Friday, March 2, 2012

Bachmann and the “B” Word

In our culture, we have all kinds of preconceptions regarding gender that most of us barely even recognize.  For example, our society expects men to be strong and assertive.  Women are supposed to be warm and nurturing.

We make all kinds of judgments about people based on whether or not they live up to the gender roles we expect.  There is plenty of empirical evidence that people, who depart from those expected gender roles, are poorly received by those around them.  If men change their minds on an issue, they are potentially labeled “flip-floppers.”  If men are perceived as “too” sensitive, they are at risk for being branded a wimp.  If women are firm with respect to a position they embrace, they are often characterized as inflexible and overbearing.  If a woman is not warm and nurturing, people may describe her as cold. 

Ironically, these same traits in the opposite sex are typically well-received.  Rarely do women get branded flip-floppers or wimps; we expect them to change their minds and be sensitive.  Similarly, it is rare to hear people criticize men for being inflexible, overbearing or cold because that is simply how we expect them to be.

Such judgments are evident in myriad ways.  They impact with whom we associate.  They may influence which candidates get our votes.  They may determine whether an applicant gets a job or whether an employee is promoted.  And at an extreme, these judgments sometimes even result in violence against those who fail to fit preconceived gender roles. 

Such gender preconceptions are a difficult land mine for those in politics.  Men typically get the benefit of the doubt in my observation, but sometimes have to be wary of being too wimpy.  The first President Bush, for example, struggled with that in his presidential campaigns.

In my observation, gender roles are typically a trickier obstacle for women in politics.  There are sometimes preconceptions that female politicians get too emotional or are not sharp enough.  But there is also the overarching issue of being too tough or too assertive.  On the one hand, women can be judged as not tough and assertive enough for politics, but if they try to overcome such concerns, then they may be slapped with the “bitch” label. 

That label is of course not just a hazard for female politicians.  Ask any woman in a position of any type of authority.  Managers.  Pastors.  Police officers.  Committee chairpersons.  Lawyers.  Professors.  In pretty much any context, a woman is at risk for having the “bitch” label applied to her if she speaks up to voice an opposing view point, or uses the authority she has to set policy or require others to do something they do not want to do.  If men do these things, that is expected. There is no equivalent to the “bitch” label for such male behavior.  In my experience and observation, when people don’t like the decisions made by a male in authority, people criticize or complain about the substance of his decisions.  But there is not a personal attack based on gender.  The “bitch” label (as well as even more offensive sexist terms that I won’t list), and the underlying gendered judgment that is conveyed, are uniquely applied to women.

To be clear, I do not agree with or condone the use of the term “bitch.”  I am using it here to make a point.  But make no mistake, I find the term extraordinarily offensive.  It is sexist.  It implies a double standard.  It is demeaning to women.  It undercuts the advancement of women in our society.  I would strongly urge everyone to refrain from ever using that horrible word.  Not even privately.  Not even under your breath.  My advice would be to just banish the term from your vocabulary forever.

I would particularly flag for any women readers of this blog that the potential use of this term to deride any women in authority in your lives is counterproductive and can harm your own attempts to be taken seriously as a person.  Using such a sexist term to complain about a female supervisor, professor or peer implicitly condones gender based negative judgments against such women.  If a female supervisor, professor or peer is in your opinion not doing a good job, that is certainly a legitimate basis for critique.  But make sure to keep your critique based in gender neutral terms.  Otherwise you are serving to perpetuate a sexist mindset that will undoubtedly be used against you.  If not now, it will surely happen eventually.  It always does.

With that background on the “bitch” label, I was really saddened to read about an incident last fall during the GOP presidential campaign.  Representative Bachmann appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night show last fall prior to bowing out of the race.  To introduce Mr. Fallon’s interview with her, his band played a song with the “B” word.  The not-so-subtle message sent as Representative Bachmann walked out to be interviewed was: she is a bitch.

Mr. Fallon and NBC later apologized.  Big shock.  What else could they do?  It seems laughable to imagine they could even try to defend something so sexist and offensive. 

But I am concerned about how this incident was received by the public. 

First, I am concerned that most people never heard about the incident.  This was a pretty egregious insult on national broadcast television, but it didn’t seem to get a lot of attention.  Why the heck not?

  Many liberals find Representative Bachmann’s politics so distasteful that I suspect they may have agreed with the implicit message and even cheered the “bitch” label. 

But I fear that most other folks who heard about the incident probably thought it was not a big deal.  Much ado about nothing.  An over-emphasis on political correctness.  A Puritanical rail against profanity.  I disagree with such sentiments.  I think this was a big deal, and the mainstream media dropped the ball in not examining it more.

The “B” word is a very ugly term.  It hurts to be called that word.  It cuts you off at the legs.  It is a slap in the face. 

Like Representative Bachmann, you can be a lawyer with an advance degree in tax law, be elected to Congress, rally thousands in rousing Tea Party speeches, and even become a serious candidate for the presidency of the most powerful nation on this planet.  But being called the “B” word just slaps you back to the starting line. 

The underlying purpose of the epithet is to convey that no matter what, you are just a woman and thus a second class citizen.  In that sense, I think it is analogous in many ways to the “N” word used against African Americans, the “F” word used against gay men and the “D” word used against lesbians.  These are vile words that carry emotionally toxic baggage.  They are meant to protect the privilege of those who have historically wielded most of the power in our society.

Because of the toxicity of the “B” word, I cannot even imagine how humiliating it would have been for Michele Bachmann to walk out to begin a televised interview with Jimmy Fallon with that particular song to introduce her.  If it were me, I think it would have sabotaged my ability to coherently answer questions on national television.  I would have been shaken.  My confidence going into a stressful situation would have detrimentally impacted.  And as I describe what my own reaction would have been, you should know I've got a pretty thick skin, and am not easily intimidated.  Nonetheless, talking to a national audience with that kind of a disrespectful introduction would have been humiliating.  As a result, on a personal level, for Representative Bachmann’s sake, I hope that as she walked onto the stage to speak with Jimmy Fallon last fall, she did not recognize the song that was played.

This incident is like if President Obama had appeared on the show and a song using the “N” word was played as he was walking towards Mr. Fallon.  That would have been unthinkably disrespectful, hurtful and racist.  If anything like that happened, it would certainly have led to tremendous public outcry.  Mr. Fallon would probably have lost his show and been banished to some lesser cable network—if he ever worked again.  But nothing like that happened after the Representative Bachmann incident. 

Similarly, can you imagine if Mr. Fallon began an interview with Representative Barney Frank with a song using the "F" word?  There would have been protests, editorials.   It would have been unthinkably rude, offensive and homophobic.  Why wasn't there more of a backlash over this incident with Representative Bachmann?

Judges 4:6-9

And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh-Naphtali, and said to him, Hath not Jehovah the God of Israel commanded? Go and draw towards mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun,

and I will draw unto thee, to the torrent Kishon, Sisera, the captain of Jabin's army, and his chariots and his multitude, and I will give him into thy hand.

And Barak said to her, If thou goest with me, then I will go, but if thou goest not with me, I will not go.

And she said, I will by all means go with thee, only that it will not be to thine honour upon the way which thou goest, for Jehovah will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. And Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh.

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