Once upon a time, men lived in fear of powerful women with the power of the glamour. Glamours were terrifying — they could rob a man of his most precious belonging — his penis. In countless stories, witches kept these penises as bird-pets, and there were trees full of penises. Glamours were created by the lies that women told.
By now, most of us have seen a number of think pieces — which range from panicked to bemused — in which the facts about the two major candidates are laid out. On one side, you have a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, thrice-married businessman with a history of questionable business practices — which have bordered on the criminal — with no prior government experience who has proclaimed his admiration for the authoritarian, undemocratically elected head of one of our greatest military rivals: Donald Trump. On the other side, you have a woman who began her career as a children’s advocacy attorney who has spent most of her life engaged in public service — including serving as Secretary of State — who has also, despite being the “injured party” remained married to the same man for four decades, but who had an e-mail server at home so she could get work done when she wasn’t in the office and may have compromised security: Hillary Clinton.
The subject of these think pieces is to question why this eminently qualified woman is not the overwhelming favorite to win the election and why, fewer than 60 days out, Donald Trump continues to garner so much support. Inevitably, in the course of this type of article, Clinton’s “Achilles’ Heel” will be brought up; that is, that Hillary Clinton is a liar and that it’s the perception of her as untrustworthy — and would therefore make a terrible president — that is somehow managing to cancel out the fact that Donald Trump has consistently demonstrated that he is unqualified to be president and temperamentally unsuited for the job. And, on September 11th, when Clinton had to leave the memorial observances because of syncope due to pneumonia, the media reported on her illness in the sorts of buzzy tones that are usually reserved for those used when celebrities are found floating in bathtubs.
Perhaps even more puzzling when talking about which candidate the media sees as trustworthy is this: despite the fact that 71% of the “facts” that come out of Donald Trump’s mouth are rated by Politifact as “mostly false” or even worse lies than that, it is Hillary Clinton (who is “mostly false” or worse only 28% of the time) who is consistently portrayed by the media as a “liar.” The Atlantic has gone so far as to say that Hillary will lose the election if she continues to lie, but few outlets have issued such a forecast for Donald Trump, who lies three times more often than she does. Running “Hillary Clinton” and “lied” in a Google search brings up a plethora of search results. Yet, even in moments when Donald Trump lies, the press is much more likely to use softer synonyms in order not to use the word — such as when Politico referred to a Trump lie as “evading specifics.” When reporters have pointed out to other reporters that their reporting about Hillary Clinton appears biased, and that in an effort to present “both sides,” reporters are trying to make equivalent the minor infractions on Clinton’s part and Trump’s major disqualifying actions, other reporters argue that it is not the job of the media to make Hillary Clinton look better just because Donald Trump presents a threat to civilization.
Still, it is hard not to notice that a lot of reporting about Clinton is still hung up on the e-mails, and stayed there, until Clinton gave them the phrase “basket of intolerables” to work with. Donald Trump changes the subject so often that reporters fail in their duties to fact-check the latest words that have come out of his mouth. Trouble is, by the time they’ve fact-checked what Trump said on a particular morning, Trump has said two other things that have distracted everyone from the troubling thing he may have said earlier that day. The Trump campaign staff has discovered that the press are magpies, and as long as they keep presenting reporters with shiny things, no one will dig any further for the dirt underneath.
But, is it really that the press is just constantly distracted by Trump and is therefore not doing its job? After all, in Sunday’s Washington Post, David Fahrenthold’s investigative journalism revealed that the Trump Foundation is more interested in pretending to be a charitable organization with other people’s money rather than establishing a legacy, but the talk shows that morning still led with Clinton’s remarks and the e-mails rather than this real piece of news. And despite the fact that doctors have stepped forward to say that the syncope that Clinton suffered in reaction to the pneumonia — which was brought on by allergies — was a perfectly normal reaction to being dehydrated, and that to continue to obsess about the incident is evidence of bias, on Monday morning, the morning shows all led with Clinton’s health rather than focusing on Trump’s charity, the Trump-Bondi bribery scandal in Florida, or any of the other Trump scandals that have surfaced and then been allowed to submerge through lack of interest by the press.
Peter Beinart, writing in the Atlantic, argues that Trump continues to survive these scandals because what we are seeing is Fear of a Female President. I want to put aside for the moment that feminist political writers have been writing about this particular fear that Hillary inspires for years, in order to take advantage of the presence of this article — penned by a white male and published in the Atlantic — as a chance to talk about institutional sexism and how misogyny works. (Who knows, perhaps now that someone like Beinart is talking about sexism, other male pundits may be finally willing to engage seriously with the idea that some people are voting for Trump simply because he is a man.)
Beinart points to the enormous amount of misogynistic swag that was for sale in Cleveland as evidence of just how much hatred the core Trump supporters bear for Hillary. He argues that, just as Barack Obama’s election seems to have led to a counterintuitive “greater acceptance by whites of racist rhetoric,” an increase in misogynism has greeted Hillary. He says that the increase in sexist rhetoric around Hillary’s success — a backlash, as he terms it — is predictable.
His argument is that we are seeing the anxieties about “precarious manhood” playing out. Precarious manhood is the theory that “masculinity” is not a stable concept. A man can be made to feel less manly by events that happen to him that make him feel that he is not measuring up to the masculine ideals in our culture. If one of the basic understandings that a man has of his masculinity is that men are superior to women, then being subordinated to a woman president can cause men with this type of fragile manhood to react with anger and violence.
But Beinart thinks that Clinton is hated because she is a woman by only a certain portion of the population — those who showed up as the Trump core and were on full display in Cleveland. But I think that “basket of deplorables” extends beyond the inchoate mass that the media refers to as the “white working class” and on whom it has assigned all of America’s racist and sexist sins. While the media is not wearing t-shirts that proclaim their hatred of Clinton, they are participating in sexist stereotyping of Hillary each time they focus on her as a powerful woman who lies. And, with the addition of Clinton as the “sick woman,” the stereotype that the media has been building is now nearly complete.
The media’s own portrayal of Clinton is rooted in sexist stereotypes that it seems blind to. In fact, the constant emphasis on Hillary Clinton as a liar express, albeit in a more eloquent way, the same fears expressed by the rightwing misogynist screaming “trump that bitch” at a Trump rally. “Trump that bitch” and the media’s obsession with a sick, old woman who is a liar sounds remarkably like the stereotype of the vicious malefica — the witch.
Half a millennium ago, two Papal investigators set out to investigate the proliferation of heresy in Christendom. They were charged with the task by Innocent VIII in 1484, and their findings were gathered together in the MALLEUS MALEFICARUM (Hammer of Witches), first published in 1486. Kramer and Sprenger discovered that the populace was infected with heresy, and one of the greatest of these was witchcraft. In order to make clear to Pope Innocent, and to other inquisitors who would need to be armed with this manual that could serve as a weapon (thus the name –“hammer”), Kramer and Sprenger provided a full catalogue of the witch’s crimes. And they also helped to institutionalize the idea that in the parts of Europe where the book would be popular, the stereotyped identity of the witch would also include the detail of her sex — she would be female.
Why? Kramer and Sprenger devoted entire sections of the Malleus to answering the question of why witches were women. They marshaled their arguments to draw from sources ranging from the Old Testament, Cicero, Seneca, and Church Fathers such as John Chrysostom, who gave us “what else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with false colours!” (I’m always surprised that Chrysostom’s rant isn’t on MRA’s t-shirts everywhere.) In each example, women tell stories that get people killed, and the stories are fabrications. What Kramer and Sprenger established again and again is that women lie. In fact, “perfidy is more often found in women than in men,” and “she is a liar by nature.”
Lying makes woman susceptible to the devil, with whom she makes the diabolical pact, which gives her power. The witch’s greatest power is her direct attack on masculinity. The witch was capable of casting a spell that would render a man impotent — the most common of these was the casting of a spell while tying a knot in a piece of string. Even more frightening to the men who told their stories to Kramer and Sprenger were the witches’ glamours which caused men to lose their penises. At some point, someone told the two inquisitors about the penis tree. (see image at link)
“And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report? It is to be said that it is all done by devil’s work and illusion, for the senses of those who see them are deluded in the way we have said. For a certain man tells that, when he had lost his member, he approached a known witch to ask her to restore it to him. She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he liked out of a nest in which there were several members. And when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: You must not take that one; adding, because it belonged to a parish priest. All these things are caused by devils through an illusion of glamour…”
While the idea that women were capable of convincing men that they had lost their penises and that those penises were now living in a bird’s nest eating corn may sound outlandish, some of the Illuminati conspiracy theories with which Hillary Clinton has been associated are equally outlandish. They are located in a similar way of thinking. In a world in which one’s masculinity is shored up by its dependence on the world operating in a manner organized within the head of the believer, the powerful woman’s ability to manipulate that world makes her capable of not only controlling the world but also determining whether one’s penis is still attached to one’s body.
The witch challenged masculinity. In sixteenth century thought, that challenge wasn’t theorized with terms such as “fragile masculinity.” It was seen as men afflicted with the imagining of the literal removal of their penises. Later witch hunters, such as Pierre de L’Ancre in seventeenth-century France, hunted witches because he saw them as a political threat. If a witch could convince a man that he didn’t have power over a woman, then a witch could also convince a man that a king didn’t have power over him. Witches disrupted the domestic order, and thus disrupted the political order. Pierre de L’Ancre wanted to burn witches and Jews because their allegiance to a God other than the Christian God meant that they wouldn’t swear allegiance to a Christian king, which made them traitors. And, because the Christian God had given power to the father of his country — the king — Jews and witches couldn’t be good citizens because they were incapable of living in good domestic order.
And while this sounds much different from our own modern situation, the “City on the Hill” narrative that many rightwing Christians push insists that God blessed the United States as his special nation. Many of the 9/11 ceremonies yesterday were a combination of jingoistic displays of flags and fireworks combined with special prayers to God to protect his most favored nation. If the U.S. becomes a country that is governed by a powerful (albeit sickly) lying woman, what happens to God’s promise?
Keith Thomas, an English historian, wrote that other social anxieties were projected onto the witch figure, especially old, sickly women. With the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism, the “good works” that Catholics accrued in their march toward salvation were thrown out in favor of the idea that Christians were saved “by faith alone.” What this meant in practical terms was that you no longer had to do charity works in order to be saved. Which meant that you no longer had to give bread or money to the old beggar woman who asked you for it. Thomas writes, however in Religion and the Decline of Magic that people felt guilty for not giving to beggars. So, if something bad should happen to them a short time after saying “no” to the beggar woman, they could now convince themselves that the old woman had been a witch who had cursed them for their unkindness. They projected their guilt onto her. Thus the other stereotype of witches — the old, enfeebled crone who casts curses — grew out of people’s own guilty feelings for not being nice to their neighbors.
In many ways, it is impossible to imagine how having Hillary as president is going to have a direct impact on the day-to-day running of your household, even on your performance in the bedroom — except if your sense of how the natural order of things works is dependent on the idea that men are supposed to be superior to women. How are you going to maintain order in your own home if there is a woman president? Isn’t having a woman president going to disrupt the power system for a lot of men who are insistent that men are naturally superior to women and who have run their own households on that model?
The “Hillary is a liar” story, the one that journalists want to offer as being somehow the moral equivalent of all of Trump’s political deficiencies, plays into archetypal notions of the malevolent female who fools men. And, tone-deaf to their own prejudices, media people are continuing to layer on the misogynistic stereotypes in the creation of an image of Hillary as the old crone who wants to rob American men of their penises. Journalists are not writing “Hillary is a witch,” but the words that they are writing perpetuate the idea that women’s words can’t be trusted because a woman in power is not part of the natural order of things. And while journalists may constantly deflect the hatred of Hillary onto the alt-right and other core Trump supporters, their inability to write about Hillary without the constant reliance on sexist narratives to do so leads me to question whether some of that fear isn’t infecting media narratives also.