Conservatives routinely deny that gender is fluid. Yet they have feminized James Comey so rapidly, you would think he was J. Edgar Hoover.
Laura Ingraham claimed that Comey is a “drama queen” who writes in an unmanly way. Comey, says Charles Payne, is “a lot more emotional than you would think the head of the FBI should be . . . and vindictive too.” Amy Holmes thinks the fired FBI director is “like a 13 year old girl,” while a CNN commentator offered that Comey couldn’t “cowboy up, couldn’t man up.”
Then there is this from the President’s son, Donald Trump, Jr.: “So if he was a ‘Stronger guy’ he might have actually followed procedure & the law? You were the director of the FBI, who are you kidding?”
This is not just a story of the once-mighty brought low, but of the mechanisms of feminization by which Trump and his allies seek people’s compliance or bring them down.
Conservatives who reject feminist theory nonetheless understand exactly what feminist theorists of gender construction have been saying: not simply that gender is constructed, but that gender is an apparatus of power and disempowerment. How could it land with such a thud on the life of James Comey who, as head of the FBI, sure seemed like the most secure wielder of power, not its sufferer? This is not just a story of the once-mighty brought low, but of the mechanisms of feminization by which Donald Trump and his allies tend to seek people’s compliance or arrange to bring them down.
That Trump seeks to diminish or humiliate those around him is no secret. That such abjection often takes the form of “feminization” is also widely known. Recall Chris Christie’s account of a dinner with Trump:
He says, ‘There’s the menu, you guys order whatever you want,” and then he says, “Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.”
Why didn’t Christie stand up for himself? Order the steak? Demand to be one of the “guys”? Declare himself unsuited to the role of wife in some 1950s supper-club scene?
We do not know if Trump ordered for Comey at their now famous dinner in January. But we do know that something similar occurred. Trump let the FBI director know that he had certain expectations of this man who served at his pleasure, and Comey, at least according to his critics in the media and in the Senate, did not protest enough.
During the hearing on Thursday morning, Comey’s feminization was only a subtext but many women watching were aware of it. In her New York Times op-ed, Nicole Serratore notes that it was like watching the interrogation of a woman who has accused a man of sexual harassment. In fact, several of the questions, posed to Comey on Thursday, were almost identical to those asked of Anita Hill, at another famous Senate hearing about how best to respond to a boss's improper behavior. Why did you keep coming into work even after you say he made you feel uncomfortable? Why did you take no action at the time? Are you sure he really meant that? You said you didn’t want to be left alone with him again but then you took his phone calls. In the words of Senator Blunt, “So. . . . why didn’t you say, ‘I’m not taking that call. You need to talk to the attorney general’?” Senator Feinstein also expressed surprise at Comey’s failure to live up to the demands of masculinity: “You’re big, you’re strong,” she said: “why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong—I cannot discuss that with you’?” (As if that would have made a difference.)
In all these questions, one thing is repeated: Why should we believe you?
In all these questions, one key question is repeated:
Why should we believe you?
The problem for Comey is that the only way he knows to answer this last question is—reasonably enough—by reference to himself, his identity, his history, his principles, his agency. On Thursday, though, he demurred. His mother did not raise him to crow about himself. This demurral obliquely asserts the thing he refuses to say about himself: he is a good man. But once feminized, can he still say that? Be that? His efforts to defend himself may start to sound, well, defensive; his insistence on his integrity is easily cast as self-absorption; and his reliance on the support of old friends can seem needy. Gender has a slippery way of recoding everything. Before you know it, the authority that let you publicly chide Hillary Clinton for email carelessness is gone. Suddenly you have gone from being the head of one of the most powerful security apparatuses in the world to being a “showboat,” another 1950s supper-club word. It can happen to anyone. Just ask Sean Spicer.
Independence has been Comey’s accustomed position (in keeping both with the FBI’s institutional position and with Comey’s accustomed gender position as a straight white man) and so it is not surprising that Comey describes what happened at that January dinner as the result of his lacking, perhaps, a certain strength. When Trump said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” Comey did not yield but neither did he overtly protest. As he said in his statement: “I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.” Although Comey will later say that “maybe if I were stronger,” he would have done more, this silence was in its way a show of strength. But that strength is obscured—even from Comey himself, and with Diane Feinstein’s help—by his re-gendering. It is in the context of his feminization that we should hear Comey’s reflection at the Senate hearing that perhaps he should have been stronger.
The apparatus of gender also played a key role in Comey’s confusion at that dinner with Trump. If Comey was confused, it was not just because, as he reports, Trump asked him whether he wanted the job that he had been twice told was his earlier that month. Beneath that question lay the assertion that there could be only one alpha male in the room, but the president’s dinner invitation had suggested otherwise, using a subtle but highly gendered bait and switch. According to Comey, Trump “invited me to dinner that night, saying he was going to invite my whole family, but decided to have just me this time, with the whole family coming the next time. It was unclear from the conversation who else would be at the dinner, although I assumed there would be others.” Why did Trump mention the whole family? To reassure Comey of his place in the gender apparatus? To show he knew Comey was a husband and father? To reassure Comey (falsely) that they would meet as two men, two equals? Comey would expect no less.
Being a straight white man with a wife and children (six, no less) is still the most secure sign of credibility in American politics. No wonder Comey reached for it.
But they did not meet as equals. The aim that night was to get Comey to be submissive. Trump did not get that, at least not in the way he wanted. And so the aim ever since has been to demolish him. Recast as a “13 year old girl,” the former FBI director’s credibility, which he surely thought emanated from his good character or years of hard work, is suddenly attenuated. He seems trapped in an alien maze of “he said, he said.”
Is it any wonder, then, that at one point in his testimony, Comey found reason to mention his wife? This is one of a few details that have so far not received the attention they deserve. Business Insider went for the punchline but they missed the joke:
In a rare moment of levity during former FBI Director James Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, Comey said that he wished he had skipped a private dinner with President Donald Trump in order to keep a date with his wife.
Why bring up his wife, except to stabilize the gender identity he once took for granted and thought was his? Having a wife—being a straight white man with a wife and children (six, no less)—is still the most secure sign of credibility in American politics. No wonder Comey reached for it. But it may not work this time. Turns out gender really is constructed. And no one understands that better than those who are most opposed to such claims and are most invested in gender as an apparatus of power: Comey’s conservative critics and the great feminizer-in-chief. Who will they target next?