Sometimes a picture is really worth 1,000 words: it can tell a better story than reams of prose. An example appeared on the front page of The New York Times, above an article reporting on the Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case. A close reading offers an interpretation of how supporters of Hobby Lobby not only want you, the observer or reader, to feel about the ruling, but also how they want you to feel about its supporters and about women and women’s roles in American society. A thousand words indeed!
The photo depicts a group of supporters of the ruling joyfully demonstrating before the Supreme Court building. In front, not by chance, are several women; some men, as well as other women, are scattered behind them. The women in the forefront are waving signs.
The woman in front at the left has a sign reading: #WomenInControl/Don’t Want/Bosses’ Handouts. The sign totally obscures her face. But she is wearing pink nail polish, so we know she is a lady.
What strikes me first is the pound sign. I must confess that I am unable to give it a literal reading, being technologically back somewhere in the twentieth century. I do know that it has something to do with Twitter, but that’s as far as my expertise will go. But I do know (more or less) what Twitter is, a recent communicative innovation much favored by the young. So carrying a sign that starts with a Twitter tag says: I am a modern woman. I am trendy – “with it,” as the old fogies like to say. Christian women like me are not mired in the past – we are new, vibrant, now. Ours is the new message. Theirs is so over.
The tag itself, “WomenInControl,” is also telling. The words are run together without spaces, another signifier of the colloquial and trendy. But what do the words mean? How does losing the ability to control what goes on in your body (because of not having access to contraception) put you in “control”? Not in control of your body. Not in control of your identity as a woman or a human being. Not in control of your mind. Yet the words suggest a compelling equation: opting out of contraception is being in control. And while this statement doesn’t make a lot of sense (some would consider it oxymoronic), it sounds good because it is stated with certainty. The phrase also denies a common assumption about Christian women. Such women, it says, are not helpless slaves of their Church and their men: they are in fact in control of everything they need to control. There is no evidence in the sign or elsewhere of the validity of that proposition, but the very fact that it is stated, and in the trendy way in which it is stated, is tacitly persuasive.
The main message makes its point by inference: “Don’t want bosses’ handouts” means, of course, that paying for an employee’s contraception would be a “handout”: demeaning, reducing her to the status of a beggar. This too immediately evokes in a reader an unwillingness to be such a person. But don’t give in to that first impression: it, too, makes less sense than it might seem to on superficial inspection.
Why is contraception a “handout” when other medications – Viagra, for instance – are not? Why does wanting contraception transform a woman into an object of disgust? I am reminded of Rush Limbaugh’s demonizing of Sandra Fluke as a prostitute for making just that demand. Of course Limbaugh’s rant goes far beyond the sentiments of the well-behaved sign, but both make the same threat: ask for contraception and you are contemptible.
At the far right, also in front, is a similar sign, held by a woman who is shouting and raising a fist defiantly in the air. Here again the viewer comes up against an apparent contradiction: the devout Christian woman who is also active and defiant: strong and powerful, her posture suggests. The message on her sign is similar. #WomenInControl/can Manage their/fertility. The last word is written in cursive script , quite feminine, but at the same time childishly round and legible, perhaps unintentionally suggesting that the bearer of the sign has a sort of childlike innocence (or childish naiveté) – which may be good or bad.
The message itself, though, is neither childish nor naïve, but disturbing. How, precisely, does any woman (even one who is InControl) “manage” her fertility without the aid of contraception? Shades of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock – the Republican candidates for the Senate in 2012 in Missouri and Indiana who talked about how, in a “legitimate” rape, women’s bodies did something spooky so that they never got pregnant. (And, by the way, remember what happened to them.) That is at any rate the only sense I can make of the signage: that women “InControl” don’t need contraception to keep from getting pregnant. I didn’t think it was Christian to bear false witness.
Between these two sign-bearers is a third, carrying a smaller, purple sign on which is written: WOMEN for/[drawing of the Christian fish symbol, with an eye on top of which are curly eyelashes]/RELIGIOUS FREEDOM. The curly-eyelashed fish (and perhaps the purple color of the sign) evoke traditional female and “girly” stereotypes: the good Christian woman is the stereotypical girly woman.
On the surface, these women might appear both holy and wholesome, worthy role models for other women. But upon close interpretation (and this is the job of voters), their messages turn out to be neither of the above.