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Sexist Language, Not just for the Right Wing Anymore

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This month, Rob and I agreed I would begin serving as a “topics editor”; I will be tracking and reporting on media coverage of women. I expected at the time to have my hands full covering such things as the roles spouses play in the Presidential campaigns, McCain’s fluctuations on abortion, and questions concerning the whereabouts of Michelle Obama’s Princeton thesis. (By the way, it was never actually unavailable, as reported; I Googled her and found the document instantly way back in February.)


Then the Spitzer hubbub. It pains me to offer as my first post a critique of language used against the woman involved, language appearing here at OEN.


Let’s be clear. The woman now being called “Spitzer’s whore” will not achieve the wealth and notoriety so much media commentary predicts. At best? She’ll further disempower herself by posing for notoriously, aggressively misogynist glossies like Hustler and Penthouse. If these issues outsell all others, her body will have further enriched male-defined industries. What about a potential book deal? Well, do we imagine she has secured a literary agent—or, rather, that one has approached her, knowing full well the money people will pay to read her story. Wait. No one would pay to read her story; it’s Spitzer’s story the publisher will actually be selling, using her to, again, further enrich others. Surely no one imagines that this woman has been entertaining literary aspirations, hoping to one day pen a memoir of her life as a prostitute.


Many others, likely men, will make money mocking, ridiculing, reporting on her behavior (see: Penthouse, O’Reilly, Schlessinger, et al). One DC escort service did. MSM is as we speak, churning out the Spitzer “news” and updates of the day. So why the anxiety over the woman making a few bucks? Indeed, this scandal may put money in her pocket, but wealth does not translate into a safe, happy or promising life to come. Just ask the drunken young women routinely exploited by the titanic Girls Gone Wild enterprise and the many who have filed abuse charges against its owner/founder/pimp Joe Frances. Young women are offered t-shirts and trucker hats in exchange for the product (salacious videos/women’s bodies) that has made Frances a billionaire.


Why begrudge the “whore” a few hundred thousand dollars when the particular man in question could afford to spend thousands on a single encounter? Further, someone else is earning lots of money pimping her services under the kinder gentler moniker: escort service.


And this brings me to language. Dictionary definition of whore: “a woman who engages in promiscuous sexual intercourse, usually for money; prostitute; harlot; strumpet.” There is no synonym in our language for a man who does similar things. We’re stuck with “male whore”—which proves my point here about sexist language. Only women can utterly debauch themselves where sex and money are concerned. Men, particularly powerful men, on the other hand, take and sell pictures, stand with brittle wives behind podiums explaining how their actions are nobody’s damn business and painting themselves as devoted public servants. These men frequently recover both their reputations and their careers. Who can forget Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Arlen Spectre, George H. W. Bush? The list is long. But who remembers the names of their female cohorts? Let’s disabuse ourselves here and now of the myth that women seduce powerful men for fame and career.


Finally, a word about the use of the possessive. Today in my inbox this tag line appeared: “Spitzer’s Whore? What about Cheney’s?” These women do not belong to these powerful men. They simply don’t. But the possessive doesn’t function at the denotative level in this case. That is, it doesn’t indicate literal ownership. Operating at the connotative level, the phrase exposes ideology. “Spitzer’s whore” renders the unnamed woman invisible while highlighting her guilt as greater than the named man’s.


As grown men and women, we’re smarter than we sometimes sound when it comes to women, sex and morality. Discovering sexist language on a site like OEN disappoints but does not surprise, not because I believe Rob or any other contributors/commenter entertain truly misogynist politics, but because the syntax of gender bias so saturates our culture and language that too often in moments like these language fails. Language—politicized, gendered, vexed—exposes not just what we do not love about our culture, but sometimes ourselves as well.

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Kellie Bean has been a Professor of English at Marshall University, an Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, and most recently, Provost of a small New England College. Author of "Post-Backlash Feminism: Women and the Media Since Reagan/Bush" (McFarland (more...)

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