The Horror Honeys: Sexual McCarthyism: What 'The Contender' Said About Women in Politics

Sexual McCarthyism: What 'The Contender' Said About Women in Politics

A Revenge Honey "This Shit is Still Happening" Thriller Review with Linnie

I long to hear that you have declared an independency – and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire that you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebelion [sic], and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.
- Letter from Abigail Adams to her husband John, March 31, 1776

“The people of this nation can stomach quite a bit. But the one thing they can't stomach is the image of a vice president with a mouthful of cock.” 
- Kermit Newman, The Contender

While the phrase “it’s just a movie” is tossed around recklessly in even the most academic of discussions, when it comes to films of a political nature, nothing could be further from the truth. Politically motivated films often relate directly to actual events in American government or comment on the politically based fears of the American people. In 1962, Otto Preminger directed Advise and Consent, an indictment of the arbitrary and random accusations of McCarthyism that were rampant during the Red Scare in Washington. (A secondary plot of the film that is just as relevant today involves the closeted sexuality of a young rising politico and the havoc strewn onto his life because of it.) The film, which starred Henry Fonda, relayed the struggle of a man nominated for Secretary of State to make it past a nomination committee that was plotting against him. Less than forty years later, with the threat of Communism but a chapter in the annals of American history, a film was released that took a hard look at the newest angle of McCarthyism in US politics; political discrimination based on gender.

The Contender (2000), written and directed by Rod Lurie, is an updated version of Advise and Consent, focusing on the dangers to reputation and career faced by women in politics. Joan Allen plays Senator Laine Hanson, the president’s nominee to take over as vice president in the wake of the current office holder’s death. Hanson faces multiple character attacks from both sides of the aisle, as much for the fact that she may have a sordid sexual past, as she has the audacity to be a woman with any sort of sexual past at all. Her gender alone frightens many, her greatest opponent a Republican senator with an axe to grind, Senator Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman). The Contender chronicles every dirty detail of the smear campaign launched against Hanson, from pictures of what appears to be her involved in a gang-bang, to accusations of prostitution while in college. Whether or not any of it is true is irrelevant to those accusing her. Hanson is under the gun simply because she is a woman. All of this translates easily from the filmic world to reality, where women who venture into politics face total and unfair scrutiny simply because of their gender. Recent campaigns and elections in the real world only show that The Contender was more grounded in reality than many want to admit.

Old white men making judgments about women's bodies? HOW FICTIONAL!
Shelly Runyon: Greatness is the orphan of urgency, Laine. Greatness only emerges when we need it most... in time of war or calamity. I can't ask somebody to be a Kennedy or a Lincoln. They were MEN created by their times. What I can ask for is the promise of greatness. And that, Madam Senator... you don't have. 
Laine Hanson: Well, then... I just wouldn't be using sex as leverage if I were you, Sheldon. Because, you know, there's one thing you don't want. It's a woman with her finger on the button who isn't getting laid.

Laine Hanson, as a political animal, could be viewed as the ideal candidate for any political office. The character is portrayed as a devoted wife and mother in a caring and equally committed relationship. She is a former Republican who switches parties during her political career in an effort to follow her beliefs and thus understands both sides of every political argument. She is a patriot and she is an atheist, which some would argue positions her for a far more pragmatic attitude toward religious-based arguments. However, all of these things, especially the fact that she is a wife and mother, are used against her multiple times throughout the film.

"Senator Hanson, kindly sheathe your vagina. It's upsetting the Republicans."
As the film progresses, multiple attacks are launched against Laine Hanson in an effort to thwart her success at becoming the first female vice president. However no one attack is ever as constant as the attacks based on the fact that she is a woman. When approached by the president’s advisors in an attempt to get the cantankerous senator on board with Hanson’s nomination, Runyon responds, “Look, I don’t mind she’s a woman. But I’m not confirming a woman just because she’s a woman.” This comment as a standalone seems perfectly rational. However when uttered from the mouth of a character such as Shelly Runyon, it’s obvious that he does in fact mind she is a woman and that he will use it to bash her every chance he gets. Laine Hanson’s gender, even more than her politics, becomes the jumping off point from which her opponents attempt to destroy her. 

Later in the film, when discussing Laine Hanson as a candidate and trying to come up with clever ways to destroy her reputation, campaign finance is deemed unworthy. Runyon states, “Personally I think that the nation would be relieved to know that just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she can’t be as ruthless as the rest of us.” Once again, it is being assumed by the men in Washington that gender differences are unavoidable and that gender roles are all consuming. Certainly Hanson can’t be ruthless because she’s female, however it would be relieving to know that she is? The dichotomy is one that is capitalized on throughout the whole of the film.

Handsome? Good hair? Penis? VOTE HIM IN!
In her book, Women as Candidates in American Politics, Susan J. Carroll wrote, “To deal successfully with this conflict, a woman candidate may have to walk a fine line. On the one hand, a woman who appears too feminine may not be perceived as strong and effective enough to handle the job. On the other hand, a woman who appears too masculine in her behavior may come across as aggressive, abrasive, or pushy. Women need to strike a very delicate balance between feminine and masculine traits to convey an acceptable image.” During the hearing to determine her candidacy for the office of Vice President, Senator Runyon drills Hanson on whether or not she plans to have another child, and if so, whether or not she’d take paid maternity leave. What would be considered a non-issue for man taking office is used as damning leverage against Hanson. This is a perfect example of what Carroll wrote about. Were Hanson to be childless, something would be considered odd about her. However the fact that she is of childbearing age and could potentially choose to have another baby automatically renders her a liability in office. Runyon claims to support a woman’s right to stay with her child during maternity leave, however he portrays Hanson’s possible decision to conceive again as a character flaw, making her look greedy for her support of paid maternity leave. This double standard is a major issue taken up and fought against in the entirety of The Contender.

The double standards extend even further past the gender roles assumed of women in office; they are used as a form of attack against the budding Vice President. Digging into her past as a college undergraduate, Senator Runyon is given pictures that seem to show Laine Hanson engaging in group sex at a fraternity house. While the face of the girl involved isn’t visible, Runyon runs with the information and uses it to launch a smear campaign against Hanson. Advise and Consent, the film to which The Contender nods with its story, features the line, “Son, this is a Washington, D.C. kind of lie. It's when the other person knows you're lying and also knows you know he knows.” These are the kind of lies that are used against Laine Hanson as a candidate and as a woman. Rather than address the accusations, which Hanson believes is neither her obligation nor anyone’s business, she chooses to rally against the double standard in play by refusing to comment. When encouraged by an opponent to fight back against the obviously false allegations, Hanson replies, “If I were a man, nobody would care how many sexual partners I had when I was in college, and if its not relevant for a man, it’s not relevant for a woman.” Whether or not her refusal to address the issue makes her look guilty is irrelevant. By refusing to confirm or deny the accusations, Hanson is taking a stand against the deep falsities of socially constructed gender roles.

"I want YOU... to stop being a misogynist asshole."
In her article, “Reconceiving Theories of Power: Consequences of Masculinism in the Executive Branch,” Georgia Duerst-Lahti wrote:

These factors create circumstances in which women are understood as “other” in contrast to a masculine norm, and they do so in a way that is predictable insider gender ideology. In a system constructed under masculinism, one would predict that the greater power available in any particular part of the executive branch, the less women we will find. We would also expect women to emerge first and most in functional areas associated with women and second in less powerful outer cabinets. Because gender is constructed, however, it is fluid and subject to transgendering, regendering, and revaluation. As should become evident, particular factors produce gendered obstacles for women and opportunities for men. 

These obstacles become obvious during the next line of attacks against Laine Hanson. In addition to the supposed proof her detractors have against her as far as her sexual exploits are concerned, they take the next logical step by inventing the rumor that she also accepted money for her sexual favors. Gender roles are further exploited by assuming that any sexually active woman can be equated to a whore. As Hanson states, if she were a man no one would care who she had slept with. However because she is woman, she is persecuted under the assumption that women can’t experience the same sexual promiscuity as men without also being a prostitute.

I'm Sam Elliot... and I don't approve a woman in the White House.
The acceptance of women and whore being equal terms is one that carries easily from the fictional film world to the real world of U.S. politics. Women in the political world are always suspected of sleeping their way to the top, or using the men in their lives to further their political status. The same is never said of men. Men can be ruthless and conniving, but would never use their sexuality in the way it is assumed all women do. The Contender uses parallels with the Bill Clinton infidelity scandal to mirror Hanson’s struggle. Bill Clinton’s approval ratings went up when he admitted to infidelity with Jennifer Flowers. However, for Hanson, questions of sexual impropriety and infidelity seem to be destroying her. As the double standard implies, men can be sexually active, even inappropriate, and it’s acceptable. But for a woman, the same understanding can not, and may never, exist in America.

"Henry Fonda didn't have to put up with this bullshit."
In the article Women’s Political Representation: The Importance of Ideology, Pamela Paxton and Sheri Kunovich discovered,

Despite advances in women’s levels of education and participation in the paid economy over the last 20 years (Clark, Ramsbey & Adler 1991; Jacobs 1996), women have made little significant progress with respect to their representation in national politics. In the U.S., women compose 46% of the paid labor force and 55% of tertiary students (United Nations 2000). However, their representation in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate remains 13% and 14%, respectively. 

The Contender makes this point clear in even its darkest moments. When running over the possible other female candidates for Vice President, Runyon and his spies have trouble coming up with more than two possibilities. Runyon himself acknowledges the lack of feminine presence in US government when discussing Hanson’s time in front of the nomination committee firing squad. When attending a meeting with the President (Jeff Bridges), Runyon says, “Six foxes and one chick seems hardly fair.” Crude? Maybe. True? Very.

"Can you prove you won't bleed all over the Constitution? I DIDN'T THINK SO!"
The issue of gender roles is one that is always at the forefront of the debate over women in politics. In, “Reconceiving Theories of Power,” Georgia Duerst-Lahti also wrote:

Women populate administrative agencies; often, nearly half of the employees are female. However, women are not commonly found in command positions (e.g. administrators) within the executive branch because common posts do not accord with feminine gender expectations. Women are much more likely to be found in staff units or staff positions (clerical, bookkeeping, and so on) within line units. As such, they have little access to structural power resources – for example, authority to make critical decisions, to manage budgets, or to supervise personnel. 

The Contender confronts this seemingly strict adherence to gender roles head on. Laine Hanson is a respected and well-liked senator. She is not a First Lady, her husband holds no higher office, nor is she riding his coattails to success (as is often suggested of women in politics.) In fact, Hanson’s husband acts as her campaign manager. At the beginning of the nomination process, Kermit Newman (Sam Elliot), the President’s right hand man, suggests that Hanson’s husband stay out of the way. He states, “If a wife is always there behind her husband, it’s perceived as supportive. A husband following around behind his wife is perceived as a puppeteer.” Hanson, however, makes it clear that she will not adhere to the gender roles set out for her. Her husband is just her husband, and Laine Hanson is the woman pulling the strings of her own career.

"Don't worry, son. We'll make her cry. We'll make her cry good."
The Contender accurately predicted how difficult it would be for a woman to become an active part of the executive branch of government, and Laine Hanson faced the same kind of personal and private attacks as did Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. However, Clinton was still forced to work within the system of double standards firmly in place in Washington. When a male candidate fights and debates with fervor, he is seen as powerful and strong. Hillary Clinton was accused of being shrieky and shrill. A man is never asked if he is emotionally stable enough to handle debating with leaders of foreign government or if he is strong enough to work on international policy with difficult heads of state. Yet these questions were a constant concern over Hillary Clinton’s viability as a presidential candidate simply because she was woman, and therefore, probably fragile. In the days following the recent election, there have been many questions regarding gender and misogyny's role in the electoral outcome. Sixteen years ago, The Contender predicted a result none of us thought still possible in this day and age.

Laine Hanson: It seems to me that all you can claim about me... claim, is that I had sex. 
Shelly Runyon: Deviant sex. 
Laine Hanson: Oh, deviant? Who says it was deviant? 
Shelly Runyon: I do. What I say the American people will believe. And do you know why? Because I will have a very big microphone in front of me. 

If there were such a thing as “just a movie,” then maybe Sheldon Runyon would simply be talking about a giant microphone. However, in the world of gendered politics, the microphone Runyon speaks of is a phallic object of the highest degree. As Runyon sits above and in judgment of what he thinks he knows about Laine Hanson, that microphone is all he has to set himself apart from her. In Women’s Political Representation, Paxton and Kunovich wrote,

Ideologies and arguments against women’s right to participate in politics have created substantial barriers to women’s political participation for many years. For centuries, political theorists such as Aristotle, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Avicenna, and John Locke justified the exclusion of women from politics because of their assumed nonrational nature. Even after women gained suffrage, their ability to make rational decisions continued to be questioned theoretically and empirically. 

Laine Hanson is a character that stands up against and smashes down the barriers Paxton and Kunovich speak of. Hanson is a representative force of everything that a woman fighting her way through the political world needs to be. She stands up for what she believes in while rallying against those double standards that are working to destroy her. And when her personal character is in question, she responds not with arguments or denials, but a flat refusal to even justify them with a response. Laine Hanson is an amalgam of everything good and decent that is lacking in politics as a whole and by embodying those traits in a woman, The Contender shows that even if it is just a movie, it is giving reality a goal for which to strive, even in these darkest times.

Let me be absolutely clear. I stand for a woman’s right to choose. I stand for the elimination of the death penalty. I stand for strong and growing armed forces because we must stomp out genocide on this planet and I believe that is a cause worth dying for. I stand for taking every gun out of every home, period. I stand for term limits and campaign reform. I stand for making the selling of cigarettes to our youth a federal offence. And, Mr. Chairman, I stand for the separation of Church and State, and the reason that I stand for that is the same reason that I believe our forefathers did. It is not there to protect religion from the grasp of government but to protect our government from the grasp of religious fanaticism. Now, I may be an atheist, but that does not mean I do not go to church. I do go to church. The church I go to is the one that emancipated the slaves, that gave women the right to vote, that gave us every freedom that we hold dear. My church is this very Chapel of Democracy that we sit in together, and I do not need God to tell me what are my moral absolutes. I need my heart, my brain, and this church. 
- Laine Hanson’s closing speech to the Nomination Committee in The Contender

Belladonna Horror Mag 1.6
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In this issue: Jessica Blum: Gamer. Model. Metalhead; Love is Love is Love is Murder in The Handmaiden; Sci-Fi Rewind: They Live; and She-Wolf: A Safe Teenage Lycanthropy Adventure. Featuring: Frightening Favorites, #AskAHoney, The Steam Room, Bella's Bad Touch, Dad Diary, and Horrorscopes!…