The recent Singapore General Elections have provided a lot for us Singaporeans to think about. One interesting observation is the construction and varying degrees of (dis)approval of femininities in the political scene.
Given the high usage of new/social media, these femininities are constructed, enframed, replicated, memeified and heartily consumed in a matter of seconds, immortalising the projections of certain female politicians/political candidates, even if these projections may not fully and accurately represent the individuals themselves.
All these constructions are made in a domain governed by (general) people's paradigmatic demands and insistence on a certain set of behaviours and performativities they believe to be commonly associated with political discourse - our expectations are gendered, and we have a taste for desirable femininities.
The emergence and political participation of young women in Singapore politics over the years have often been greeted with sexist underestimations of their potential and ability to contribute to politics and the community.
As compared to their male counterparts, female politicians tend to receive more attention on their looks - almost indicative of the belief that they do not bring to the table the same quality of input as their male colleagues do.
Put in decent looks, youth and (desirable) female-ness into the political arena, you get the shallowly sexist construction that is the Tin Pei Ling-Nicole Seah diametric. It is a mere coincidence they happen to make their political debut in the same General Elections, in the same GRC. Any comparison would have been the convenient and inevitable.
People are heavily influenced by gender cues, demanding in the case of female political candidates, the right quantities and mix of femme and butch. Gender is one key variable in impression management.
Some like women to be womanly, not girly. Some like them confident and assertive, but not too loud or too butch. Like the treble and bass of a speaker or amplifier, people like to have just the right balance of femme and butch (just don't bring a napsack to Parliament).
Take for example the foot stomping mock-petulance of Tin Pei Ling in one of the YouTube videos, filmed long before the General Elections. In a certain space and time, it was permissible to act like this. During the course of the General Elections campaigns, the conscious "performance" of Tin Pei Ling's femininity, the slow, conscientious, calm and composed speeches/interviews, the absence of girlish and frivolous gestures, the lowering of the pitch of her voice, all depart from her YouTube foot-stomping heyday. (New media really cements one's gender, even those one's character will normally and reasonably be a little more complex)
Assuming that the foot stomping is part of her spontaneous reaction to certain things, there is a spectrum of behaviours that constitute the Tin Pei Ling femininity. Unfortunately, people do not expect and appreciate spectra and diversity. They believe that femininity, or at least the performance of gender, should be a consistent one across spaces.
The verdict on Tin Pei Ling's political maturity has been dished out pretty quickly based on that video. Her interview on Razor TV (i.e. the one about her biggest regret) did not help either, but then again, how many of us are spontaneous and quick-witted in interviews?
Gender is disciplined in such a way that the diverse representations of it by one person is not tolerated. Neither tolerated are the diverse representations of gender across space and time. People see it as destructive, in the sense that one Tin Pei Ling foot stomp in an old video connotes political suicide.
The political arena demands candidates to "butch up" and shed traditional and stereotypical feminine traits. This demands already creates a biased and sexist political environment.
Furthermore, we are today not helped by the historical fact that women are viewed to be less able than men to think logically, reasonably and keep their emotions in check. Most women haven't been taken seriously. Men on the other hand, are historically perceived to be able to separate emotion from rational thought, which makes them believe politics is their domain. (But of course, men have also been physically more capable of violence and that property plays a role in the male retention of political power)
This is further compounded by the historical ageism that plagues politics time and again. As much as it has been positively emphasised over the decade, youth still figures as a good enough reason to not take a political candidate seriously.
So when you have young women in the political mix, people start to feel really curious. Looking alone at their background and physicality, people will think these women are out of place (but their views would have changed accordingly to how the women spoke).
The actors/actresses on the political stage are not only the components here. We are talking about an internet-savvy audience, who have been exposed to the purportedly undesirable femininities of Mrs Goh Chok Tong (got hit hard in the nutsack, that one), Ris Low, Wee Shu Min (couldn't get out of her face), and some women at the AWARE extraordinary general meeting (depending on whose side you were).
You might think: What has their sex and gender got to do with being a prick (that's phallic, no?), an elitist, or so perceivably intellectually challenged that The Noose and Chestnuts have to lampoon a hole in your dignity? Everything.
These women (and the rest of us) traverse a gendered terrain pockmarked with norms of and desires for "right" kinds of genders. This is not news, but we demand correspondence and alignment of one's gender with one's sex in one's environment.
When the alignment is weak, people start to feel that their idea of balance or gender equilibrium has been threatened. We come up with the socialised reactions which serve as defence mechanisms for the gendered regime.
"That's not how a wo/man should act/speak/behave!"
Both men and women are pressured into conforming to unspoken rules of how to conduct oneself and to portray a desirable gender role. We are the canvass on which society and its unwavering predispositions paint. Even in our mothers' wombs, our parents (or at least most of them) are already thinking of suitable names that best reflect our sex (I think Althusser said something about that).
Going back to how society demands for the right amounts of femme and butch in a woman in particular settings, there is also the marcoscopic expectation. Depending on the climate, politics continue to rebalance the femme and butch order. By order, I refer to what people perceive their politicians to be, and not what the politicians actually are.
Take for example Singapore 1970-80s - Lee Kuan Yew, uber-butch; Goh Keng Swee, femme. The transition from Lee Kuan Yew's leadership to Goh Chok Tong's and then Lee Hsien Loong also signals the reordering of femme and butch. Lee Kuan Yew was all about shaking fists and pointing straight fingers (at least that was how he was portrayed), which are symbolic of the erect phallus. Penis is might. Very old school.
The second and third Prime Ministers began speaking more "gently", in terms of choice of words and tone, diplomatic and sensitive like a romantic construction of the desirable woman. They spoke and gesticulated with open hands. Lee Hsien Loong waves and smiles a lot more - very very femme in the forest of penises that is Singapore politics (I got that forest analogy from South Park by the way). Of course, he's never far away from his open hand slapping days.
When we approve of a female politician, we are in some way making an approval of her gender. Can't be too overweight because we might think she is too comfortable, distracted or not in control of herself (especially when there still linger masculinist impressions of women who most likely to have these qualities).
Can't be too girlish, because girlish/girly politicians cannot be taken seriously even though it may be rather difficult to confirm any correlation with girlishness and political ineptitude. To be less girly, you have to have firmer wrist ligaments, a slightly lower tone and show less emotion (although many political candidates during the General Elections 2011 did a 1965 vintage Lee Kuan Yew).
If these "rules"/expectations are not met, people actually see it fit to start questioning their ability to be a politician. Hegemonic gender's defence mechanisms are in our speediness to evaluate or judge the worth and character of someone just by how his or her gender identity is portrayed (with respect to his/her physiology/physicality).
These rules and expectations allow the continual dominance of men in politics (and also other areas such as science) because of the expectation of certain gender traits to be befitting a certain profession. Like the ancient Greeks, we demand a certain set of suitable behaviours of our adult men because they are citizens, not women and children, since they were believed to be incapable of mature rational thought. Thus, any display of traits commonly associated with children, adolescents or women in the political arena can be pretty jarring for some. (Of course, the Greek men also nurtured and had sexual relations with younger men, to show them the ways of responsible citizenry and manhood)
We also happen to subscribe to the belief that emotion and reason (or logical and rational thinking) are diametrically opposed - very strong European thought by the way. At the same time, these traits have for many millenia, been associated with specific sexes, and in turn socially reinforced/enforced as gender cues. Anything opposite, in-between, beyond, or spectrum-like encountered by society will be greeted with apprehension and defensiveness.
Can a female politician behave like a 1950s-80s Lee Kuan Yew (as we would have known him publicly)? Why not? But having a demeanour or behaviour which moves towards the other end of the hegemonic gender pole, would be a no-no in politics. People demand more traditional masculine traits - so please "man up" or "butch up" for politics.
As much as I believe it is irrelevant, a lot of people feel how a politician "performs" (in every gendered sense) is necessary for him/her to be taken seriously by the electorate. Necessary, but not entirely justifiable because politicians essentially make decisions, and decision-making in principle has nothing to do with how girly or how manly you are.
Decision-making exists in a gendered society (surprise surprise... not), and people want to see and experience the reassuring reinforcement of how men and women are expected to behave. Moving along these (il)logical lines, the "correct" portrayal of gender as to how society expects it to be, can play a big part in helping you gain moral authority (even before making any political decisions).
Societal expectations of desirable gendered behaviour are projected onto us everyday, and we somehow feel a sense of responsibility to comply, or risk alienation and the implications of swift judgement by the majority or the moral elite. It appears that harmonious integration demands compliance and homogeneity, despite in its romantic definition, integration primarily implies the existence of difference.
It is quite interesting when people speak of political "wayang" (acting, performance, in the most negative sense), the "wayang" goes very deep, all the way into how one consciously regulates one's gender cues. The purpose of "wayang" is to gain the trust and support of the people, similar to how female politicians have to strike the "right" balance of femme and butch to appeal to the masses.
Seldom do people actually challenge the justifiability of the policing (or fierce guarding) of gender boundaries. Why are we creating criteria for gendered behaviour in the political domain when it probably has nothing to do with how intelligent or how capable the politician is at decision-making?
Next time when we pass judgement on a female politician, do take some time to think to what extent does her femaleness play a role in our evaluation, and perhaps why we think this way and assume it to be a "natural" reaction. You don't know what to say, but you know what to think about next time.