It’s the system, stupid

December 9, 2008 by

James Carville is upset with The New Agenda.

“This New Agenda crowd need to get a new agenda, a new agenda of women that are losing their jobs, a new agenda of battered women and women that are victims of sex discrimination and not this kind of silliness,” he says.

This kind of silliness, of course, refers to Jon Favreau’s groping of a cardboard Hillary Clinton while his buddy forces a beer to her lips. Gee, what could that possibly have to do with discrimination against women and sexual violence?

Here’s a tip, Mr. Carville (and anyone else who can’t make the connection): sexism is a system. Women’s second-class status in society is a 24/7 deal, a full-time gig, an all-pervasive set of mores and assumptions. It’s interwoven into the very fabric of society, and every thread contributes to the pattern. It starts in the cradle and follows us to the grave; it harasses us at work and diminishes us at home. Mr. Carville wants The New Agenda to focus on sex-based discrimination — but why does this discrimination exist? He wants The New Agenda to worry about gendered violence — but why is gendered violence endemic?

Sexism is a deeply learned behavior with a thousand manifestations. You can’t quarantine the big pieces of it — rape, legal discrimination — as if they exist in a vacuum apart from the rest of society’s values. From frat boy joke to date rape, from gangsta rap to domestic violence, from pink housework toys at Wal-Mart to the boss who won’t promote a woman into top management, from “Math is hard” Barbie to the physics lab where men harass their female colleagues relentlessly, from Girls Gone Wild videos to the jury that acquits a rapist because the victim was wearing a short skirt — it’s a system. A giant, all-encompassing, self-reinforcing system.

No one thinks that Jon Favreau is personally responsible for crimes against women. What we think — what we know — is that his frat-boy grope is one lurid thread in a larger pattern. It’s symptomatic of a culture in which women are routinely sexualized, diminished, and harassed; a culture in which violence against women is normalized as mainstream fun; a culture in which powerful, accomplished women are ridiculed as b**ches and c**ts who just need a good f***ing.

Back in the early 1980s, I worked in an office where the male doyen still called the women “girls” and expected them to fetch his coffee. Like James Carville, this man refused to see a connection between his demeaning treatment of women — which he insisted was harmless — and “the important stuff,” such as unequal pay and job discrimination. Sure, women should have a fair chance at work and the same pay as men, he said, but what harm did it do for him to call the secretaries “girls” and have them fetch his coffee? He wasn’t hurting anybody. Focus on the important stuff!

It’s the age-old cry of the man who refuses to see that sexism isn’t just a series of incidents, but a systematic bias in which his own behavior is complicit. “Focus on the important stuff!” he says, by which he means the stuff he’s not doing.

Or as James Carville says, “The guy was just having a good time!… Is this really what we’re talking about?”

Why yes, Mr. Carville, it is. It’s the system, stupid.

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