I live and work in Hollywood, the capital of celebrity flameouts – Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey Jr, etc. My local Beverly Hills and Malibu courthouse and police stations are stakeouts for paparazzi, snapping well-known actors looking washed-out and hungover as they do the “perp walk“. As the world knows, the latest crash-dive has been performed by Mel Gibson, whose widely reported (though so far unauthenticated) tirade against his Russian girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva has gone madly viral and even penetrated the inner sanctum of his agency, William Morris, which told him to seek new representation, on the Bad Samaritan principle of “kick a man when he’s down” and on the grounds that Gibson on tape supposedly screamed the “n” word, which might have offended the agents’ valuable African-American clients such as Denzel Washington and Spike Lee.
This being Hollywood, where sexism is the default mode, William Morris – led by Ari Emanuel, brother of Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm – did not bother to cite, or perhaps even think about, Gibson’s alleged physical assault against his girlfriend.
It’s economics. Male superstars make a heck of a lot more money than female actors. This, plus the historical fact that in the misogynist hearts of many studio executives, women just don’t count in life or at the box office (with the possible exception of Angelina Jolie). The time-worn mantra I’ve heard so many times is, “Women don’t open”, meaning a female-oriented movie is a money loser in the first two crucial weeks.
But outside the movieland bubble, an upsurging counter-revolution in gender politics means that more and more women, and rightwingers at that, have become a fact of American political life. This is especially true of anti-feminist but gender-proud Republican women who, led by “mama grizzly” Sarah Palin, are coming on like gangbusters.
This year, there are 239 female candidates running for Congress, rivalling 1992’s “Year of the Woman”. They are spitting mad, motivated by dark psychic energy, typically ultra-reactionary – but increasingly effective on the campaign trail. All of last month’s big primary races were won by women – Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman (California), Nikki Haley (South Carolina), Sharron Angle (Nevada) and a lone Democrat, Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas), who beat off a challenge from a liberal Democrat man.
Traditionally, women Republicans have played an important but backseat role in party politics. We haven’t yet produced an American Margaret Thatcher … but it may happen sooner than you think.
Despite – or because of – her Snopes-like family dramas (Yes! Bristol and Levi are re-engaged and may get married on a TV reality show!), Sarah Palin has become a serious player, notwithstanding the late-night Letterman/Leno/Colbert/Jon Stewart jokes. Radiating sexy self-confidence, she is behaving imperiously as what she has grown into: a queen- and king-maker in almost every state that has an impending primary or general election. Most recently, that was in South Carolina where her soundbites helped a scandal-plagued, long-shot candidate, Nikki Haley, to the winner’s circle. Candidates, even mainstream Republicans, vie and die for her Facebook endorsement.
But even if Palin didn’t exist, a new breed of essentially anti-feminist feminists is running for office – and gunning to occupy the White House. And – to be blunt – many of them, like Palin herself and Minnesota’s congresswoman, wild and wacky Michele Bachmann (who blames swine flu on Obama), are enviably telegenic. Bella Abzug is your mother’s feminist; this is a new species entirely – groomed, in every sense, for success.
Here in California, two extremely rich conservative corporate women, Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO, and Meg Whitman, of eBay fame, are running against old-style liberals, senator Barbara Boxer and former governor and current attorney general Jerry Brown. Whitman, fourth richest woman in California, has already spent $91m of her personal fortune to win the Republican primary. She is flooding the state with smart TV ads, as is Fiorina, whose “Jobs First!” campaign downplays her corporate record of firing workers and outsourcing jobs to China and India. Jerry Brown, meanwhile, is running a lazy laidback campaign, counting on previous name recognition. Boxer has the power (and money) of incumbency, but she is battling for a fourth six-year term at a time when anti-incumbency is the national mood.
This upsurge in Republican feminism of a brutal sort exalts mommyhood but ignores issues that most directly affect women. We’re lightyears away from yesteryear’s GOP women’s clubs, the Goldwater and Reagan conservative ladies, who, on occasion, championed the Equal Rights Amendment but then allowed the movement to slip into the hands of theocrats and pistol-packin’ mamas. The new breed of grizzly is here to stay. And, as I learned from my years in the United Kingdom, watching in horrified admiration as Margaret Thatcher wiped the floor with her male opposition, there’s nothing so powerful as a really angry woman.
CLANCY SIGAL is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com