Getting Catty, by Elayne Riggs
Humans have been fascinated by felines both big and small since the beginnings of recorded history. At times we’ve both worshipped them (as did the ancient Egyptians) and reviled them (as did medieval Europeans, thus opening themselves up to the spread of the Black Plague when the witchcraft-associated kitties weren’t around in sufficient numbers to keep the rats at bay). And they’ve probably always been a big part of our mythology and folklore, including making multiple appearances in comics, from superheroes like Catman and Kitten to adult stuff like Fritz the Cat to funny animal and anthropomorphic fare.
But lately two big-cat names have infiltrated our culture to the extent that we’re all probably sick of them by now. I’m secretly hoping for Matt Groening to include them in his Forbidden Words list for 2009 so we never have to deal with them again, because they — like a number of other catty terms (such as, um, “catty”) — are used to impart negative attitudes towards women. And being one of those women-types, I tend not to like negative things directed at me simply because of my internal plumbing.
The first is “cougar,” a slang term used to refer to women over 40 who take an interest (most often sexual in nature) in younger men. Is there an equivalent for men who date younger women, other than “dirty old man” or, more accurately, “human being”? I don’t think so. Cougar denotes something predatory and possibly dangerous, but tameable in the right hands which can cause her to purr. It’s male-gaze sexual, through and through. The Daily Show recently mocked this ridiculous term:
Nowadays as more baby boomer icons age gracefully, one might expect the stereotypes about post-menopausal women to dissipate. But men are still Oedipally ambiguous about this. Colleen Doran passed along a post from a San Diego con attendee who was absolutely livid at one type of con-goer he encountered. He confessed, “there was one type of person who scared the bejeesus out of me at the con: the middle-aged woman.” He then proceeded to spew forth his reasoning — that we are “reproductively useless” and “unattractive.” While he’s a self-confessed misanthrope, I can think of a few much choicer words for this attitude.
Reducing women to nothing more than their biological components is dehumanizing enough, but then to conclude that they’re useless if those components don’t operate? Well gee, thanks a whole bunch from all us childless infertile women out there who happen to like comics and generally have a heck of a lot better reputation than the stereotypical fanboy. Mother issues much?
The other cat-related term making the rounds, particularly last week, is PUMA, which either stands for People United Means Action or “Party Unity My Ass,” the response of a number of Hillary Clinton supporters to the pervasive sexism visited upon their candidate of choice in 2008. Of course, in trying to shape the narrative of millions of disgruntled cougars other easily dismissible “special interests” preparing to make gender and race war upon The Chosen One, the mainstream media exaggerated the whole PUMA thing all to heck during the Democratic National Convention. As the eminent blogger Digby puts it, “The only story that interests them is the story they tell each other about themselves.” But among the liberal blogosphere, PUMAs seemed to have little support or credibility. As Jesse Taylor noted, “at this point, you can be a feminist or you can be a PUMA, but chances are you’re not both… as anyone who’s had the misfortune to run afoul of the PUMA brigade has learned, the litany of reasons why Hillary Clinton should be the nominee keeps waning and waning in light of the far more important story here: the hurt feelings of the people who supported her and lost.”
And the official PAC’s grievances would seem to bear this out. They express frustration with the Democratic National Committee, but this frustration didn’t seem to be borne out by last week’s very successful and progressive-leaning convention. Even cynics like David Sirota acknowledge the rise of what the late great Paul Wellstone termed “The Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.” And it does seem suspect that the PAC was formed the day after Clinton dropped out of the race, lending a lot of credence to the idea that the whole thing was little more than a front, possibly engineered by Republicans.
After Hillary’s masterful speech at the convention, Huffington Post blogger Chris Weigant referred to the PUMA contingent as an “endangered species,” but it doesn’t seem like the Republicans wanted to believe the truth — that the two candidates always have agreed on just about everything, they’re about equally centrist and pragmatic, and their policy differences were a matter of degree, so why wouldn’t there have been party unity pretty much all along? The “battle” was pretty much that there were two really good finalists and people came out in droves to vote for their American idol. Neither of the idols ever had any animosity for each other or for the voters.
So what happens to the party that doesn’t do too well with facts (which, as we know, have a well-known liberal bias)? They let their standard-bearer choose as his “soul mate” (yes, he really used those words) someone who would seem a godsend for disaffected PUMAs. A cougar for the PUMAs, you might call it. Although if you do, I’ll probably slug you.
Sarah Palin is the VPILF. And by “I” I mean the usual sexist contingent that feels almost a compulsive need to reduce any woman to the most easily dismissed stereotypes. Just as Hillary is a “whiny bitch with a grating voice who’s probably a secret lesbian” (and my goodness, but just hearing about her life story and then listening to her speech last week I got goosebumps; I was right in choosing her as one of my role models all the way back in ’92), Sarah Palin is the “former beauty queen who looks like the sexy librarian” type.
Now look, I’m the last person to want Sarah Palin anywhere near the White House, the same as I wish Condoleezza Rice (“angry black woman, never smiles, dresses like she’s in the SS, probably gay”) had never been near the White House. But I have plenty of good reasons for that. In Rice’s case, they range from her demonstrated incompetence to her oil industry ties (surely she’s the only Secretary of State to ever have an oil tanker named for her) to her Bush worship; in the case of what relatively little I know about Palin, she’s a fundamentalist wacko whose family doesn’t practice what she preaches and who’s already under investigation for all sorts of fun little corruptions. In other words, she’s an Alaskan — ba dum BUM! Thanks ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be here all week, enjoy the veal…
But seriously, if you don’t care for someone’s politics, that’s your right — but criticize them on those grounds, not on superficial traits like gender or age or weight. Even the speculation about what kind of weird thing McCain has for beauty pageant contestants (both wives, running mate, goodness knows who else) is rather beside the point, although talk about the inexperienced lightweight Palin being “a heartbeat away” when the top of the ticket is a 72-year-old with a history of cancer trouble is probably a legitimate concern. And goodness knows even people who liked Clinton had problems with many of her stances on certain issues (like the Iraq war).
When you have that kind of ammunition, it’s ridiculous to break out a cougar tranquilizing dart.
But perhaps I’m hoping for too much. The media seems to need these sorts of narratives, maybe they think they won’t get an audience without them. This inability to think outside the narrow confines of Beltway “wisdom” reminds me of another big cat, the one who can’t change its spots.
I’m looking forward to spreading the meme of… the Leopard-Men!
Elayne Riggs blogs at Pen-Elayne on the Web and confesses she’s beginning to like Safari more than Firefox, at least when posting to ComicMix. But then she’s bound to, Apple’s the one that gives its operating systems big-cat names…