Oh, come on, do we need this? I know, I know, it's cute. STAINLESS STEEL THIGHS! FEEL THE SQUEEZE!
Perhaps the fact that a major party is about to nominate either a female or an African-American male to be president of the United States is so lacking in controversy, so quietly ho-hum, that a little adolescent gender humor on the side is no big deal, either.
Enter -- stage right? stage left? -- the Hillary Nutcracker, a hot-selling novelty product of the 2008 political season that has gotten some fawning and even enthusiastic press, with right-wing MSNBC pundit Tucker Carlson so moved by the nutcracker he all but confessed his castration complex regarding Ms. Clinton, all in fun, of course. This is political discourse in America.
I'm still trying to figure out what to make of it -- feeling at once troubled that this is more cultural rollback, that it's OK (again, still) to mock the concept of women in power with quasi-sexual guffaws that mask deep male anger and fear, a la Tucker Carlson; yet at the same time swayed by the idea that this light-hearted product, while it has obvious appeal to Hillary haters, could also appeal to her supporters and to women in general because it conveys female empowerment, and in any case it's funny, and sometimes it's OK to just lighten up.
The Hillary Nutcracker is just that: an 8-inch plastic Hillary figure, smiling, arms crossed, that cracks nuts between its legs. The product's Web site works hard to be nonpartisan, spoofing politicians and pundits of all stripes, and designer Gibson Carothers, who says he's sold 200,000 nutcrackers so far, vigorously defended the benign, even pro-Hillary nature of the nutcracker in an e-mail exchange with me.
"I'm sure you will be surprised to know that our best estimate is that sales are breaking almost 50-50 between supporters and detractors. And the buyers are overwhelmingly women," he wrote ( see our complete exchange). "The supporters see it portraying Ms. Clinton as a tough leader who can handle right wing nuts."
He adds: "Amazingly . . . the buyers are almost all women. My attorney is a feminist. She thinks Hillary should put the nutcracker on the podium every time she speaks. One other interesting point to me, and you'll just have to believe me on this, is the paucity of complaints we have gotten -- about 10 negative e-mails from over a million visits to our web site."
Well, OK. My own modest survey of mostly women yielded a far higher percentage of negative reaction, and I stress that the negativity wasn't simply humorlessness; it was more like a sharp stab of pain, followed by fury or the memory of some injury caused by an arrogant or dominating male jerk.
That said, I add in all fairness that other women -- including some who, I thought, would surely be offended by the Hillary Nutcracker -- were ambivalent at most and saw in it at least some of what Carothers was talking about.
"It's juvenile," said Carmen, a thirtysomething mom. "But it's less offensive because the culture has changed. There's more awareness of violence against women. It's sexist lite."
When I suggested that it struck me as the equivalent of a racist caricature of Barack Obama -- a Barack lawn jockey, say -- she disagreed. The latter "has no silver lining. It's totally racist. The silver lining of the Hillary Nutcracker is that it does humorously and forcefully exude power.
"What makes it OK," she added, "is that we've gone forward as a society. But when the media embrace it . . ."
Well, that gets worrisome, she acknowledged. It obliterates the hard-won consciousness of the last 30 or so years. It rolls back awareness "past 'take back the night,'" to the good old days of, oh, forever. ("But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence." -- 1 Timothy 2:12)
Some of that media reaction can be found at hillarynutcracker.com, including a bizarre MSNBC segment in which Carlson, after a cohort describes the product, exclaims, "That is so perfect. I have often said, when she comes on TV, I involuntarily cross my legs."
Here's where my impulse is to weep for my country. Commentary this dumb seems like the norm, doesn't it? There is a vacuity, a collective stupidity of the airwaves, that feels conspiratorial in nature. News is at least 90 percent context, and the smirky commentators and coiffed anchorpersons of the tube create a context that plays at about the eighth-grade level, a circumstance even more acutely painful in an election year with stakes as high as this one.
Sexism lite? Good fun? Castration? Let me know what you think.
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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
© 2008 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.