How Birtherism Feeds into Institutional Misogyny

I am both fascinated and horrified by the obsessive fixation on birth details captivating large swaths of this country right now, and the fact that it's taking hold against the backdrop of a national assault on reproductive rights. Both firmly rooted in cultural habits of treating as public property and policing female bodies, the movements are evidence of lingering, endemic naked hostility to female self-ownership and privacy.

The Obama Birtherism is ostensibly about Barack Obama and his father, about whether he was born outside of the US and whether he is a de facto Muslim by virtue of his father's heritage. (Or, sometimes, because of his step-father's heritage.) His mother is rarely mentioned—except, of course, when she is described by conservative birthers with dog whistles mentioning her race (white) in combination with her "free-spiritedness" (miscegenist). Always underlying the Obama birther theories is a tacit condemnation of the reproductive (and relationship) choices of his mother, Ann Dunham.

More pointedly, the Trig Birtherism is about Sarah Palin, and the assertion that Trig Palin, her youngest son, is not hers at all. The Trig birthers speculate that Trig was actually Bristol's son, or someone else's altogether, that Palin's pregnancy was staged, that the publicly stated circumstances of Trig's birth are a hoax. Trig Birtherism is a particularly strange pursuit, because, were the Trig birthers inconceivably proved right, what we would learn is that Sarah Palin is a liar. Which we already know.

And, frankly, if it turned out that Palin had, like many women before her, lied about her grandson being her son, it would be the least objectionable lie she has ever told.

But the irresistible appeal of Trig Birtherism is that, unlike lies about policy and transparency and nepotism and governance, which actually speak to Palin's fitness for a job in public office, Trig Birtherism provides the opportunity and justification for languorous, meticulous, and non-consensual investigation of a woman's body and holds out the salacious reward of forcing a woman to make public reproductive information that is no one's fucking business.

Trig Birtherism got a new surge of momentum last week with the publication of a paper called "Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor: Did a Spiral of Silence Shut Down the Story?" by Bradford Scharlott, an associate professor at Northern Kentucky University. Writing about the paper for Business Insider (because his piece was rejected by HuffPo for not meeting their journalistic standards), Geoffrey Dunn argues, "the American media should demand that Palin produce full and conclusive evidence of Trig's birth and parentage. It's that simple."

One wonders what on earth would constitute "full and conclusive evidence of Trig's birth and parentage," short of closed-circuit video coverage from Palin's vagina of the conception, gestation, and birth. (FAKE! HOW DO KNOW THAT'S HER VAGINA?!)

Of course it matters that Palin lies; it just doesn't matter if she lied about this—especially not when we've already got demonstrable evidence of lies that materially affect the public interest, that have already underscored, again and again, her manifest unsuitability to hold national office.

Birtherism, in which both conservatives and liberals are engaging, is a terrible and intrinsically misogynist game to play, entirely dependent on a belief that policing women's bodies and reproduction is an acceptable recreation. And, further yet, reviving old tropes about "legitimacy" at a time when single parenthood is rising and national leaders want to draw reprehensible distinctions between those who deserve social services, like young men who lost their fathers, and those who don't, like children who had the terrible judgment to be born into poverty to single mothers.

Everything about the birther game feeds narratives that Other and narratives that support the institutional misogyny that underlies the anti-choice movement. Everything about it serves the interests of those who want to limit choice, and those who want to marginalize women and the children they birth/raise who aren't born in the "right" circumstances. There is nothing about the birther game that serves a decent purpose, and certainly nothing that advances women's agency or autonomy.

We are in the midst of a profound and vicious anti-feminist backlash in this nation, and to get past it, we must start with a zero tolerance policy for body and reproductive policing.

[Note: I am aware of the self-evidently despicable Wonkette piece about Trig; I'm not personally interested in giving that garbage any more attention. That is off-topic for this thread, which is about the relationship between the birther and anti-choice movements.]

Shakesville / By Melissa McEwan

Posted at April 21, 2011, 6:09am

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