Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Old Boys Club: Sports, Social Networking, and Politics at the Highest Level

The New York Times has a great story up illustrating how different components of hegemonic masculinity can fuse together and further male privilege at the highest political level possible: "Man's World at White House?: No Harm, No Foul, Aides Say."

The story explains how President Obama is engaging in activities historically considered male-appropriate that in effect still exclude contemporary female aids from further political exposure and the casual, but highly important fields where social networking matters immensely.

The most obvious activity noted is pick-up basketball. Sports, of course, have been a long standing site where males from multiple status levels can temporarily erase the occupational hierarchy and bond over traditionally masculine conversation/competition, thereby providing a friendly social network for lower-level males who hope to move up the working ranks. Perhaps not surprisingly, the story notes that there can be a general ambiance in the Obama Administration that is male-centered:

“There is a sense that Obama has a certain jocular familiarity with the men that he doesn’t have with the women,” said Tracy Sefl, an adviser to Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign who speaks regularly to some female aides in the administration.

In interviews, five women who work in the White House or advised officials there described the culture with more of a collective eye-roll than any real sense of grievance or discomfort. One junior aide, who like the other women spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about appearing publicly critical, said that the “sports-fan thing at the White House” could become “annoying” and that her relative indifference to athletics could be mildly alienating. And while this is not uncommon in any workplace, sports bonding can afford a point of entree with the boss.


Mr. Obama is hardly the first commander in chief whose penchant for sports and other guyish stuff (comic books, “Star Trek”) has become part of his presidential persona. The first President George Bush presented himself as a horseshoe-playing, pork-rind-eating Texan. He was followed by the Big Mac-gobbling, cigar-chomping Bill Clinton and the brush-clearing, bike-busting George W. Bush. It worked to good effect, said Mark McKinnon, a media adviser and mountain bike companion of the latter Mr. Bush.

This criticism is naturally downplayed by President Obama and his supporters, citing the prominent women/girls in Obama's personal and professional life:

“Women are Obama’s base, and they don’t seem to have enough people who look like the base inside of their own inner circle,” said Dee Dee Myers, a former press secretary in the Clinton administration whose sister, Betsy, served as the Obama campaign’s chief operating officer.


[Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett] cites the prominent women Mr. Obama has appointed to top positions, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and six other cabinet-level officials; Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; the health care czar, Nancy-Ann DeParle; and the domestic policy adviser, Melody Barnes. According to figures provided by the administration, there is a 50-50 gender split among White House employees.

It's an interesting choice of words to say, "Women are Obama’s base," illustrating to some degree the age-old pattern of women supporting male leaders, often times in relative anonymity. In this case, however, Jarrett argues Clinton, Sotomayor, and DeParle are hardly invisible.

While the gendered composition of President Obama's visible and influential allies may be up for debate, this story provides an excellent stimulant for discussion on how the old boys network manifests in different contexts, crisscrossing males' social connections across friendly and professional boundaries. In turn, women and those men who do not fall into a traditionally male box are left to advance without the assistance of the hegemonic male springboard. It's really no wonder why, on average, the visible leaders in society continue to be heterosexual males, many of whom simply do not want to relinquish their power-base.

(Photos courtesy of The New York Times).

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