Political Sexism: More Than Enough to Go Around

Image via iStockPhoto/PeterPhoto

There’s plenty of sexism and downright misogyny among talking heads and commentators to go around. Neither the left not the right has a lock on who’s worse. As many people, including myself, have called out Rush Limbaugh for his recent remarks calling a Georgetown law student a “slut” and a “prostitute” for her stand on birth control, many others in the media have been just as guilty in how they’ve characterized women. For those of you who think I reserve my ire for the right, here’s a reminder of something I wrote last year for the now-defunct Politics Daily, calling out Chris Matthews for ridiculing Michele Bachmann. Though, I dare say, the language used by Limbaugh is a whole lot worse than most instances I’ve heard of.

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“Balloon Head” isn’t the name of the upcoming Seth Rogen movie. But that’s really what MSNBC’s Chris Matthews called Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann for comments in a recent speech about when slavery ended in America.

I don’t disagree with Matthews’ decision to call Bachmann out on her remarks that slavery was ended by the tireless efforts of the Founding Fathers. It’s fair game to question elected representatives about whether they have a grasp on our country’s history, as well as current events, to decide whether they’re really qualified to represent their constituents. Bring on the debate — is Bachmann clueless on slavery and the Civil War or is she revising historical facts to stoke the tea party’s political agenda?

But no legitimate political conversation is advanced by sexist name calling.

Sure, “balloon head” is a relatively novel slam. And it is sort of fun to say. No doubt it can be used with equal negative effect against the gents. But I have a feeling that when Matthews lobbed “balloon head” out there against Bachmann, it came from the same place as his recent Sarah Palin pot shot that she “interviews like she’s selling makeup foundations.”

I’m not saying that there’s any political favoritism on the part of those who conveniently fall back on sexist language in the name of punditry. Hillary Clinton was a special target of media sexism in the 2008 presidential campaign, not to mention the political “mommy wars” debate everyone wanted to have about whether Palin, as a mother of small children, could fulfill her parental duties and run for national political office.

It shouldn’t be difficult for pundits to question elected officials without crossing that line. For example, Bachmann’s 2010 challenger, former Minnesota State Senator Tarryl Clark, sent out a message to her supporters after Bachmann’s State of the Union response for the tea party, calling her out over certain misrepresentations she felt Bachmann had made. And Clark has kept her campaign website live to have a voice in setting the record straight when Bachmann misspeaks. Using facts rather than sexist imagery to make your arguments is easy-peasy, so I wonder why there are few calls to end criticism of powerful women that’s infused with stereotypical gender-related insults?

Sadly, the answer is the same in 2011 as it always has been — sexism sells, whether it’s in commercials or TV sitcoms or cable news coverage. So why not keep boosting those ratings and advertiser dollars in our pundit-eat-pundit world by coining the next sexist term? “Nagging” and “bitchy” are so 2008.

Maybe a little trip to the Sundance Film Festival is in order to preview the new documentary MissRepresentation, a movie about how sexist treatment of women in the mainstream media has become normalized and its negative impact on our daughters. That might bring some commentators back to reality. I’m willing to bet that if someone shouted to the world that Matthews’ 20-something daughter was a “balloon head” maybe even he would back off.

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