So, some of you may remember a post of mine from a while ago about Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He's the Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona (where Phoenix is), and he forces all inmates who enter the County prison system to wear pink underwear. He's made a lot of statements about why he does it over the years, but it all more or less boils down to "showing them who's boss." "Sheriff Joe" as he likes to call himself, has been castigated by all sorts of civil rights groups over the years for a lot of things, including the pink underwear, but mostly due to his actions on immigration. But today, let's talk about pink underwear.
There's a lot to unpack there of course, about masculinity, control, and such. Why pink underwear on these alledged criminals? Well, it emasculates them, makes them seem less like men and more like women. And women are the weaker sex, meant to be controlled. And what does a Sheriff want to do with inmates? Control them of course!
So Sheriff Joe had a huge blow against this policy, I think, in the form of an opinion from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Eric Vogel, born 1964, was a man who showed signs of some sort of mental illness. On November 12, 2001, he left his home for no apparent reason. After running in to police officers and demanding to see the President, he was put under arrest for assaulting a police officer. Upon intake into a prison run by Sheriff Joe, he completed a mental health assessment and met with a psychiatric counselor, who put a psychiatric hold on him, suggesting he needed further treatment. Upon further evaluation, he was recommended to get treatment in the psychiatric ward.
But before being transferred, he had to "dress out" or put on the pink underwear. When he refused, officers forced undressed and re-dressed him, all while Vogel was screaming that he was being raped. During this period, he allegedly spit on a police officer during the "dress out." After a week's treatment, he was released upon being bailed. On December 6, while in a minor traffic accident in his mother's car, he was informed that there was a warrant for spitting on the officer. He fled his home, beliving the police were coming, ran 4-5 miles until he died acute cardiac arrhythmia. His family sued, believing that the trauma Vogel had endured in the prison was the cause of his feeling.
The 9th Circuit Court's (the 9th Circuit hears appeals from Federal District Courts, including the District Court of Arizona) opinion, focuses mostly on excluding testimony about Eric Vogel's belief that he was being raped during the "dress out," which was why, according to his family, he fled.
A couple quotes from the opinion struck me (brackets are mine):
[Vogtel's] mind was focused on the implications of being dressed in pink. That he had been dressed in pink was not a delusion. But what was essential to the plaintiff’s case was [his mother's] testimony that the shock and humiliation of the “dress-out” in pink was preying on his mind."
When a color of such symbolic significance is selected for jail underwear, it is difficult to believe that the choice of color was random. The County offers no penalogical reason, indeed no explanation whatsoever for its jail’s odd choice. Given the cultural context, it is a fair inference that the color is chosen to symbolize a loss of masculine identity and power, to stigmatize the male prisoners as feminine.
The Court also added:
Unexplained and undefended, the dress-out in pink appears to be punishment without legal justification.
What is, of course, so striking about this opinion and this set of facts is the power that gender and its constructions have on people. Now, Eric Vogel undoubtedly had a mental illness, which clearly affected his perception of the "dress out" that was happening to him. However, the fact remains that the underlying dress out had a purpose: to humiliate and emasculate men by having them dress in women's clothing. While Vogel's tragic death is certainly the outlier, it demonstrates the power that the State can wield when it chooses to use gender norms as a tool of control.
I caught a little news item yesterday that just had so many issues about gender going on in it that I had to blog a bit about it.
Boy. Where to start?
Let's start with the background. Sheriff Joe makes many of his male prisoners wear pink underwear. He explicitly does this because he believes that it humiliates the prisoners, with the stated official reason that because of this humiliation, it reduces the stealing of underwear.
I don't doubt that his method is effective. Men are taught at a young age that our masculinity, despite being defined positively (that is, being defined by what it is), is also very much defined negatively (being defined by what it is not). And what masculinity is not, we are taught, is feminine. The genders are taught to us as being mutually exclusive. One cannot have feminine traits and still claim to "be a man."
We're taught this pretty young, too. It's fighting words to a ten year old to be told that he "throws like a girl," and fighting words to a teenager that he's a "pussy." Even grown men, Senators no less, are told "man up" as a way to attack their masculinity, and thus their identity.
I think there's something else going on in this "gift" of pink underwear to Sarah Palin. Sure, it's sort of Sheriff Joe's symbol, but underwear is not something you give to someone, at least not someone you don't have an intimate relationship with, in my experience. Certainly you don't give underwear to someone professional, and you don't give it to a professional politician.
I think that Sheriff Joe giving Palin pink underwear is a sexist way to undermine her credibility as a politician. While I am not fan of Sarah Palin, I certainly think she's been the victim of chauvinism and misogynist commentary in the media. I've not heard of Sheriff Joe gifting pink underwear to any other politician, man or woman, and this kind of creepy, sexual gesture speaks profoundly to the views that people like Sheriff Joe have towards women. I would speculate that Sheriff Joe gives it to Palin because she's viewed as an attractive woman, not as some sort of "here's my little token and I give it to every politician." It demeans Palin, by treating her as an object of male sexual desire, rather than as a professional politician.
I don't know what kind of appropriate response Palin could make, other than respectfully declining Sheriff Joe's gift.