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10 August 2008 @ 22:34

You've probably already read more than enough about the drawing of Barack and Michelle Obama that recently appeared on the cover of The New Yorker. I don't really have anything to add to that discussion, except to say that I wish more of the people who wrote about it had (as Arnold Zwicky at Language Log did) bothered to note the title of the piece, which was "The Politics of Fear." (To find the title, you actually have to open the magazine and look it up in the table of contents, but I think it's worth the effort.) Once you know the title, the satirical intent of the drawing is clear; it is an image of a paranoid racist fantasy extrapolated by the American right from the fist bump in the centre of the page. All that remains to be debated is the effectiveness of the satire; the obvious objection is that it is simply not possible to satirize something that is itself already as outrageous as the frenetically slanderous bushwa of Fox News and its ilk.

So what I'd like to talk about instead is another recent New Yorker drawing that I happen to find considerably more offensive than "The Politics of Fear," but which will undoubtedly receive nowhere near the same degree of attention. This one is by Seymour Chwast, and it appears on page 87 of the August 11 & 18 issue, illustrating a piece by Nicholas Lemann called "Conflict of Interests," which discusses Thomas Frank's new book The Wrecking Crew in the context of Arthur Bentley's hundred-year-old book The Process of Government. Here's the relevant portion of the picture, together with its caption:

Pundits like Thomas Frank deplore the role of interest-group lobbying, but aren't we all part of some interest group or other?

Well, let's see here. What kinds of interest groups do we belong to?

  • business executives
  • doctors
  • construction workers
  • women

In the world depicted in this drawing, then, your interests are defined by your profession if you are a man, but by your sex if you are a woman. (I'm making some inferences here, of course, but I think they're reasonable ones—it's not completely unambiguous what group the guys in suits are supposed to represent, for example, but I'm assuming that because they are dressed so similarly, their defining characteristic is meant to be their occupation, or perhaps their wealth, but in any case not their sex.)

Remind me again—what century is it?

Of course, an illustration is just an illustration, and any drawing that could have gone in this space would necessarily abstract away from all sorts of complexities discussed in the article itself. In the real world, each of us belongs not to a single group, but to several overlapping ones, with various and sometimes conflicting interests, but it would be rather awkward to try to convey all of this in the picture. Nor do I expect each little trio in the drawing to be perfectly representative of the demographics of the group it signifies; you just can't do that with three figures. That's not the problem. The problem is that in this picture, women are the only group defined by what they are instead of what they do, and there are (as far as I can tell) no women at all among the groups defined by occupation.

Obviously, this sexist view of the world is not the point of the illustration. This (combined with the fact that it appears inside the magazine, rather than on the cover) is why it will not elicit the same uproar as "The Politics of Fear," where the racism was the point. It's also what makes it so much more insidious than the controversial cover, and that's precisely why I feel compelled to point it out.

Henrytahnan on 11. August, 2008 03:19 (UTC)
I thought "schoolmarms", actually, and isn't that just so much better. Perhaps "women from the 1950s", since apparently it's only women who wear dresses or skirts with large-collared blouses...

Yes, it's horrible, for exactly the reasons you offer.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 11. August, 2008 03:39 (UTC)

I did wonder whether they might be intended to be schoolteachers, but then I decided that if they were, they'd probably be holding sticks of chalk in their upraised fists. In any case, I think everyone in the illustration is living in the 1950s; that would certainly go some way toward explaining the distribution of the sexes. And do doctors still wear those reflectors on their foreheads?

w1ldc47w1ldc47 on 11. August, 2008 05:21 (UTC)
Except that, for all that the cartoonist may not have been pointing this out intentionally, women *are* considered a special interest group based only on sex. And issues that primarily concern women *are* considered fringe issues, as is not the case for issues that primarily concern men. So while there should have been some women in the groups that are defined by their professions I don't think it's necessarily offensive that this cartoon depicts women as a special interest group. That is, after all, how things are right now.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 11. August, 2008 16:30 (UTC)
So while there should have been some women in the groups that are defined by their professions I don't think it's necessarily offensive that this cartoon depicts women as a special interest group.

I think that what's really offensive is the combination of the two. If there had been women among the professional interest groups, then it wouldn't have bothered me that women were also depicted as another kind of interest group on their own. But what this drawing implies is that either you belong to an interest by virtue of your occupation XOR you belong to one by being a woman.

Away Above the Chimney Topsboobirdsfly on 11. August, 2008 06:18 (UTC)
Excellent points.
Merlemerle_ on 11. August, 2008 14:05 (UTC)
In the real world, each of us belongs not to a single group, but to several overlapping ones, with various and sometimes conflicting interests [...]

I agree with this, but am not certain that most people understand that. If you go to a knitting group, you are supposed to be interested in knitting: nothing else (aside from personal/environmental issues) will get discussed. In many social encounters, you are asked what you do, and saying "well, I program by profession, majored in math and physics, but am deeply interested in linguistics and enjoy science fiction and death metal on the side" is not considered appropriate. In this super-specialized world, one is supposed to be=do one thing.

The thought that women simply are, though, does seem deplorable.
Lexica: crosseyed vulturelexica510 on 11. August, 2008 16:34 (UTC)
Another thing that stood out to me: the groups of (male) doctors, (male) construction workers, and women all show a range of skin colors. The businessmen in suits do not.
O.K.caprinus on 11. August, 2008 16:35 (UTC)
Vizcacha: Holler!chillyrodent on 11. August, 2008 19:05 (UTC)
The women's mouths are bigger than any of the men's mouths. What's up with that?
theridger on 14. August, 2008 09:39 (UTC)
Indeed. Why not a woman doctor? Also worth noting (as did lexica510) that the power class - executives or whatever they are - have only white men as members.