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.