The backlash against Rush Limbaugh has been swift and inspiring. Upwards of 30 advertisers have reportedly pulled their support for his radio show in the wake of his unprovoked attack on Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who testified in favor of insurance coverage of birth control. Limbaugh referred to Fluke as “slut” and a “prostitute” who was having so much sex she needed someone else to pay for it. Not only did he reveal his ignorance on how birth control actually works, but he ventured into territory that seeks to control and shame the sexual lives of women. If the movement that has sprung up against him succeeds in getting his show pulled from the airwaves, it will undoubtedly be for the best.
But Limbaugh’s overt and callous misogyny does more to remind me of the passive and seemingly benevolent sexism and misogyny that tends to be embraced by people of all different political stripes. In the midst of the fury surrounding Limbaugh’s attack and insincere apology to Fluke, a tweet came across my Twitter timeline that reinforced this idea. It read: “Ladies, you can be mad at Rush Limbaugh. But right after that, stop calling yourselves bitches.” Besides completely missing the point of the controversy and subsequent action, this was a prime example of meaning well but falling right in line with the type of sexist thinking that plagues the Limbaughs of the world.
I understand the sentiment. It immediately brought to mind the song “Beautiful Skin” by Goodie Mob and how I simultaneously love and hate that track. Hip-hop often, and rightfully, catches criticism for its degradation of women, so this particular song stands out for “uplifting” black women. However, when you listen closely to the lyrics, it represents the sort of politics of respectability that only takes the cause of liberation halfway. Cee-Lo raps:
“Equality, honesty, independence, intelligence/Emotional, & devotional, humbly seekin to hear God when He has speakin/At one time my mind couldn´t conceive, a woman had to dress a certain way to believe/But in the same breath, allow me to say, that/If you believe young lady, you´dn´t dress that way, & I/Was attracted to yo´ class, I could not see all yo´ ass, & I was very content”
The hook follows with “you’ve got to respect yourself before I can.” While it represents an earnest desire for the empowerment of women, it goes about it all the wrong way. It serves no one to replace one form of oppression with another simply because you think it’s better. The policing of women’s bodies is wrong whether you are turning them into objects of heterosexual male desire or stewards of virtue. And if you can’t respect a woman’s humanity because you believe she doesn’t respect herself, it says more about your own character than it does for the woman you now think you have license to disrespect.
As a society, we haven’t done much to fight back against this form of patriarchy/sexism/misogyny, because we don’t see it as such. It’s just men looking out for their wives/daughters/nieces/aunts best interests. But those perceived benefits are often at odds with the actual interests of the women for which they are intended. Above all, it is about autonomy, the right for women to exercise control over their own bodies and lives without ceding to the desires of men. Whether that means women referring to themselves as “bitches” or wearing clothes that expose everything God gave them, so be it. Perhaps it means they don’t respect themselves, or maybe it’s a conscious choice based on loving themselves and feeling free to express who they are uninhibitedly. Men have to accept that they don’t get a say.
It’s easy to stand up and shout down Limbaugh for being wrong, or sign a petition because you thought Too Short was wrong, and more men should do so. But we also need to be willing to check our own latent sexism, lest we feed the culture exactly what it lives on.
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