Last week, Republican state representative Todd Akin used a dog comparison to describe his opponent Claire McCaskill. Akin just can't seem to decide what kind of animal she is more like. Earlier in the month he said she was like a "wildcat out of the cage." Poor guy. Her behavior has his head spinning in a tizzy of animal analogies. It came and went in a news cycle dominated by rape.
But, his language is important and should not be dismissed casually. To be perfectly clear, Akin did not call McCaskill a dog. He said she behaved like a dog. His exact word were: "like one of those dogs, you know, 'fetch.'" He could easily have said the same thing about a male opponent. But, the truth is, calling a man a dog has a different connotation than calling a woman a dog.
We all know women can be bitches sometimes, right? Unless they're cougars, that is -- or if they're a bit younger, more like vixens or foxes. They can take out their claws out or put them away. Because, as we know, when it comes to girls and women, who doesn't love a good catfight? On the gentler side, less sexual and dangerous are girls and younger women, softer and fuzzier, more like bunnies, or, as the English say, "birds." Either way, diminutive and harmless like small, cuddly, pets. And, whereas you might say that a tittering group of women are "hens," you would think twice about calling a group of men doing the same thing, say, "cocks." Just doesn't roll of the tongue the same way.
So what? Why does it even matter? After all, we have the deficit to worry about.
Everyone does it, using language that renders women as animals -- either as objects (of lust, for example) or contempt (as in a dog) -- and I know, even liberals love dogs, so what's the big deal; the list is endlessly long. This culturally ingrained habit of regularly dehumanizing half the world's population through linguistic microaggression, is not limited to any one country or religion, or followers of one or another ideology.
Think of the context for Akin's words, though. We have a serious imbalance in leadership and the imbalance has never been so obvious as this election season. It is not exaggeration to say "men rule." Women public figures on the right and the left are regularly assaulted in misogynistic ways in media. The conservative media holds no monopoly on misogyny or slut-shaming as a way to silence women, all of whom are subject to vile insult and abuse, examples of which are readily available on both liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum. It's inhibitory to political gender parity. What is notable about Akin and others with a similar bent is where and how they use the language, however.
In U.S. politics a particular trend has emerged among a certain set of conservative lawmakers: that of equating women with farm animals and, yes, dogs in political discourse and in legislative sessions. This is qualitatively different from media sexism and denigration, which, although complicit in the underrepresentation of women in politics, is not directly involved in the making of laws.
Conservative, Republican legislators are using this language that regularly portrays women as dumb animals, unselfconsciously, during political discourse in the formulation of how we distribute rights and justice. They are uniquely using this language and the deeply held attitudes that it reflects to deprive women of their humanity and rights:
When talking about health care and reproductive rights, right-wing politicians and legislators favor pigs, cows and livestock in their revelatory "women are not quite human" word choices. What do these animals share?
- They're domesticated: docile and tame.
- They're often used for controlled breeding and reproductive purposes.
- They're generally considered dumb and unthinking, and there is the implication that they are immature and dependent.
- They're often thought of as unclean.
- They're not dangerous or threatening (i.e. sexual and powerful).
- They're a consumable resource.
Farm animals don't act independently. They have sex for breeding, not for pleasure, and the choice of partners and conditions of the sex they have are controlled by their masters. They certainly don't try to disturb the natural order of things, namely male dominion. It would be kind of fitting given the rise of what has been termed Christian fascism and the linguistic echoes of Animal Farm. If it weren't so icky. (Don't take my word for it, check out Michelle Goldberg's excellent Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism or Chris Hedges' American Fascists: The Christian Right and The War on America, or Jeff Sharlet's The Family: The Secret Foundation of Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.)
When women are not domesticated -- i.e., operating beyond the control of white men -- whether they're white or women of color, if they debate forcefully, or demand the right to free agency, or a social safety net that spares their children from starvation, they're often depicted as sexualized and base, making them dogs or wild animals. A woman like Claire McCaskill -- who refuses to play by "legitimate" rules of how ladies should behave, well... she's firmly in bitch-land... something more likely to be reserved for younger or maybe darker women. That McCaskill is like a dog who fetches should come as no surprise and is unexceptional when seen as part of this pattern. The word's use has been consistently on the rise, which has nothing to do, of course with a conservative backlash against growing women's equality. The fact that the word is experiencing a reclamation would be incomprehensible to conservative men who use it, and words like it, to describe women as:
- Mean and aggressive (that would be "unladylike")
- Whiney and difficult
- Worthy of disdain
- Dirty and underfoot
- Something that does what you want upon command
In the female-objectifying worldview of many right-wing politicians with the authority to alter laws and deleteriously impact women's bodies, it very often seems that a woman can only be one of two things: dangerously wild, sexually rapacious, incapable of reason and therefore decision-making on her own behalf (a slut or a bitch, in other words), or a docile, breedable resource, entirely dependent and subject to compulsory pregnancy determined by others. In either case, these are dangerous grounds for justifying legislation that subordinates a woman's rights to her reproductive and sexual potential.
Animal comparisons like these have been and remain more extreme for women of color, who have to live with a level of racialized sexual aggression that white women don't, enduring the double-whammy of both gendered and racialized animalistic insults. Consider this on the "innocent" side of the spectrum: In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana, Disney's first African-American princess, spent at least half of the movie as a green amphibian. Until Disney released The Princess and the Frog in 2009, the only vaguely black prince and princess characters in a Disney film were wild animals on the African savannah ( The Lion King ). There isn't far to travel between these representations in mainstream culture and children's entertainment and Bauer's poor, mainly women, who "breed" while being fed like "stray animals."
To be sure, there are instances of men referred to as asses or pigs, but just Google images for "women as animals" and then "men as animals" and see what happens. When men are compared to animals, it is usually because they do something disgusting not because they are something base. Linguistics studies show however that and studies show that although, clearly, there are men-as-animal linguistic comparisons, female-as-animal comparisons are universally more common and pervasive. In addition, the salient aspect of comparing girls and women to animals is not their behavior (as say, an accusation of sluttiness), it is their gender. There is a difference between an undesirable behavior and an undesirable essence. Between a being with agency (hence, acting) and an object (like say, in a binder.)
I also realize that thinking that animal comparisons are demeaning to women is, well, oppressive to animals. There are legitimate connections to be made between the treatment and slaughter of animals and a culture's propensity for violence against women.
Regardless of race or ethnicity or political party, all women are by implication of this language and imagery made less than human in the eyes of the law and are subject to ideas regarding male dominion, especially among radical Christian conservatives intent on injecting their theology into our government and onto our bodies. This language reflects a fundamental belief in the "otherness" of genders in regards to one another, and a hierarchy of power that is essential to a patriarchal, conservative world view.
Let me state right here -- the moderate Republican woman I know meet none of these criteria. As individuals they are independent, strong, smart and generally not subject to any one man's rule. However, none of that has made a dent in the policies or leadership of a party that has swung so far to the right that it is comfortable promoting and endorsing ignorant men who know nothing about science, women's health or empathy. When their ideas move from the private realm into the public and legislative one all women suffer or pay not to. Rape, incest and death of the mother abortion exceptions -- all ways for men to decide when a woman should or should not be pregnant -- require the woman to pay for rights and for her decision not to be pregnant through pain and suffering. Like animals.
Portions of this post first appeared in Alternet's "Six Absurdly Demeaning Conservative Attacks on Women"