Peggy Noonan’s War on Vulgarity

Posted on March 19, 2012 by


The “war on women” is getting to be a bit of a drag. President Obama’s contraception mandate—and Rush Limbaugh’s moronic contribution to the debate surrounding it—has pundits tripping over themselves to prove who’s more misogynist: the Right or the Left?

Peggy Noonan duly chimed in this weekend with her Wall Street Journal column, “America’s Real War on Women.”  She writes:

[T]he real war is against women in American public life, in politics and media most obviously, but in other spheres as well. In this war, leaders who are women are publicly demeaned and diminished based on the fact that they are women. They are the object of sexual slurs, and insulted in sexual terms. The words used are vulgar, and are meant to tear down and embarrass.

Ms. Noonan claims that this vulgarity is not a Right thing or a Left thing, but an all-encompassing consequence of free-wheeling Internet culture, which “hypes the cheap and glitzy” and “reduces the worthiness of a thought to the number of clicks it gets.”

Despite this above-the-fray nonpartisan thesis, Noonan does deign to hypothesize that left-wing men are bigger, badder sexist pigs that right-wing men. She quotes one of Matt Taibbi’s pathetic attempts at sensationalism and explains,

Some left-wing men think they can talk like this because they’re on the correct side on social issues such as abortion. Their attitude: “I backed you on the abortions you want so much, I opposed a ban on partial birth. Hell, I’ll let you kill kids at any point until they’re 15, I’m cool. And that means I can call women in public life t – – – s, right? Because, you know, I think of them that way.”

(Side note: T—s? Twats? Does anyone even say twat anymore? Such a silly word. Is that what Peggy Noonan thinks counts as vulgarity in the 21st century? “T—s,” in the same newspaper that three times reprinted the Yale fraternity chant, “No means yes, yes means anal.” Did Ms. Noonan clutch her pearls when she read that one?)

Name-calling is bad—we get it, Peggy Noonan. Using sexual slurs to demean female public figures is bad, and it’s bad from the Right and the Left (but especially the Left!), and a lot of people—not just mega-assholes Limbaugh and Taibbi—are guilty of doing it.

But why do so many men use vulgar sexual language to insult women whom they politically disagree with? I don’t think Peggy Noonan’s explanation—THE INTERNET—is correct (or helpful), nor do I think left-wing men do it because they feel being pro-choice gives them a free pass to be assholes to women (?).

It more likely stems from pervasive slut-shaming in our culture (by men and women alike), which perpetuates the idea that women should be ashamed of their sex lives, and that if you want to humiliate a woman, you can do it by talking about her (hypothetical) sex life. It’s all very Scarlet Letter and old-fashioned, and any man who takes up the language of sex to insult a woman is revealing himself to be sexually old-fashioned and nervous about women’s sexual subjectivity and empowerment. (I’m looking at you, Bill Maher, Ed Schultz, and Keith Olbermann.)

But let’s be clear: What Rush Limbaugh got in trouble for wasn’t just name-calling. Limbaugh said a woman who wants subsidized birth control is a prostitute because she’s asking others to “pay for her to have sex.” Limbaugh also suggested that Sandra Fluke and others like her must be having incredible amounts of sex if they’re so desperate for birth control. Rush Limbaugh—shocker!—is an idiot. He doesn’t seem to understand how birth control works, and he managed to suggestively malign all women who use it. He presented a serious policy issue in terms so misleading and backwards and anti-woman that his advertisers were forced to pretend they had no idea Rush Limbaugh could be so offensive. (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”)

Ultimately, Peggy Noonan’s column says more about her than it does about any “war on women.” Ms. Noonan would like us to all “clean up our act” and to return to an age of civility where “the bad treatment of women” is discouraged. That’s sort of a fairy godmother suggestion—sweet, perhaps, but about as useful as a carriage that turns into a pumpkin when you try to drive home.

People are always going to insult public figures—especially figures with divisive political beliefs. For every woman that gains visibility in the political world, there’ll be pundits insulting her in the most punishing language they can think of—and that language is often vulgar, and it’s often sexual.  The best we can do to address this is to acknowledge and try to change the cultural underpinnings of such language until insulting women with vulgar sexual language is widely understood to be as antiquated and un-funny as insulting straight men with vulgar homophobic language.

Let’s shame the slut-shamers, and let’s shame all those who co-opt the language of slut-shaming to try to degrade female public figures. It may not lead to the age of civility Peggy Noonan is dreaming of, but it should change the way in which the public is uncivil to women.

Maybe they’ll even stop saying twat.