Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pretty, funny, or smart

I was all set this week to talk about Davy Jones. Davy Jones was my first crush (when I was about 8)) and first crushes are very important. I think they set the tone for crushes and relationships for the rest of your life. Reruns of The Monkees were also one of the few shows my brother and I actually agreed to watch together which was probably great for my parents. I seem to remember we also really liked Night Court.

But I’m not writing about Davy Jones and first crushes and awesome music. The second that Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke “a slut” and “a prostitute,” my whole week changed. I’m angry and aggravated and annoyed. Granted, Rush’s comments weren’t the only thing in the political sphere making me angry this week but it's the one that I keep coming back to and I keep going through in my head.

Let’s get one thing very clear from the beginning: Sandra Fluke is none of the things that she was called. Sandra Fluke did nothing more than participate in civil discourse in an intelligent and thoughtful way. You may not agree with her but that shouldn’t mean that you reduce your disagreement to name-calling and calls for women to post sex videos online for your amusement or to prove something that really doesn't have anything to do with the debate/discussion. When you realize that you made a mistake you should apologize in a sincere way. Don’t use the argument that you were being humorous. There is absolutely nothing humorous about calling anyone a slut or a prostitute.

I’m not really sure why it’s okay to use words like “slut”, “whore” and “bitch” in casual conversation or political discourse or radio broadcasts. When did it become an accepted form of description for people? Why do middle school girls (and boys) text these words to each other? If you read any feminist writing you know that these are power words. People use that kind of speech to exert authority and power over the person they’re debasing. School bullies do it, politicians do it, athletes do it, movie stars do it. I guess that means it’s okay then. Trust me, it's not.

Words give us power. One of the most absurd parts of this whole debate on contraceptives is that no one really asked any women. And when one woman did use her words, she was labeled a slut.

We all have defining moments in our lives. Moments that help shape and form us into the people we are or become. I’ve been thinking about one such moment for me this week and it sort of ties into this story.  When I was in the ninth grade, I was one of three girls in an Honors English class. Our teacher was a woman but made it clear from the beginning that she didn’t really like us. I think she would have loved nothing more than for the three of us to go away so she could be with the boys. Occasionally her dislike manifested in unfair treatment and pointed words about our writing and work. She would always deny this when we brought it up (or even when one of the boys mentioned it).

The thing I remember most is that she told us that women could be “pretty, funny, or smart.” According to her we needed to pick one and stick with our choice because that would determine the rest of our lives. Really? To this day, I can’t decide is she was joking (not likely), completely serious (this is my guess because she brought it up more than once) or trying to teach us some valuable lesson (entirely possible but I think what she was trying to teach us and what she actually did were two separate things). I even wrote a paper about not wanting to be labeled that way and did not do well.

Is being told to pick pretty, funny, or smart the same thing as being called a slut? No, but they’re definitely related. My teacher was reinforcing the idea that women only fit into certain roles as dictated by some bizarre societal logic. And Rush Limbaugh has done the same thing. When women don’t play into those roles, they’re immediately labeled something negative. We might be able to vote, drive cars, hold public office, have babies, pay taxes but actually voice our opinion? That is not welcome here.

My experience with my teacher was defining moment for me. It was awful but she did me a favor. She taught me to stand up for myself and I don’t think I’d be who I am today if she hadn’t done this. Obviously, there have been a lot of other moments and people who have influenced me along the way but being told that I could only be one thing forever was life changing. I’m not one thing; none of us are. I don’t think this is the lesson she was teaching but it’s the one that I learned.

Sandra Fluke won’t be defined by the comments of one person. I think she’ll be defined by her activism and the long and great career that she has in front of her. She’s an advocate for women and a voice that needs to be heard. 

And don't forget it's Women's History Month

Maureen Dowd says it better than me:

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