Saturday, March 8, 2008

Misogyny for you and me

Last night, I had an interesting discussion with my friend J about the Charlotte Allen piece. Among the many things that define her, J is a woman and an artist. Her perspective was that the Allen piece espoused a point of view so absurd that it wasn't worth her taking offense. Fair enough, I tend to agree that there is little merit in arguing with a woman who would choose the recidivist route to gender norms of the 19th century.

Our primary disagreement was whether or not it was appropriate or acceptable for the Washington Post to publish Mrs. Allen's opinion piece as a co-headline in last Sunday's Outlook section. J argued that, as an artist, she sees merit in allowing blatantly offensive work to be displayed in order to facilitate dialogue on important topics. "In a sense that article has gotten us to sit here and have this conversation," she pointed out. "We are reaffirming our beliefs by talking about them right now."

I think J has a point. It's hard to argue that a piece of work should not be published because it is offensive. On the other hand, there are certain venues and institutions that shape our society in different ways. And I tend to think that the mainstream media is a good cultural thermometer for what constitutes the range of public opinion. While it may have been controversial, at one time, to show gay men getting married at a church on the front page of the paper, the concept is becoming normalized through media coverage. And this is a trend that can go both ways. If pieces like Mrs. Allen's become acceptable points of view for a national debate, aren't we moving toward a national conversation on gender that would have us debating old premises that have long been proved defunct (i.e. brain size of women having something to do with their intelligence)? In other words, I fear that the argument that women are the dumber half of the population could become, once again, a normal and acceptable argument in mainstream culture.


Here are two opinion pieces that I think really get to the heart of what J and I were talking about last night. First, a letter to the editor from a group of high school students who made an argument similar to J:

The recent outpouring of passionate responses to Charlotte Allen's article reveals one of the fundamental contradictions in contemporary democracy: People are free to say whatever they want, as long as they choose what is considered a legitimate topic of debate.

All too often, people hold views that they are unwilling to challenge, and responses to this article are a prime example. Instead of considering Allen's perspective and discussing its pros and cons, people left what she had to say behind them. Then they argued that she said something that no human must utter; to do so is to be a misogynist, after all.

The point of articles like Allen's is not to set in stone the truth about how the world works. The point is to get people thinking -- to challenge them to consider another perspective.

As humble high school English students, we argue that articles like this one should not be censored or dismissed. They should be actively encouraged and published. The mark of a truly tolerant and enlightened society is one that tolerates even those who are intolerant.


and 50 other Centerville High School seniors

And now a piece that makes a similar argument to my own:

Charlotte Allen's article represents a new low in sexism. The Washington Post's recent response to the outpouring of well-deserved outrage over the piece, however, might actually be more insulting to women than Allen's ill-researched, specious and insulting piece.

Would The Washington Post publish an op-ed titled "African Americans Aren't Very Bright," "Immigrants Aren't Very Bright" or "Jews Aren't Very Bright"? Of course not. Any sentient editorial team would recognize that as a blatant statement of bigotry and hatred. So why are women not given the same consideration? Why does The Post feel free to baldly insult more than 50 percent of the population -- who probably make up more than 50 percent of The Post's readership? Either you share Allen's opinions, or you don't value equality. For a publication that has publicly stated that it wants to attract more female readers, either option seems like a losing strategy.

As a recent contributor to Outlook, I am ashamed to be associated with a publication that deems such blatant bigotry acceptable or even amusing. But as the co-founder and editor of a magazine that works constantly to point out that sexism exists and even thrives in the mainstream media, I suppose I should thank you -- you've made my job that much easier. In the future, whenever people suggest that sexism and bias against women are things of the past, this article will be my Exhibit A in demonstrating not only that sexism is still alive and well, but also that supposedly objective papers of record are the quickest to disseminate it.


Bitch Magazine

I'll now post some other fun feedback from the Washington Post that I think is worth considering:

The fact that Charlotte Allen discounts such a swath of people is only a superficial -- if infuriating -- problem with her argument.

Allen holds up examples of male accomplishment (fine, men are smart, too) and odd science (do we really believe that there is a correlation between brain size and intelligence?) and then uses them as counterpoints to her bizarre definition of what it means to be a woman. Her article boils down to this: Women are different from men, and different means dumber.

With her argument, Allen casts her lot with the legions of xenophobia. She forgets that different doesn't equal bad. Different equals different. And we have names for people who, in other contexts, don't understand this. We call them racists, homophobes and anti-Semites.



I've figured it out. Clearly, an adolescent boy wrote Charlotte Allen's article for her. I can just hear their conversation:

"All you have to do is write whatever comes to your mind about girls. Remember, they're icky."

"And thousands of people will read it?"

"Yes. It's that simple."

"But what if I don't know what I'm talking about? I'm just 13!"

"I never know what I'm talking about, but that doesn't slow me down. Now get to work."

The entire article played to the absolute worst stereotypes of women. I doubt that ever entered Allen's field of vision, but clearly The Post should have known better. Next time you want a piece that bad, shoot an e-mail and I'll get cracking on one. I promise it will be less offensive, for half the price.


And one more:

The Washington Post should be embarrassed about its decision to publish the "Women vs. Women" feature that dominated the front page of the Outlook section last week. Under the pretext of analyzing women's voting patterns in the Democratic presidential primaries, the paper presented the case that women are stupid and emotional and can't be trusted to protect their own interests. All that was missing was a call to rescind our right to vote.

The possibility that voters could elect the first female president this year has unearthed a stream of latent hostility toward successful, smart, ambitious women. Obviously, we still have a long way to go when major newspapers see fit to run screeds arguing that women should just "relax" and not let it bother their silly little heads that they are "kind of dim." The next time someone asks me if we still need a feminist movement, I will point to this article.


President, National Organization for Women

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