Letterman vs. Palin — More Media Sexism or Just Tasteless Humor?

Fri, June 19, 2009


I’m not the only one who thinks that David Letterman owes us all an apology. But it seems like there are only a few of us.

It’s probably no secret to some of you that one of my hot button topics lately has been the free ride the media often get when sexism tries to disguise itself as humor. Lots of people disagreed with my objection to the Spongebob Square butt commercial as inappropriately sexist and aimed at children. Now, just when I’ve cooled down over that one, I’ve got the whole David Letterman/Sarah Palin smack down to think about.

A few think I’ve lost my sense of humor and others have accused me of being a closet Republican because I believe that Letterman calling Palin’s clothes slutty and joking about her daughter’s sex life (I don’t think it matters which daughter he was talking about) were sexist, not harmless humor.

I can promise you I have not crossed over to the GOP and my sense of humor is intact.

My gut says that there’s not going to be much agreement between the humor vs. sexism camps on this one, but hear me out on why I think it’s important to object to what Letterman said, even for those of us who disagree with Palin’s politics. When a powerful entertainer with the media platform of David Letterman suggests that a woman governor is a slut and jokes about the sex life of one of her daughters, that sends a message to our children, especially our daughters, that it’s accepted in our society for men to make women’s appearances and their sexuality the brunt of their jokes. What’s worse is that it also says they get rewarded for it, big time.

Some on the political right have claimed that the lack of protest by progressives about the Letterman/Palin saga proves that conservative women bear the brunt of this type of treatment more than their liberal sisters. To prove the error in that argument, I only need two words — Hillary. Clinton. Not to mention the latest video from the Republican party that not-so-subtly compares Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi with that infamous James Bond character Pussy Galore.

It doesn’t matter who the political woman of the minute is — comedians and talking heads alike will continue to use sexist terms in their jokes and “analysis” because it gets attention and attention makes them money. The fact that we’re still talking about all this is proof of that. But if we don’t call them on it every time — even if the target is someone of the opposite political persuasion — they’ll keep doing it and the next generation of celebrities and TV personalities will continue that tradition when our children are having children.

Some seem to think that Letterman’s remarks were fair game because Palin somehow brought this on herself because she injected her sexuality and her views on abstinence only education into her political persona. But don’t we just perpetuate that sexism by adopting that view? Just because Palin made the mistake of trying to use her daughter Bristol as the poster child for her own political agenda, doesn’t justify the subsequent sexist jokes of Letterman, which impact all of us, not just the Palin family.

It just seems to me that it’s a societal slippery slope if we say that, in the name of humor, it’s OK for our kids to see shaking booties selling burgers and high profile comedians mocking women politicians for the way they dress and saying that it’s just all in good fun.

My nine-year-old daughter is already starting to doubt herself on a whole host of issues. I’ve spent plenty of time dealing with some of the Disney demons, so I don’t need any help from other entertainment sources when it comes to convincing her that news and entertainment outlets really do respect girls and women.

That’s why I feel so strongly that it’s important, regardless of our political persuasion, to step up and speak out when this type of sexism continues. We have plenty to debate when it comes to the views and politics of progressive and conservative women; their physical appearance and sex lives should be left out of it. And while we’re at it, we can ditch the sexist code words so many use as default, as well.

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11 Responses to “Letterman vs. Palin — More Media Sexism or Just Tasteless Humor?”

  1. Margo Says:

    As a person who considers herself smack dab in the middle, and doesn't call herself a demo or a repub, has been active in both parties at some point – I couldn't agree with you more. This whole thing with David Letterman has infuriated me so much, that I probably will just naturally change the channel away from him now. There is something really wrong with status quo vitriol in how Sara Palin, Pelosi and Hillary Clinton versus Michelle Obama are treated in the still completely patriarchal media. ie -quintessential "working girls", versus ultimate stay at home mother. The reason I bring up Michele Obama is I was thinking the other day how impressed I would be if she had stood up for Palin in this situation.

  2. PunditMom Says:

    That would be interesting of Michelle Obama did that. It would send a great message, but I'm sure there are so many political minefields there that it would be tough to do. :(

  3. anniegirl1138 Says:

    Let's face it – we've all been raised wrong. There are very few us who can say we are consistent when it comes to sexism in humor. It's like fat jokes and considered okay depending on whose doing the telling and who the target is.

    We are not as close to an even/steven reality as we like to pretend we are and it's things like this that remind us of that.

  4. Kelley Irish Says:

    His comments were tasteless for sure. However to be fair, he has made a lot of tastelss comments about many people. He went after President Clinton as well.

    On the other hand, targetting a daughter who made no choice to enter the public arena is WRONG. Politians are out there-but their children need to be off limits-Girls or boys. Not fair to degrade anyone because of the family they were born into.

  5. Jen Says:

    I have mixed feelings. For one, I don't think women should claim oppression from comedy when you consider the hundereds of thousands of jokes told at Bill Clinton, Mark Foley, Mark Vitter, Hugh Hefner, etc's expense. We make fun of sex in general.

    I didn't like the joke and think it SHOULD have been apologized for, which it was. But I think the big mistake was the Palin camp's purposeful distraction from the reality of the joke — making it something it wasn't. It was not ever about Willow.

    I think a joke about Bristol is right ON the line. She is 18, not a minor, who has stepped out on the public stage and out from under her mom's umbrella to talk, not about animal rights or the environment, but sex. Therefore, she is fair game. It doesn't mean the joke was good or right, but it was fair game.

    The Palin camp COULD have said, "Whether or not Bristol is a public figure, how do we want to talk about young women and sex in this society?" INSTEAD she made the joke appear to be about a girl, a minor. The disengenuous manipulation forced the conversation to something that did cross the line. Had Letterman actually made the joke about Willow, I would have expected no less than a suspension. But it wasn't.

    In manufacturing a false intention, she completely confused the issue of a legitimate intention. She could have set a clear message for women and men to get behind as to what is and isn't acceptable but because she muddied the water, she created an atmosphere where some (like me) were made to look like pedophile protectors or political hypocrates simply because we were trying to just clarify the real issue.

    When she then implied Letterman is a pedophile who couldn't be trusted around her daughter, she took her argument to another, even more "indefensible" level.

    You see, she did to Letterman what she did to Obama and Obama supporters: she forced us to defend, explain or justify an evil idea (terrorist pals or pedophilia) in order to get to the real topic which makes us look like terrorist and pedophilia apologists.

    So in the end, the real issue was lost in Palin's masterful framing of a debate. THAT is my problem with the whole episode. The fact that SHE sacrificed a genuine debate for grandstanding and politicking. The joke wasn't about Williow, and no one watching Letterman that night thought it was. The result in the end: Sarah Palin, not David Letterman, deliverd the image of her 14 year old daughter being raped by A Rod on a baseball field to the American people all for a few days of media coverage.

    Like the joke or not, like the original focus of the joke or not, you can't deny that Sarah Palin deliberately created a false premise thus putting her own ambitions over an issue that SHOULD have been a valuable topic of discussion. I think her motivation did more harm to the women on how women are treated than the joke could ever do.


  6. Mom101 Says:

    I was going to say something but then read Jennifer's comment and now…got nothing. That was awesome.

  7. PunditMom Says:

    And if any of our daughters were in that situation, how would we feel? I really don't think it's fair to hold Bristol responsible for her mother and her political ambitions.

    Also, we're all sort of neglecting the "slut" comment. None of us liked it when Hillary's cleavage was made an issue during the campaign — so why ignore this one?

    This is in NO WAY a defense of Palin, but I just have to wonder why it's OK to toss this stuff out there.

    I totally agree that Palin handled in a horrible way and, Jen, think you raise exactly the right thing that she should have done.

    It still doesn't excuse what Letterman did. Yes he apologized, but how long will it be until he and so many others do it again? And again?

    Having a sense of humor is one thing, but have to tolerate sexism in the name of purported humor is wrong. Anyone cane say, "Hey, it was just a joke — lighten up."

    Palin completely turned this around in a horrible way. But, if we allow the comments to go without objecting to them, we leave the door open for all the comments in the future.

    As for the the "guys" an their sex lives — I think it's totally irrelevant and we shouldn't cover this stuff UNLESS it is somehow interfering with their public duties or the acts themselves show that the participants are hypocrites and act against the positions they take publicly.

    Sex is always good for humor. Sexism — not so much.

  8. Jen Says:

    Let's take A Rod. The Bristol joke was as much about his sex life as it was hers. But there isn't public outrage defending the objectifcation of men.

    How many jokes have been about Bill Clinton being alone since Hillary has been Sec of State, implying he's having sex? The man was President and people were joking about his sex life. I am sorry, but I just think that it's as sexist to fight for a cleaning up of comedy when it comes to women as we laugh at jokes about men.

    As for the Hillary jokes while she was running, there were jokes about Obama being sexy. Geez, the pictures of him shirtless were everywhere. So we can objectify him but not her? What about Levi Johnston? He was called "Sex on skates". As the mom of a boy, shouldn't that bother me as much as objectification of daughters?

    I think humor is often the purest reflection of reality. Good comedians say things that ring so true sometimes. The "slutty flight attendant look" joke worked because everyone who heard that joke got the visual. If there weren't some truth to the visual, it would have fallen flat. Letterman gives a top ten every night and every night only about three of the ten get a strong response — every night. That was one that night because the image resonated.

    We need to be careful when it comes to sexism and humor. Heck, if I were to be upset about all kinds of jokes made at women's expense, I would have to stop watching Kathy Griffin and I LOVE Kathy Griffin.

    What I am trying to say is, we need to get at the reasons for objectification that make the humor ring true. It's not the joke that is the problem, it's what the joke spotlights that is the problem. I think that our society is so confused about sexuality that we send mixed messages and until we stop trying to define what is and isn't appropriate based on the media and humor and prudishness, then maybe the jokes will stop ringing true.

    Why do women wear high heels and short skirts? Why do women buy Victoria's Secret bras? We want to look and feel sexy but we don't want any to notice or comment on it? That's confusing.

  9. adagioforstrings Says:

    re: "Let's take A Rod. The Bristol joke "

    It wasn't a joke & the comment was about 14 year old Willow. CBS tacitly admitted Dave's statement was about statutory rape when they deleted that statement, & only that statement, from their official transcript that's published in the New York Times.

    You did a great job of spinning the story & engaging in victim blaming/sarc

  10. Jen Says:

    The joke was NOT about Willow. If you think it was, YOU are the victim of the great spinning of Sarah Palin.

    A) Many can't tell the difference between Bristol and Willow
    B) Many didn't remember she had a middle daughter
    C) All articles prior to the controversy said SP and Todd were at the game with the Giulini's and no were kids mentioned as being with her EVEN though SP's sister, daughter and nephew were listed as being at the other weekend events
    D) No pictures have been found that show any of her children at the game
    E) The joke wouldn't have made any sense to be about Willow AT ALL

    Try to give things a little more thought before you accuse me of anything insidious when the person doing the spinning is Sarah Palin.

    Finally, your comment about CBS and tacitly, blah, blah, makes absolutely no sense.


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