Politics, Comedy and Women’s Bodies

Rush Limbaugh
One of Saturday’s responses to my tweets about Rush Limbaugh’s “slut” and “prostitute” language was a friend asking me about Bill Maher and Sarah Palin.

I wasn’t familiar with that dust-up; I don’t subscribe to HBO and I don’t pay attention to Bill Maher. And it was March 2011, when I was recovering from health issues and ignoring politics.

We talked about the differences between a public official, public figure and normal citizen when it comes to proving defamation. We don’t agree on the status of Sandra Fluke (I don’t think she was a public figure until after this mess; he thinks her testimony made her a public figure). But we do agree that the language is inappropriate.

Another friend shared an old George Carlin clip about white men and cigars. It has a bit of profanity. (I’m being redundant. It’s Carlin.) He, too, used anatomical language to deliver his social critique.

Maher and Carlin are social critics in the guise of stand-up comics. Their job is to cause us to think, to reframe an issue, and to do that while also making us laugh. That’s hard work.

Maher and Limbaugh are TV personalities; Limbaugh is also a radio personality. Maher’s show runs on HBO, a premium ($) access channel. The show, which has a panel of guests, runs an hour on Friday nights. Limbaugh’s radio show is advertiser-supported and runs three hours, on public airwaves, in the middle of the day. Limbaugh’s show has an audience of 20 million; Maher’s is about 1 million.

Limbaugh’s show is talk radio – not stand-up comedy – and depends upon listener interaction. It also depends upon divisiveness. Polarization.

“A new national survey from [Public Policy Polling] finds 46% of Americans have a positive opinion of Rush Limbaugh while 43% view him unfavorably.” See, in politics, that’s probably not good, but in broadcasting we call that perfect. We call that perfect polarization. (emphasis added)

That was Limbaugh talking to his listeners in February 2009.

As Hamilton Nolan observes, “A mad reader is an engaged reader! … Everyone who has ever worked in media time-out-of-mind knows this.”

Once upon a time, radio delivered drama and comedy shows.

But today, we think of radio as being music and news (especially traffic) and “talk radio.” Not dramatic shows. Or comedy shows. That’s one reason many people think of Limbaugh’s show as being political commentary, even though he insists he’s an entertainer. Another reason: his topics.

In his “apology” to Sandra Fluke on Saturday, Limbaugh claimed he was “attempt[ing] to be humorous.” But there was nothing humorous in his attacks, day-after-day. They were, however, polarizing.

When asked about calling Sarah Palin a “twat” and “c—”, Maher was unabashed and unapologetic.

Both men were out of line, but they didn’t stray very far from the main line:

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Carlin’s skit about fat men smoking cigars is a sweeping social indictment. It is not a personal attack.

But both Maher and Limbaugh used their platforms to launch personal attacks in the guise of political criticism. Both attacked a woman using language that would have had my mother washing my mouth out with soap. (Is this a southern expression?) Moreover, Limbaugh used a public platform (his show runs on terrestrial, publicly-owned radio) to personally attack a civilian, a citizen doing a civic duty, not a professional politician who usually gives as good as she gets.

Way back when, 41 years ago, Gloria Steinhem said:

Any woman who choses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon.

In 2011, the National Organization for Women (NOW) took Maher to task:

Listen, supposedly progressive men (ok, and women, too): Cut the crap! Stop degrading women with whom you disagree and/or don’t like by using female body terms or other gender-associated slurs.

My how times have not changed.

Divided, the media make money; but united – with no conflict – the media have no viewers/listeners which means no advertisers. That philosophy underpins Limbaugh’s show and most of media organizations. There is no economic incentive to change.

But as a functioning democracy, divided we fall; united we persevere and overcome.

Thus we can’t expect the media to voluntarily change; we must demand change.

The social digital media scape is quickly learning the power of unity. Just this year, we’ve tabled PIPA/SOPA, hobbled Elseivier and derailed Limbaugh’s advertising income.

However, the price for this success is too high if it comes about because “angry” and “engaged” citizens are framing calls for action with the same class of juvenile, sexist language as the media initially used to divide us.

Name it. Change it. It’s within our power.

Photo: Rush Limbaugh at the Miss American Pageant.

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  • SteveK

    Here’s Bill Maher’s take on the subject: Bill Maher Distinguishes Himself From Limbaugh’s ‘S!*t’ Remark
    note: graphic language (it’s Bill Maher)
    note: video is half way down the page

  • RP

    “Both attacked a woman using language that would have had my mother washing my mouth out with soap. (Is this a southern expression?) ”

    Not southern any more. It would be child abuse now!

    Maybe if Rush and Maher had been brought up the way you were, this would not be a duscussion today. They most likely would be foaming at the mouth.

  • dduck

    I hold my nose and watch Maher every week. Rush, is not a comedian and he isn’t on a non-sponsor channel, so he does not get a pass.

    I also, watch Maddow, from time to time, and would not give her a pass if she said something equivalent to piggy’s remarks.

  • http://www.deanesmay.com DEAN ESMAY, Guest Voice Columnist

    To be honest, I find it rather sexist to treat this a “women’s issue” at all.

    Men get sexually-explicit terms used against them all the time (“prick” and “dick” being the most common) and no one calls that an “attack on men.” And while the terms “asshole” and “bastard” are not sexually explicit per se, they are rarely thrown at women and are almost exclusively thrown at men. (Although I have on occasion heard “asshole” used on women, most people don’t use that word against women.)

    Thus from my perspective, it is sexist to even make this a gender issue. The issue is inappropriate bullying of a citizen activist by a powerful media mogul. That’s what we should be talking about. Limbaugh’s commentary would have been just as inappropriate had he used male-specific language against a male citizen-activist using this same line of argument. Now the fact is, I suspect there wouldn’t be as much outcry had his target been male–our culture pretty much automatically defends women in my experience–but that’s another argument.

    If we want equal treatment for women, we should stop treating Limbaugh’s offensive remarks as an attack on “women.” It was verbal bullying by a blowhard toward a citizen activist, and it was wrong of him to do period, and his apology is weak tea. He was a bully, end of story.

  • http://www.deanesmay.com DEAN ESMAY, Guest Voice Columnist

    Shorter version: I have no interest in defending fluke because she’s a girl. That’s sexist. I am interested in defending a person who got viciously smeared and bullied, regardless of gender.

  • dduck

    DE, boy are you lucky roro80 is not around.
    In her absence, let me point out that in most societies, including ours, there is a dual standard. A guy who gets around a lot, is lucky, a gal that does is sometimes chastised. So insulting remarks are much more serious when directed at women.
    Rush is still a pig, defending him is your prerogative.

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst

    @dduck – @Dean is not defending Rush. How in the world could you reach that conclusion??

    @Dean – please look at what I have linked to here:

    However, the price for this success is too high if it comes about because “angry” and “engaged” citizens are framing calls for action with the same class of juvenile, sexist language as the media initially used to divide us.

    Did you even watch the video?

    The fact is that our (I only speak for the US) media culture is far more sexist towards women than sexist towards men. “Sexist” is not gender specific – but there are far moe examples of people talking about hos and sluts and c—ts (just listen to HipHop and Rap, for goodness sakes) than there are about d—ks or c——-rs.

  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    I think with respect that Dean has not lived as a woman (sorry, I know Dean is definitely a man)… for if he had, he’d know ALL those names are aimed at women, including cs, sob, b, c, prick, a-h, d-head, ball-less, woman with a d, . All you have to do is come down to bed-sty, backwoods anywhere, poor and disenfranchized, upper level msm medio rooms, broadcast studios that thrive on screed. Just saying most women I know have been called every down-low name in the language, and sometimes in foreign languages as well. Shall I tell you in Spanish, how about German, maybe French?

    The issue in the hearing was about women’s, not men’s sexual health. It is about that women can conceive, and we know that men cannot. It is about that most women take very seriously NOT bringing a child to life when it is not yet place nor time to give proper care to that child. It is about a woman’s private life both in body and mind to take responsibility that children come when they are wanted. Sometimes it is that women step up to the plate re contraception because some few men complain about being responsible in that way.

    Rush Limbaugh, whom I have defended here during his illnesses, and I was one of the first women, if not ‘the’ first woman, to have the dubious honor of receiving his sexist rants of ‘feminazi’ twenty years ago, on his radio and tv program– much to the public and private grief he gave my elderly eastern european refugee and immigrant WWII survivor family by calling me such names publically and daily, and despite the fact that many of my male peers in the USAF wrote to Rush telling him to stop, that I was a decent person… but to no avail, he kept hammering me daily. That was long ago, and I think you will find my writings about him here at TMV to be exactly that: moderate and seeking understanding about him. But, given this most recent, thus now, I will be defending him no more for this reason…

    leaping from his ‘usual but wholly unwarranted’ call on the Nazi trope which is not even a shade apart from calling on Hitlerian tropes…, into the old screed about who a woman makes love to or has sex with–and that she should be called names by all, setting the example of such on the public airwaves… I see throws us back to a time when as other commenters here have mentioned, when women who were violated by such assault to character and reputation (and sometimes body) were told the men involved would get all their ‘friends’ to say they had sex with her and thereby her valid plaint would call up a weird puritanical current still in our culture to condemn a woman, whether she likes sex or not, is active sexually or not, in order to free those who predated on her from any accountability. It is an old old mechanism used by some to sidetrack the conversation or valid plaint by excoriating the woman’s sexual being. We find evidence of the same even imbedded in ancient literature of King Arthur, Helen, Gawain and others, who were angry at something a woman, not a man, but a woman said or did –or did not do== and so accused her of being a… you fill in the blank… and by re-defining the situation away from the actual concerns, moving instead into trying to rouse the opprobrium of the small or larger community around her to condemn her, often to death by exiling her from ‘decent and hypocritical’ culture surrounding.

    It’s an old old hugely unconscious and evil way to deal with any soul, in that DE is accurate, I think.

    This particular issue with Rush Limbaugh has purposely brought forward, is the same old crap that women have dealt with for centuries, including this century. I wrote against Don Imus and his happy go lucky calling of black women basketball players ‘ho’s’… And I will write against Rush’s posturing now. I’ve met him and he is /was a decent person who is hugely sensitive and it’s written right on him, in private, a huge wanting to be loved, but there’s also in my opinion, a split into a far more brutal part of personality, lured by money, and yet failed in all ways, relationally up close.

    He has always been sensitive to being not liked. Yet, most of us know, that having a radio audience is no substitute, nor those who clamor to be near ‘power of the moment’ is no substitute, to having love up close, loyal and caring that doesnt care if one is famous or not.

    Rush has a ‘thing’ about women both positively and negatively. When he rolls out his unconcious in public, in screed and insult against women, it is always sexualized to her gender, with other sexual and violent words used to demean the woman attached to his fantasy of her.

  • dduck

    KG, you said: “@dduck – @Dean is not defending Rush. How in the world could you reach that conclusion??”

    This is the “world” I am defending: DE,said “Limbaugh’s commentary would have been just as inappropriate had he used male-specific language against a male citizen-activist using this same line of argument.

    I don’t see an equivalency there.

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst

    @Dr E : thanks for sharing your history with Rush and for reminding the assembled digital masses that this particular put-down isn’t new. What’s so sad/frustrating/insane is that we can’t seem to get past it. :-/

    @DDuck : I read your words but I don’t understand.

  • dduck

    KG., sorry…………

  • roro80

    Ugh, for some reason, a comment with zero links and no spam is getting kicked out as “a bit too spammy”.

    So we’ll split it up.

    dduck, gotta hand it to you on this one. Despite the jab at me personally, I appreciate it, honestly.

  • roro80

    Kathy — There could very well be a sort of equivalency between calling someone a d*** and calling someone a c*** if men and women weren’t already in a heirarchical situation in which men are very much the privileged and women are very much not so. However, in this case, calling out a woman as someone who has a lot of sex does not, in our culture, have a male equivalent. Being a sexually active male in our society does not carry the same connotation as being a sexually active woman, with the exception of being a gay man. (It’s different, but carries somewhat similar stigma.)

  • roro80

    Therefore there’s really not a male-associated equivalent to calling Fluke a slut and a prostitute. Even in cases when someone literally calls a man a slut or a prostitute in those words (as with calling a man a b****), it’s an insult based on calling the man the lowest and dirtiest of women — an insult of being the worst thing ever, feminine — not an insult on masculinity.

  • roro80

    Basically, I see Dean’s comment on as a whine on how this could possibly be about anything but men. Commonly encountered as the WHAT ABOUT THE MEEENNNNNN???? problem so often found when anyone dares talk about women for too long. (Hint: not everything is about men, Dean. I know this comes as a shock. But this actually was a sexist insult toward a woman. It was an insult toward all women who dare to behave as human beings and have sex for non-procreative reasons, which is pretty much all of us. It has nothing to do with you.)