Last weekend I caught the riveting movie Fair Game about the Bush Administration’s illegal outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame in apparent retaliation for her husband (Ambassador Joe Wilson, played by Sean Penn) critiquing the Iraq War. The film was brilliant, except for a scene where Plame’s character pretend-scolds her husband for chastising a bigoted dinner party guest: “You didn’t have to call him a racist pussy!”
Gender slurs like “pussy” are commonplace in mass media, along with “bitch,” “whore,” “ho,” “broad,” “douche,” “cunt,” “slut,” “bimbo,” etc. But I expect more from people on the left – “good liberals” who would thankfully be horrified at similar use of racial slurs. (Imagine the (rightful) outrage if Penn’s character had called the dinner guest a “sexist n**ger”!)
Gender slurs operate like racial slurs in that they are sex-specific put-downs. Mostly used to describe women, gender slurs are sometimes applied to men to “emasculate” (think about that word for a minute) them, such as “pussy” or “bitch.” But for many on the left, gender slurs are simply not as distasteful as racial slurs.
I have heard gender slurs from the mouths of liberal professors who fancy themselves erudite, despite their glaring ignorance of gender critiques. During the 2008 presidential campaign, I got into a tense argument at a fancy dinner party with a lefty who called Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin “bitches.” He could not recognize that the way he talks about Clinton and Palin reflects how he thinks about women more generally. I recently reviewed a study of cable news coverage of Clinton during the 2008 election that found that liberal pundits like Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews were as sexist as conservative news hosts.
But hands down, my biggest disappointment on the left is Jon Stewart, the host of the super-funny and informative The Daily Show. He uses “pussy” and “bitch” with some frequency, and mixes in misogynistic remarks with otherwise sharp political analysis. I recently thumbed through Stewart’s new book, Earth (The Book): A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race (2010), having joked with my friends that his views of the human race don’t really include women as “human beings.” We stopped laughing about ten pages in. While men are portrayed in a variety of roles in the book (some less flattering than others), women are almost universally depicted as fuck-toys – three-breasted aliens, “snow bunnies” in bikinis on skis, cleavage without faces. One vignette shows the origins of trade starting with a man trading his “extra” woman for a sheep. So we’re chattel, Jon?
While gender slurs “suck” (oops, there’s another one), swearing is actually good for your health and can be done in a way that doesn’t rely on bigotry or hatred of certain groups. I suggest “asshole,” “asshat,” or my personal favorite, “jackass.” (Sorry, donkey!)