If you focus on what highest-profile media commentators are saying about the revelations about Trump’s treatment of women, you will get a nice lesson in the cultural & psychological illiteracy of the mass media’s understandings of US politics.
The story being pushed—or really just assumed—by the “move as an unthinking pack” media is that the Trump’s sexually assaultive behavior and worldview must be alienating women en masse, making the imminent collapse of Trump’s campaign inevitable.
But as the most recent polls show, the race is about as close as it ever was in the popular vote. Looking at sentiment among expected voters, The Wash. Post/ABC Poll, produced by top-notch Langer & Assoc., has Clinton ahead only 47-43.
But even more significant is what the Langer poll shows about female voters. “Clinton leads by 8 points among women,” the poll finds,
while she and Trump run evenly among men — an unexpected change from late September, when Clinton led by 19 points among women, Trump by 19 among men. This reflects greater support for Trump among white women who lack a college degree, partly countered by gains for Clinton among white men.
According to the survey,
Among likely voters, just 43 percent of non-college white women see Trump’s treatment of women as a legitimate issue, essentially the same as it is among non-college white men, 45 percent. By contrast, about two-thirds of college-educated whites, men and women alike, say the issue is a legitimate one.
Similarly, 56 percent of non-college-educated white women agree with Trump that his videotaped comments represent typical locker-room banter. So do 50 percent of non-college white men. Among college-educated whites, that falls to barely more than a third.
Got it? Women aren’t reacting in a uniformly negative manner but in a polarized one to the latest Trump controversy. So are men.
This doesn’t fit the conventional narrative, which simplistically attributes a monolithic attitude on gender equality issues to women.
But it does fit a more nuanced view that sees sex equality as involving an important cultural dimension that interacts with gender.
In her book The Politics of Motherhood, sociologist Kristin Luker points out that the abortion debate features a conflict between two larger visions about gender and social status.
On the one side is a traditional, hierarchical view that sees women’s status as tied up to their mastery of domestic norms like wife and mother.
On the other is a more modern, egalitarian one sees mastery of professional roles as status conferring for men and women alike.
Luker argues that abortion rights polarize these groups because that issue is suffused with social meanings that make it a test of the state’s endorsement of these competing visions and what they entail about the forms of behavior that entitle women to esteem and respect in contemporary society.
The same sorts of associations, moreover, inscribe the battle lines in debates over the definition of “rape” in campus sex codes and “sexual harassment” in work place ones (if you think these issues aren’t matters of intense disagreement in today’s America, you live in a socio-ideological cocoon).
Moreover, while these debates are ones that pit men and women who hold one set of cultural outlooks against men and women who hold another, the individuals who are in fact the most intense divided, Luker points out, are the women on the respective sides, because they are the ones with the most at stake in how the resolution of these issues link status and gender.
This view is borne out by polls that consistently show women to be the most divided on abortion rights.
They are borne out too by studies that show that women with opposing cultural worldviews are the most divided on date rape.
They are the most divided, moreover, not just on what the law should be but on what they see, the study of cultural cognition shows, in a typical date rape case in which factual matters like the woman’s consent and the man’s understanding of the same are in issue.
Perceiving that women who behave as independent professionals or as independent sexual agents are lying when they assert that they have been sexually harassed or assaulted affirms the identities of those whose status is most threatened by the norms that license such independence and impel respect for those who exercise it.
It’s not surprising—it’s inevitable—that when Trump is attacked for his attacks on women, women of a particular cultural identity will be among those who most aggressively “reject the controversy over his sexual behavior as a legitimate issue” and “rally” to his side.
So if you want to learn something about cultural norms in America, stay tuned. Not to the simplistic narrative that dominates our homogenous, homogenized media. But to the complex, divided reactions of real people, men and women, who are fundamentally divided in their perceptions of who deserves esteem for what and hence divided in their perceptions of who did what to whom.