Saturday, December 06, 2008

Thoughts on sexism

This article is a pretty good opening to a discussion of sexism.

Campbell Brown is scolding Jon Favreau, Obama's chief speechwriter for having been photographed (at a private party) pretending to cup the breast of a cardboard Hillary Clinton cutout, and also scolding Hillary Clinton for not calling out this awful sexism.

This is a good discussion topic because it shows just how complicated everything is.

First, while this incident could be a demonstration of sexism on Favreau's part, it could also be innocent clowning around with friends. People sometimes act the clown, and say or do things that they know won't be taken seriously, without any malicious (or sexist) intent. Doing this kind of thing with the expectation of being photographed (and the photograph placed on the internet) would be sexist (or stone-cold-stupid)... but doing it because it'll draw laughs from a small group of friends is a different matter.

It can certainly be indicative of sexism, even misogyny. And it's certainly the kind of thing that should make even a generally-non-sexist person think "what was I thinking?" in retrospect. Favreau should be thinking "what if someone saw that, and thought I viewed Clinton as some stupid bimbo, rather than the strong, intelligent woman that she is?" Perhaps more importantly, he should be wondering if he's just given someone else license to think of Hillary Clinton as some stupid bimbo, if he's let someone shield themselves from criticism by being able to point to Favreau's example.

But let's also remember that this was not a public party. And let's remember that most people do stupid things sometimes, and say or do things just becuase they seem like fun, and "nobodies here but us chickens".

The way people act in private matters, but I remember how Molly Ivins spoke admirably of a Texas gentleman who always called women "honey" and "sweetiepie" but always, at every opportunity, argued strongly, and voted, in favor of women's rights. While the private stuff matters, the public stuff has to be included in the equation.

At the same time, that doesn't mean one should disgregard obvious and blatant sexism, either. Ivins didn't say she liked him calling women "honey" and "sweetiepie", just that she liked him, as a whole person, including his flaws.

So, yes, Favreau was stupid and acted in a sexist manner, and that shouldn't be disregarded, but we should also keep in mind the context as well, and we should always look at the whole person.

But that brings us to Hillary Clinton.

This is one of the really interesting parts to this situation. Clinton hasn't had any problem with this. Brown seems to have a problem with that. And that bothers me on two levels.

On the one hand, maybe she is using the same reasoning I used above... sometimes people clown around, and say things they really, honestly don't mean, and is perfectly willing to forgive because she's bighearted in that way. Or, maybe she, herself, said or did something stupid or embarrassing one drunken night, and she knows just how it goes, and is more than willing to be forgiving, because she'd hope she'd receive the same forgiveness in return.

On the other hand, if Clinton were to get upset about this, a lot of people would come down on her like a ton of bricks, calling her a humorless ball-breaker, or worse. And the scary thing is, it wouldn't just be the pro-sexism crowd. There are a lot of people who'd honestly think they're not sexist, but that she just needs to lighten up. "It was just a joke, just innocent clowning around, how dare you get angry over it!"

She can't really make a free choice; no woman in her position can. She still needs to show she can be "one of the guys". If she's angry, she must let it go. If she feels hurt, or humiliated, well, that's too bad, and if she wants to fit in, she won't show it.

And here's the fun part of all of this. On the one hand, there are women who've been hurt by similar displays of sexism. Some of them are waiting for the day when they're allowed to be upset by this, when they don't need to be "one of the guys", when a complaint over such oafish behavior will be taken seriously without anyone crying "Feminazi!" It's people like Senator Clinton who can help move us closer to that day.

On the other hand, we do need to be forgiving of innocent clowning around, and realize that sometimes it really is better to just laugh it off.

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