Monday, March 26, 2012

Bill Maher’s Use of the “C” Word and the “T” Word

In my last post, I mentioned that some conservatives have defended Rush Limbaugh's attack on Sandra Fluke by asserting that certain liberals are just as misogynistic.  The main focus of such assertions has been comedian, Bill Maher.  The link below takes you to one of the many articles covering this controversy.

Mr. Maher has rejected comparisons between his use of the “c” word and the “t” word to refer to Sarah Palin in comedic routines and Mr. Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke.  To differentiate his own language from Mr. Limbaugh’s disgusting rant on Sandra Fluke, Mr. Maher has explained that Mr. Limbaugh had gone “after a civilian” while Mr. Maher had used filth to describe a “public figure.”  (OK, to be honest, the term “filth” was my characterization, not Mr. Maher’s.) 

Mr. Maher elaborated:

“I used a rude word about a public figure who gives as good as she gets, who’s called people ‘terrorist’ and ‘unAmerican’... The First Amendment was specifically designed for citizens to insult politicians. Libel laws were written to protect law students speaking out on political issues from getting called whores by Oxycontin addicts.”

Interesting.  I’m not exactly sure that that is what James Madison had in mind when he drafted the Bill of Rights.  But I suppose Mr. Maher has a point.  And although his choice of words does trigger my gag reflex, I am a fervent defender of the First Amendment and would vigorously defend Mr. Maher’s right to speak his mind. 

 To defend his use of these terms in question, Mr. Maher also countered that audiences at his comedic performances loved the use of those terms to describe Governor Palin:

“The bit I did about Palin using the word c--- was one of the biggest laughs in my act, I did it all over the country, not one person ever registered disapproval, and believe me, audiences are not afraid to let you know. Because it was a routine where that word came in at just the right moment. Context is very important.”

The fact that audiences at his comedy shows did not object to the use of these terms doesn't say much. Mr. Maher is a self-confessed "potty mouth," so people paying the big bucks to attend his live show expect (and arguably demand) such filthy language.

Finally, Mr. Maher also seemed to think part of the problem with Mr. Limbaugh’s word choice was that the radio host was “speaking for a party that has systematically gone after women’s rights all year, on the public airwaves.”  Mr. Maher seems to be suggesting that the GOP is hostile to women, but the Democrats are somehow their savior.  That is a rather questionable claim of superiority.  I would suggest that both parties are dominated by white men who are either rich or middle class, and neither party has done a particularly good job of representing people of color, women or the poor.  There are a lot of issues impacting women.  Being against the re-criminalization of abortion does not somehow make one a champion of “women’s rights.”  If Mr. Maher thinks it does, then he certainly has a lot to learn about women.

All in all, I don’t think Mr. Maher quite understands the controversy over Mr. Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke, and the comparison to Mr. Maher’s own attacks on Governor Palin.  It frankly has nothing whatsoever to do with context.

The main point, in my opinion, is that “slut” and “prostitute” are words that convey certain sexual connotations.  As I explained in a prior post, the term “slut” is an epithet that only makes sense when used against a woman.  It is a joke or a compliment when used to describe a man.  The term “prostitute” is generally equated with women only.  Both terms denote individuals who have had multiple sexual partners, for which there is a strong sexist double standard in our society.  These terms when used against women can painfully bring shame and humiliation.  By contrast, accusing a man of having multiple sexual partners is typically viewed in our society as praise for his virility. 

It is important to note that the specific terms that Mr. Maher used to reference Governor Palin are actually much worse than the terms Mr. Limbaugh used to describe Ms. Fluke.  So much worse that I won’t even write Mr. Maher’s words out in this blog.  Not even once.  They are that disgusting.

Before I go on, let me be clear that I am no prude.  Christians are often stereotyped as nerdy, sheltered squares, so I do feel the need to state this fact at the outset.  Let me elaborate on my credentials as a non-sheltered person. I have been happily married for 15 years. I’ve had a lot of friends from different backgrounds and with different value systems.  I have been to comedy clubs, I’ve seen plenty of Hollywood films, and I’ve even listened to hip hop music.  (Oh, my!)  I’ve taught grade schools in tough neighborhoods fraught with gang violence.  I have heard all kinds of language.  Curse words have indeed come out of my mouth.  I am also a Criminal Law professor; periodically I must lead sexually graphic class discussions when I teach the law of rape.  I do not blush or even get nervous when I have to lead these discussions with 70+ law students.  The bottom line of all this is that I have not lived in an ivory tower isolated from the world.  I don’t flinch when people use filthy or sexually explicit language.

But the two words in question that Mr. Maher used are particularly vile.  They are both epithets that only make sense when used to describe a woman.  Insightfully, both the “c” word and the “t” word technically refer to female genitalia.  I think that is interesting and no fluke.  (No pun intended.)

If you think about it objectively, why on earth would it be an insult to call someone female genitalia?  I mean, it is weird.  I grant you that.  But then again, it would be pretty weird to insult folks by calling them other body parts.  “You elbow!”  “He is such an ankle!”

But in our American profanity, we have at least two epithets where we put women down by calling them female genitalia.  As a Christian, I understand that God designed our bodies; as his creations, they are beautiful.  That includes the genitals. 

Nonetheless, in our culture, the connotations associated with the “c” word and the “t” word are so incredibly foul.  I mean, the “b” word absolutely pales by comparison.  Not even close.  It is like the difference between “stupid head” v. “m----- f-----.”

The “c” word and the “t” word are so incredibly taboo and heinous, I was actually in my 20s before I ever heard them.  They just don’t get used that often in pop culture or in the circles I’ve frequented.

To me, the fact that words for female genitalia have come to have such a deeply offensive connotation is suggestive that those who coined the “c” and the “t” words find women’s sexuality awful and shameful.  I’m at a loss to understand that attitude fully, but it clearly is rooted on some level in misogyny. 

I get that Mr. Maher doesn’t like Governor Palin.  You know what?  She is not my favorite person either.  Frankly, her politics and her rhetoric appall me on many levels.  But calling her the “c” word or the “t” word is blatantly sexist.  And I deeply resent Mr. Maher’s use of those terms to describe any female.  I don’t care if the female in question is a “public figure” or not.

These two terms are misogynistic.  They allude to shameful connotations associated with female genitals.  They are epithets reserved exclusively for women.  I’m doubtful that Mr. Maher has used the terms for Senator McCain, Governor Romney or any other male politician.  That is not how the terms in question are used.

Thus, using the “c” word and the “t” word to deride Governor Palin has the effect of dismissing her as a politician.  The insinuation is that she is not to be taken seriously.  It is quite condescending.  Again, male politicians don’t get dismissed like that.

If Mr. Maher has a problem with Sarah Palin—or any other female politician—I would hope that in the future he would explain his concerns without the use of misogynistic epithets.  If he has to use profanity, I would prefer he at least stuck to gender neutral epithets!  

Genesis 5:1-2 (Common English Bible)
On the day God created humanity, he made them to resemble God and created them male and female. He blessed them and called them humanity on the day they were created.

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