The blogosphere is replete with a level of raw sexism and degrading language never before seen, but the political impact of the vitriol is uncertain.
WASHINGTON — America soon will decide whether to elect its first female president. And amid a techno-media landscape where the wall between private vitriol and public debate has been reduced to rubble, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is facing an onslaught of open misogynistic expression.
Step lightly through that thickly settled province of the Web you could call anti-Hillaryland and you soon are knee-deep in some of the most sexually toxic words in the English language — words that you almost certainly will never see in a family newspaper.
We never have been here before.
No woman has run quite the same gantlet. And, of course, no man.
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Thanks to several thousand years of phallocentric history, there is no comparable vocabulary of degradation for men, no equivalently rich trove of synonyms for a sexually sullied male.
In times past, this coarser conversation would have remained mostly personal and subterranean. But we now have a blogosphere, where no holds are barred and vituperative speech is prized. We have social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, with their limitless ability to make the personal public.
There are no rules. And so far there is little recognition in the political and media mainstream of the teeming misogyny only a mouse click away.
“Part of the way a culture asks, ‘Where are the boundaries?’ is somebody makes it the topic of a meta-conversation — let’s talk about the talk,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s what happened after Don Imus called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”
“It’s a discussion we are going to have if Hillary Clinton is nominated,” said Jamieson, who originally went searching the Web for racist invective aimed at Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, only to find the raw sexism being directed at Clinton far more common and virulent.
“I’ve been waiting,” Jamieson said. “When is somebody going to make this stuff visible enough to have that conversation?”
She thought the moment had arrived in mid-November when, at a campaign meeting in South Carolina, a woman of patrician bearing asked Arizona Sen. John McCain, “How do we beat the bitch?”
A surprised McCain laughed along with the rest of the small crowd.
“That’s an excellent question,” McCain said after regaining his stride. He proceeded to explain why he could beat Clinton.
Viewed nearly 1 million times on YouTube in the week afterward, “How Do We Beat the Bitch” has entered the lore of the 2008 campaign, but with barely a hint of soul-searching.
“Can you imagine if that woman had said, ‘How do we beat the “n-word”?’ ” asked Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.
For McCain, or at least for those who think the nation might have benefited by examining why that woman felt so free to say what she did so publicly, “it was a terrible missed opportunity,” Walsh said.
A ripe target online
A conservative Republican woman running for president might provoke a far less angry male response, said sociologist C.J. Pascoe, a researcher with the Digital Youth Project at Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Social Change. “This would not be happening if it were Elizabeth Dole,” Pascoe said.
But, she said, Hillary Clinton offers young men on social-networking sites a ripe target for their aggression.
The political impact of all this is uncertain. But Pascoe warns that the broader society ignores the implications of the conversations being conducted on these sites at its peril.
“This is the new world that’s coming,” she said.
Facebook, popular with high-school and college students, has dozens of anti-Hillary groups, many of which take great delight in heaping abuse on Clinton as a woman, imagining her reduced to a subservient role, and visiting violence upon her.
One is “Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich,” with more than 23,000 members and 2,200 “wall posts.”
Another Facebook group, more temperate in tone and with about 13,000 members, is “Life’s a bitch, why vote for one? Anti-Hillary ’08.”
Is this merely some adolescent “guys gone wild” (most but by no means all Hillary haters are male)? The rank rituals of the rec room revealed for the whole world to see?
The proprietors of the Facebook group “Hillary Clinton Shouldn’t Run for President, She Should Just Run the Dishes,” with 2,159 members, offer a pre-emptive disclaimer to offended visitors.
Daniel Jussaume, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Southern Maine, was not among the creators of “Just Run the Dishes.” After he joined, however, he volunteered to chair its “Feminist Liberal Complaint Dept.”
“Words only have the power you give them,” he said, describing himself as a moderate-conservative leaning toward either McCain or Rudy Giuliani for president.
People need to see the humor in politics, he said. He loves Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and “The Colbert Report,” and is among the more than 1.4 million members of the Facebook group “1,000,000 strong for Stephen T. Colbert,” even though he knows Stewart and Colbert mock his conservative politics.
Moreover, Jussaume said, “I’m not against women in politics. I hope in my lifetime I can live to see a female president.”
He says people posting online need to recognize that they bear responsibility for what they write. “I know people who were turned down for jobs because of what they have on their MySpace page from the week before,” he said.
That may explain the careful response of Tyler Hawley, a student at Bucknell University and an administrator of “Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich.”
Contacted about the group, Hawley responded by e-mail: “After carefully deliberating with the other creators of our Facebook group … we are going to have to respectfully decline your request for an interview.”
Annenberg’s Jamieson said the tone of sex-specific “vilification” of Clinton is set in the mainstream media.
On his radio show, which reaches 14.5 million people, Rush Limbaugh talks about Clinton’s “testicle lock box.” On his MSNBC show, Tucker Carlson says, “There’s just something about her that feels castrating, overbearing and scary,” and a guest, Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former Republican National Committee spokesman, says that if Clinton is going to appeal to women for support on the basis of her gender, “at least call her a vaginal-American.”
Young people, Jamieson said, take their cues from family and friends in a foggy geography of pop culture replete with misogynistic music, video games and crude comedy, where what separates fact from satire, bluster from menace (and for that matter, adolescence from adulthood) is hard to divine.
“Deep string of sexism”
Sexist language is not the exclusive domain of the young or the politically conservative. The Rude Pundit, a liberal blog written by Lee Papa, an English professor at the College of Staten Island, takes regular pleasure in applying a derogatory, sexually explicit word to provocative right-wing commentator Ann Coulter. And when David Ferguson, who blogs as TRex on Firedoglake.com, last year used the same word to describe conservative talk-show host and writer Laura Ingraham, a lively online debate about the left and anti-feminism ensued.
While Jane Hamsher, Firedoglake’s founder, said she doesn’t like or employ the word, she defended TRex’s right to use it.
With regard to Clinton, she said, “There’s a deep string of sexism that informs a lot of the criticism … and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle.”
Hamsher wants to defend Clinton from that kind of attack without being mistaken for a Clinton supporter, which she is not. But she expects there may be some women, otherwise cool to Clinton, who will rally around the senator as the misogyny burns brighter.
Jamieson concurred. “This has the potential to push a lot of moderate Republican women toward her,” she said.