Sunday, August 7, 2011

So she's the terminator?

(I apologize for the flippant nature of the title, but well, it's not every day you get to type that.)

While reading through a few articles the other day, I came across this article from the New York Times: which discusses the beginnings of the republican primaries. All things considered, most of the article is information I have already read.  The focus of the article is on two candidates.  Tim Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota, who made a comment to which he received silent agreement when he said that republicans have the advantage, and the fastest way to lose is to choose "the wrong candidate."  Conversely Michele Bachmann, a current representative for Minnesota, garnered what was described as thunderous applause for her comment that "Behind this dress is a titanium spine!"

One must admit, not only is it beautifully crafted but it does a delicious job of satisfying so many wants the republican party seems to have now.  The primary process is always chaotic, but it seems that this round carries more weight.  After riding high from midterm elections, the luster of those representatives has worn thin.  They have thoroughly proven that they were not the promised change in Washington.  In fact since the mid term elections, the party is screaming in all directions.

The republican party needs a leader.  They need someone who can reassure all stripes that their interests will be heard and represented.  They need someone who is wiling to roll up his or her sleeves and get dirty.  Additionally,  party needs change but cannot afford to change horses in mid stream.  Therefore, they must find someone among the candidates who can strike that balance to satisfy each faction, all while appearing to remain evenly keeled.  This one well crafted phrase functions to separate Michelle Bachmann from the crowd while simultaneously convincing the nation of her down to earth nature, all the while reassuring elite conservatives concerned at losing their first estate representation.

First and foremost, the structure of this phrase leaves something to be desired.  Bachmann begins this declaration with "behind."  Technically speaking, the idea of having a titanium spine behind the dress would mean it to be outside of the body, outside of  the material of the dress itself.  Colloquially though, behind often serves as an alternative to beneath.  Most speakers of English couldn't tell you the last time they used beneath, but behind conveniently has a much higher frequency.  With this single word choice, Bachmann has proven herself as the every man.

One might also find it curious that Bachmann would specifically mention that her spine is behind a dress.  Before I begin, I should say that this point is not an indictment of all conservatives, but specifically evangelical or fundamentalist conservatives.   For this class of conservatives, more so than the general public, has a definition as to how women should be attired; often influenced by if not taken directly from biblical codes.  There are private, usually christian, universities where women may actually face disciplinary actions for wearing pants.  Even in the military, there are rules in place that restrict females from gender neutral attire.  For some conservatives, the idea of a woman wearing something that does not conform to their standards is not only an affront to them, but moreover to their God.

Concurrently, although it should have no place in politics, the general public judges a female candidate not only on issues, but on her fashion choices.  Looking back on the 2008 election cycle; remember that the media was incensed because Hillary Clinton wore pantsuits.  Even after the democratic primaries finished; the conversation switched to Sarah Palin.  She presented herself in a far more palatable manner as she wore skirts and dresses.  With that single move, she fell into what is expected of a woman and thereby sidestepped any questioning of her fashion sense.  Michele Bachmann, following Palin's lead, avoided this pratfall by presenting herself in an acceptable way to the media.

Bachmann's use of a titanium spine could be compared to the famous quote from Elizabeth I at Tilbury.  Both reference parts of the body, but each works as a code to a specific audience.  In Elizabeth's full statement she said that she may have the body "but of a weak and feeble woman;" but"the heart and stomach of a king.  Although, the queen's reference to the heart is straightforward, one could interpret her reference to the stomach as to say that she can "stomach" the troubles that come with being a ruler.  Bachmann, in her case, is using the code of political spinelessness.  In having a titanium spine, she's saying that she will not bend to the interests of others.

Admittedly few would think of a reference to an obscure speech by an English queen, especially in the United States. In my case, I would not know the reference unless I had taken a course on Elizabeth and her court.  Without blowing too much smoke, only those with higher levels of education would recognize the connection.  Therefore, the Elizabethan reference serves a second function, what some call a "dog whistle," to let the educated know that she is far more shrewd than she may appear. 

Messaging like this is really what a candidate with such a questionable background like Michele Bachmann needs.  Such simple but effective phrasing will allow her to show herself as calm and responsible to those who need to see a candidate of that nature.  She is also able to show conservative circles that she knows their belief of where a woman's place is.  Bachmann also speaks to both a more conservative and educated audience.  Bachmann can use what she has built with this single phrase to position herself as a break from the perennial choices of Paul and Romney.   Maybe more importantly, she can show the party that she, like Elizabeth, can weather the battle and come out the victor in the upcoming war.