“Get her drunk then get her done.”
So reads one of the decals on the F-150 pickup truck parked in my new neighbor’s driveway. Of all the objectionable aphorisms on that particular truck, that’s the mildest one. I wonder what my daughter will think of that when she notices it some time over the next few days, which she surely will.
There is a mud fight going on over at Ed Brayton’s blog regarding his use of the word “shrew” in reference to Sarah Palin. The Kliqueons (rhymes with “Klingons”) have called Ed out for being sexist. He says they should lay off and it is not OK to call him a misogynist, and anyway, he’s done all kinds of good things on behalf of feminism and women and stuff so they should see him as an ally. They say they are not calling him a misogynist they are just calling his use of the word “shrew” a misogynist thing to do, but, in the words of Ed’s brother, DuWayne, “No, no one actually called Ed a misogynist, they just accused him being an asshole, questioned his commitment to equality and mentioned what a nasty person he must be. But by all means, continue to berate instead of explaining why it is so offensive, because that is ever so fucking productive…. Just keep in mind you’re productively slamming someone who has been an advocate for equality since … bla bla bla” (“bla bla bla” added). Oh, and the various commenters have come down on one side or another, writing off Ed as never having said anything positive about women, or being a really nice guy, or whatever.
Bla bla bla.
It is interesting for me to watch the Kliqueons going after Ed, as this is playing out almost exactly like the one or two times they went after me. In both cases, a person (Ed or me) used strong words. In both cases, one or more Kliqueons decided that word was not OK according to the Kliqueon Kode. In both cases things were said about the original alleged offender that were unrelated to the original perceived offense, and that were themselves offensive. In both cases, the alleged offender objected to being shat upon, and in both cases the Kliqueons used this response to tighten their noose on the alleged offender.
I’m not particularly interested in noting that The Kliquons are not really the Keepers of the Voice of other writers, they are not really Teh Deciders of what is OK and not OK to say, think, imply, mean, or even not mean or imply but simply invoke incidentally to making some point or another. I’m not particularly interested in noting that the Kliqueons may often be seen as more interested in their own self aggrandizement than in any positive action. Oh, and I’m not interested in keeping this about the argument and not ad hominim. The Kliqueons are goat-sucking fuckhead assholes, they try to be such very much on purpose (or at least, this is what they tell us, and I can only take their word for it), and they do this for noble objectives (which I sincerely believe, by the way). Also, they do a damn good job of it much of the time. Being goatfuckers is their blogospheric raison d’etre, and I’m sure they appreciate the fact that this is noticed. I don’t know what we would do without them.
So, enough complements to the Kliqueons. Let us turn now to shrews and F-150 pickup trucks.
It is hard for the Anthropologist in me to let this conversation pass without comment because I think it might be exemplary of an important linguistic phenomenon.
Katherina is a character in a play that is in turn wrapped in the meta-Shakespearian play “The Taming of the Shrew.” (Did you know “The Taming of the Shrew is a meta play? If not, I’m not sure if it is OK for you to have an opinion on it. Go read it and report back at a later time.) Anyway, Katherina is, in fact, the shrew who is tamed into nubile marriageitude through a series of over the top acts of humiliation and shame, etc. etc. It is almost certainly not the case that this misogynistic sequence of events reflected the attitudes and behaviors overtly valued by the play-going classes of Elizabethan england, but rather, the misogyny reflected in this play was seen as such … misogynistic … by pre-enlightenment contemporary audiences. Which matters not at all to the idea that the shrew is the term embodied in the play to describe a woman who needs to be, and is, “tamed” to fit more appropriately into a patriarchal framework (which even then was being criticized and lampooned now and then).
So it is possible that Ed’s choice of the word “shrew” is sexist. The word “shrew” certainly is on my list of words that have this characteristic … of being linked in modern thinking to sexism.
The simple truth is that not everyone knows about the shrew thing. I’ve asked, in person, via email, and on my facebook page what people think about calling someone a “shrew” (I did not specify the sex of the person being called a shrew in most cases). My favorite answers came from three different female biologists who were under the age of 35, who linked the attributes of actual shrews to a person but totally skipped the usual historical reference. “I’d think of someone with mousy brown hair and a pointed nose who ate a lot of insects.” So, surely, there are people who don’t know the literary allusion at all, or at least, don’t have it on the tip of their tongue. That may not diffuse the possible sexism in Ed’s word choice, because we may suspect Ed knows about The Taming. But it is interesting.
Another set of people took Shakespeare’s description and simply applied that, without going meta about the commentary being sexist. In this framework, “shrew” is like “bitch” and words like “hag” and “old wives” in that they are negative references that apply only to women. These words are quasi-symmetric to words like “bastard” and “dickhead” which supposedly apply only to men, but since “bastard” and “dickhead” did not emerge from male-repressive matriarchal societies, but “bitch,” “hag,” and “Old wives” did arise as terms meant to be directed against women in patriarchal societies. So these sets of words are not mirror images.
But they could be. One could call a man a shrew if one wanted to. Or, one could use these terms in their gendered way, but evenly across the sexes, recognizing that men and women may be reasonably seen as capable of being bad or unpleasant in unique gender-specific ways. Or maybe it would be better to adopt the practice of learning the handful of highly gendered negative terms and avoid using them. Or, if you want to use them, know that you are opening a can of worms. There probably are times when a writer means to slap the reader hard. Maybe that is what Ed was doing. I don’t know.
The point is this: The political meaning of a word … the role of a word in code or dog-whistle language, or as an indicator of underlying biases … changes over time and across contexts. My biologist friends were thinking of the tiny insectivore, and nothing else at least when first asked. Since Kiss me Kate is old and they are not English Lit majors, “shrew” slipped by them. Is it necessary that every generation be reminded to not use the word “shrew” or can the sexism itself or the word itself slip into obscurity? Does the link to gender always accompany the word? Can there be a day in the future when to call someone a “shrew” implies that they have a pointy nose and eat a lot of insects? Do we need a word for that? (Probably not.)
We had a discussion around here lately about the word “seminal.” In my view, “seminal” is a sexist word (for different reasons than “shrew”) and I only use it ironically. But the irony is lost on almost everyone, and I would never try to tell someone who used the word that they were being sexist. The same applies to the words “testify” and “testament” and related terms. But these are quirks that apply to me and a few other people who happen to have common interests in African pastoral societies and the Bronze Age of the Ancient Near East.
The word “shrew” is probably not in that esoteric category, but it is more esoteric than, for example, “bitch.” Don’t you think?
I have a feeling that “shrew” as an insult will eventually go the way of other arcane insults such as micreant, lewsdster, and joithead (all from Shakespeare). But at the moment it is not quite there yet. At the moment it probably belongs on Teh List.
So, as long as the word “shrew” remains untamed, and there are Ed Brayton’s in the world, we are thankful for people like Physioprof. He was there to slap Ed Brayton when Ed used a word not previously cleared for use by Teh Klique. It is appropriate for Physioprof to demand that Ed apologize, just as Physioprof would if he was caught using a misogynist term, even if quite innocently. I’m also glad that Isis jumped into this fray. Now that Isis has identified the misogyny in the midsts, I’m sure she rightfully expects Ed to apologize, because when one makes a mistake that is what one does. Apologizes.
Am I wrong? Probably. And I’ll probably be hearing about it.
“Get her drunk and get her done.”
The somewhat more obscene sticker on that particular truck reads “McCain/Palin 2008.” (The mild irony there is that Ed was caught using the unauthorized “shrew” in relation to Sarah Palin. Which I think is totally wrong. Both McCain and Palin are total bitches, but neither is really a shrew in any sense I know of the term. But I digress.) One symbol on the Ford Pickup that is even worse is what appears to me as a white supremacist symbol. And there are two trucks. I’ve not really had a close look at the second one.
I’ll tell you what. I’ll address these issues of my neighbor’s. I’ll work through diplomacy, through our ownership association, through example. More broadly I’ll keep working on our local political campaigns that promote liberal and progressive candidates and issues, and I’ll stay in touch as always with our local schools. I’m sure there will be conversations when I put out campaign signs for a liberal Democratic candidate for congress next year. I may just tell the guy to turn his truck around when he parks so guests visiting me do not have to be offended. Unless the other side is worse, of course. The point of all this being to show my neighbor, in a neighborly way, that he lives in a world where people do think he is an ass for having such a misogynist decal on his truck. To show him that not everybody thinks it is funny.
This obnoxiously decorated F-150 has caused me to decide to do something I had planned on skipping this year given the recent birth of Mr. Huxley: Giving my annual presentations on diversity to the Middle School sixth grade classes, if I can get someone to help Amanda with the baby. (This is done in small groups and takes a day and a half.)
I’ll take care of that stuff. I’ll address the misogyny in my own back yard. I’ll finish the magazine article I’m working on regarding race and racism. I’ll put in the hours on the phone and on the streets for the progressive candidates. I’ll talk to the students in the middle school and I’ll frighten the teachers in the high school.
But I can’t do everything. I am only one person, after all! I need help. So, I’ll take care of all that stuff if the Kliqueons can cover my back and manage Ed. And together, we’ll make progress in the fight against sexism, racism, and everything.