There’s a tendency in our discourse to think of “gender” as this sort of specialized kind of topic, for the women’s pages and the officially sanctioned feminist writers, but what actually intrigues me about the topic, more than anything, is how pervasive anxieties about gender really are. Take this above video. Initially, it doesn’t seem like it has shit all to do with gender. It’s just Larry Kudlow mocking environmentalists who have concerns about animals losing their habitats because Larry Kudlow supports the Keystone pipeline and is willing to use a variety of rhetorical tricks to get people on his side. But that, of course, is the point. Without understanding the specific gender anxieties in our culture, you can’t really understand why this tactic is likely to be effective.
See, Kudlow is leaning hard on a trope that’s all over our culture, which is that caring about animals is “girly” and thus shameful. The complex arguments for why it’s important to retain biodiversity are pushed aside, and environmentalists are stereotyped as soft-hearted fools—a trait that is associated with women, especially young women—who get all weepy about kittens and puppies and don’t understand the big, manly issues at stake. Certainly, concern for animals isn’t a myth, and it’s true that both the animal rights movement and the more widespread anti-cruelty movements are female-dominated. Vegetarianism is female-dominated, too. Of course, if you’re not a misogynist, this fact is basically irrelevant—the notion that a movement is de facto less important because it’s female-dominated is pure sexist drivel.
But really this isn’t about rigid arguments, but about tapping deep anxieties about gender in order to taint environmentalism. Kudlow all but comes out and says that in order to “prove” that the viewer is not soft and feminine and weak and womanlike, he has to oppose the environmentalists and support the pipeline. It’s about redirecting concerns over evidence and real world effects to issues of identity and the male audience’s need to prove they aren’t women. This tactic also works on a lot of women, firing off their need to prove that while they are women, they aren’t That Kind of woman, that they are special snowflakes. Often, this sort of subtle sexism works better precisely because it encourages women to resist the sexism by saying that they particularly are better than other women, whereas more overt sexism—such as saying out loud that only stupid women care about animals—can often create a more feminist reaction of saying STFU with your stereotypes. Kudlow doesn’t need to be direct here. He can invoke the stereotype subtly and achieve the desired reaction in his audience—basically, to support the pipeline as a way to ward of the implication that they’re weak and feminine—and do so without saying anything so obnoxiously and obviously sexist that he gets called out on it.
Identity politics is an idea associated with the left, and while there are some people on the left who do play a crude game of identity politics, the fact of the matter is that it’s really the province of the right. Practically every pitch in right wing media is addressed straight at the identity anxiousness button. The audience is so prepped to hear it, too, that you don’t even need to come out and say it a lot. “You’re not some weak woman, are you?” is the background noise, the constant drumbeat that every other pitch falls in rhythm with.