On “Sluts” and the Speakability of Sexism in U.S. Political Culture
March 5, 2012 by Karrin Vasby Anderson
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.
Last week, a media firestorm was ignited by Rush Limbaugh’s characterization of Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute” after she testified before Congress on the question of whether or not religiously-affiliated institutions should be required by federal law to include contraception coverage in their health insurance plans. The policy issue at hand is a complex one about which people of good conscience may come to different conclusions, but none of those conclusions should include the assumption that a woman who chooses to take the birth control pill makes that choice because she is a “slut.” On this, it seems, nearly everyone (including a reluctant Limbaugh) agrees. In his apology to Fluke (triggered, no doubt, by the mass exodus of advertisers from his program), Limbaugh stated, “My choice of words was not the best . . . .” Interestingly, when asked about Limbaugh’s comments last week, Mitt Romney reacted similarly, saying, “it’s not the language I would have used.” Ron Paul, too, zeroed in on word choice, criticizing Limbaugh for using “very crude language,” as did the spokesperson for House Speaker John Boehner, who stated, “The Speaker obviously believes the use of those words was inappropriate . . . .” A pattern began to emerge where men critiqued Limbaugh’s words without repudiating the sentiments for which those words stand. Yes, the language Limbaugh used is problematic, but not as problematic as the larger story the language represents. It’s a story that has been told and re-told about women in U.S. political culture, by partisans on all sides of the political spectrum.
The Daily Beast’s Kirsten Powers recounts a litany of sexist insults which have emanated from pundits on the political left (most notably Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and Bill Maher), and MediaMatters.org catalogues a pattern of right-wing media misogyny here and here (scroll down to see the examples of sexism). Even ostensibly non-partisan journalistic outlets peddle predictably sexist framing of female politicians in their coverage (see, for example, these tidbits from Time and Newsweek—just two examples among many). If anyone doubted the ubiquity of sexism in U.S. political culture, the 2008 campaign season illustrated a vociferous backlash against female presidentiality from both the right and the left—both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin famously referenced the glass ceiling that blocks women’s entrance to the Oval Office, but that metaphor is less apt than it seemed at the time. A glass ceiling is a largely invisible barrier, but the barrier that constrains women in politics is bolstered by its visibility. The barrier is the sustained “speakability” of sexism and misogyny in U.S. political culture—whether printed in bold type in the blogosphere, broadcast by pundits on radio and television programs, or passed off as political satire.
How speakable is sexism? In addition to the aforementioned examples, consider a recent tweet by Jennifer Kerns, who, according to her Twitter account is “the new Spokeswoman & Communications Director for the California Republican Party.” Kerns (who goes by the Twitter handle “CAPartyGirl”) weighed in on the Limbaugh scandal by criticizing the commentary of MSNBC contributor and former Congressional candidate Krystal Ball with this tweet:
Not that it matters, but Ball’s first name was, indeed, given to her by her parents and was inspired by her physicist father’s research on crystals. Yet that name, and the fact that Ball spoke out on a liberal network against Limbaugh’s sexism, was enough to prompt the female spokesperson for the California Republican Party to lambast her has a “stripper” and a “slut.” (It is ironic that those charges came from someone who chose the double entendre “CAPartyGirl” as her Twitter handle.)
The lingering question is, why? Why does sexism and misogyny continue to be so “speakable” that it’s a go-to critique and reliable punch line deployed by both men and women in politics? Part of the answer lies in what Communication scholar Walter Fisher calls the “narrative paradigm” for understanding human communication. Fisher explains that because humans are storytelling animals, our decision-making is based on a narrative, rather than a strictly rational or logical, paradigm. He says that we judge the truth or value of statements according to their “narrative fidelity,” which is whether or not information “rings true” with the stories we already know. The sexism and misogyny that pollutes U.S. political culture, unfortunately, “rings true” to the story told about women in culture more broadly—in fashion, film, advertising, and popular culture. It’s the story that’s the problem—not individual words or even the individual people who utter those words. As long as we continue to respond to these incidents in isolation—launching narrowly-targeted boycotts or responding with selective outrage to the misogyny of only our political opponents—the broader story will retain its speakability.