornell.edu.

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