By JONATHAN TILOVE
November 27, 2007
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ In the coming months, America will decide whether to elect its first female president. And amid a techno-media landscape where the wall between private vitriol and public debate has been reduced to rubble, Sen. Hillary Clinton is facing an onslaught of open misogynistic expression.
Step lightly through that thickly settled province of the Web you could call anti-Hillaryland and you are soon knee-deep in “bitch,” “slut,” “skank,” “whore” and, ultimately, what may be the most toxic four-letter word in the English language.
We have never been here before.
No woman has run quite the same gantlet. And of course, no man.
Thanks to several thousand years of phallocentric history, there is no comparable vocabulary of degradation for men, no equivalently rich trove of synonyms for a sexually sullied male. As for the word beginning with “C,” no single term for a man reduces him to his genitals to such devastating effect.
In times past, this coarser conversation would have remained mostly personal and subterranean. But now we have a blogosphere, where no holds are barred and vituperative speech is prized. We have social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, with their limitless ability to make the personal public.
There are no rules. And so far there is little recognition in the political and media mainstream of the teeming misogyny only a mouseclick away.
“Part of the way a culture asks, `Where are the boundaries?’ is somebody makes it the topic of a meta-conversation _ let’s talk about the talk,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s what happened after Don Imus called the RutgersUniversity women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”
“It’s a discussion we are going to have if Hillary Clinton is nominated,” said Jamieson, who originally went searching the Web for racist invective aimed at Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, only to find the raw sexism being directed at Hillary Clinton far more common and virulent.
“I’ve been waiting,” Jamieson said. “When is somebody going to make this stuff visible enough to have that conversation?”
She thought the moment had arrived in mid-November when, at a campaign meeting in South Carolina, a woman of patrician bearing asked Arizona Sen. John McCain, “How do we beat the bitch?”
A surprised McCain laughed along with the rest of the small crowd.
“That’s an excellent question,” said McCain after regaining his stride. Then he proceeded to explain why he could indeed beat the junior senator from New York.
Viewed nearly a million times on YouTube in just the week afterward, “How Do We Beat the Bitch” has entered the lore of the 2008 campaign, but with barely a hint of soul-searching about what it means.
“Can you imagine if that woman had said, `How do we beat the “n-word”?”’ asked Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at RutgersUniversity‘s Eagleton Institute of Politics. For McCain, said Walsh, or at least for those who think the nation might have benefited by examining why that woman felt so free to say what she did so publicly, “It was a terrible missed opportunity.”
To be sure, apart from her gender, Clinton is a polarizing figure, half of a personal and political partnership with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, that weathered countless storms – most sensationally his impeachment growing out of a sex scandal.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has at times appeared the kind of feminist icon who stokes male insecurities about changing gender relations.
A conservative Republican woman running for president might provoke a far less angry male response, said sociologist C.J. Pascoe, a researcher with the Digital Youth Project at Berkeley‘s Institute for the Study of Social Change. “This would not be happening if it were Elizabeth Dole,” Pascoe said.
But, she said, Hillary Clinton offers young men on social networking sites a ripe target for their aggression.
The political impact of all this is uncertain. But Pascoe warns that the broader society ignores the implications of the conversations being conducted on these sites at its peril.
“This is the new world that’s coming,” she said.
Facebook, popular with high school and college students, has dozens of anti-Hillary groups, many of which take great, sweaty delight in heaping abuse on Clinton as a woman, imagining her reduced to a subservient role, and visiting violence upon her.
One is “Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich,” with more than 23,000 members and 2,200 “wall posts” _ Internet graffiti in which discussants have fantasized about Clinton being raped by a donkey.
Eschewing the slightest wit or subtlety, some high school boys in Olathe, Kan., created “Punch her in the c—!!”. With about 200 members, this group features the discussion topics “Why we hate Hillary Clinton,” “Why you REALLY hate Hillary Clinton” and “What will we do if Hillary becomes president,” which drew two replies – “death” and “shooter in the cooter?”
Another Facebook group, more temperate in tone with about 13,000 members, is “Life’s a bitch, why vote for one? Anti-Hillary ’08.” Like several other anti-Clinton sites, this one promotes a T-shirt: “Hillary for President. She Puts the C— in Country.”
What’s going on here?
Is this merely some adolescent “guys gone wild” (most but by no means all of the Hillary haters are male)? The rank rituals of the rec room revealed for the whole world to see?
The proprietors of the Facebook group “Hillary Clinton Shouldn’t Run for President, She Should Just Run the Dishes,” with 2,159 members, offer a pre-emptive disclaimer to offended visitors:
“Do not message just to say how sexist we are and how the Lord will strike us down for hating women. That is just ignorant. It’s been really hard to respond to all of the e-mails without saying the C-word, don’t make us start now.”
But in an interview, Daniel Jussaume, a 20-year-old junior studying politics at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham, gives a more nuanced reply.
Jussaume was not among the creators of “Just Run the Dishes.” After he joined, however, he volunteered to chair its “Feminist Liberal Complaint Dept.”
“Words only have the power you give them,” he said, describing himself as a moderate-conservative leaning toward either McCain or Rudolph Giuliani for president.
People need to see the humor in politics, he said. He loves Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and “The Colbert Report,” and is among the more than 1.4 million members of the Facebook group “1,000,000 strong for Stephen T. Colbert,” even though he knows Stewart and Colbert are mocking his conservative politics.
Moreover, Jussaume said, “I’m not against women in politics. I hope in my lifetime I can live to see a female president.”
As for the c-word, he says he doesn’t use it and that people posting online need to recognize that they bear responsibility for what they write. “I know people who were turned down for jobs because of what they have on their MySpace page from the week before,” Jussaume said.
That may explain the careful response of Tyler Hawley, a student at BucknellUniversity and an administrator of “Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich.”
Contacted about the group, Hawley responded by e-mail: “After carefully deliberating with the other creators of our Facebook group … we are going to have to respectfully decline your request for an interview.”
He continued: “As young college students, we have careers to worry about, and having our name tied with a Facebook group that has been labeled sexist is not something that we are proud of. The opinions expressed on `The Wall’ are those of the posters only, and do not reflect the views of the creators. We are sorry that we cannot help you in your article, but we do not want to jeopardize our careers over a joke that … we started in High School.”
Jamieson said the tone of sex-specific “vilification” of Clinton is set in the mainstream media.
On his radio show, which reaches 14.5 million people, Rush Limbaugh talks about Clinton‘s “testicle lock box.” On his MSNBC show, Tucker Carlson says, “There’s just something about her that feels castrating, overbearing and scary,” and a guest, Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, says that if Clinton is going to appeal to women for support on the basis of her gender, “at least call her a vaginal-American.”
Young people, said Jamieson, take their cues from family and friends in a foggy geography of pop culture replete with misogynistic music, video games and crude comedy, where what separates fact from satire, bluster from menace (and for that matter, adolescence from adulthood), is hard to divine.
Comedy Central is a source of both entertainment and political news for its audience, which is heavily young and male. Among its most popular offerings is the outrageous animated show “SouthPark,” which in March had an episode in which terrorists (Russian mercenaries hired by Queen Elizabeth II, bent on the reconquest of America) place a bomb in Hillary Clinton’s vagina. (The episode provoked much less outrage than another mocking Tom Cruise and his religion, Scientology.)
Sexist language is not the exclusive domain of the young or the politically conservative. The Rude Pundit, a liberal blog written by Lee Papa, an English professor at the College of Staten Island, takes regular pleasure in applying the c-word to provocative right-wing commentator Ann Coulter. And when David Ferguson, who blogs as TRex on Firedoglake.com, last year used the word to describe the conservative talk show host and writer Laura Ingraham, there ensued a lively online debate about the left and anti-feminism.
While Jane Hamsher, Firedoglake’s founder, said she doesn’t like or employ the c-word, she defended TRex’s right to use it.
With regard to Clinton, she said, “There’s a deep string of sexism that informs a lot of the criticism … and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle.”
Hamsher wants to defend Clinton from that kind of attack without being mistaken for a Clinton supporter, which she is not. But she expects there may be some women, otherwise cool to Clinton, who will rally around the senator as the misogyny burns brighter.
Jamieson concurred. “This has the potential to push a lot of moderate Republican women toward her,” she said.
The Clinton campaign may be counting on that.