Elizabeth Warren and Janet Jackson

After the New Hampshire primary, I was on Twitter. I ran across a Bernie Bro gleefully saying that Elizabeth Warren got what she deserved with her disappointing finish because she had gone after Bernie Sanders. He was talking about Warren saying that Sanders said that a woman couldn’t win the presidency, which I wrote a bit about here. I tried to dismiss the comment. Bernie Bros are saying stupid, mean-spirited things all the time. But, I kept thinking about it. What if there was some truth to it? Not to the part about Warren deserving it. She’s head and shoulders above all the other candidates. But what if there was some truth to the idea that Warren’s criticism of Sanders was the reason she dropped in the polls?

MILAN, ITALY – FEBRUARY 25: Janet Jackson attends the Giorgio Armani fashion show as part of Milan Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2013/14 on February 25, 2014 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

Before trying to answer that question, I want to look at what seems to be a similar case, Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl half time show. That performance has been discussed ad nauseum, but one thing that is rarely brought up is that there is no way to look at it where Jackson is at fault. It was most likely a choreographed part of the show, in which case it was the choreographer/director’s fault. Or we can take them at their word and it was a wardrobe malfunction. In that case, it was either nobody’s fault or it was the costumer’s fault. Or, in kind of a worst case scenario, everyone might have witnessed Justin Timberlake sexually assault Janet Jackson on live TV. (I want to stress that I don’t believe Justin Timberlake assaulted Janet Jackson, but if it wasn’t preplanned and choreographed, what was he doing grabbing her and ripping her clothes off?) The point is that there is no plausible scenario in which Janet Jackson is responsible. Yet she is the one who lost work and had her music blacklisted as a result.

At the 2004 Super Bowl, in the public’s consciousness, Janet Jackson crossed a “too line.” She was perceived to be too overtly sexual and she got punished for it. It wasn’t fair, or right, but that’s the world we live in. Women are trapped by all the too lines. A small step in any direction gets women labeled as too outspoken or too docile or too serious or too masculine or too old or. . . There are thousands of these too lines and half of them contradict the other half. If a woman steps forward, she’s too serious, but if she steps back, she’s too flighty. Women live in a prison of expectations.

Getting back to Elizabeth Warren, it’s likely that her direct criticism of Sanders was seen to have crossed a too line as well. A bunch of likely voters saw it as too aggressive. Our society doesn’t expect, or want, women to be too aggressive. (Of course, they also don’t want a woman, or a presidential candidate, to be too passive.) Like all women, Warren is trapped by too lines, and it’s hurting her chances of being president.

Elizabeth Warren is not only the best candidate in 2020, she’s the best presidential candidate of my lifetime. It would be a shame if people’s sexist assumptions about what a woman should be kept her from being elected. Women can be anything. It’s long past time we stop adding the adverb “too” to what women are. As long as we do so, we are hurting ourselves.

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