What she comes up with is a rather telling overview of misogynistic remarks, some more overt, others more subtle. While in my judgment no single case comes close to the outrageous indecency of the recent Limbaugh case (the obsessive, multi-day verbal sexual assault of a young woman who dared to step into the public spotlight to testify on matters important to her), there can be no question that there are voices on the so-called political left who have a habit of ridiculing conservative women by sexually objectifying them.
Bill Maher is the most obvious and serious case, especially with his targeting of Sarah Palin, whom he has called a “twat” and a “c**t.” This is a clear case of dismissing a person through sexually objectifying language: a woman who achieves political prominence is identified with her sexual parts, becoming something to screw rather than a person to be listened to. That Maher did this in a standup comedy routine is a shoddy defense for someone whose career straddles the line between comedy and political punditry.
I don’t agree with much of what Sarah Palin has to say. I find her rhetoric divisive and occasionally dangerous. But to dismiss her in this way is to reinforce the sexist infrastructure of our culture.
Less likely to attract attention than Maher’s use of the c-word is the frequent dismissal of women using gender-specific labels like “bimbo.” But such remarks are also misogynistic. They play into and reinforce sexist gender hierarchies. And Powers offers a nice range of remarks that fall into this category.
All told, Powers makes a compelling case, and the conclusion of her first essay deserves to be taken seriously. Here’s what she says:
It’s time for some equal-opportunity accountability. Without it, the fight against media misogyny will continue to be perceived as a proxy war for the Democratic Party, not a fight for fair treatment of women in the public square.Powers’ articles and comments were first brought to my attention by a conservative friend who has a long-standing concern about liberal bias in the media. Powers' own concern is not so much the idea that there is a liberal bias in the media in general. Rather, it is with the question of why more liberal political commentators tend to give their own a "pass" when it comes to misogyny. If misogyny is a problem, then it's as big a problem when it happens on your own side of the aisle as when it happens on the other side.
Still, there are those who are arguing based on the media attention Limbaugh has received for his assault on Fluke--and the lack of parity directed to Maher and others on the left--that there is an overall liberal bias in the media. But I don't find this to be a very compelling case for liberal media bias. Although Maher is guilty of the same kind of thing that Limbaugh is guilty of, Limbaugh’s offense has an egregiousness that is hard to match. The distinctive furor over Limbaugh’s recent remarks can readily be explained in terms of their sustained and extreme character, as opposed to the partisan leanings of their source.
After all, this degree of media attention and public condemnation is a first for Limbaugh, even though he’s been engaging in misogynistic attacks on women for decades. What sparked the strong response this time was just how far over the line Limbaugh went.
But I think it is a problem that the broader issue of bipartisan media misogyny has not received more attention than it has—and that for many, Limbaugh represents some isolated horror. What Kirsten Powers’ litany of “liberal” misogynists does, I think, is offer a glimpse of the state of public discourse in general, on both sides of traditional party lines. While she’s accused of trying to make Limbaugh’s rants an occasion to bash liberals (although she professes to be one herself), it is more charitable to see her as using the extreme case as an opportunity to call attention to a broader problem.
The reality seems to be this: There is a lot of sexist discourse out there, on both sides of the political divide, and most of it passes largely under the media’s radar, ignored or trivialized unless, as in the recent Limbaugh case, it rises to the level of verbal sexual assault (or unless pointing it out serves some partisan agenda). In other words, the media tends to treat the rare and extreme cases as something to be horrified at, but doesn’t take much notice of the more pervasive, insidious, and bipartisan sexist behaviors that make such extreme cases possible.
Here, I am reminded of points Catharine MacKinnon makes about rape in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. As she puts it there, “In feminist analysis, a rape is not an isolated event or moral transgression or individual interchange gone wrong but an act of terrorism and torture within a systematic context of group subjection, like lynching.” On this perspective, rape is not some isolated horror, some anomalous crime. Rather, it is the most vivid and terrible expression of a pervasive system of subjugation.
For MacKinnon, rape is actually a piece of the broader patriarchal system, insofar as the fear of being raped operates in the background of many sexual encounters, helping men to secure the compliance of women who otherwise would not submit to sex. More provocatively, MacKinnon represents rape as an extreme instance of the same kind of thing that is done to women every day in patriarchal societies.
But it serves the status quo to deny this. It serves the interests of the beneficiaries of patriarchy to treat rape, not as an overt distillation of all the covert gender violence endemic in society, but as something that offends what the society is about. Cutting rape off from the broader context of which it is a part, treating it as special and unique, keeps us from noticing all the ways in which our society is doing the same sort of thing, in less vivid form, all the time.
Likewise, treating Limbaugh’s egregious verbal assault on Fluke as if it were an anomalous breach of social standards, an unbelievable and distinctive offense, helps to keep us from paying too much attention to all the ways in which the dismissal of women through sexual objectification is a routine feature of our cultural life, regardless of our politics.
Now in saying all of this, I don’t want to trivialize rape by equating it with offenses that don’t carry the same weight of violation. But I do want to recognize formal similarities, and see how broader social patterns feed into this more extreme kind of human degradation. Likewise, I don’t want to trivialize what Limbaugh did through false equivalences. But I think it’s very important to understand the broader culture, and the routine misogyny (such as when a professional woman is dismisses as a bimbo) which makes these more extreme acts of misogyny possible.
To the extent that the media ignores the more routine misogyny in our culture—to the extent that it fails to situate the extreme offenses within a broader cultural pattern that is deeply implicated in those offenses—the media is helping to protect the status quo from the kinds of progressive cultural critiques we find in feminist thought.
And on this basis, I am prepared to say that the media has a conservative bias--not in the sense that it tends to disproportionately favor the more relatively right-leaning political party, but in the sense that it tends to shield entrenched norms and patterns against seriously challenges that, were they to be taken seriously by society as they perhaps ought to be, would call for quite sweeping social change.