I guess the thing I keep thinking about is the pair of pink Mizunos: the sneakers that Wendy Davis wore when she stood for 13 hours on the floor of the Texas Senate chamber, filibustering an omnibus anti-abortion bill that has now shuttered all but a dozen or so legal abortion clinics in Texas.
Those sneakers carried so much more than a single legislator through her history-making stand against the most extreme package of anti-abortion laws in the country. They carried the hopes of thousands of Texans who came to occupy the halls of the capitol building during the summer of 2013, some of whom drove hundreds of miles across this sprawling state to tell stories—their abortion stories, their parents’ abortion stories, their grandparents’ abortion stories—to lawmakers who refused to listen, who put the false refrain of “health and safety” on repeat, and who scoffed at their “repetitive” pleas for continuing access to legal abortion care.
And this month, those sneakers are slathered in cow shit on the cover of Texas Monthly. Wearing them is a grotesque caricature of Wendy Davis, the exaggerated wrinkles on her face contorted in abject horror as she realizes she’s stepped in manure, her body twisted into a kind of faux-dainty, Barbie-esque revulsion. Alongside her is a cow that looks personally offended that Davis had the gall to smear its precious turd pile.
All of this is in service of the magazine’s “Bum Steers” issue, an annual tradition that calls out the year’s most embarrassing Texans, those responsible for the year’s biggest Lone Star mishaps. For those unfamiliar with the rag: Texas Monthly is the elder broseph of state-focused media outlets, obsessed with barbecue and Bernie Tiede, long a breeding ground for some of the country’s finest longform journalists. If Texas Monthly were to take human form, you’d be looking at a cross between Matthew McConaughey and George W. Bush.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Announcing Davis as the “bum steer” for 2015, Texas Monthly argued that “nothing, and we mean nothing, could match the train wreck that was Wendy Davis, Battleground Texas, and the Democrats.”
To be sure, it was a bad midterm election for those on the left side of the aisle—not only for Texans, but across the country. Following Davis’ filibuster, the pressure was on for her to lead the way to turning Texas blue. Her loss stung, particularly after so many had hoped that she could bring change to the governor’s mansion, or at least a real challenge to decades of GOP incumbency.
But this magazine cover, y’all. This magazine cover is something else. Just months after Texas Monthly lauded Davis as a potentially serious political threat—along with San Antonio’s Joaquin and Julian Castro—under the headline “Game On?“, the magazine flung her into a cow pasture in an act of pure, derisive mockery. All for the crime of running for office and losing.
And, perhaps more pointedly, for the crime of running for office as a woman. The cover follows a long bipartisan tradition of deeply misogynistic mainstream portrayals of women who work in politics. The tropes are easy enough to name: Sarah Palin as a dippy pin-up, Hillary Clinton as a ball-busting bitch, Condoleezza Rice suffering the double-whammy of racism and sexism as a GOP line-toeing mammy. When it comes to Davis, this cover—like many other less sleekly produced Davis renderings, from “Abortion Barbie,” to made-up Wendy condoms, to a variety of takes on the fact that she attended Harvard while married to a human man—doesn’t just caricature her. It portrays her as ugly, weak, self-absorbed and prissy. Whatever the failures of her campaign, those are not traits Davis possesses.
Contrast the Davis “bum steers” cover with the way her male fellow award winners have been portrayed by the magazine: Here’s a remarkably smooth-skinned Gov. Rick Perry with a post-it note on his forehead, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones having a beer and a shot with the Texas Longhorns mascot, Dick Cheney posing with a rifle, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong pedaling victoriously to another dubious win. None of these covers go out of their way to make any of these men look physically unappealing, and in fact some of them actually improve their looks. These illustrations, for that matter, all seem to punch up at powerful dudes who’ve acted like out-and-out dipshits.
In a world where women were not judged on their appearance and overall composure, where thousands of Texans who need abortion care were not likely to be denied that care thanks to the explicit dealings of anti-choice politicians, distorting Davis’ face into a commedia mask and shoving her, clad in those Mizunos, into a pile of bovine manure might have merely been a little over-the-top. But in this world, the world in which our cultural dialogue is shaped, in part, by entities like Texas Monthly, it is nothing less than egregious. It smacks of the elite reserve of journalists who are able to treat stories with a kind of “set it and forget it” attitude: this month’s cover down, and on to the next one.
Consider the reasoning behind Davis’ nomination here. Again, “bum steers” are generally awarded the prize for general doofusery—see Perry, Rick—or the kind of self-aggrandizing overconfidence that leads people to do remarkably stupid, even sometimes criminal, things that embarrass the state and its most prized institutions—see Armstrong, Lance and Jones, Jerry.
But Davis? Davis lost an election. Something that is perhaps not particularly surprising in a state where lawmakers have actively worked to disenfranchise low-income Texans, and Texans of color—in other words, Texans who vote Democrat—with explicitly racist voter ID laws.
Which brings me back to the shoes. For the “national magazine of Texas” to smear cow shit on those shoes, and all that they and Wendy Davis stood for, is to punch many, many orders of magnitude down. It is to say that running against the odds, as Davis did, was not only foolish—in the manner of accidentally shooting your buddy while you’re out quail hunting—but worthy of outright mockery.
Forgive me, but I don’t find what Wendy Davis did when she fought for people like the Vestals to be able to make a decision on how to handle a troubled, much-wanted pregnancy, based on the best available medical recommendations, to be worthy of outright mockery.
I don’t find what Wendy Davis did, when she read Texans’ abortion stories through tears to lawmakers who had intentionally silenced those who wished to testify, to be worthy of outright mockery.
I don’t find what Wendy Davis did, when she connected years of anti-choice legislation and family planning budget cuts to a continuing effort to end access to safe reproductive care, to be worthy of outright mockery.
I don’t find what Wendy Davis did, when she advocated for Texans in the farthest-flung corners of the state to continue to have access to health care at clinics that have been providing safe, legal abortion care for decades, to be worthy of outright mockery.
I don’t find what Wendy Davis did, when she spent hour after hour dismantling the outright lies of lawmakers who cooed constantly about “health and safety” regulations deemed unnecessary and dangerous by mainstream medical organizations, to be worthy of outright mockery.
In general, I do not think that standing up for Texans’ most basic rights to safely and confidently plan their families—to not be forced to carry every pregnancy to term because of a lack of resources or transportation—is something that is worthy of outright mockery.
I think, rather, that what Wendy Davis did, and what she stood for in those now-shit-smeared pink sneakers, is something that is worthy of our utmost respect, particularly in a political climate where those who believe in good science and good medicine are hounded into silence and submission by lawmakers whose compassionate conservatism begins at conception and ends at birth.
Perhaps the women who call the shots at Texas Monthly know that their glossy magazine salaries and their middle-class zip codes will always mean that they can access legal abortion care if they need it. Perhaps the men who call the shots at Texas Monthly don’t fear that their wives, sisters, and daughters will need to smuggle in abortion-inducing ulcer drugs from a Mexican pharmacy when hundreds of miles stretch between their homes and the nearest legal abortion clinic.
Maybe that’s why they thought it would be a good laugh to run with a cover featuring a disgusting illustration of Davis standing in a pile of soggy, sticky cow shit.
Perhaps also the Texas Monthly staff thought it could elude accusations of partisanship by naming Davis the 2015 “bum steer,” hungry as its writers may be for future audiences with media-shy politicians like Lieutenant Governor-elect Dan Patrick and incoming Attorney General Ken Paxton.
If so, the magazine is guilty of the worst kind of privileged, horserace-style politicking. In attempting to position itself as somehow above the fray, Texas Monthly is telling a lie of its own. It’s saying that politics in Texas are not dominated by a particular party, and that equal time and equal mockery are due, in equal measure, to all. That Texas politics is a friendly game of ping-pong; that everyone is equally responsible for Texas’ astounding repeat teen pregnancy rate, its abysmal nationwide education ranking, its rank refusal to help its most marginalized residents obtain affordable health care. These simply aren’t things that Texas progressives, liberals, and Democrats can lay claim to; they haven’t any real leverage in crafting statewide policy since Ann Richards lost to George W. Bush back in the ’90s.
Part of the reason for that—not the entire reason; I’m not playing the Evil, Baddie Media Monster game here—is that Texas Democrats, for a long time, have been damned if they do and damned if they don’t. This year, Texas saw its most promising, most energizing Democratic candidate in years: a woman who gave thousands of Texans permission to finally talk about supporting abortion in public, who filibustered not only for reproductive rights but for education funding, who took a Harvard law degree while raising two daughters. And the most prominent periodical in the entire state, the magazine that purports to be a thought leader in the political conversation month after month, shoved her into a shit pile for it.
Is it any wonder Texas Democrats have trouble gaining ground in mainstream political conversations? When they are roundly mocked for making any attempt to try? You tell people that their beliefs are pointless bullshit—in this case, literally—over and over again, and eventually you end up with a state with the lowest voter turnout in the entire country and a decades-long GOP monopoly on every office in Austin.
There comes a point at which pretensions toward objectivity and fairness become their own kinds of partisanship, and begin to look an awful lot like the reification and reinforcement of the status quo. That’s when “not taking sides” and hearing “both sides” crosses into the territory of putting publications like Texas Monthly on the wrong side of history. But in the meantime, this kind of grocery check-out line pagebait is great for selling magazines—and after all, Texas Monthly needs to sell copies if it’s going to keep its barbecue editor in brisket.
Indeed, I expect this issue will fare particularly well. I expect it to find a place in the home of everyone on “both sides” who thought “Abortion Barbie” was the best punch line of the year.