What's Up With The Bombeck Insults?

Last time I checked, Erma Bombeck, when she was alive, was a hugely popular American humorist who wrote a newspaper column and published 15 books, most of which were best sellers. She came from the working class, and made quite a successful career for herself in publishing, at a time when women normally did not have careers.

But apparently, since she wrote about housewives and domestic issues, there's nothing to admire about what she did. And if you want to mock a woman writer these days, why, you just link her to Erma Bombeck and call it at day. See: "Erma-Bombeckian" (Steven Pinker trashing Natalie Angier in the New York Times) or "Isis Bombeck" (commenter Prometheus just mocking Dr. Isis in general).

Here's what I wrote earlier about Pinker's small-minded carping:

But I really don't like the way Pinker compares [Angier] to Erma Bombeck as a put-down. It's insulting to Angier, and it's insulting to Bombeck, a woman who wanted to be a writer from her earliest days, who had her first newspaper job at age 15, and who campaigned for the ERA. Erma Bombeck may not be your cup of tea, but for several decades she was the wry voice of the American middle-class housewife. To use her as a snipingly dismissive insult is, in a sense, spitting upon the unnoticed and unrewarded labor of all those women who tended the homes - and the ones who still do. To compare Angier to Bombeck is to say, "your writing is no better than a bunch of old wives' tales".

Maybe I'm just an overly sensitive, grouchy old humorless hairy-legged feminist. (Though I did shave just the day before yesterday.) But that's what sucks about patriarchy: you're never entirely sure if Steven Pinker just doesn't like Natalie Angier's writing style or if Steven Pinker is evaluating Natalie Angier more harshly because she's a woman writing about man stuff.

Well, now I'm pretty sure about this: if you want to dismiss a woman writing about anything, you call her Bombeck. In doing so, you denigrate everything Erma Bombeck every did and achieved, and you deny that the world of wives and mothers has any weight or importance. And then you tar your present-day writer with that not-serious brush you just created.

I say, any d00d who resorts to trying to insult women writers by calling them Erma Bombeck - as if that were an insult - must be trying to overcompensate for his phenomenally small weiner.

UPDATE: Samia, in the comments below, has rightfully pointed out the serious problems with the last sentence of this post. I'm leaving the post as is so people can see what I originally wrote, but I encourage you to read the exchange between Samia and myself below for some enlightenment as to why I really should have thought twice before posting that remark.

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I would be so pleased if someone compared my writing to Erma Bombeck's.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 30 Dec 2009 #permalink

I find that very very odd. Even as a teenage male back in the 80's I read her columns and her books and found her hilarious and engaging. Is he critiquing the use of a casual writing style in an academic publication? That's the only way it would make sense to me.

Agh, I hadn't read your older post about Pinker's review of Angier's book. I'm not one for flowery prose at all and I love Angier's writing because it's NOT flowery. It's gorgeous and has an effortless flow to it that is admirable. It makes me even less eager to read Pinker's writing, if Angier is his idea of bad writing.

Would these Bombeck insulters use the term "Dave Barryian" instead? I somehow doubt it, though they have a similar style and both cover the humor of everyday life. (Personally, I think Bombeck is funnier.)

I read Erma Bombeck when I was a girl and she was one of my first real idols. I think she's hilarious and was actually honored the first time Ed Brayton compared me to her (I think that's where this "Isis Bombeck first began).

But, that initial compliment is a bitch of a double-edged sword. I still get a heap of shit for not writing a "real science blog" because I choose to talk about the other facets of my life and not my original peer reviewed research.

When I was a kid, I read Bombeck and Buchwald because I could---their writing was accessible even to those who didn't have an extensive education. It was magic---words and ideas lifting off the page into my brain.

What RevMatt and PalMD said. I thought Bombeck was funny. Where's this idea she sucks come from? Sure, maybe one grows beyond the Buchwald/Bombeck genre but so what?

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 30 Dec 2009 #permalink

I respect Steven Pinker very much, but I went to a talk of his a few months ago and it made no sense. I looked over at my friend who went with me, and asked "is it just me?" She didn't get it either. I was going to blog about it, but I didn't really know what to say. So I'm not surprised I can't relate to his Bombeck comment either.

"...her prose is a blooming, buzzing profusion of puns, rhymes, wordplay, wisecracks and Erma-Bombeckian quips about the indignities of everyday life. Angier's language is always clever, and sometimes witty, but "The Canon" would have been better served if her Inner Editor had cut the verbal gimmickry by a factor of three...."

From your earlier post; I'm glad you brought it to our attention but I'm not so sure I agree he means to use Bombeck as a pejorative. It sounds like Prometheus does though, and I'm sure you are right that it is because of Bombeck's subject matter that he belittles her. I hope you let him have it! Is-ass deletes my comments so I don't hang over there (I also fail to see the comparison in that case).

I wonder if a male writer was being reviewed if there would have been a Dave Barry analogy?

I was also a Bombeck fan growing up. I miss her columns.

"must be trying to overcompensate for his phenomenally small weiner."

should be "because he thinks he needs to compensate for..." otherwise almost sounds like you agree a small weiner is something he needs to compensate for - do you?

Out of context, that is, if you don't know that she was a woman who managed to make a good living writing when it was still relatively uncommon to do so (ask Aphra Behn about that!), I can certainly see the point. Bombeck was such a spectacularly bad writer (in much the same way that Dave Barry is a horrendous writer, actually), and had basically nothing to say to anyone who wasn't in her target demographic. That latter charge is one I'll also put against James Joyce -- if you didn't grow up Irish Catholic, pretty much forget about ever understanding anything he wrote (I suppose having grown up religious might help some?).

I also think it's hardly fair to say that not thinking that reading stories about domestic life and children is interesting is "spitting on" people who do it; I'm not interested in reading stories about NASCAR drivers, single fathers, or religious monastics either, but I'm not spitting on them. (For the record, I'm female, have no children, don't want any, and am not interested in them in any way, and see housework as a necessary and boring evil. So domesticity and kids are not exactly good humour material IMNSHO. So sue me.)

By Interrobang (not verified) on 30 Dec 2009 #permalink

My wiener is so phenomenally small that my parents got a 50% percent discount on my bris because they had to take half off.

My nickname in gym class was 'button'.

*stares at light switch*

*weeps enviously*

By Prometheus (not verified) on 30 Dec 2009 #permalink

Interrobang- I don't know much about Erma Bombeck, but if you truly think of housework as a necessary and boring evil, I'm surprised you think she has nothing to say to you...
"My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first one being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.".

Frankly, I think she's pretty quotable, but I've never tried to read much of her stuff.

It sounds like Pinker was just grasping for a description of why the writing style struck him as incongruous. Of course, his writing style is widely regarded as... NOT as elegant as Angier's, so it might just be a sign of his (lack of) taste.

It's important to remember that when Erma Bombeck was one of the most widely syndicated of any newspaper columnist in the United States (quite a feat), newspapers still had "womens" pages that were solely devoted to recipes, sewing tips and advice columns. The clear implication was the rest of the newspaper, with all the real information and news and stuff, was the "mens" section. Erma Bombeck helped to change all that.

Funny that Pinker would be derogatory toward writers who can hold their readers' interest -- when his own writing is obtuse, boring, and difficult to get through.

By Mike Cagle (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

It's amazing to me that anyone could consider a comparison to Erma Bombeck to be insult. I grew up reading her columns and always found them really funny.

I suppose it's just a variation in taste.

I suppose it's just a variation in taste.

Alas, it's a bit more than that. It is also a denigration of work associated with women/femininity.

The clear implication was the rest of the newspaper, with all the real information and news and stuff, was the "mens" section. Erma Bombeck helped to change all that.

This has changed? Really? Huh.

"...must be trying to overcompensate for his phenomenally small weiner."

I understand and agree with the main point of this post. It is very insulting to dismiss the work of women the way Pinker (and others) have. But that last statement of yours is kind of surprising and, I feel, uncalled for. Ultimately the Small-Penis Insult perpetuates a really sick (not to mention cissexist) way of thinking about what constitutes "true masculinity." That said, I see a lot of this kind of thing everywhere-- but I find it most disturbing when it turns up in feminist spaces that call for more respect for the dignity of women's bodies (which, happily, come in all shapes and sizes). Now, I'm not going to pretend *I* don't still need to work on some stuff, because I sooo do. But I did want to say something here, because I like you, Z, and this just really bothered me. :( PS Hope you're doin gud.

I take what you (and some others) have said seriously. And I think I could have phrased what I wrote a helluva lot better. Personally, I myself do not give a crap what size a d00d's wanker is. But I think it is not terribly controversial to note that the vast majority of d00d's themselves have been preoccupied with whether or not they measure up, and do lots of things to compensate - even overcompensate - for what they imagine they are lacking in their literal or metaphorical manhood package. Or what they imagine someone ELSE might be imagining they are lacking in their literal or metaphorical manhood package. Best to just head off that imagining before it even starts by demonstrating the adequacy, nay, the overweening dominance, of one's package, be it literal or metaphorical.

So instead of saying "must be trying to overcompensate for his phenomenally small weiner" perhaps I should have said something like "must be trying to overcompensate for what he fears the world imagines to be his phenomenally small weiner" or some such.

The fear of being labeled with inadequate masculinity drives all sorts of weird behavior in males, in my observations.

But I think it is not terribly controversial to note that the vast majority of d00d's themselves have been preoccupied with whether or not they measure up, and do lots of things to compensate - even overcompensate - for what they imagine they are lacking in their literal or metaphorical manhood package.

Oh, I'm not debating that. My question is, why play off of our society's effed up ideas about masculinity in order to insult someone? Why...enforce that? In other words, why do we find it okay to make a hurtful remark about someone's body just because they disagree with us? I'm confused. Isn't this exactly what anti-feminist men do to US regularly?

The fear of being labeled with inadequate masculinity drives all sorts of weird behavior in males, in my observations.

That also applies to women and femininity, I would say. But isn't it wrong to rebut a woman's dissenting opinion (however off-base) by randomly insinuating she is not conventionally attractive? How would it help if someone explained that they don't reaaallly care what women look like, they're just playing off of most women's insecurities about their appearance? Sorry, but I see this as the same type of tactic used by people who put down female feminists/womanists by implying we're all ugly. And we both know *those* people usually resort to insults because they don't have anything better to come at us with. But your post was pretty valid, which is why voiced surprise.

What are we (as feminists) accomplishing by insulting the masculinity (via weird cissexist ideas about genitalia, no less) of men who don't share our ideologies (yet)?

Nope, I fear you are absolutely right. I have no defense. Thanks for pointing this out, and in such a kind manner. I put a comment in the original post to direct readers to your critique of my comment.