On Talking Trash (and lovin’ it!)

By Carrie Levesque

So unless you’ve been living under a rock (or used your spring break to take a much-needed vacation from all media, and if so, good on ya!), you’ve probably heard about Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, calling her a ‘prostitute’ and a ‘slut’ for her testimony at a hearing related to the controversial federal Health and Human Services contraception mandate.  In the uproar that has followed Limbaugh’s comments (numerous online petitions and the withdrawal of dozens of sponsors from his radio program), though few, if any, have defended his abusive rant, conservatives have been quick to remind us of similar attacks liberal commentators have made on women like Sarah Palin and Laura Ingraham.

That ‘liberals do it, too’ does not in any way excuse Limbaugh’s behavior (especially since Limbaugh is somewhat unusual in having done what he has done repeatedly, and has even made sexist remarks against another young woman since the Fluke debacle, which is impressive, even for him).  But this tit-for-tat deflection is actually a relevant point when considering the larger question.  When Limbaugh insists he ‘did not intend a personal attack’ on Sandra Fluke, I can almost believe him, considering the casualness with which we throw around names like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ (and worse) in our media.  It only takes about 10 seconds of searching this topic on the web to find plenty of examples of male commentators (liberal and conservative) who have been chastised in recent years for choosing to attack female public figures with sexualized epithets.  Which leads me to the questions: why do they do it, and why do we put up with it?

The line between ‘news’ and ‘entertainment’ has become so blurred in our society that one wonders whether there is a line at all anymore, or if it isn’t all, with few exceptions, ‘infotainment.’  Limbaugh, and conservative commentators like him, simply deliver what their most dedicated listeners expect: a snarky, no-holds-barred skewering of all things Left.  As Neal Boortz’s tagline (“Somebody’s Gotta Say It!”) suggests, the success of these shows rests on the commentator’s willingness to say the outrageous, to offer the brashest, crudest version of a ‘truth’ that the ‘mainstream’ media lack the cojones to utter.

It’s not any different on the Left.  Bill Maher famously called Sarah Palin a c*nt (among many other very rude, sex-related remarks).  This crude talk excites listeners; it boosts ratings, and isn’t that what it’s all about?  Sadly, too often the people we look to to comment on current events are entertainers and calling female public figures demeaning and sexualized names is, for many consumers of ‘news’ media, entertaining.

I’ve partly answered the second question in answering the first.  Many of us put up with this because, frankly, it doesn’t offend us; few might admit it, but many of us don’t see the harm.  To me, it’s similar to an article I read in the Greensboro News & Record last Sunday about mudslinging in political campaigns.  Everyone complains about it, yet politicians continue to run attack ads and negative campaigns because it is proven to work.  Studies show that we may say we are not influenced by a candidate’s negative campaigning, but truth is, we are- those doubts Candidate A wants to plant in your mind about Candidate B find their mark.  Candidates are rewarded for bad behavior, as many of these sexist commentators are in the long run, provided they don’t push that envelope too far.

Similarly, people who continue to listen to Maher and Limbaugh probably would not say they condone their most over-the-top remarks, or that their dismissal of these comments as ‘no big deal/just entertainment’ does not in any way contribute to the persistence of misogynistic attitudes toward women in public life.  There will be a bit of finger wagging about ‘making better word choices,’ but mostly the issue will be treated as an individual’s unfortunate gaffe and not an issue with our larger society.

But this is not just about ‘making better word choices.’  While it would be a vast improvement, I don’t think it’s going far enough for people to still think their misogynistic comments but not say them.  We need to work toward a media culture where people, public figures particularly, approach one another and the issues with enough respect that they don’t even let their emotions get to a place where they would think to call people those names (you know, the most basic standards of professionalism the rest of us work with).  Maybe that’s not realistic, but I don’t think it’s a bad standard to work for.

This just in: the UNCG Women and Gender Studies program is showing a documentary this week, Miss Representation,  which “challenges the media’s limiting and often disparaging portrayals of women,” portrayals which “contribute to the under-representation of women in influential positions in America,” (WGS flyer) on Wednesday, March 14 at 7pm. This post may not come out in time to get you there, but you can check out the website to find out other ways to view this documentary.

4 responses to “On Talking Trash (and lovin’ it!)

  1. Matt McKinnon

    I must admit up front that I much prefer Bill Maher to Rush Limbaugh and agree with much of your commentary. That being said, I still have to question whether it is entirely fair to compare a comedian to a political commentator. Is there really no difference between the two? After all, do we really want to suggest constraints of politeness on what our comics say and how they say it? (I’m thinking now of Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, or more recently Paul Mooney.) While I readily agree that calling Palin a “cunt” is rude and off-putting, are we going to suggest that female comics refrain from calling men “dicks,” or African American comics from calling folks “niggers?” Should we expect more from our political discussion? Definitely. Should we expect more from our comics? I would argue no. Maybe the problem is that these lines are blurring as much as news/entertainment. But that fault lies with us.

  2. Matt,
    While I agree that the two formats are entirely different, satire is a legitimate form of political discourse, is it not? There can be a blurry line between humor and vitriol and politically-minded comedians can easily exploit that blurriness to get away with saying outrageous things. And was Bill Maher really trying to be funny when he called Palin the “c” word anyway? In context, I didn’t get the impression that he was making a joke at all.


  3. Matt McKinnon

    Good question: is Real Time a comedy act, a real poltical discussion, or a hybrid of the two? And how does this change Maher’s role as comic? Not sure I know the answer to this. So perhaps if this was part of a stand-up act (which he claims it was, in addition to his show), it would be more “appropriate,” if we can use that word? I’ll buy that, though I’m not convinced Maher makes this distinction himself.

  4. juliaburns59

    I have to question if there is a double standard here. I get the feeling that name calling a women (to these men/commentators/comedians) who speaks openly abruptly is what they really think of women who exercise their constitutional right. It is okay for these men in such media type positions to say really profane comments about women that I honestly do not feel they would make such profane comments about men. If Ms. Fluke were a man would he have been called a slut or whore? I agree that female comedians shouldn’t call men such names on the comedy shows—it is degrading but it is also not as well covered by the media as if a man did the name calling. Interesting.