- Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture by Kristina Horn Sheeler, Karrin Vasby Anderson
“Will she or won’t she?” That is the question numerous political pundits are asking about Hillary Clinton’s possible presidential run in 2016. Theories abound over whether the former first lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State will return to the political arena once more, or if she will retire from public life for good. But the conversations about Clinton’s potential campaign extend beyond the evening news. As Kristina Horn Sheeler and Karrin Vasby Anderson remind us in their ambitious book, “the US presidency both establishes and reflects political and cultural norms” and is “a site on which cultural anxieties about gender and power are located, contested, and perpetually recognized” (9). Through their analysis of campaign oratory, journalistic framing, pornification of the presidential body, and political parody during the 2008 presidential election, Sheeler and Anderson have given scholars an indispensable body of rhetorical scholarship that provides critical insights into the relationship between gender, postfeminism, power, and the U.S. presidency.
In the introduction to Woman President, Sheeler and Anderson acknowledge that defining “the words feminism, antifeminism, and postfeminism . . . is a tricky and potentially treacherous task because there are almost as many possible definitions of feminism as there are people who call themselves feminist” (4). Because these terms are often debated within academic circles and the general public, their definitions are worth parsing out here. They write that “feminists believe that people of all sexes and genders deserve equal value, treatment, and opportunity in social, cultural, relational, political, and economic spheres” (4). The authors then differentiate between antifeminism and postfeminism, noting that if “antifeminism rages against the feminist machine,” then postfeminism describes “the [End Page 177] politically charged assertion that feminism’s work is complete and, therefore, that a politics of gender justice is irrelevant, unnecessary, and passé” (6, 2). These distinctions are particularly important for Sheeler and Anderson’s project because their analysis of the 2008 presidential campaign shows how both antifeminism and postfeminism shape U.S. political culture and the public perception of female candidates.
In chapter 1, Sheeler and Anderson begin by considering how the “pioneer” frame has constrained female presidential candidates in the United States. They argue that this metaphor “represents a significant discursive component impeding US women’s presidential aspirations, one that is obscured by the rhetoric of postfeminism” (17). Not only does this frame undermine “the credibility of women candidates” but also it “obscures women’s progress in the political sphere” (17). Where male presidents such as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln have been credited with political and cultural achievements hailed as national “firsts,” the pioneer metaphor suggests that female politicians will succeed only after they break the final glass ceiling as the “first” female U.S. president. Although critics often celebrate “women who are as capable as men of presidential leadership and those who pave the way to the Oval Office,” Sheeler and Anderson argue that these commentators have ignored how “this framing also comports with postfeminist rhetoric, intimating that the election of a woman president is inevitable—only the passage of time and the industry of individual women candidates are needed in order for women to conquer the final frontier of the US presidency” (21). To demonstrate this claim, they briefly examine female presidential bids throughout U.S. history and use the announcement speeches of Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Chase Smith, Elizabeth Dole, and Carol Moseley to show how the pioneer metaphor rhetorically constrained their candidacies. Sheeler and Anderson extend this pioneer metaphor to their analysis of various cultural representations of female politicians. In chapter 2, they examine “gendered presidentiality as it has been articulated in popular film and television” and show how these movies and television series characterize “fictional women presidents as primarily sexual, maternal, and humanitarian,” thus “paradoxically reif[ying] the notion that women are ill suited to the US presidency” (40). This discussion aptly demonstrates how even television shows heralded for featuring a...