George Bush’s “all-time low”

He’s got to be joking, right? No, he isn’t.

It's been nearly two years since he left the White House with the lowest domestic and global approval ratings of any US president in living memory. But, it seems, we still can't get enough of George W Bush.

This morning's papers lead with extracts, snippets and lines from Bush's new memoir, Decision Points. The Times (£) is serialising the book and has an exclusive interview with "The Decider" himself. The Guardian's front page focuses on how Bush instructed the Pentagon "to draw up plans to attack Iran". The Indie, oddly, leads with a review of the book from the New York Timeschief literary critic, Michiko Kakutani.

One bit from the extracts of the book that stands out to me, and perhaps sums up both the ridiculous and odious nature of George Bush and his presidency, is the section on Hurricane Katrina and the fallout from it. The ex-president describes how upset and angry he was to hear, at the time, how the rapper Kanye West had told television viewers: "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

From the Guardian:

"Five years later, I can barely write these words without feeling disgusted. I am deeply insulted by the suggestion that we allowed American citizens to suffer because they were black . . . The more I thought about it, the angrier I felt. I was raised to believe that racism was one of the greatest evils in society," Bush writes. "I faced a lot of criticism as president. I didn't like hearing people claim I had lied about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was a racist, because of the response to Katrina, represented an all-time low. I told Laura at the time that it was the worst moment of my presidency. I feel the same way today."

Hmm. So the botched response by the federal government to Hurricane Katrina itself, the costliest natural disaster in US history, which led to the deaths of 1,836 people, wasn't Bush's "all-time low", it was all the nasty name-calling afterwards.

And even "today", with the benefit of hindsight, the suggestion from a rapper that he might be a "racist" is considered by Dubbya as "the worst moment" of his presidency, not the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; not the failure to prevent the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, which killed 3,000 people on American soil; not the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison; not the hundreds of thousands of people killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as a direct result of his so-called wars of liberation.

Words fail me . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Despite his “strong female leads”, Joss Whedon's feminism was never about real women

Many men in TV and film praised for their powerful women are still writing with the male gaze.

Kai Cole, the ex-wife of Joss Whedon, has written an essay alleging that the director isn’t quite the feminist he appears to be. Colour me unsurprised. There’s only so much good-guy posturing a feminist can take before she starts to become a little suspicious.

It’s not that I’ve any particular beef with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor that I think men shouldn’t speak out against sexism wherever possible. But I’ve long harboured a mistrust of male directors – Whedon, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar – who gain a reputation of being “good at doing women”. Who are they, these magic woman-whisperers, who see through woman’s childlike, primitive exterior and coax out the inner complexity? How do they manage to present women, these blank, mysterious objects, as actual human beings?

True, these men are working against a backdrop of extreme sexism, in which film dialogue is dominated by males, while females become increasingly silent as they age. Perhaps one should be grateful to anyone who allows a female character to have some glimmer of an inner life, let alone exist beyond the age of 30.

All the same, I can’t help feeling this isn’t enough. We all know the joke about the male feminist who walks into a bar because it’s set so low. It’s all too easy to be “good at doing women” when all it takes is granting female characters the same desires and contradictions we’d grant to any other human being.

Women are not a specific type of puzzle for mankind to solve. The idea that it should take some noble, generous leap of imagination to empathise with us is an excuse men have been using to mistreat us for millennia. When responding to us as though we’re actual human beings – or at least, as though an interesting Real Woman subset of us are – becomes a USP, we should all be worried.

Whedon did go a little way to addressing this in his 2006 acceptance speech for an Equality Now award, in which he mocked the way in which he was constantly asked: “Why do you always write these strong women characters?”:

“Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters? I believe that what I'm doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honoured.”

If this sounds a little like a humblebrag, it can probably be excused. What’s harder to excuse is this idea that a man who boasts of surrounding himself with women like his mother – “an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman” – is doing womankind a favour.

I’m glad you appreciate your mum, Joss, and that you apparently don’t feel threatened by other women like her. There’s a fine line, though, between valuing women and presenting them with a whole new list of impossible standards to live up to. This is why I could never quite buy into the liberatory potential of Buffy. There’s nothing impressive about a man failing to be intimidated by his own strong girl fantasy.

In E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman, the hero Nathanael falls in love with Olimpia, a doll whom he believes to be a real woman. Once the truth is exposed, the men around him become concerned that they, too, may have unwittingly fallen for automata:

“Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamoured of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling.”

There’s something about the director who’s “good at doing women” that reminds me of this. There’s a recipe for dropping in just the right number of quirks, inconsistencies and imperfections to create a Real Woman Character, without making her so unsexy as to be instantly distinguishable from your Hollywood doll. It’s not that her actual thoughts and feelings matter; it’s all about where she’s positioned in relation to you.

As Sophia McDougall noted in her excellent essay on Strong Female Characters, male characters have complex personalities as a matter of course; female characters, meanwhile, are occasionally permitted to be strong, hence anomalous. The more nuance we see, the better. Even so, I’m tired of the veneration of men who fetishise Real Womanhood just as much as others fetishise the plastic variety.

According to Whedon’s ex-wife, the director’s declared feminist ideals never filtered through into real life. Whether this is true or not, this would be understandable. Real Women are not the same as real women. Equality isn’t a matter of men feeling “engaged and even attracted” to a more diverse range of females. It isn’t about the male gaze at all.

Whedon’s final response to the “why do you always write these strong women characters?” question – “because you’re still asking me that question” – has been seen by many as an explicitly feminist statement. But perhaps all it really meant was “because there’s still a gap in the market”. Because men will always find ways to benefit from other men’s sexism. If Real Women didn’t exist, some man out there would have to invent them. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.