Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Taking Back Feminism

"Feminism is the radical notion that women are people."
- Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler

"[I was referring] to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident."
- Exchange between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in "The Hound of the Baskervilles"

For the past three or four years, whenever a celebrity betrays a deep-seated prejudice against one of America's long persecuted groups, the rest of society seems to temporarily unite in paroxysms of condemnation. Whether it is about Mel Gibson and the Jews, Isaiah Washington and homosexuals, or Don Imus and African-Americans, a celebrity's sudden outburst of deep-seated bigotry draws widespread societal refutation like a slab of meat in the woods draws bears.

Considering that each of the aforementioned examples involve celebrities who were only guilty of making offensive comments, one would expect a far greater outcry when a prominent cultural figure actively practices discrimination rather than simply verbalizing it. Yet much to my deep disappointment, such damning has not yet occurred in the case of Dave Letterman.

I am not referencing, as some of you may suspect, his infidelity. While I certainly disapprove of adultery, I consider the private lives of major entertainment personalities, and to a lesser extent politicians, to be out of the domain in which I can rightfully pass judgement. Few if any of us are ever in a meaningful position to judge the motivations that underly the content of someone else's actions in his or her personal life, and as Plato once advised, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

No, my problem with Dave Letterman isn't what he did behind the closed doors of his bedroom; it is what he did using his considerable power as a veritable television institution. For further elaboration on this point, I first turn to Nell Scovell, a former comedy writer for Letterman's show who has an upcoming article in Vanity Fair:

Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. ... Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I say anything at the time? Sadly, no.

Scovell also points out that, despite being on the air for twenty-seven years, Letterman has only employed seven women on his comedy writing staff. In terms of accumulated hours, male writers have worked for the Late Show host for a whopping total of 378 years, with female writers clocking in a mere 17. The key point for me, though, is one at which Scovell only hinted - namely, the very fact that Letterman used his power as a male employer to get his female employees to sleep with him. That is as telling a sign of sexism as opposition to gay marriage is of homophobia. While an argument could be made that Letterman was only guilty of adultery if he had merely had sex with one or even two of his own employees, engaging with more than he can even count - and for more than a quarter-century - is unmistakable evidence that he has created an unethically sexualized atmosphere in that working environment.

In spite of this, apart from a few "balanced" frontpage stories and an occasional reference in subsequent media, journalists and social activists alike have been remarkably silent about the Dave Letterman controversy. Some may argue that this is because Letterman is a victim of extortion and thus deserving of some sympathy. This line of reasoning, though compelling on one level, ignores the simple fact that even if the means through which Letterman's actions were exposed was criminal in nature, the accuracy of the allegations themselves is not in dispute. Letterman WAS guilty of sexual discrimination for at least a sizable portion of the twenty-seven years he has been working as the Late Show host. While the individual who tried to extort Letterman deserves punitive consequences, his wrongdoing doesn't negate the fact that Letterman used his power to discriminate against women. The obviousness of this fact makes me wonder whether the people who claim that the second wrong makes the first one right are, at least in part, motivated by a desire to justify their own apathy toward misogyny.

The Letterman scandal isn't the only instance in recent history of our culture's indifference to sexism. There was the massacre of women at a Pennsylvania gym by an outspoken online misogynist earlier this year, a terrible hate crime against women that New York Times columnist Bob Herbert accurately observed would have been plastered all over the news had it been perpetrated on the basis of race or religion, but was given a remarkably small amount of coverage when the victims were determined by gender. Our pop culture is full of sexism, blatant and subtle alike, from the rampant denigration of women in rap music to the sexualization of female roles in movies and television - why is it, for example, that only female superheroes are required to show as much skin as a PG-13 rating will allow, or that female movie stars fail to serve as high box office draws as much as males do?

The world of politics isn't much better. One can look to Congress, where only 17% of all Senators and House members are women even though more than 50% of our nation's population is female, and where America's first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had to have the photo op of her swearing in take place while she was surrounded by children. Nor is this sexism limited to our legislative branch. One of our Supreme Court judges, Clarence Thomas, was confirmed despite being notorious for sexually harassing his female law clerks, with the social stigma falling on the women who came forward to testify against him rather than on the man himself (one such woman, Anita Hill, was famously branded with the description "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty" for daring to discuss her experiences). Even the Obama Administration isn't free from the taint of sexism - Lawrence Summers, the Director of the National Economic Council, was confirmed by the Senate despite having lost his job as President of Harvard University in 2006 after suggesting that women aren't as intelligent as men in mathematics and the sciences.

These are only the most prominent examples of this problem. In the workplace, women are still paid less to perform the same jobs as men. In the business world, they remain grossly outnumbered by men as CEOs and corporate boards of directors. Many areas of the arts remain out of reach for the vast majority of women, from film directing to stand-up comedy. Even as epithets against blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asians, and other minorities have become taboo in our vernacular, few take umbrage when a woman is harassed on the basis of their sexuality or gender, as indicated by the common use of epithets like "ho", "skank", "slut", and "cunt". Even in their private lives, women are threatened by the fact that their value is all too often based primarily or even solely on their appearance; those whose natural body types aren't in keeping with general aesthetic expectations, or who "lose their looks" by aging or developing acne or gaining weight, are forced to worry not only about failing to look their best, but about being relegated to the social status of "the ugly girl", "the old woman", or "the fat girl", titles that not only degrade them, but threaten to overwhelm their other personal qualities in defining how they are viewed by society.

The worst thing of all about these lists, though already voluminous, is if anything far too abbreviated. Even a modestly complete overview of sexism in modern America would require far more space than I have in this blog.

Similarly, it would be impossible for me to review the origins of American sexism with anywhere near the comprehensiveness the subject requires within the spatial constraints of a blog post. Instead I wish to address what I believe is the key reason that the proverbial dog, as mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes vignette mentioned above, has yet to start barking on the issue of American sexism - namely, that feminism has remained a bad word.

I say "remained a bad word" instead of "become a bad word" because feminism, like all movements dedicated to the acquistion of equal rights for an oppressed group, was held in contempt from the moment of its conception. There was nothing especially unusual about this at first; civil rights movements for African-Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and other groups that were initially persecuted in this country were always mocked and/or hated before their ideas became mainstream. When society develops a collective perception about a certain group as being in some way inferior, any assertion on the part of members of that group to shake off the perceptions and their consequences is inevitably greeted with ridicule and hostility. While it has usually been rare for the bigots in question to openly defend their bigotry (since being considered an outright bigot has, for the most part, been taboo), they almost invariably respond to the fight for fair play by the oppressed group with the standard reflex of all threatened bullies - by taking both an offensive tack (warping the public perception of the given minority group's agenda, mischaracterizing the members of a given group with spins on old stereotypes or brand new ones) and a defensive one (claiming that they, the bullies, are in fact the ones being victimized by the civil rights group in question, or by arguing that their views are based not on prejudice but oon things that "are just true but you're not allowed to say").

The key difference between America's other social rights movements and the feminist movement is that, unlike most of the others, feminists still have their legitimacy drawn into question. To this day it is common for them to be characterized - in pop culture, in political discourse, and in everyday casual social interactions - as bitter and misandristic, masculine and unhygenic, radical in their views and shrill in their demeanor. Right-wing demagogues who attract controversy almost daily for their venomous rhetoric can sometimes go completely unnoticed when they say things like “feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream" (Rush Limbaugh), or "[taking] away women's right to vote... is kind of a pipe dream, it's a personal fantasy of mine" (Ann Coulter), or "if you're an ugly woman, you're probably a progressive as well" (Glenn Beck), or “feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians" (Pat Robertson). Thus it should hardly be surprising that, even though America has had Constitutional amendments banning racial and religious discrimination for quite some time, efforts to pass a similar amendment protecting women have consistently failed.

That is why I believe one key component in properly addressing sexism is for the ongoing assault against feminism to be not only addressed, but effectively reversed. The process of creating true sexual equality in the United States is bound to be a long and difficult one, but the first and most important step in bringing it about lies in empowering both women and advocates of women with a social instrument through which they can voice their grievances and fight for change. That instrument is now, as it always has been and always will be, the feminist movement. The Letterman fiasco is just one more example of why, more than ever, progressives must take back that word.


rachina85 said...

"Violence against women, female teens surges on TV."

Speaking of representations of women in the media...

Allison Frederich said...

I enjoyed reading your take on the word "feminist" because I think it is absolutely true that since the second wave of feminism in the 60s, that word has been associated with radical man-hating women tasting their menstrual blood and shutting out the male world from their "club". I do think that we are in the midst of a third wave of feminist that is much more inclusive. We are passed the point, I think, where women are asking not to be measured in terms of men, almost denying the existence of men for our own identity. As feminism has evolved, we are moving into a period where feminists are exploring how the differences between men and women constructed and are arriving at more than a binary model of gender and sexuality. I feel like the word will soon be associated with inclusiveness, focusing on what it means to be female and how we arrive at that label.

As for the David Letterman controversy in association with sexism, there are some things I agree with and some I feel doesn’t quite sit well with me. Absolutely, the lack of female writers on his show is a clear sign of sexism and can be compared to much of the sexism that still exists in the workplace. I personally have a problem with the notion of men in higher positions using sex as an exertion of power over their weak willed staffers. I am not saying it is ethical to use status to take advantage of another person, but I am questioning the degree to which these women are being taken advantage of. I feel like in a lot of ways suggesting that Letterman was able to use his power to get these women into bed with him implies that the women did not have will of their own. Are female staffers so na├»ve that they are unable to decide when it is appropriate for them to get into bed with a man. It is an equal exchange in my opinion. Giving into the temptation to acquire certain benefits in exchange for sexual relations with your boss says something about that particular woman. I feel like people underestimate the woman’s role in these scandals. It is a conscious choice, and is not one that every woman would make.

Janine Pauser said...

Your article is very well stated, but I do agree with Allison on the role of women in scandals.

Women know how to dominate a man: with her sexuality. Make no mistake about it, most women have used their sexuality in some situation in order to sway a male counterpart. I know I myself have been guilty.

Women are just as guilty as men in this sexism crime. We have exuded sexuality to get what we want. Then we turn around and are offended by men who expect that. Of course they expect sexuality when that is what women are bombarding them with!

I am not fully blaming women, only merely stating that men are not the only people in this country who have accepted this sexism. Women have too.

Regina said...

You see why I love him? (matt, not Letterman. Letterman can go to Hell.)