Friday, May 27, 2011

Shocked, Shocked

It’s been well over a week now since the Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn stories first broke, and it’s high time we all got back to work—that is, those of us fortunate enough to still have jobs these days. But hey, who has time to worry about historic rates of unemployment (let alone rising gas prices or unrest in the Middle East) when we could be googling the latest snapshots of Arnold’s love child?

Enough already. It was fun while it lasted, but our Casablanca moment is officially over. Yes, the movie. You know the scene. It’s the one where the dastardly Captain Renault commands our hero, Rick Blaine, to shut down his nightclub:

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Capt. Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.
Employee of Rick’s [handing Capt. Renault his money]: Your winnings, sir.
Capt. Renault: Oh, thank you very much. Everybody out at once!

Over the past few weeks we’ve become a nation of Captain Renaults, extravagantly performing our surprise and dismay upon hearing the supposedly revelatory “news” that two men were caught doing, well…..exactly the kind of stuff we’d expect those guys to do.

What gives? For years, Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn have been rewarded with knowing winks and high fives for their sexual exploits. And now everyone suddenly decides to be “shocked, shocked” that two of the world’s most revered Casanovas have been at it again? We all doth protest too much, methinks.

As I see it, the real purpose of trumpeting our astonishment at these most recent revelations isn’t to condemn the deeds disclosed. No, the real point is to convince ourselves that we didn’t—and couldn’t—have seen it coming. By professing surprise when confronted with the seamy underside of alpha-male privilege, we deny that we’ve known all along about the inevitable downside of glamorizing male sexual entitlement.

Because really, what’s the big news? Sure, Schwarzenegger cheated on his wife with a longtime household employee, secretly fathered a child, and hid the truth for years from his wife and kids, not to mention the California electorate. Still, it’s hard for me to understand all the hubbub. Call me jaded, but the only shocker here is the fact that the extramarital excursions of California’s two-term Groper-in-Chief still have the power to turn heads, let alone grab headlines. Did anyone seriously think this guy drew the line at fondling women on the job?

And then there is Strauss-Kahn, who has long enjoyed the admiration of the international financial community and the French public—not to mention his wife—in spite of (because of?) his reputation as an unrepentant “womanizer.” All one needs to know, really, is that the guy’s nickname is the “Hot Rabbit." Face it: you don’t get compared to the most prolific breeders in the animal kingdom by being a stickler for consent.

But we as a society continue to be enthralled by the spectacle of playing cat-and-mouse with the truth—the “drama of the secret and its discovery,” as political theorist Jodi Dean puts it in Publicity’s Secret, her brilliant analysis of the politics engendered—and foreclosed—by this obsession. And so maybe what makes us most uncomfortable about the Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn stories is that they strain the credibility of this familiar “gotcha” script. Because in this case, the real story isn't that we didn't know. It's that we just didn't care.

To be sure, it's way more fun to watch in overwrought surprise as the truth dribbles out than it is to acknowledge our own love affair with the "boys will be boys" cloth from which characters like Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn are cut. But when the emperor vacations at a nude beach, it hardly qualifies as news that he has no clothes.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Say What?

As everyone now knows, IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested on Saturday in dramatic fashion, hauled out of his first-class seat on an Air France plane just as it was preparing for take off to Paris. Shortly after the arrest, NYPD spokesman Paul J. Brown explained that Strauss-Kahn was being held “on charges of criminal sexual act, attempted rape, and an unlawful imprisonment in connection with a sexual assault on a 32-year-old chambermaid….”

Chambermaid??? You've got to be kidding me. Just mention the word and
cheesy Halloween costumes and cheap porn leaps to mind. No wonder, I guess, that the New York Times saw fit to characterize the allegations of sexual assault and attempted rape as “tawdry.” Personally, I would have thought a word like “disturbing” to be more apt. But that’s just me. Apparently, the folks at the Times thought the alleged victim’s account of the attack was pretty hot.

And so I guess it’s not surprising to see her described by the Times and other news agencies over the past few days as a “chambermaid” or, more commonly, simply as a “maid” (maids still get to wear those cute outfits, right?). That’s the term currenty favored by news outlets like the Washington Post, the Associated Press, USA Today, and NPR, among many others.

To be sure, if the goal is to milk this thing for all its worth, identifying the alleged victim by her official job classification probably isn’t the best idea. But if the goal is to report the news, then journalists would seem to have an obligation to set the titillating rhetoric aside and accord this woman the respect she deserves by referring to her occupation by its proper name.

Whoa there, you might be saying to yourself. "Maid" is the proper term, right? Wrong. According to eminent labor historian Professor Dorothy Sue Cobble of Rutgers University, the term "chambermaid" is "archaic." And having conducted my own admittedly unscientific survey of service-sector employment websites, I can say with confidence that no respectable hotel on the planet today uses the term “chambermaid” or even “maid” as an official job title. Instead, most hotels refer to the field in question as “housekeeping,” and most often, people working in this field are referred to as “housekeepers.”

Of course, the Sofitel is no ordinary hotel, and so it’s not surprising to discover, as I did, that Sofitel eschews the pedestrian term “housekeeper.” Instead, as Sofitel spokeswoman Stacy Royal informed me in an email exchange on Monday, the hotel employs the term "room attendant."

Shocking, right? I mean, who would have thought that women who make a living cleaning up after the privileged among us have been granted such a dignified, gender-neutral, and totally un-sexy job title? I know, I know—the story of a chambermaid being chased around a swanky hotel room by a world-class Romeo goes down better with your morning cappuccino than a “just the facts” story of an alleged rape. But is it really too much to expect the media to refrain from perpetuating the kind of disrespectful attitude toward women working in the “hospitality” industry that has made them so vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the first place?

Cleaning hotel rooms may not be glamorous, but it is a job, and those who do it deserve our respect. It may be inconvenient when it comes to the business of selling the news, but the truth is that there really isn’t anything very sexy about cleaning hotel rooms. Ditto sexual abuse and attempted rape. And shame on anyone who would try to make it seem otherwise.