On not taking the bait from the Bill Mahers

Crossposted from DemocraticDiva.com, and I wasn’t going to but because this stupid Steinem outrage has died down yet:

“Hey, Gratehouse, do you think this Victoria’s Secret catalog is sexist?“, he asked me.

It was twenty some odd years ago and this was in the break room at the torpedo maintenance facility where my interlocutor, Torpedoman’s Mate Third Class Lee, and I (I was Torpedoman’s Mate Second Class Gratehouse) worked in Yokusuka, Japan. This was in the dark days before online ordering was the norm and most of the women at the torp shop subscribed to the eponymous catalog. Not because we were lingerie junkies, but because by that time Victoria’s Secret had become a purveyor of a wide range of stylish and affordable women’s clothing, from the famous undergarments to jeans and boots and coats. Basically if you wanted more options than what was on offer the Navy Exchange or at the expensive stores out in town, you ordered from VS.

Needless to say, the frequently arriving catalogs were quite popular with some of the guys in the shop, as they featured (then, as now) the top supermodels of the day in underwear and bathing suits. The guys would pass them around (often without asking permission) and remark loudly on the attributes of the women within. There was more than mere male appreciation of the (very conventionally) attractive female form going on. It was shit like “boy, my wife sure doesn’t look like this!” It was a lot of very loud and very pointed commentary directed at whatever women were within earshot, with the intention clearly to remind us that we mere mortal women had failed to be as boner-inducing as were the Victoria’s Secret goddesses. Not that any of those guys were hot shit themselves but they knew society didn’t demand the kind of physical perfection from them as it demanded from women and they were not going to let us forget it.

Generally we women tried to ignore or laugh off the jerkoff behavior of the guys but every so often the baiting would get to one of us. Well, by “us” I mean “me” mostly, since I was on my way to becoming fiercely feminist by that point. Yeah, sometimes I’d say something. And it usually didn’t go over well (duh) and I’d feel somewhat awkward objecting to their behavior in the first place (because wasn’t I kind of, you know, asking for it by getting that catalog?) but I’d say something anyway sometimes. Because fuck those guys. Then again, sometimes I did say something catty (bad feminist me!) about the “unnatural” thinness of the models, because I was in my twenties and wanted to feel that I was pretty too.

Of all the guys in the torp shop, TM3 Lee was the grossest and most obnoxious. He not only made it a point to announce, loudly, that he was about to go ogle the Victoria’s Secret catalog, but he usually did so on the way to the shitter (the literal name for the commode in the Navy, to you civilians). And that one day he emerged from the shitter with the catalog (that no one wanted to touch by then) and stuck it up to my face and demanded to know if I thought it was sexist. There were probably a thousand better answers for me to come up with than the one I did, which as “uh, yes?” but I was caught off guard by the question and (I guess) forgot briefly whom I was dealing with and answered it as if it were a legitimate question and not a “gotcha” one.

I remember that Lee smirked as he walked off, undoubtedly feeling very much the victor of the exchange, and that I felt like a schmuck. Because it wasn’t the Victoria’s Secret catalog itself was sexist, since I ordered a bunch of stuff from it, but rather that it did promote unrealistic images of women to both women and men.

For some reason I remembered that when I watched Gloria Steinem, the 81 year old feminist icon, give her now infamous and cringe-inducing answer to Bill Maher’s badgering question to her, of all people, for why young women prefer Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton. He was baiting her, and she took it, responding that maybe it was because they wanted to be “where the boys are”. (Facepalm!)

What Steinem should have told Maher was that he should ask young women directly about that, if he was really interested in the answer. But instead she treated it as a good faith question, though there was no reason to think that it was. Bill Maher is a sixty year old wealthy Hollywood “bachelor” and it is not difficult to think of reasons why he might feel that young women are the ones who matter most, despite Hillary Clinton winning decisively among other age groups. In case it’s not obvious, I’ll just recall that Maher recently complimented a female guest nearly a decade his junior that she was still “fuckable at 50”.

Maher has been on quite a tear of late about how Western feminists need to be doing more (god knows what that would be) to combat the treatment of women in strict Muslim cultures. Of course he brought that up to Steinem and she pushed back on it pretty well by reminding Maher that there are active feminist movements in those countries. Steinem also pointed out that young women in America are actively engaged in politics and feminism and that they are dealing with issues now (such as crushing student loan debt) that their feminist forebears didn’t have to.

But she did fuck up with that one answer, wherein she should have instead told possibly the smuggest talk show host in America to stop trying to pit older women against younger ones like a smug dick. Steinem apologized but people are still flipping out about it and acting like it somehow erases all the work she’s done for women’s rights for the past fifty years. Well, if that’s the case then I guess we better all give up on this feminism thing because the forces arrayed against us are never going to stop shoving what are essentially the rhetorical equivalents of TM3 Lee’s shit-encrusted lingerie catalogs into our faces to bait us into “admitting” that it’s all been a mistake. (And sometimes we’ll just say dumb things unprompted! I know I do.)

We feminists are sometimes going to suck at it, often and especially if we are older and white. If younger women are rejecting a Presidential candidate we consider to be a feminist icon (Clinton) then we should find out why from them and not draw our own possibly unfounded conclusions about it. And we need to recognize that some people in the media are trying diligently to draw us into an “old hags vs young bimbos” narrative and resist it.

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