Why is Mayor Bloomberg a ‘Nanny’? The Sexism of "Nanny State" Rhetoric
This post first appeared in KQED's State of Health blog.
State of Health has followed the soda tax issue closely. Richmond voters will decide in November whether their city will be the first in California to levy a soda tax. The City Council voted to put the measure on the ballot only after hours of heated public debate.
Critics of the tax had many objections, not least of which was concern about an over-reaching government. So when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed limiting portion sizes on sugary drinks, I wasn’t surprised when opponents of the idea labelled it a “nanny state” tactic. Then came the full page ad in the New York Times from the Center for Consumer Freedom. I shrugged and confess that I was a little amused.
But then I read Heather Gehlert’s post from the Berkeley Media Studies Group blog and I rethought my blasé reaction. The “nanny state” label has gone viral — 470,000 hits on Google when I search “bloomberg nanny state.” What’s troubling here, Gehlert points out, is that the most effective name calling these days is to call the other side a woman. Noting the limited text in the ad, she says, “likely because little explanation is required. Even with few extra details, the ad has done its job. It has evoked a limited and stereotype-driven definition of femininity.”
Gehlert was writing specifically for public health advocates. At The Political Notebook, Torie Rose DeGhett isn’t interested in soda. She issues a “challenge to the language being used to talk about it.” Specifically the term “nanny state.”
A version of stereotyped femininity gets to be shorthand for what is considered overbearing, misguided action on the part of the government. Once again female gets to be a stand-in for bad and wrong and stupid. It’s an oft-used term, but it’s really being embraced in this particular debate. I’m going to venture a guess and point to the involvement of food and eating habits for that one. … When someone is telling you what to do with your food, that’s a woman, right?
Wait a minute. Shouldn’t we all lighten up? After all, the term “nanny state” is about the government treating us like children. But in an interview today, Gehlert seconded DeGhett’s point, “If you say ‘strict father state,’” Gehlert told me, “it doesn’t come across as negative because if you have a strict father, you have a responsible parent. But if you have a strict mother, she’s nagging.”
In December and again in May, many people in Richmond and surrounding cities spoke out in opposition to the proposed soda tax. They were worried about effects on local businesses, job loss and the regressiveness of the tax. Some also spoke about an over-reaching government. They used the same term Bloomberg’s opponents are using.
I agree with the tag line of the full page ad: “You only thought you lived in the land of the free.” As a woman, I too thought I lived in the land of the free, so I’m calling the term “nanny state” what it is: sexist.