In honor of International Women’s Day, I’m going off the topic of entrepreneurship and rock music for this post. Funny thing is, it was only after I wrote this that I discovered today’s significance. There are no coincidences.
As someone who makes my living from writing, designing, teaching, and art, I have strong feelings about free speech. On one hand, I see it as a right that should be “infringed” upon under extremely limited circumstances; on the other hand, part of functioning in a civilized society is that we can’t say anything we want—at least not without consequence. I’ve never believed this more than I have in the past few years as our society has become more uncivilized in the way we treat each other.
And so there should be a consequence to what Rush Limbaugh said on his show last week. I encourage you to read this (and think about this issue) without a political viewpoint. This is not about political philosophy; this is not about Limbaugh’s conservatism. He himself took it out of that realm. Unfortunately, however, many people—conservative and liberal and in between—will make this a political issue. But it isn’t. It is about the treatment of women in our society, an issue that affects everyone because we all have important, meaningful, loved, and loving women in our lives—co-workers, colleagues, friends, sisters, daughters, mothers, grandmothers, girlfriends, and wives.
Limbaugh may think he just didn’t speak his viewpoint well; he may indeed believe that. But I don’t believe him. You don’t carry on a three-day diatribe on a national radio show and simply “misspeak.” He is either lying or deluding himself, just as many politicians have come to do when they outright lie and then, once caught, claim they misspoke. Limbaugh didn’t misspeak—he expressed himself very clearly and unequivocally. He only “misspoke” once his advertisers pulled their dollars from his program.
There is also a tendency, especially among Limbaugh’s millions of fans, to excuse his words as “entertainment.” A good conservative friend of mine brushed aside the brouhaha with a “what do you expect?” shrug, since Limbaugh’s job is to entertain and perhaps inflame. It’s certainly not a first from him. But again, this misses the point. There are a thousand ways he can do his job without tearing women down in the process.
But am I being too dramatic when I say “tearing women down”? No. Because his statements were largely incorrect factually, I argue he was actually expressing an attitude toward women in general, not a viewpoint on the topic. Big difference. After all, the issue—female contraceptives being covered by health insurance—is hardly limited to the women he was railing against. (Sandra Fluke was primarily speaking of contraceptives for medical reasons, not sex, which is not an issue men face. And it’s not a coincidence that health insurance sometimes covers Viagra and no one complains about that.)
A lot has been made of Limbaugh’s use of the word “slut” and “prostitute,” but this is actually not the most disturbing aspect of his rants. The worst part was his call for Ms. Fluke to make videos of herself having sex and share them with the rest of us because “we’re paying for it.” This is so far afield from any claim to be commenting on the issue that it’s not even debatable among reasonable-minded people. In reality, it was a keen insight into the mind of this man; you just don’t make such a statement unless you’re extremely misogynistic and sexist. As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you think because thoughts can become words.”
And this brings us back to the point. There is a pernicious and dark side to how women are seen, and thus treated, in this country—and Limbaugh just gave us a candid glimpse. Interestingly, despite the amount of racism that African-Americans still experience in this country, they have actually surpassed women in correcting their own portrayal in the media and society. While we see daily images of women subjecting themselves to sexist stereotypes in ads, television shows, movies, and other media, we don’t see black people shucking and jiving to sell cars. Can you even imagine that? Heck, if you’re young enough, you probably don’t even know what “shucking and jiving” means. How about the blatantly sexist “Go Daddy Girls” ad campaign that’s been going on for a decade, from the largest web hosting company in the world? How do you think it would fare if it featured the “Go Daddy Negroes” in a Super Bowl ad? And back to Limbaugh, do you think he’d still be on the air if he’d used the n-word instead of “slut”? Not even.
It was almost 30 years ago that legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell basically lost his job for saying during a live pro football telecast, “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?” regarding a black player. And yet, in 2012, we still have women being victimized in the media, such as in slasher films and video games that role-play violent sex. African-Americans were freed from slavery 147 years ago—seven generations—and yet hundreds of thousands of girls and women are currently sex slaves in this country.
Why is it that our society, as a whole, accepts sexism at a level that would not be accepted for racism?
Something happened along the way in the women’s rights movement, and it’s resulted in an odd dichotomy. On one hand, women successfully fought for and won better working conditions and pay. They are better represented in public office and corporate management. They can manage their own finances. Sure, there’s more progress to be made, but it’s come a long way since the 1960s. On the other hand, though, it’s come a long way down. While the cartoon couple Wilma and Fred Flintstone couldn’t be shown in the same bed 50 years ago, women on TV now are thrown half naked into a hot tub to salaciously connive and compete for “The Bachelor.” Girls in 1962 worried about going to school without the latest saddle shoes; girls now are having cosmetic surgery as young as age 8 and taking anti-depressants in record numbers. The torch that was passed from generation to generation through the 20th century, from the women’s suffrage movement to the Equal Rights Amendment effort, somehow went dim in the 1990s. While most every girl and young woman in America can probably identify a photo of “Snooki,” very few could do the same with a photo of Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.
Of course, it’s not as if the issues I’ve mentioned here are being fully ignored. There are many women tirelessly dedicating their time and energy to fight these causes. But their voices have been largely drowned out by a media machine that has a financial interest in tacitly approving sexist and misogynistic agendas; most of the culprits are major advertisers and industries that simply have no reason to change. Which is why it is up to women to chart a new tomorrow.
Think of it this way. Why would anyone in control of the status quo change the status quo? Why should Bob Parsons, founder and CEO of Go Daddy, stop his sexist ads? He has no reason; clearly he thinks they’re fine, and they aren’t hurting him in any way. But what if “Go Daddy Girls” Danica Patrick and Jillian Michaels, and all other women, simply refused to participate? What if girls stopped “going wild” for the cameras? What if women stopped buying Cosmopolitan and Vogue? What if women stopped watching the “Housewives” shows? What if women boycotted every advertiser in these media? Remember, women are the majority in this country. Don’t count on men to change any of this; we, as a group, have no reason to. We’re quite happy that women are no longer barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, because now they’re naked and lascivious on our TVs, computer screens, and iPhones.
So, to women I say, carpe diem and capitalize on Rush Limbaugh’s brief lifting of the veil that obscures this issue. It’s not unlike the veil women have to wear in some countries that visibly signifies their subservient status in society, except that the one here is worse in some ways—because it’s largely invisible.
If you’re a woman over 60, remind younger women of what you fought for. You remember when you couldn’t get certain jobs, couldn’t hold a mortgage on your own, and couldn’t do anything about sexual harassment. Help younger women relight the torch you once carried.
If you’re a woman under 30, educate yourself on women’s issues of the past and present. Reach out to your older sisters, aunts, mothers, and grandmothers to learn of the efforts and accomplishments that preceded your lives. Relight the torch they carried. You are the future of women, and your daughters’ happiness and well-being depends on what you do with this issue now.
And women between 30 and 60, help both groups. You live at the intersection of energy and experience. Your generation let the torch go dim. The accomplishments seemed like enough and the world got busier, I know—I’m of the same era. But you’re in the best position to bridge the gap between the women older than you and those younger. These are your mothers and your daughters. They deserve no less.
I know this is easier to suggest than do. I know that. Though I’m not a woman, most of the closest people in my life have been women. I know how hard it is to speak up—you’ll encounter reprisals from both men and other women (who fear speaking up themselves). You’ll be put down. You’ll be called “feminazis,” as Rush Limbaugh called the very women he was bullying. The best way to keep you from speaking up is to keep you down. And it’s a risk for me, too, although to a lesser extent. I’m publishing this essay on my blog; I’m not hiding behind a pen name. I’m posting it on Facebook and Google+ and anywhere else it can go. I may lose “friends” or clients, I may piss off certain people, and I don’t care. The truth is, no sane man would accept Limbaugh’s words if they were directed at a woman that man loves. So, I hope this will serve to show you are not alone—there are millions of women and men who feel as you do. We’ve all just chosen the safety of silence.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Unlike the people of Syria or Egypt or Libya or North Korea, we don’t face the death penalty for speaking out. We don’t have to huddle in our homes to avoid government sniper fire or air strikes. We won’t be imprisoned as political dissidents.
No, we don’t have to worry about those things because we have free speech. The very same right that allows Rush Limbaugh to speak his despicable words allows us the ability to transform them into a greater good. He has the airwaves, but we have the numbers. When I wrote of the consequences for his free speech, you probably thought I meant his job, but I actually didn’t. The consequences can be something greater, something that serves a much higher purpose—whatever evil that feeds his thinking, that multiplies in the darkness of apathy like roaches and mold, can be now exposed to the light and vanquished forever. But only if we seize the day.