The Politics of Personal

October 27, 2003

The Politics of Personal Appearance

My random thought for today was inspired by discussions of Ann Coulter's Adam's Apple. Some people argue that because she has a visible Adam's Apple, she must be a transgendered individual. I forget how I found it, but points out that if you do a google search you will see commentary on her anatomy from all parts of the political spectrum. Ms Coulter is a remarkably skinny woman and, like many very skinny women, you can see her larynx through the skin of her throat. Her face is stretched over her skull exposing the bones of her cheeks and forehead. You can also see neck tendons and, in some of the pictures on her website, you can see that she just about flunks the knee test. She looks skeletal, not masculine. Her Adam's Apple is visible because she is so very lean. If I had a student with that body type I would be concerned about eating disorders and would contemplate an intervention. But, that is not my point.

What struck me by this was the way that people who disagree with her politics do not just attack her ideas and methodology, they attack the person as well. Unlike common Type-M arguments that focus on the motives of their opponent, this argument goes for her gender, suggesting that Coulter is transgendered and then using this supposition to justify ignoring her positions and arguments. It is ad-hominem: because she has a nonstandard gender history, her critics suggest, we need not take her seriously.

Now, while I disagree with most of Coulter's positions and despise her tendency to use arguments that systematically misinterpret other people's positions, I am also very concerned with this critique of Coulter. It not only reinforces traditional gender roles but, by assuming that unusual gender de-legitimizes a speaker, it also reinforces a system of deviance where "normal" is contrasted with "transgendered." This reinforcement does not come in formal critiques, most of the people who make those critiques will also argue that the issue is whether Coulter is lying about her past rather than about the plumbing she had at birth. The reinforcement comes as the meme about Coulter's Adam's Apple reaches into the mainstream. "Did you hear that?" "Is it true that" "What Glee, I hear that" and so on. At that point you are reaching towards character destruction, you are making a Limbaughesque argument based on derision and not content, and you reinforce traditional gender patterns and deviance patterns.

You find this sort of reinforcement and derision in many places in society. One place where it is particularly prominent is men's sports. "Lets beat these pussies" is commonplace. Men and boys in competitive sports, especially physical sports, will often call their opponents women and will use a rhetoric that links gender to moral and physical weakness, lack of competitive fire, and essential worthiness. Men, even men on their team, who do not display the right sort of aggression might be taunted as "gay" or "fags" because they are displaying "feminine" weakness despite wearing a masculine body and attempting to engage in "masculine" competitive sports.

I make this connection because Ann Coulter is a particularly competitive and aggressive woman. She competes with words and ideas, not with physical strength, but she competes in the realm of politics and ideas - a historically male realm - and she displays "masculine" aggressiveness as she does so. One way of coming to terms with a woman who displays "masculine" attitudes is to suggest that she is not really a woman. One way of putting down someone you dislike is to mock their sexuality and, especially against women, to mock their secondary sexual characteristics.

So far this interpretation is relatively timeless. I could change the names, find something other than the Adam's Apple, and dig around and find similar strong women and similar criticisms at almost any point in the last forty years. However, at the start of the twenty-first century we are engaged in a national discussion about gender roles and gender norms. People with non-traditional gender identities are refusing to be second-class citizens, while the national Republican party is attempting to replace its Cold War anti-Communism with anti-homosexuality. This means that the whole silliness about Ann Coulter's neck falls within a context where gender roles are both looser and more political than they have been in the past.

The silliness about Coulter shows a group of people who disagree with her positions, and are thus presumably moderate or liberal in their own politics, picking up on a social conservative meme to undercut a vocal conservative. If it was a conscious decision, we could argue that it was a form of rhetorical jujitsu intended to topple the social conservative movement: if their leaders do not practice the narrow gender roles that they preach, perhaps anti-homosexuality will be recognized as a particularly cynical bit of hypocrisy.

But, the strongest appearances of the Adam's Apple meme come in passing, as folks use Coulter's mixed-gender appearance to mock their opponent without really thinking about what they are doing and why they are doing it. That, in turn, warns me that social conservatives may well win both electoral and cultural contests by continuing to taunt, despise, and dehumanize people whose gender roles do not fit within a very narrow set of norms.

So what can we do about it? In this particular instance, do as I did at the top of this rant. Turn the focus from gender roles to body shapes. Coulter has a ballet dancer's neck and a marathoner's face. I would rather speculate about the psychology of someone who prefers to be thin than to be strong than speculate about what it says on her birth certificate. In broader terms, John Lewis may be right to turn the focus from gender roles to individual rights, and from religion as the basis of social norms to national political principles as social norms.

When you catch people using gender norms to establish deviance, ask them "What part of 'all people are created equal' don't you understand?"

And back to work.

edit, revised lead paragraph, added links to knee test and Coulter's page, new title.

Posted by Red Ted at October 27, 2003 10:25 AM | TrackBack

I disagree that people are focusing more on Ann Coulters Adams apple and her looks. i think it is simply a subject being addressed in addition to her idiotic rhetoric against a group of people she really does not know. She ignorantly packages a group of people she calls liberals, and then insults them both individually and as a group. she really has no idea what she is talking about most of the time and rarely makes any comments that are of any consequence or logic. she simply prefers to be vitriolic and spews hatred with the best of them. As for her looks, i have read comments about that. i interpret those comments to be done as another particular subject addressed solely to make statements that describe her and are not part and parcel to comments about her annoying attitude. Her looks have simply become a seperate subject and trightly so. she always makes comments about people (libs) and their looks, appearences and other inane comments on personal matters. I truly believe the people making these comments are doing so more in response or in addition to other comments on the same subject.

Posted by: Wayne at June 22, 2004 11:38 AM

A reader points out by email that I am using a term incorrectly here. Apparantly "transgendered" is a loaded word; the correct term is "transsexual." This makes sense; remember that sex is plumbing, gender is clothing (and behavior, &c.).

So, I probably used the wrong term - I think I steered away from transsexual simply because it reminds me of Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Posted by: Ted K at August 18, 2004 02:59 PM

The point is NOT that Ann Coulter might be transsexual, that is an open-question, and frankly it demeans transgendered persons to use it as a political football.

HOWEVER, it does prove the imperative for sensitivity, and hate crimes legislation. IF Ann Coulter could be MISTAKEN for being a man, then the collateral damage is unacceptable because NOBODY should be discredited, discriminated or attacked for having ambiguous gender cues.

When an arch-consevative such as Coulter must confront such innuendo, it becomes self-evident that all individuals deserve to be respected regardless of their views or their (perceived) orientation.

All that aside....

(s)he does act like a guy though!


Posted by: meme at November 9, 2004 12:40 PM

People attack Ann in a personal fashion because she attacks others in a very personal manner. If she can't take it she shouldn't dish it out. As a liberal and an avid reader since the age of three,(four to five books a week, depending on length) I take it personally when she says that liberals don't read any books. I'd be willing to bet that I've read more than she has. I do agree that talk about the "adam's apple" is rather pointless, actually it looks more like goiter to me, and that's not something I want to attack someone for. The main thing that bothers me about Ann Coulter is how she goes out of her way to offend everyone and anyone then feigns hurt or amazment that so many dislike her.

Posted by: Jennifer Cannon at December 20, 2004 05:07 PM

I don't disagree many of the points you raise except to suggest that these attacks on Ms. Coulters feminity spring from
(1) her tendency toward ad hominem rather than substantive attacks on other people.
(2) The potential hypocracy of her defence of an ultra-conservative viewpoint when it seems she may live a less than traditonal life.

It would not be particularly funny, and would not gain much traction, to make jokes about George Will as transgendered because his work is based on reason. I can vigorously disagree with him but I have to stay on the intellectual plane he stays on. Because all Coulter does is whack at people's knees with personal attacks she invites personal attacks back. And one political commedian I've heard make such jokes points out that the people the people who would find a transgenedered writer most offensive are the people who agree with her. ANyway, it is satire and not intended to be taken seriously (at least, by most people) of a person who deserves to be satired.

Posted by: Trevor at March 29, 2006 07:21 PM

I think the funniest aspect I see with these idiots picking on Coulter because of her Adam's Apple is the fact that there are actresses out there who actually have bigger, far more visible "apples". Kelly Rowan, Francesca Neri, Jeri Ryan, Leila Arcieri, and Jenna Elfman to name a few. The ones that mention Coulter's are just looking for childish ways to make fun of her. Then again, she's done a great job at making herself a target.


A. Alvarez

Posted by: A. Alvarez at April 25, 2006 06:04 PM


Posted by: Ed at June 24, 2006 12:35 AM

Can I just point out that it's not an 'insult' be be called transsexual and for it to be considered as such is an insult within itself.

Like any other genetic disorder some people are born with the wrong physical gender, which doesn't match their psychological gender.

Like people who are born with mental handicapps, no legs, half a brain, two brains, both genitalia etc, all kinds of things are possible genetically. I don't know why people find it so hard to concieve that, if it's possible to clone a sheep, be born with both genetalia (hermaphrodite), someone can be born with a physical gender which doesn't match their mindset gender.

YES there are plenty of famous women who are either post or pre-op transsexuals or hermaphrodites. It's a fact of life, not something to be ashamed of.

The reason they don't announce this is simply because of stupid comments like people have made her and elsewhere.

And who am I? Well, you wont ever know that (*wink*) but let it be said......we have eyes too.

x ;o)

Posted by: In The Evidence Of It's Brilliance at June 25, 2006 11:01 AM

She's such a liberal hater, but she lives in the East Village in NYC. She doesn't attend any church, and when pressed on her religious affiliation, she LIES and says she goes to a church where she is a total unknown.

It's not about who Ann is on the outside, it's who she is inside. It's important because of the delicious irony that she would have to hate herself and the godless liberal things 'Ann' would suddenly represent. Sorry, but she seems to be completely dishonest. Other people are transgender true, but they don't make a living saying things that would undermine social progress for other transgender individuals.

Also, considering her nauseating repetoire shovelling hate speech down people's gullets with the blessing of FOX, CNN and GE, it would make it seem like she doesn't care about anything she says, thus, another nasty Bushbot lying again to please her masters. She's still easier on the eyes than Bill Bennett. He's a certified doofus. He should be doing Yogi Bear voiceovers, not Meet GE's Press on Sunday.

And besides if you've seen the CBC interview where Coulter tries to correct the Canadian journalist by telling him how Canada fought in Vietnam, it would be pretty easy to dismiss her as nothing more than an undereducated, arrogant trifle.

Posted by: Mr. Nice at July 12, 2006 02:28 AM
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