I’ve been watching the fall of Rush Limbaugh with a certain amount of glee, but also with some ambivalence. I’m perfectly happy for him to get shit for calling Sandra Fluke a slut after testifying about contraceptives. But I am wondering why all his other equally offensive comments didn’t come with the same amount of backlash. Why did he go too far this time?
He went too far because he directed his comments toward someone who is put on a pedestal. I don’t mean her as an individual. I mean a young, white, college student who fits the idea of what is pure and good and needs to be protected. If Fluke was a prostitute, if she lived in a trailer, if she wasn’t white, if the news media had been able to traipse out a parade of guys she had slept with, if she was trans, if she was a guy – then things would have played out very differently.
I was thinking about this the other day when someone was telling me how Occupy received good press in the beginning and then it turned, at least in the mainstream media. But that isn’t really true. Occupy wasn’t receiving much press until some white women in New York were kettled and maced by cops. The police had crossed a cultural line.
When a Hollywood movie wants to show us that the character is a bad guy, what do they do? They have him hurt a woman. If they want to show that he is a good guy, what do they do? They have the dude rescue some woman in distress. So when somebody attacks a woman who fits the mold of who is supposed to be rescued, all hell breaks loose.
There are some times when using sexism is about the only available option. The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo were able to protest when nobody else could. Not even the dirty war government of Argentina could mow down a bunch of mothers and grandmothers. But in protesting, they also reinforced the idea of our role as mothers, of women as non-threatening.
So I have been thinking about whether or not it is possible to use stereotypes and prejudices without reinforcing them.
The only example I can think of so far is Budrus. (If you have not seen the movie about one of the towns in Palestine that is fighting that Israeli wall, you should.) Women were not involved at first. But the daughter of one of the leaders convinced her father to let the women protest. Faced with the Israeli bulldozers she thought, correctly, that they would be more hesitant to run over women. It worked.
In the case of Budrus, they were both challenging their role in their community and using sexism at the same time. But that seems to me to be pretty rare. And it is such a difficult line to walk.
It isn’t just reserved for gender roles and stereotypes either. Dave Chappelle has an amazing ability to use stereotypes to deflate them. I love the skit he did on whether or not white people can dance. But Chappelle has said that one of the reasons he quit the show was because of “the realization that his racially charged comedy was too often lost on an audience a little too enthusiastic about repeating the N-word.” In other words, he was afraid he was just reinforcing the stereotypes and prejudices he was trying to challenge.
Can people use prejudice to fight for justice? Or is it always destined to backfire in the long run?