Donald Trump continues his descent into his own little shit volcano. And Republicans are desperately trying to undo the damage he’s wreaking to their party as a whole. Part of that effort, unfortunately, reveals exactly why and how they got into this mess in the first place.
Members of the Christian Right may not realize this, but objectification takes at least two forms. Donald Trump is expressing the most obvious and direct form of it. But his Christian critics are, themselves, expressing the other form of it without even realizing they’re doing it–or why.
A Tight-Fitting Mask.
When news broke of Donald Trump’s shocking behavior on the Billy Bush interview tape, a number of Republicans immediately disavowed him. Paul Ryan summed up their response thusly:
I am sickened by what I heard today. Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.
Paul Ryan isn’t aware that when he sets a group of people aside to champion and revere, he is simply standing on the other side of the objectification coin.
In a fundagelical’s world, everyone has a particular function and role. When too many people refuse to perform their roles, chaos breaks out. You can hear this anxiety about uncertainty expressed whenever a Christian whines that things used to be so easy for them, but now are so gosh-darned complicated.
There is nothing as certain in their world as the roles they envision for men and women.
Maleness and femaleness are elevated to the status of icons in this worldview: stylized, opaque, symbolic, standardized representations of group identity, each with their own rules, each carefully monitored and measured. The representation fits over the individual person like a mask and obliterates their individuality.
While I wore my Christian-approved mask, I was not myself, but rather a representative of iconic womanhood. I myself, the woman behind that mask, was lost; the symbol alone was what others saw and related to. When I took it off, they had no idea how to relate to me anymore because they did not know me; they knew only the icon. And it was easy to know that icon, because the role it represents pervades their culture. You know where you stand with an icon. It never changes and it never defies expectations. Compared to it, real people are downright confusing–and alarmingly fallible.
That’s why Christians can seem so robotic and unoriginal, like carbon copies. It’s why they bust ass trying to fit into impossible molds, why they blame only themselves when they fail to do so, and why they can have so much trouble relating on any level except that symbolic, iconic one. I noticed that truth quickly when I deconverted–my friends from church suddenly had nothing in common with me. Faced with an impassable gulf, we completely floundered and eventually grew apart. Others, like my then-husband, assumed that now that I’d rejected my gender role as a Christian woman that I’d become an absolutely terrible person. I was no longer a quantity that could be understood; I was a wild card. And he could no longer perform his “godly” duty toward me.
These attempts to control others are seen as benevolent favors but also as requirements for both men and women’s gender roles–which is why men in these groups get so peevish and frustrated when their overreach is denied. You can’t lead someone who refuses to follow, and it’s very hard to protect someone who doesn’t need or want that kind of paternalistic tending.
So you really can’t separate right-wing Christianity from its strict attention to gender roles.
Fundagelical Christians themselves have little desire to move away from that worldview. The men in that culture have long styled themselves as heroic “gentlemen” defending all the “ladies” against threats. Those threats can be physical or metaphysical, but in all cases give those men a perceived right to police women’s clothing and grooming choices and even their sexuality and bodies. That’s why Republicans aren’t talking about their outrage on behalf of women as American citizens whose rights have been violated, but rather as a subordinate, dependent group that men must protect and cherish because Jesus said so.
Paul Ryan is reminding his tribe of their role requirements in his rebuke of Donald Trump. And he’s phrasing his outrage in a way that subtly places him back in a dominant position over women.
The Problem with Pedestals.
Language like championed and revered is used to put women up on a romanticized pedestal. But pedestals are not good places for anyone to stand. That which can be raised up onto a pedestal can be knocked right down off of it again. As Henry VIII said to Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, “I can drag you down as quickly as I raised you!” That’s why civilized countries don’t allow a marginalized group’s rights to depend on the goodwill of a dominant faction. But fundagelicals, existing as they do in a deeply hierarchical, patriarchal, theocracy-minded culture, can’t operate in any other way. In response to women’s growing progress, they have evolved quite a lot of doublethink and thought-stoppers around their championing and reverence of women.
The first and most obvious of these leaps of logic is that they reserve their protection of women to those women who conform to fundagelical expectations. When Paul Ryan declares that women must be “championed and revered, not objectified,” he doesn’t mean all women. He means the women who let him champion and revere them.
I, as a woman, don’t feel championed or revered in the least by the policies he wants to enact regarding women. He wants to strip my rights from me. He wants to destroy the already-fragile safety net for very poor families. He has a very inconsistent record regarding protections for gay, bi, and trans women. One potential ramification of an anti-abortion bill he tried to push was that rapists would gain a terrifying amount of access to their victims if the rape resulted in a baby.
And that’s not any different from how it was when I was Christian. (Again, iconic masks and roles don’t change–that’s why fundagelicals like them so much.)
When I was Christian, I noticed very quickly that my religion’s leaders talked a big game about championing and revering women as a group, but that talk didn’t seem to be doing much at all for me on a personal level. Indeed, one needn’t read far into the news every day to see instances of male leaders in the religion saying and doing the most reprehensible things regarding women–and then, when women object to this treatment, often they face additional victimization in the form of blame and judgment.
But these Christians are championing and revering the icon of womanhood, not individual women personally. A woman who doesn’t wear the icon over her own face is one who does not deserve the protection it provides.
So don’t be surprised at all when you hear Donald Trump’s supporters say in one breath that Jesus told them to vote for a guy who’s said out loud that he assaults women, and then in the next declare that they totally respect women. They do respect women–just not the women who get assaulted and victimized by Donald Trump. They don’t respect those women at all. They respect women who behave. Had Donald Trump’s victims behaved properly, his supporters are certain, they would not have gotten victimized. But by misbehaving, they stepped outside of their proper role–and in so doing, lost their expectation of protection from the men in control of that broken system.
The only way for a woman to regain that protection is to grovel before the lords of the system, recant and repent, demonstrate ideological purity, and–yes–put the mask back over her face. Paul Ryan’s party cannot champion and revere women if we do not conform to the roles his religion dictates for us.
You’d think we’d have learned at some point, right?
I don’t need or want Paul Ryan’s championing and reverence. I’m not a statue, a venerated icon, an appendage of his, or a child. I’d happily accept plain old equality and justice as an American citizen under the law. But once Donald Trump is long defeated, Paul Ryan will still be going at his concerted campaign to deny me both of those–for exactly the same reasons that he is now condemning his party’s candidate: because he views himself as my self-designated father figure who knows what’s best for me, and all he wants from me now and in the future is for me to hand him the car keys to my life, shut my big mouth, buckle up, and let Daddy drive.
In refusing Donald Trump’s brand of objectification, I won’t accept Paul Ryan’s version just because it sounds more romantic. They’re both terrible, and until they are both recognized and stamped out this cycle will keep repeating itself.