Maxine Waters: Exception or Exemplar?

I work at Carleton’s Information Desk and, once a week during my opening shift, I have to come up with the quote of the day. When I can, I like to make the quotes topical (and I also like to be as political as I can get away with), so, after our class discussion about Maxine Waters, I decided to try to find a quote of hers to display. I did what I always do when I search for these quotes: google “Maxine Waters quotes” and go to images.

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Screen Shot of google search “Maxine Waters quotes”

Typically, there are various quotes next to pictures of the speaker. For Maxine Waters, however, roughly half of the images that came up were ironic – making fun of her for having “the IQ of a dinner fork,” unflattering pictures, quote gaffes watermarked with “Crazy Things Liberals Say.” I was shocked by this. In all my quote searching, I had never once seen a single mocking quote, let alone a majority. I was left wondering: why Maxine Waters? Is it because she’s a black female politician? So I decided to look up “Kamala Harris quotes.”

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From a page titled, “Maxine Waters Dumb Quotes”

Harris, another black, female politician from California, Waters’ own state, got very different results. I saw what I expected: inspirational quotes next to professional-looking photos of Harris. So, what is the difference between Maxine Waters and Kamala Harris? Both are black, female California Democrats. Both are openly anti-Trump. What is it about Waters that elicits such a vitriolic reaction from so many people? It can certainly be argued that it is because Waters is particularly in the public eye right now, and particularly staunch – one article I read about her even referred to her as a “liberal darling.” If I had to wager, however, I would guess that it’s at least partially about beauty. Waters is coming up on 80-years old, while Harris is just over 50 (and looks like she could be younger). Harris is light-skinned, and Waters is not. In fact, Waters has several features often associated with blackness – thick lips and a broader nose, neither of which Harris has.

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Waters with her finger pointed, from list of “Top 10 Outrageous Maxine Waters Quotes”

Furthermore, many of these mocking images seemed to be

going out of their way to present Waters as physically unattractive, in addition to unfit for her political position. In most every mocking photo she appears mid-speech with her mouth wide open. In many, she has her finger pointed audaciously,
which feels to me like a thinly veiled attempt to present her as an
“angry black woman” stereotype. In one image, some sort of a filter has been put over her face to 
overemphasize her eyes, nose, and mouth, in such a way that she looks

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“Maxine Says…” from Sparta Report, a conservative news source

incredibly cartoonish. This particular image also features text mocking her intelligence. Another picture calls her a “corporate whore,” with the text of the word “whore” in much larger text than the words surrounding it. Through these images, Maxine Waters’ image is co-opted in order to present her as whatever the images’ authors want to portray her as: ugly; stupid; sexual prey –  maybe even all three at once. Never do these mocking images use an official photo, or a non-candid photo, in which Waters could be more in control of her presentation. It is a removal of Waters’ control over her own image and, in a sense, her own body. But it is also more than that. While Deborah Willis can spend an entire book giving examples of how “beauty is empowering in black culture” (xvii), this one google search is a reminder of how easily beauty can be manipulated to disempower. Quoting Abdus-Salam, Willis’ piece asks, “how do [images] simultaneously influence the psyche, ideas and self-perceptions of African American women, and the outside opinions of others?” (xxvii) So, one has to ask: what is the larger meaning of an innocent google search garnering such disdainful responses? How might this affect “psyche, ideas, and self-perceptions”? What’s more, how much of an outlier is Waters truly? For whatever reason, Maxine Waters seems to be an easy target, but I’m left wondering: how much of the hatred directed at Waters herself is simply an outlet for hatred of her identities?

Deborah Willis, “Introduction,” Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009)

Abdus-Salam, Unpublished artist statement in Deborah Willis, “Introduction,” Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009)

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