Pantsuit Nation: Totemic Rallying Cry

2016’s uniquely polarizing and contentious campaign spawned campaigns and movements across the political spectrum, from the meme Pepe the Frog to the proliferation of the “fake news” epithet.

Pantsuit Nation originated as a simple Twitter hashtag and private Facebook group used to promote Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the same vein as other social media movements. The impetus for starting this group began when Clinton’s fashion choices of business wear and pantsuits fell under pointed and hostile media scrutiny. The founder of this Pantsuit Nation group considered both Hillary Clinton and her iconic pantsuits as emblems of the movement towards equal rights for women. The private Facebook page became a space for users to encourage each other to vote, share personal stories related to both women’s and civil rights, and incite support for Hillary through fan art, including logos on clothes, food, and signs.

Yet for all the excitement about the campaign cycle, it ended in disappointment for most liberals. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States was a seminal moment for the American left wing, as much of what was seen as a coronation or a march to the presidency embodied in the historic candidacy of Democrat Hillary Clinton was put to a sudden, stunning end. Instead of celebrating the election of the first woman to the highest office, liberals enter the 45th presidency and 115th Congressional term without control of the executive office or both Houses of Congress.

Pantsuit Nation survived and re-branded itself, becoming a rallying point for all liberals to come together under a collective identity challenged by a brutal loss. The pantsuit became a totem for the group, a formulation Durkheim understood through his study of Australian aborigines.

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Two women sporting the totem; expressed and shared through an intimate post.

On Election Day, using the pantsuit as their primary totem, members formed voting groups to cast their ballots together while dressed in pantsuits, all while posting this group ritual in the Facebook page for the nationwide collective to follow. The pantsuit itself is, of course, just a piece of clothing Hillary Clinton happens to wear, but it takes on meaning for the group as a symbol. Members of Pantsuit Nation find value in it for the same reason the tribes Durkheim studies value their totems, creating them “simply because [they] feel the need to represent the idea [they] have by means of an outward sign, whatever that sign might be” (126). The pantsuit is an identification, a visual message an individual can use to express their belonging to the group.
Pantsuit Nation is strange when first encountered because as a pro- Hillary Clinton group, one would expect that the group would have faded after her loss. This is far from the truth: the group has never been stronger than in the past couple of months. What started as a way for Clinton supporters and volunteers to unite and organize has grown into a much larger social movement.

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Sharing a photo of her two adoptive kids, White expresses that the group needs to teach a positive attitude to all children. 

Durkheim’s analysis of the formation of groups and the origin of religious life explains the cohesion that many have derived from the Pantsuit Nation group. As he explains,

“The members of a single clan are joined to one another by either common residence nor common blood, since they are not necessarily consanguineous and are often scattered throughout the tribal territory. Their unity arises solely from having the same name and the same emblem, from believing they have the same relations with the same categories of things, and from practicing the same rites- in other words, from the fact that they commune in the same totemic cult.” (169)

Interestingly, the group gained popularity immediately after Clinton lost the presidential election in November. Through the shared experience and grief, members came together to show their collective support of Secretary Clinton, the living manifestation of the pantsuit totem. The loss served as a stimulus of rebirth to create a more unified group, dedicated to spreading it’s supportive, accepting ideas. Since then, the group has shifted in focus, now serving as a forum for people to share their stories and a place for individual members to unite and express themselves.

Durkheim helps us to understand this shift from collective support to individual sharing. He argues that the collective is formed before concepts of individuality appear, and a person’s understanding of their personal self grows out of their understanding of the social group:

“Far from being the seed of the collective cult, the cult that the individual organizes for himself, and within his inner self, is in a sense the collective cult adapted to the needs of the individual.” (182)

To see how an individual cult can develop from a collective one, we need to consider the soul, the fundamental religious basis for explaining a person’s individuality. The members of the tribe develop the concept of the soul to grasp the source of the moral voice they hear in their mind, which feels like an external force:

“Although our moral conscience is part of our consciousness, we do not feel on an equal footing with it. We cannot recognize our own voice in that voice that makes itself heard only to order us to do some things and not to do others” (266)

This external moral force is an instance of what Durkheim calls mana, the real psychic power of the collective. Though this force is collective and universal throughout the group, each individual experiences it personally, especially in this context of morality, as though it were an individual voice dwells inside them: a soul. Indeed, Durkheim defines the soul as “only a portion of the group’s collective soul… It is mana individualized” (267). In other words, a person’s soul is just a particular instance of the collective soul. Since the soul is the basis of individuality, we find that the individual is, in fact, a reflection of the collective spirit, differentiated slightly from others only by the different roles people occupy in life and within the group.

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A family photo shared to show the beauty of a multicultural, multiracial family.

The Pantsuit Nation group illustrates how a single collective spirit can be reflected in and colored by each individual’s personal experience. It’s hard to summarize what these members support as a whole: one could start with the liberal agenda, but it seems to be more than that. It appears that the group now exists as a platform simply to unite the members of the collective. The individual stories create a collective; at the same time, the collective allows members to find and express their own identities.

The page is intriguing because every day hundreds of women share their stories, ranging from the political to the everyday. It can feel scattered: as if the group accepts any and all pieces of information. But while the posts all discuss different individualized personal experiences, they are all united by the collective spirit of the group. Though the group originally developed around the support of Hillary Clinton, the collective spirit has grown to something much larger than just a political candidate. The soul of Pantsuit Nation is to strive towards social acceptance for all people.

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A married couple sharing their concerns with the Trump Administration

Sure, while the group understands that they are all fighting for the larger cause of acceptance, what motivates all these members to share their most intimate stories and moments with millions of others? The collective inspires and mandates all women to feel as if they are participating in something larger than themselves. Through each post, comment, like, and event, the group becomes stronger, as does its unifying spirit.  At the same time, each interaction with the group is an instance of mana becoming individualized: hundreds of beliefs and rights are shared, and every single individual brings unique perspectives to the group feeling. Each person feels their perspective legitimized and their individuality actualized by participating in the group.

Correspondingly, Durkheim holds that each individual owes their personhood to the collective, but at the same time, the collective owes its continued existence to the individual. The “collective spirit” isn’t a physical thing–it only exists in the minds of individuals and will fade if the members of the group don’t keep it alive. In the everyday course of life, many events will challenge the individual’s faith in the group; for the faith to be renewed, the individuals must reunite again and partake in collective rites:

“The shared faith comes to life again quite naturally in the midst of reconstituted collectivity… Once it is restored, it easily overcomes all the private doubts that had managed to arise in individual minds.” (350)

Individuals gain their sense of identity from the collective spirit, and in return keep the group together and its spirit alive through common ritual practices. Large-scale social gatherings are one of the most powerful ways to ignite a group’s spirit:

“The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation.” (217)

For Pantsuit Nation, the most powerful congregation was The Women’s March on Washington. This ritual expanded to ‘sister marches’ in large urban hubs like Chicago and New York and Los Angeles and in hundreds of others around the country and the world, creating a more individualized experience, while strengthening the collective objective as a whole. Over four million people marched through the United States and the world. While the marches weren’t organized solely through Pantsuit Nation, many of the members participated and posted about their experiences afterward. The groups often ended up marching illegally and the marches went on for hours after the original plans. This has to do with the feeling of collective effervescence, which takes individuals outside of their everyday behavior:

“People are so far outside the ordinary conditions of life, and so conscious of the fact, that they feel a certain need to set themselves above and beyond ordinary morality” (218)

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Marchers in the Women’s March on Chicago: Each arguing for different causes

     In conclusion, Pantsuit Nation is both a forum for uniting people in a cause larger than themselves and a platform for people to define their individuality as part of a group. Within the last political cycle, it was easy to feel that your voice was lost, this group provided a space for each individual to express their personal beliefs, while at the same time feeling the spirit of the collective.  The overlapping streams of individuality and collectivity are difficult to parse out, but Durkheim’s work on the construction of social groups allows us to understand how the collective and individual coexist and depend on each other.

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9 thoughts on “Pantsuit Nation: Totemic Rallying Cry

  1. The concept of the pantsuit as a totem seems confusing to me, because it’s a rallying force named for an article of clothing worn by Hillary, who seems to me to be a totem herself. It’s not so much that the “liberal collective” felt altogether connected to her–in fact, the election season proved to be especially hard for Mrs. Clinton for this very reason–until she was able to present herself as a totemic figure for liberalism when it felt most threatened. When the collective felt threatened, they turned to their totem for help: the politician that defended their sense of mana and morals.

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  2. I liked the explanation of how the pantsuit became a totem. As stated in the blog, the group really became conscious of their collective existence after the election. The group gained more traction and popularity after Hillary’s loss. I think if Hillary would’ve won they would still be around, but not as popular. They found their true identity when faced with adversity. I am just wondering what the rituals of this Pantsuit Nation would be. Are the rituals the daily Facebook posts or the public marches? I guess both renew the collective effervescence via the individual.

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  3. I haven’t heard of pantsuit nation before, but I thought this was a pretty interesting reading of it. It I also interesting considering how the pantsuit is kind of symbolic of ungendering clothing as well, and could be representative of ungendering the presidency too. Good article.

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  4. This post is an articulate exploration of the relationship between the individual and the collective. You guys clearly and comprehensively explained the symbiosis between the two sides; the existence of each depends on the other. I appreciate the post’s detailed description of the effect of the collective on the individual–not just that the collective produces the individual but that moral uplift and morality in general derive from collective experience. Furthermore, the Pantsuit Nation was a good example of the principles I just noted, and it also invites an interesting contemplation on the collective in the modern technological era. It seems that some version of the corroboree can take place without people physically coming together, now that social media facilitates communication over long distances (Harvey’s space-time compression at work, eh?). Also, the excerpts from Durkheim were well chosen to complement your real-world example.

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  5. I appreciate the attention to Pantsuit Nation before and after Clinton’s loss, because your description of the “re-branding” moment speaks to the ability of the collective to re-constitute itself and to evolve. If knowledge is a product of collective realities in Durkheim, there’s a sense in which that knowledge has a trajectory, and develops such that groups come to know themselves better (as opposed to one of the later theorists we read, like Foucault, where knowledge is socially contingent and never “better,” just based on different power configurations). I really enjoyed your analysis of the re-branding moment and how Clinton’s loss brought the collective closer together, emotionally. I would be interested in an analysis of whether deeper/more complex forms of knowledge came out of participation in the Pantsuit Nation collective. Did the group think through why she lost and come out with a more nuanced conception of her candidacy, or did they re-form purely around shared feelings of disappointment? In other words, did the re-branding have purely affective consequences, or did it also help the group develop new ideas and deeper collective thought?

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  6. I wonder what Durkheim would say about individuals wanting to join the “Pantsuit Nation” collective after it has experienced the shift that the election brought–if they can experience the same kind of collective effervescence. It seems like those who wanted to join after would not have the same connection to the totem that those who were a part of the movement from the beginning did. I wonder if we can see this happening in other situations. Great post–I think you made many interesting connections! -Seychelle

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    1. This is a good question, I think. I would be interested to know what happens to people who join a group after a cultural shift, does it change the impact of the totem? Does the totem hold the same power if the members think about it in different ways?

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  7. I cannot say I had heard of ‘Pantsuit Nation’ before, perhaps it was my lack of experience as an international student. Nevertheless, I found the article very interesting; particularly in the way that you explain the shifts in the totemic nature of Pantsuit Nation. This can not only be seen in how the nature of the movement shifted over the course and resolution of the election, but also how the totem itself appears to shift from Hillary Clinton (intially, the pantsuit being a representation of what she wore) to the article of clothing itself, distancing itself from HRC and aligning itself more with general ideas of liberalism such as in the example for the Women’s March and the idea of ungendering clothing.

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  8. It is neat that you applied Durkheim’s theory of the collective to an online group. I wonder about the individualized mana of which you speak. Was this mana generated from the collective of the pantsuit nation, or from other collectives which then came together in the pantsuit nation? If individual mana is the personality or the soul, then it must have been drawn from other collectives because the pantsuit nation is a new collective. That leads me to wonder, how can members of separate and geographically distant collectives contribute to creating a new one? Clearly these people are already affected by specific forms of mana generated from nearby communities of which they are part. I agree that the pantsuit became a totemic rallying cry for a group which feels newly united. This article is thought-provoking. It reveals the internet’s affect on modern-day totems and formation of collectives.

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