1.13.2008

the sexist world we live in

As you may (or may not) have noticed, I'm not blogging about the Democratic primary races. It's impossible to block out altogether, but I'm paying as little attention to the circus as I can. If you read this blog, you know I think the whole US election system is a bankrupt, corrupt, anti-democratic sham. No viable candidate will make meaningful change, and any candidate who would try, will not be viable.

We'll all be happy to see the face of the US change (if indeed it does - I won't be surprised if "something happens" and they dispense with even the pretense of elections), but will the direction of the US change?

So. I don't care about the Democrats, and I care very little about this election. And you damn well know I don't care about Hillary Clinton!

But I do care about sexism.

It comes as no surprise that a female presidential candidate is earning a special place in hell from the rabidly right-wing US media. Canadian media is not immune to sexism - Belinda Stronach's change of hair colour made front-page, above-the-fold "news" - but if you don't dabble in US media, it's hard to imagine what's going on. Jamison Foser at Media Matters dissects Chris Matthews of MSNBC's "Hardball" to give you an idea.

This was brought to my attention by my friend James, who sent me this post from Group News Blog, where Sara Robinson (who you may know from Orcinus), links to a post from Media Matters, which itself references a post from firedoglake. Whew! That's a ton of cred.

With acknowledgements to all those sources, here's Foser at Media Matters.
Put simply, Matthews behaves as though he is obsessed with Hillary Clinton. And not "obsessed" in a charming, mostly harmless, Lloyd-Dobler-with-a-boom-box kind of way. "Obsessed" in a this-person-needs-help kind of way.

More than six years ago, long before Hillary Clinton began running for president, the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine reported that, according to an MSNBC colleague, Matthews had said of Clinton: "I hate her. I hate her. All that she stands for."

Even before that, Matthews told the January 20, 2000, Hardball audience, "Hillary Clinton bugs a lot of guys, I mean, really bugs people like maybe me on occasion. I'm not going to take a firm position here, because the election is not coming up yet. But let me just say this, she drives some of us absolutely nuts."

Not that there was much chance his feelings would go unnoticed by even the most casual Hardball viewer.

Matthews has referred to Clinton as "She devil." He has repeatedly likened Clinton to "Nurse Ratched," referring to the "scheming, manipulative" character in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest who "asserts arbitrary control simply because she can." He has called her "Madame Defarge." And he has described male politicians who have endorsed Clinton as "castratos in the eunuch chorus."

Matthews has compared Clinton to a "strip-teaser" and questioned whether she is "a convincing mom." He refers to Clinton's "cold eyes" and the "cold look" she supposedly gives people; he says she speaks in a "scolding manner" and is "going to tell us what to do."

Matthews frequently obsesses over Clinton's "clapping" -- which he describes as "Chinese." He describes Clinton's laugh as a "cackle" -- which led to the Politico's Mike Allen telling him, "Chris, first of all, 'cackle' is a very sexist term." (Worth remembering: When John McCain was asked by a GOP voter referring to Clinton, "How do we beat the bitch?" Allen reacted by wondering, "What voter in general hasn't thought that?" So Allen isn't exactly hypersensitive to people describing Clinton in sexist terms.)

Matthews repeatedly suggests Clinton is a "fraud" for claiming to be a Yankees fan, despite the fact that all available evidence indicates that Clinton has been a Yankees fan since childhood. In April of 2007, former Washington Post reporter John Harris, who has written a book about Bill Clinton, told Matthews to his face that the attacks on Clinton over her history of being a Yankees fan were false. Harris said: "Hillary Clinton got hazed over saying she was a New York Yankees fan. It turned out, actually, that was right. She had been a lifelong Yankees fan. But people were all over [her] for supposedly embroidering her past." But Matthews doesn't let a little thing like the truth get in the way of his efforts to take cheap shots at Clinton: At least twice since Harris set him straight, Matthews has attacked Clinton over the Yankees fan nonsense, once calling her a "fraud."

Matthews has described Clinton as "witchy" and -- in what appears to be a classic case of projection -- claimed that "some men" say Clinton's voice sounds like "fingernails on a blackboard." In what appears to be an even more classic case of projection, Matthews has speculated that there is "out there in the country ... some gigantic monster -- big, green, horny-headed, all kinds of horns coming out, big, aggressive monster of anti-Hillaryism that hasn't shown itself: it's based upon gender."

Matthews has suggested that Hillary Clinton "being surrounded by women" might "make a case against" her being "commander in chief." He once asked a guest if "the troops out there" would "take the orders" from "Hillary Clinton, commander in chief." When his guest responded, "Why wouldn't they listen to a [female] commander in chief? Sure," Matthews responded: "You're chuckling a little bit, aren't you?" When his guest responded "No," Matthews couldn't quite believe it, sputtering: "No problem? No problem? No problem?"

Matthews has wondered if she is unable "to admit a mistake" because doing so would lead people to call her a "fickle woman." He has said that Clinton is on a "short ... leash" as a presidential candidate, lacking "latitude in her husband's absence" to answer a question. He has, at least twice, called Hillary Clinton an "uppity" woman -- both times, pretending to attribute the phrase to Bill Clinton. But, as Bob Somerby has explained, there is no evidence Clinton has ever used the term.

One of Matthews' favorite topics is Clinton's marriage. After The New York Times ran an article purporting to count the number of nights the Clintons spend together, Matthews' imagination ran wild, and the MSNBC host couldn't get the Clintons' marital life out of his mind. At one point, Media Matters counted 90 separate questions Matthews asked guests about the topic during seven separate programs; the number undoubtedly grew after we stopped counting. In the middle of one of Matthews' bouts of obsessive speculation about how often the Clintons are "together in the same roof overnight, if you will," Washington Post reporter Lois Romano asked him, "[W]hat is your obsession with logistics here?" In response, Matthews snapped at her: "Because I'm talking to three reporters, and I'm trying to get three straight answers, so I don't want attitude about this. It's a point of view -- I want facts. Tell me what the facts are, Lois, if you know them. If you don't, I don't know what you're arguing about."

Matthews has claimed: "[T]he reason she's a U.S. senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around." John McCain's political career got started after he left his first wife for a wealthy and politically connected heiress, married her, and ran for Congress. But Chris Matthews doesn't suggest that the reason McCain is a "U.S. senator ... a candidate for president ... a front-runner" is that he "messed around." Even Fox News' Bill O'Reilly said Matthews' comments about Clinton went too far: "I mean, it's rough business what these people over there [at MSNBC] are doing. We don't do that here. We would never say that Senator Clinton got her job because her husband messed around. I mean, that is -- that is a personal attack. And it is questionable whether a network should allow that or not."

Matthews periodically gets it into his head that the most important question in the world is whether Bill Clinton will be a "distraction" or whether he will "behave himself." He badgers Clinton aides about the question and warns that Bill Clinton "better watch it." He asks if Clinton will be a "good boy" or be guilty of "misbehavior." Matthews is not so subtly referring to Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. But curiously, he doesn't have the same concerns about McCain or about Rudy Giuliani, as I wrote nearly a year ago.

Think about this for a second: Chris Matthews is holding it against Hillary Clinton that her husband cheated on her. But he doesn't hold it against John McCain and Rudy Giuliani that they cheated on their spouses. Matthews seems to think women are to blame when their husbands have affairs -- and men who cheat on their spouses are blameless.

And then there's Matthews' fixation on Hillary Clinton's "ambition." In December 1999, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson appeared on Hardball to discuss Clinton's Senate campaign. Matthews asked Wolfson eight consecutive questions about whether Clinton was "ambitious." Finally, Matthews said, "People who seek political power are ambitious by definition," leading Wolfson to tell him: "if you say so. If it will make you happy, I'll agree." If Matthews has ever displayed as much interest in the "ambition" of male candidates like John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, or Mike Huckabee, he has done so in private.

You can go here to read the whole piece, complete with copious links and sources.

Sometimes sexism in the media is so commonplace, it becomes invisible. Sara Robinson uses a highlighter to give you the idea.
Just in case some of you don't quite entirely understand how deeply offensive some of Matthews' leering, condescending cracks are, I'd like to put the sensible high heel on another foot and see how truly ridiculous it looks. Let's imagine that Matthews has been on the air for ten years regularly spouting comparable bilge about politicians from another group.

Let's consider, just by way of example, about how far his career might have gone if he'd been saying pretty much the same stuff about African-American men.

Imagine that, back in 2001, Matthews got on MSNBC and said of Colin Powell: "I hate him. I hate him. All that he stands for." Or that he told the Hardball audience: "Colin Powell bugs a lot of whites. I mean, really bugs guys like me on occasion....let me just say this, he drives some of us absolutely nuts."

Consider what would happen if he referred to Jesse Jackson as a "black devil," and likened him to Step'n Fetchit, who "steals whatever's not nailed down because he can." Or called him "Willie Horton." Or described white politicians who endorse him as "self-hating ni**er-lovers." Or described his walk as a "strut." Or wondered aloud if white troops would take orders from him, and laughed when his respondent called him on it. Or called him "uppity" -- on at least two occasions.

How would people respond if Matthews showed the same salacious interest in the intimate details of the Obamas' marriage as he has in the Clintons'? Media Matters says they counted 90 questions on the matter over seven programs -- and then gave up counting. What if he badgered Obama aides on whether or not Michelle would be "a good girl," or guilty of "misbehavior," and warned that she'd better "watch it"?

What would the reaction be if Matthews became obsessively fixated on Andrew Young's "ambition" -- to the point where he asked a guest eight consecutive questions about whether or not he's "ambitious"? Or if he accused Young of being "anti-white" and insisted that "he should just lighten up on this racial 'the whites are coming to get me' routine?" Or if he wondered aloud how Young could serve as an ambassador without "shucking and jiving" for the president?

Every single example above is an exact racist corollary to some sexist remark Matthews has made to or about a woman over the course of his career.

A guy says this stuff about black people, and everybody gets it. He's a bigot, infected by so many stereotypes that he's unfit to comment on matters of national importance, and unworthy of a single moment of the country's precious airtime. Newscasters don't make it to the national level if they're they least bit prone to saying this kind of stuff on the air. Don Imus lost his job over saying things like this about black women, and that was a good day for everybody but him. In 2008, serious people just don't talk that way about African-Americans any more.

But, evidently, you can still get paid several million dollars a year by getting on national TV and talking this way about women, and nobody will ever think to call you out on it.

Continuing Sara's analogy, I don't hear too many white people joking about lynching. At least not in front of black people. But men will joke about rape in front of women. Aw c'mon, lighten up, don't have a stick up your ass. Can't you take a joke?

This was sent to me by DeanG, a progressive from Texas (they're out there, people!) and a long-time reader of wmtc.
As reported in the Chronicle (Jan. 11, 2008 issue):
The competition's most popular topic was, believe it or not, rape. The first comic told two rape jokes. Another said he could never be a rapist because he likes to sleep after sex. Yet another said he would call his victim the next morning because he's such a nice guy.

Er, ha.

Later one of the competitors began his act by promising the audience that he wouldn't tell any rape jokes. He broke that promise two minutes later with a one-liner about using "ropes and formaldehyde" to solve his romantic problems.

Ha again.

Ha indeed. I guess I was just born without the "rape is soooo funny" gene. These fine, upstanding young men are attending college with our daughters, sisters, cousins, friends. I mean, I've always known that rape is a major issue on most college campuses. I just didn't know it had become fashionable to make sport of it.

Now some of you are firing up your keyboards right this very minute to tell me to lighten up, get a sense of humor, stop being such a feminazi. One, I'll just point out it was a man writing the Chronicle article who found this vein of humor offensive. Two, I'll remind you that it is precisely because I do have a sense of what is humorous that I find this stuff not funny, but disturbing. If you think it's funny, it's because you think there is something inherently funny about men coercing and forcing women to have sex. You are okay with laughing about sexual violence.

If you are comfortable with the realization that you like laughing at women's pain, then go ahead and laugh your head off. But do me a favor, and call me again sometime in the future after your sister or wife or mother or daughter gets raped, and tell me again how funny the rape jokes are.

Oh, wait, you don't think a little forcible persuasion actually counts as rape? Well you are in good company; when I was a graduate student at Duke, a survey of undergraduate men showed that something like over twenty percent of them were A-OK with forcing a woman to have sex with them, if they thought they wouldn't get caught. I'll bet those guys would think these jokes are hilarious.

Unsurprisingly, the 5 women in the New Jersey competition did not lace their routines with rape jokes. Though we are told "one did sing a ditty about not wanting to be raped".

The whole thing just makes me tired.

What do you want to bet that there are far, far more people who will be outraged by the news that Harvard has established 12 postdoctoral fellowships for women and minorities in chemistry and chemical biology, than there are who will be bothered by the notion of undergraduate men mocking rape victims?

I wholeheartedly thank Zuska for this, but the best part of the post is the comments. I encourage you to read them. Some excerpts:
Men telling rape jokes is all about making certain that women understand that they present themselves in public only at the pleasure, and with the forebearance, of men.

Women telling rape jokes *can* be about the humour of transgression, depending on how it is done. Men, no way.

Transgressive humor only works when the joke teller is not operating from a position of privilege vis a vis the taboo being transgressed. South Park is funny because the children are completely utterly powerless, and don't even understand the nature of the taboos they are transgressing.

Posted by: PhysioProf | January 10, 2008 3:44 PM

There is a difference between joking about taboo subjects and being a member of a dominant group joking about doing bodily harm to another person. "Baby eating" jokes, for example, are more acceptable because they mock the old stereotype of witches (women) and jews(minorities) eating Christian babies. It's sort of re-claiming a stereotype. Dead baby jokes are more acceptable because nobody actually makes a habit of killing babies. (Now I'm not saying that these jokes are funny)

But, being a white person joking about "stringing up" a member of another race IS NOT cool, because a lot of white people in recent history have actually done that. Also, being a man joking about raping a woman isn't cool for the reason that it feel threatening to us women.

Posted by: haydin | January 10, 2008 3:49 PM

I'm not usually troubled by a darker, "inappropriate" humour, but this crosses a line. It reminds me of an evening out at a restaurant with a group of men who, assuming I was idiotic as there were, joked that they'd could all share statutory rape charges because they found the young waitress so attractive.

I'm a gay man that straight men assume is straight, what I've heard from some straight men out of earshot of women is abhorrent. Attitudes need to change.

Posted by: Matty Smith | January 10, 2008 3:50 PM

It's been 40 years since my college girlfriend was raped on her way to my apartment. I still think about what it did to her, and don't find rape humor funny at all. However, rather than scolding men for poor taste, insensitivity and boorishness, I would rather hear women come back with castration jokes or colonscopy jokes. It takes a thick skin to succeed in a hypercommunicated world.

Posted by: Howard | January 10, 2008 4:28 PM

"would rather hear women come back with castration jokes or colonscopy jokes."

No, that doesn't work. It's not the same.

Rape jokes are so offensive because, as PhysoProf said, they're made out of a sense of superiority over women.

Castration doesn't happen regularly to men. It's not something the average male has to fear. So men can just shrug of jokes like this. But women do have to fear rape.

Part of rape jokes also is, that the jokes isn't just a joke.

For example jokes about dead babies are mostly just stupid, but never as offensive as a rape joke, because nobody (sane at least) would ever entertain the idea about killing babies. But part of rape jokes is the idea (the temptation) to actually do it. When, for example, a male makes a rape joke about a waitress, it's not only a joke, but also shows the desire (resp. lust) of this male towards the waitress. Yes, part of rape jokes in male groups is that the idea of rape is entertained (though mostly not conducted).

A dead baby joke can be very offensive if told to, for example, parents who just lost a baby. No one in their right mind would do that and claim it's funny.

It's the same with rape jokes.

So no, rape jokes can't be funny. (When told by men. I can entertain the possibility that they could be funny when told by a woman, though I can't imagine a situation where they would be funny even then.)

Posted by: student_b | January 10, 2008 5:00 PM

. . . .

I think 'student_b' has got it right.

We could make jokes about, for example, babies turning cannibal -- which could be funny for the simple reason that no such thing would ever happen, yet it is ghoulish to think about.

But a joke about rape? Rape can happen, and it isn't a negligibly rare event. What if a big bruiser made a joke about raping one of the men present? How funny would that be? No one in their right mind would make a rape joke. But someone in their wrong mind might.

Men aren't the only ones to be wrong-minded. Women joke about castrating their men, cutting their throats, and setting fire to them. Check the news stories: all these things actually happen.

Posted by: Nelson Muntz | January 10, 2008 6:33 PM

. . . .

Ugh, ugh, ugh.

And I'm with Student_B. It just isn't the same. It's all about power and fear. Fear and power. Two sides of the same coin.

It must end. We must speak up.

Rape jokes just aren't funny.

Posted by: whymommy | January 10, 2008 10:40 PM

That's a sample. I recommend reading them all.

25 comments:

James said...

But men will joke about rape in front of women. Aw c'mon, lighten up, don't have a stick up your ass. Can't you take a joke?

"I'll tell ya what -- me and my buddies'll hold you down and shove a stick up your ass, and you tell me how funny it is."

redsock said...

Yahoo News:

Chris Matthews a target for Clinton fans

He's become the target for critics who think a backlash against the media played a part in Hillary Clinton's surprise win in New Hampshire. Chris Matthews laughs off that idea, and insists he has a lot of respect for her. ...

Matthews said he believe it was a time of great sensitivity in America and that nerves are rawer now over gender than race. People are looking for ways to make statements and criticizing him is one way to do it, he said.

**************

impudent strumpet said...

Weird, I actually have a post coming up about offensive humour, I'm just waiting for it to coalesce (sp???) into words.

From a humour standpoint, the real problem is the "Can't you take a joke?" attitude. John Cleese once said that your material is only funny if the audience laughs. If they laughed yesterday but didn't laugh today, that means that it was funny yesterday but isn't funny today. Comedians who understand this are funny. Comedians whose attitude is "Of course it's funny, because I thought of it and I'm funny!" aren't funny.

This comment has been brought to you by the Royal Society for Focusing On The Least Important Point In the Post.

L-girl said...

From a humour standpoint, the real problem is the "Can't you take a joke?" attitude. John Cleese once said that your material is only funny if the audience laughs.

But if a comedian told a joke about rape, and all the men in the room found it hilarious, I'd still think it was wrong.

Re my more recent post: I would not seek to censor the comedian or pass laws against telling jokes about rape. I just think it's wrong.

And I wouldn't find it funny.

This comment has been brought to you by the Royal Society for Focusing On The Least Important Point In the Post.

You, on the other hand, are very funny.

Amy said...

There is so much more to say about how sexism is apparent in the reactions to the Clinton campaign that go beyond Chris Matthews. I am not a fan of Hillary in many ways and still have not decided who I will vote for (and I will vote in the Democratic primary here in a few weeks), but like many women, I found myself identifying with her and sympathizing with her when it looked like Edwards and Obama were ganging up on her, when she was being attacked as unlikeable, and when it took tears for people to see her as human while others saw the tears as a sign of weakness. How many women have fallen into that trap of trying to be strong and smart and being called a bitch and then trying to be warm and compassionate and being called weak?

L-girl said...

There is so much more to say about how sexism is apparent in the reactions to the Clinton campaign that go beyond Chris Matthews.

Well, yes. But it's a good example of what's out there.

Amy said...

Yes, a great example. But in some ways I am more bothered by the less obvious, more widespread forms of sexism at play.

L-girl said...

The fact that this man hosts a major "news" (ahem) show and it's considered acceptable to speak like this says something about widespread beliefs, I think.

Amy said...

Absolutely. I am not disagreeing with the importance of your post; I was only pointing out that he is one of many, many in the media and elsewhere who have portrayed Clinton in sexist ways. He may be the worst, but he is not alone. It horrifies me. Thanks for posting this.

L-girl said...

Oh hey, no problem, my post is not important, not at all. I just meant there's no way - for me, anyway - to sum up all the sexist reactions to this campaign in any kind of general way. Sometimes a specific example can stand in for the whole.

M@ said...

I happened to watch 60 Minutes tonight, a show that I'm not in the habit of watching. The first story was on the systematized rape and brutality against women that is taking place in the Congo in its ongoing civil war. The human toll is immense, whether you look at people murdered, injured, or psychologically shattered. And it's not just the women (though it goes without saying that their pain is the start and end of any discussion of it). Entire families and communities are utterly destroyed, deliberately, by the brutality of the "soldiers" involved. Because -- and I know this is preaching to the choir here -- rape symbolizes power on a visceral level that something like terrorism, when viewed on the news from our comfy chairs, simply cannot.

I'm not at all knowledgeable about rape and I'm lucky enough to have had very few people around me affected by it (unfortunately before I had the means to understand or do anything about it). But I know that rape is only tangentially about sexuality -- and even that tangent is all about power. That took me a while to realise, and I wish other people -- men, mostly -- were so educated.

One of the reasons it's so hard to compare rape to other comedic subjects is because other violations of a person's self-security are relatively rare in our society. Rape is the only commonplace, overt expression of power that really exists in our society (except, perhaps, abuse of dogs and other animals -- and it's not hard to view someone who "jokes" about beating or torturing a puppy as a sociopath). Certainly, our physical security is generally guaranteed here -- if we're men.

I truly have no means of making sense of the kind of horror that is going on in the Congo, and indeed in any war zone (which, predictably, always include rape as a feature). But women's objections to rape "humour" do make plenty of sense to me. If more men understood that rape is about power, we'd go a long way in changing society for the better.

As for Chris Matthews, the fact he's given a microphone instead of a padded cell tells us all we need to know about the situation in the USA. Let's all of us resolve to keep things on the right track here, because I'm with Laura -- the USA is a lost cause.

L-girl said...

M@, thank you so much for this thoughtful comment.

I wish I had seen 60 Minutes (which I never watch, because I work when it's on). Even though I know it would have upset me deeply, I feel a deep obligation to bear some kind of witness to those crimes.

But I know that rape is only tangentially about sexuality -- and even that tangent is all about power.

Right. It's best to think of rape as a violent crime, and sex is the weapon - as opposed to a "sex crime". What happens in rape is not two people having sex. The expression "sex crime" somehow blurs that.

One of my least favourite redundancies is the prosecutorial term "forcible rape". "Brutally raped" is another bad cliche. I know that some rapes are more brutal than others, but there is no non-brutal rape.

I've been privileged to hear and read a few hundred personal accounts of rape, including many by male victims. Not a one was anything but brutal.

****

As for Chris Matthews, the fact he's given a microphone instead of a padded cell tells us all we need to know about the situation in the USA.

Just repeating it for emphasis. :)

I'm so tired of reading in the Canadian press that the US is on its way back - and Obama and Clinton are proof of that. Bah.

L-girl said...

He may be the worst, but he is not alone.

There is no way Tweety is the worst. No way.

Amy said...

OK, among the worst of the mainstream media...

redsock said...

You're a pretty good blogger ...

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for a girl.

****************

Damn.

Why didn't I think of that sooner? Now no one will see it!

M@ said...

I laughed. I laughed the deep, hearty laugh of masculine privilege.

:)

L-girl said...

Why didn't I think of that sooner? Now no one will see it!

It's bad enough I saw it.

redsock said...

ATTENTION!! The recent comment:

"There is no way Tweety is the worst. No way.
Monday, January 14, 2008 12:51:00 AM"

was written by me, not Laura.

L-girl said...

He may be the worst, but he is not alone.

There is no way Tweety is the worst. No way.


I did not say this!

L-girl said...

No wonder I didn't understand Amy's recent comment when it was emailed to me. My own comments are not emailed, so I couldn't figure out what she was responding to.

See what we put up with??? Now he's stealing my very identity.

L-girl said...

I laughed the deep, hearty laugh of masculine privilege.

Go back in the kitchen where you belong!

Amy said...

Just because you THINK no one is watching and reading this doesn't make it true.....

I am so confused now about who said what that I don't even know what I said!

Is this a form of identity theft?

L-girl said...

Is this a form of identity theft?

If I see Laura, I'll ask her.

L-girl said...

Ha ha. I managed to make some jokes without the winky emoticon. Amazing. I'm always afraid someone will take me seriously, so I'm drawing those stupid little pictures.

Cornelia said...

I loathe that damn sexism, too!!!