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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