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.