What’s with all the big-cat metaphors for women of a certain age? Unless you’ve been in an induced coma all this week, by now you’ve heard the acronym PUMA – “Party Unity My Ass” – for intransigent Hillary supporters, which as we all know, are all foaming-at-the-mouth, ferociously menopausal women.
Never mind that Katha Pollitt looked for these legendary beasts in Denver and couldn’t find any. They were all circling around Chris Matthews like a pride of lions around potential meat, I suppose. Here’s what Katha saw:
I thought I might find some PUMAs at the Equalitea– like every other journalist here, I want to track down those elusive felines. (Later I learn they have spent the day hanging with Chris Matthews, getting enormous amounts of exposure and making women look like lunatics.) In the powder room I run into Ellie Smeal and Mavis Leno. “What about those PUMAs?” I ask.
“There has to be some reality here,” Ellie says exasperatedly. “Personally I think a lot of these people were McCain supporters all along. I know plenty of women who gave heart and soul to Hillary who are with Obama now.”
(The Nation has the rest of Katha’s amusing PUMA hunt.)
Yeah, it’s not that to-the-death Clinton loyalists don’t exist. They do. They have legitimate gripes against the media’s sexism during the primary; not so legitimate against Obama’s campaign. Those few who are still holding out on Obama are just playing straight into the Republicans’ paws. As Nora Ephron writes in today’s Huffington Post, preserving Roe v. Wade ought to be argument enough to sway every remaining Clintonista into the Obama camp.
But most of these alleged PUMAs are the product of Republican machinations. Amanda Marcotte has been exposing the thinness of the PUMA narrative for nearly two months now. At least some of them are this season’s version of the Roveian Swiftboaters or the Nixonian ratfuckers.
And then there are the even wackier PUMAs who’ve crept out of the LaRouche wilderness. Some followers Lyndon LaRouche showed up at Obama’s Berlin speech, as my friend Kevin at Rumproast reported a few weeks ago. LaRouchians in Berlin? Not exactly my idea of a broadbased American movement.
The PUMA appellation comes on top of “cougars,” those predatory over-the-hill gals on the hunt for tender young man-meat. And with two data points, I think we’ve got a budding metaphorical field – a new way of framing aggressive, powerful femininity.
I dunno. It’s no secret I love cats. I’m fascinated by the big ones, too. But there’s no shortage of condescension and misogyny in both of these terms. As Kate Harding acidly observes at Salon, by some definitions, a 40-year-old woman dating a 35-year-old cub already counts as a cougar. A PUMA is by definition shrill and irrational.
So there’s no question that pumas and cougars are yet another expression of backlash against feminism. These cats aren’t meant to evoke beauty or grace. They’re an expression of fear. My gut says it’s mostly male fear, but that may be unfair. Lots of women, too, fear powerful female politicians (who put their own powerless into relief or just get branded as bitches). Or they worry that overtly sexual women might steal their man.
The metaphors draw on the current of cultural ailurophobia that goes back at least to the witchhunts, and that has been wed to misogyny ever since. If a pussycat can be a witch’s familiar, how much worse these big kitties! In a world where insect bites account for far more disease, death, and misery, we still hold these shared fears of the great cats as – tellingly – “man eaters.”
And yet there’s an optimistic way to view these big she-cats, too. By definition, backlash only occurs when there’s something substantial to oppose. It’s no coincidence, I think, that this frame is appearing in parallel with Clinton’s candidacy and media reports of women have sex just because they want to.
And didn’t Helen Reddy sing it first? “I am woman, hear me ROAR!”
So we’ve got two options, as I see it, which aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. We can ironically appropriate these catticisms, much like feminists have taken back “bitch”; we can be tigresses and lionesses, or at least mama ocelots. Or we can mock them altogether. You’ve probably already seen this wonderful spoof that ran on the Daily Show last month, but if you haven’t, it’ll be your best-spent five minutes of the day.