On Rush Limbaugh, Misogyny, and Talking About Women in the Public Sphere

It is good to see women and men standing up to Rush Limbaugh and condemning his recent, and very nasty, comments about Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University student who testified about hormonal birth control pills as a medical necessity for many women. Medical necessity. You can read the transcript of her testimony here.

Limbaugh and his cohorts have created a narrative in which Ms. Fluke’s testimony was about recreational sex and her need for government subsidies so she could be a “slut.” Others have hilariously covered the misconceptions and fundamental misunderstanding of birth control Limbaugh reveals in his rant. He is losing advertisers, and that is good. That is the free market smacking down a man whose product is tarnished, with the Fluke incident being only the most recent revelation of the utter wretchedness of his world view, and his own personal nature, as he called on Ms. Fluke to post video of her sexual encounters, because after all, he lied, he was subsidizing them. He felt entitled, you might say.

Kirsten Powers of the Daily Beast responded to this by pointing out what she sees as misogyny among the liberal punditry. Undoubtedly there is, but Ms. Powers’ examples fail to make the grade, and offer a bit of a teaching moment for Dr. Lerna Lott.

Women are in the public sphere. Some women even hold positions of power, such as Secretary of State Clinton, and former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin. Women are running for President. As a GOP candidate for President pointed out at a recent debate, politics “ain’t bean bag.” Calling Michele Bachmann “batshit crazy” as Matt Taibbi did, or Hilary Clinton a “she-devil” as Chris Matthews did, is part of the rough and tumble of political discourse. I have no doubt that Mr. Taibbi would call a male candidate “crazy” and Matthews would call a male candidate a “devil” without hesitation. The one thing all these colorful terms have in common is that they address the target’s public persona or policies or behavior in the public sphere. There is also the matter of status. Presidential candidates, sitting politicians, and public figures are fair game for criticism. It isn’t misogyny to mock a female candidate’s appearance. Why? Because Dr. Lerna Lott loves her some Chris Christie jokes.

Having said that, we come down to the part of this that will definitely be on the exam. When an extremely powerful public figure attacks a private citizen and unleashes highly insulting language that describes his own assumptions about her very private sexual behavior (which she had not made the issue) we are talking misogyny. Ms. Fluke testified as a private citizen about a medical issue and Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut” and a “prostitute.” His language was disgusting and was meant only to discredit her in the public sphere.

So once again, in Ms. Powers’ argument we find a failure to make necessary distinctions. These types of arguments are ultimately meant to discredit feminism by trying to paint it as a hypocritical, hypersensitive all-or-nothing game of convenience that is about politically correct speech. That’s because that is how the right plays it. But in the reality-based community we’re talking about health care and equal pay and education — issues that affect the lives of women.

Ultimately, if Ms. Powers wants to find misogyny among liberals there is plenty to be found. I would submit that characters like Anthony Weiner and Bill Clinton represent a more fundamental flavor of misogyny than Chris Matthews or Matt Taibbi. Call me a she-devil (I’m actually kind of honored), just don’t treat me like a Kleenex.

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