Friday, June 10, 2011

Do Feminists Have a Problem with Anthony Weiner?

In the aftermath of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s spectacular free fall from grace, there’s been a rush to bring feminism down with him. Go figure. Yet another politically powerful man is caught venturing outside the bounds of sexual propriety, and somehow feminists get served up a healthy portion of blame. Our crime? Failing to hate Weiner enough for what he’s done…to women.

Earlier this week, Fox “news” analyst and Daily Beast commentator Kirsten Powers lambasted Weiner for his “predatory behavior” and “misogynist view of women.” Meanwhile, Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto accused feminists of hypocrisy for standing by the wayward Weiner now that the world knows a “closet male chauvinist” lurks beneath the surface of that “enlightened” guy persona. Then there’s Andrew Breitbart’s TV blog, which sardonically (wishfully?) declared “Feminism Officially Dead” following Rachel Maddow’s quip that the congressman has done nothing more than shown “bad manners on Facebook.” And don’t forget New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who chalks up the lack of “feminist umbrage” taken to “post-feminist resignation.”

Are these people tuned in to the same sex scandal I am? Because the one I've been following is about a guy who inadvertently posts a revealing photo of himself on Twitter only to spend the next week (and probably eternity) as the butt of puerile jokes about his manly endowment (not to mention that sleekly waxed chest). What with all this feminist-baiting, you'd think Weinergate is just another one of those boilerplate powerful male/exploited female stories. But it’s not.

Among the more intriguing departures from the all-too familiar sex scandal script is the prominence of that picture of Weiner as the visual anchor of this story—something that may prove pathbreaking in its own right. Admit it: when you think sex scandal and underwear, you think thong. Well, think again—because this time, Exhibit A is the pol's own underwear (and its thinly veiled cargo).

And that’s not all. In recent days, we’ve heard a great deal from Meagan Broussard, one of the women with whom Weiner has exchanged banter and photos. Broussard insists that what was most offensive about Weiner’s come-ons wasn’t his demand for sex. It was his insistence on talking. Indeed—as Nancy Dowd recounts in the very same op-ed piece in which she excoriates feminists for their indifference to Weiner’s bad behavior—Broussard admits that she sometimes found Weiner “a turn-off” not just because of his arrogance, but because of his chattiness. That hurts. Broussard elaborates elsewhere that it struck her as “weird” that Weiner would ask her if she missed him. “I didn’t understand that—how could I miss someone I hadn’t met and didn’t know? What is there to miss about me if you don’t even know me?” In other words, Weiner’s big mistake was letting his emotional needs (chiefly narcissistic ones, it would appear) get in the way of the hard-core flirtation Broussard was after.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Weiner’s tweets represent some kind of giant leap forward for sex equality. But the story hardly presents a textbook case of the sexual exploitation of women either—as those who are hoping to recruit feminists to their finger-wagging campaign would have us believe.

Let's remember that Weiner got into this mess not because he sexually objectified the women he was involved with—but because he sexually objectified himself. This behavior may turn out to be disastrous career-wise. But as a feminist, why should I have such a big problem with a man who by all accounts is eager to give as much as he gets, at least on Twitter. Some might even call this progress.

At the very least, don’t you think they should cut us feminists some slack, especially in light of how unaccustomed we are to anyone giving a damn what we think? When was the last time you saw the media tripping over itself to include a feminist perspective on a topic we're supposed to take seriously, like rising poverty rates, military operations abroad, or the environment? Feminists have a great deal to say about these topics, and countless others too; the mainstream media couldn't care less.

But when the rallying cry is “off with his head,” everyone suddenly expects feminists to drop everything, brandish our cleavers, and rush to the chopping block.

Well, too bad folks: we’re not here to do your dirty work. (Leave that to the “family values” crusaders whose outrage at moments like this emanates in a worldview premised on the moral supremacy of monogamous, heterosexual couples–an agenda feminists should want no part of).

Because in case you haven’t noticed, we feminists are up to something a little different these days. Then again, given the enduring stereotype of feminists as a roving band of politically correct (not to mention hirsute) sex police, you'd hardly know it. Amazingly, it’s been nearly thirty years since the so-called “sex wars” reached a fever pitch in this country, exposing not just the divisions but also the diversity of perspectives among feminists on matters of sex and power. Back in the 1980s, those feminists who opposed the sexual objectification of women by the sex industry or who questioned whether women with economic opportunities would freely choose sex work were ridiculed and dismissed as “anti-sex.” But it never was a question of being “pro” or “anti” sex. It was, and continues to be, a vibrant and important debate over how to fight sexual objectification and sexualized violence without compromising sexual autonomy and sexual diversity.

The lasting legacy of cabined and reductionistic accounts of this period are still evident in the way feminist political commentators are boxed in by a media that looks to us for a one-dimensional rush to judgment and nothing more. Sorry to disappoint you.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

For Better or For Worse

The past week has been yet another bonanza for those of us on the sex scandal beat. First came news that an evocative photo of a well-endowed man’s underwear-clad package had been uploaded to the Twitter account of Representative Anthony Weiner, apparently in a botched attempt to private message a 21-year-old college student from another state. Rep. Weiner vehemently denied posting the photo, claiming he’d been hacked. When pressed on whether the photo was from his personal library, the indignant Gentleman from New York ventured only that he could not say "with certitude" that this was a photo of his body. (And exactly which part of your body might this be, Mr. Weiner, if the photo were in fact of you? It's been said a man’s nose can grow several inches with a single fib).

Unsurprisingly, Rep. Weiner’s response failed to satisfy (kind of like Twitter sex)—falling evidently short of the gold standard of equivocation established by Bill “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” Clinton. By the middle of last week, the nation was coasting through the news cycle on a wave of bad penis jokes. What could be better?

By Friday, we had our answer. The media calculus was simple: if you liked the first big Weiner story, here’s an even bigger wiener for you. His name? John Edwards. Late last week, the once-darling presidential hopeful was charged in a six-count indictment for violation of campaign finance laws on grounds he spent hundreds of thousands of donated dollars to keep his extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter and the subsequent birth of their child out of the public eye.

As if all this weren’t enough, along comes Rep. Weiner’s surreal press conference on Monday. In his statement, Rep. Weiner tearfully apologized not only for his online sexual adventures, but also for having been dishonest. In fact, Rep. Weiner directed his harshest self-criticism not at the “inappropriate” behavior, but rather at himself for clinging so long to a false story about it—a decision he characterized as “a hugely regrettable mistake.”

In recent years, we’ve grown accustomed to the news that a politician has been caught behaving badly. We’re accustomed, as well, to the fact that the things a politician will do to cover up his sexual exploits are often more shame worthy than the deed itself. Take Edwards. Already despised for cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, he went on to prove himself not just a prolific liar but a profligate one, burning extraordinary sums of cash to keep his “family man” reputation burnished. And then there is Rep. Weiner, whose staged indignation last week at the mere suggestion of impropriety has made him look like an even bigger, well, you know, than that underwear did.

If nothing else, these cases remind us of the extreme—and often absurd—lengths to which politicians will go to maintain that “family man” veneer. And that’s got me thinking about why we expect politicians to pretend to be model citizens, sexually speaking, in the first place. In light of recent events, I wonder if these guys aren’t doing themselves a bigger disservice trying to conform to a Mr. Squeaky-Clean image than they would by distancing themselves from that standard in the first place.

Because of all the mistakes John Edwards has made (does anyone even remember his Iraq vote?), surely one of the biggest was to stake his political fortunes on his devoted husband act in the first place. That’s not to say I endorse the strained legal theory behind the criminal indictment, which I don’t. But even if Edwards does get vindicated in court, there still is an important lesson to learn here about pimping family values to win elections. Especially if you are the kind of guy who is into extramarital affairs, prostitution, or sexting (let alone gay-bashing by day and soliciting sex from other men by night, as so many family values conservatives have been caught doing in recent years)—then I’d say it’s probably not the best idea to mount your campaign on the house of cards otherwise known as your personal life. Why not focus on your public record instead?

For the rest of us, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at our own unthinking investment in the “family man” ideal—an ideal that comes bundled (free!) with a whole suite of moralistic values that promote conformity to a model of family life increasingly far removed from the lived experience of most Americans. It’s the same set of values that stacks the political deck against gay men, divorced women and countless other potential leaders who time and again are summarily disqualified from public office on the basis of non-normative lifestyle choices.

All of which brings me to Rep. Weiner, whose political future hangs in the balance as the voters of New York contemplate whether they will continue to support an elected official with a known penchant for online entertainment. In the days to come, we can expect all the major news organizations to bombard us with show after show contemplating Rep. Weiner’s fitness to lead (though in all fairness to Rep. Weiner, those pictures do make a pretty compelling case in the fitness department).

As Rep. Weiner’s constituents weigh their options, the revelation of his sexting habit doubtless will loom large. But why should it? If you don’t want to be in a committed relationship with a guy who gets off on instant messaging, don’t be. But you'd do well to keep in mind that a politician like Weiner isn’t asking for your hand in marriage. He's after your vote. And to earn it, what matters isn't the kind of husband he'd be—it's the kind of legislator he is.