Language in the Democratic primary: snakes and sexism

Morgan Doherty, Editor-In-Chief

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As we hurdle towards November, tension in the Democratic primary continues to mount. And with closer polling and mounting aggression — from all of the campaigns — the infighting and acidity increases as enthusiastic bases attempt to make the best case for their candidate. As the race turns nastier, the worst place you can find yourself is deep in a thread of Twitter replies. And yet, I can’t seem to help myself.

As a generation reared with social media, from AIM to Instagram, I think everyone in our age group has a complicated relationship with our digital lives. But never more than during this primary cycle have I wanted to hurl my phone into the Mississippi River. As a passionate, progressive Democrat, I look to social media to see what my peers think about electoral politics and to stay updated on the campaign. Innocent as these visits to my Twitter app usually begin, though, I often find myself angrily scrolling through replies to tweets that I know I’m going to disagree with before I read them — and with an abundance of time on my hands I spent much of my winter break falling down one Twitter rabbit hole after another.

A particularly rough night was Jan. 14, the night of the seventh Democratic debate. A day before, CNN — the network hosting the debate — reported that one progressive frontrunner  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) had told another, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), that he “did not think a woman could win [the presidency].” I do not believe that Sanders, who vehemently rejected the allegation, is sexist — and perhaps more importantly, I do not believe that it is not worth all of our precious time to try to publicly relitigate a months old private conversation. Regardless, the awkwardness of the onstage exchanges between Sanders and Warren during that Jan. 14 debate was not what has stuck with me over these last few weeks. Rather, it was the reaction I saw on Twitter to the way that Warren handled the situation. The night of the debate, Sanders supporters and others flooded Warren’s Twitter mentions with thousands of snake emojis, pictures and gifs. That behavior went on for days.

Even if you do not use social media, it is hard to miss what the snake imagery is meant to imply. This is a social media phenomenon that many of us are familiar with. Perhaps the most iconic example of a woman being labeled a snake online was when Taylor Swift and the Kardashian-Wests very publicly fought over whether Swift knew about the lyrics to the song Famous before the song was released. When Kim Kardashian shared a video that appeared to put the issue to bed, internet users around the globe decided that Swift had been lying about her role in the situation — and out came the snake emojis. #TaylorSwiftisOverParty trended worldwide. In a similar fashion, following the January debate, #NeverWarren trended alongside #WarrenIsASnake.

Why is this particularly upsetting? In the Judeo-Christian tradition, a snake is evil incarnate. In the book of Genesis, the serpent convinces Eve to eat the forbidden fruit against God’s warnings, and, as a consequence, both Adam and Eve are removed from Eden. Because of this story, snakes have become associated with duplicity. This is a direct rebuke of other religious traditions that revere goddesses associated with snake imagery, such as the ancient Egyptian goddess Wadjet — a protector of children and the goddess of childbirth. Instead, the story of Eve and the serpent was interpreted to mean that all women have dangerous cunning that they choose to employ for their benefit. The myth of Medusa is another example of associating women with something slippery and slithering.

While the online mobs hurling snake emojis at women like Swift and Warren are almost surely not thinking of the snake’s biblical connection, the historic use of the term snake against only women accused of lying makes it an easy sexist fallback. After all, when is the last time you remember a man being vilified as a snake on Twitter? Other frontrunning candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, were caught lying during the same week as the allegation against Sanders was reported. Yet his Twitter feed, while certainly filled with negative thoughts and reactions, is entirely devoid of snake emojis.

Ultimately, the tension between Warren and Sanders has less to do with whether or not Sanders has sexist tendencies or if Warren aides exaggerated an innocent comment in an attempt to stop the ascent of the Sanders campaign. The real issue at hand is the myth of “electability.” In an election cycle where it feels particularly important for the Democrats to nominate a “winner,” what does and does not make someone electable is of the utmost importance

But the word “electability,” and the conversation around it, is a pretty obvious smokescreen for our racist and sexist tendencies as a society. The question of whether Sen. Warren is “electable” as compared to say, Pete Buttigieg, shows how profoundly opposed our society is to women seeking positions of power — particularly the presidency. Even women doubt that another woman could succeed at such a high level; a poll conducted by CNN revealed that while only 8 percent of male respondents believed a woman can’t win the presidency, that number rose to 20 percent with female respondents. While many male politicians, including Sanders, believe that women should pursue their highest ambitions, we all live in a culture of misogyny that includes our collective failure to call out institutionalized sexism when we see it.

So, disagree with how Warren handled this issue with Sanders, disagree with her platform, hell, disagree with her running for office. But instead of relying on the cheap fallback of tweeting a snake — or calling her a pathological liar, or evil or a sociopath — consider using the dwindling time we have left before we settle on a nominee to have more nuanced conversations with people you disagree with — and, if you have a little time left over, perhaps take a moment to consider the ways in which the patriarchy has poisoned our collective political discourse.

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