Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What Sunk Imus: Racism or Sexism?

I didn't follow the Don Imus flap very closely because the incident -- and the commentary that surrounded it -- seemed to be the same old, same old to me: A shock jock turned the shock level up a little too high and got burned for it.

But one piece that I do want to take the time to point out regarding Imus is this column by a good friend of mine from grad school, Jason Stahl.

The opening to the piece poses an interesting question: If Imus never used the phrase "nappy-headed," would he have been fired?

The column goes on to explain that the answer to that question is likely "no," leading into Jason's second point -- and my favorite part -- which serves as an explanation for why black rappers are able to get away with using similar language toward women.

As Jason explains:
Namely, there is an element of American culture that now encourages men to bond across racial lines in their objectification of women. Thus, elite white record company owners, black rappers and the Don Imuses of the world can come together to "put women in their place." This message then filters down through the culture, sending the message that sexism is not only fine, but valued by those in power.
If you neutralize the racial element of Imus' comment, he probably would've gotten away with it. And since black rappers are able to neutralize the racial element of their comments by being, well, black, they're able to simultaneously get away with their sexism.

Jason's entire column is well-worth the read, and so are the other pieces he's written as a weekly columnist for the Minnesota Daily, which you can find here.

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Side-Note: Jason's article about the Imus flap reminds me of the Super Bowl halftime show a few years back. Everyone was so obsessed with the fact that Janet Jackson's boob was partially-exposed, no one seemed to care that Justin Timberlake ripped off her clothing to expose it. Is the boob itself really the most offensive aspect of that scenario?

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10 Comments:

Anonymous m.z. forrest said...

Is the boob itself really the most offensive aspect of that scenario?

No, it was the 5 minutes of simulated sex that preceded it. The futher piece of exhibitionism at the end was just icing on the cake.

As far as Imus goes, I agree with you, just another shock jock. No offense to your colleague, but the grasping of social lessons from this is a bit much. He got fired because advertisers were pulling out. His ratings on MSNBC weren't so great that he was indespensible.

April 17, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

You may have cared about Janet & Justin's sexual dancing, but most people didn't. Most got upset over the boob.

And Jason's point about men unifying across racial lines wasn't meant to merely explain Imus' firing -- it was meant to explain why Imus was fired while black rappers who use similar language aren't.

April 17, 2007  
Anonymous m.z. forrest said...

And such is complete nonsense. Outside of some Women's Studies departments, there is no feminine outrage over referring to women in tawdry terms. A cultural ethic is being assumed that is simply not there. Heck, a significant portion of the audience for sexually degrading music are women.

April 17, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Just because some women participate in and willingly accept the sexism doesn't mean it's not sexist. Did the fact that some blacks in the Jim Crow South accepted and participated in their second-class citizenship mean they didn't experience racism?

And your comment about only Women's Studies departments being angry over degrading comments toward women in popular culture is just plain wrong.

Women are objectified and sexualized far more than men in our society. What would someone say if a commentator referred to the Florida men's basketball team as "cute"? The reaction would reflect on the commentator's sexuality and general lack of interest in the game of basketball. In other words, it would seem out of place or beside the point to most listeners. But when Imus called the Tennesee women's basketball team "cute" (just before he called the Rutgers team "nappy-headed hos") it was a comment aimed at trivializing the team's skill as basketball players and emphasizing their place as sexual objects.

April 17, 2007  
Anonymous m.z. forrest said...

I claim there is no feminine outrage over tawdry treatment, and you reply by listing examples of tawdry treatment. In short there is no taboo. If anything, the Imus story and the rappers songs show that there is only one important thing and that is money. Money explains a lot of hypocrisy. It explains why Sly is still on the air in Madison after repeatedly referring to Sec. Rice as Aunt Jemima, and why Imus was canned over referring to the Rutgers b-ball team as nappy headed hos. Sly could claim he was operating within the legitimate bounds of satire whereas Imus could not.

April 17, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

M.Z., what are your credentials, what is your credibility, for your claim?

I know and have talked with a lot of women, actively feminist and otherwise, who were outraged by such terms for women before Imus went one too far, and they were outraged by that, too.

You don't get it, and neither do the network execs. I do agree that
the networks made the decision based on advertising.

So they haven't learned a thing, and neither have you.

April 17, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MZ is 100% right about the money.

The thing is taking out the racial content would have left Imus' remarks meaningless. It was only the reference to hos, but the spike lee film which is specifically about the blackness of the two teams.

What I find funny was the so called chattering class's (Kristol called em liberals) response to this whole thing. The whole not too bad for a white guy was a little to much for me to handle. FrankenKerry and his sure I'd visit his show almost made me puke.

Imus was an easy way for Sharpton and Jackson to deal with this issue without creating tension within the black community. Look at how much folks discussed rap music.

As far as Janet, imagine the uproar if it was a black male doing the grabbing on a white female.

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April 18, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Prole, you appear to think that women, whether white or of color, don't know what the term means.

We know when women have been called whores, no matter their hairstyle.

We know that when Imus called those ten young women whores, he was demeaning all of us. That's what you and a lot of guys don't get.

If he had called them cornrow-haired whores or straightened-hair whores or even they've-got-hair-just-like-my-wife's-hair whores, he still would have been calling them whores. And we still would have been outraged.

So that's why so many of us were outraged -- and by the way, it's okay with you that Imus has called another specific woman a whore, and on the air? That's his wife. And I have no idea what her hairstyle is, and it doesn't matter.

And you are conveniently ignoring that it wasn't just two (one being hyphenated) words he said. It was an extended conversation of several minutes, with several terms both sexist and racist used by both him and his producer, whom he hires.

(And as for the argument that some women weren't upset, well, some men wouldn't be upset if millions of people heard an announcer describe a specific portion of those specific men's anatomies as undersized, so it's okay that we say so about that specific portion of your anatomy? Fine, provide your name, and we'll put that on the news for millions to hear. Oh, and we're not talking about what's between your legs but about what's between your ears.)

April 19, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Huh. Usually I get an email sent every time someone adds a new comment to a post. But I haven't seen any emails for comments added to this post since my last comment. Glad to see the conversation kept going.

But I do want to quickly respond to M.Z., albeit belatedly (in online time, anyway), about the lack of "feminine outrage over tawdry treatment."

That, in a sense, is Jason's point. There isn't nearly as much sensitivity to sexist comments as there is toward racist comments -- that's precisely what needs to change. What I objected to is your assertion that only women who are part of Women's Studies departments get upset over sexist language; there's more anger over sexism than that, but it's just not at the same level as anger over racism, nor is there a consistent enough thread of anger cutting across gender lines, in particular, to create the type of concerted opposition that can force change such as getting sponsors to pull out because of a purely sexist comment. But it's important to cultivate that kind of force, and Jason's fundamental argument -- one that I strong agree with -- is that we should be cultivating it through incidents like the one with Imus instead of just pigeonholing it as a primarily racial issue. Indeed, just because there isn't more sensitivity toward sexist comments doesn't mean those comments aren't degrading toward women and, as a result, harmful to our society.

April 20, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon,

Happy you feel some female solidarity. What ought to be is not always what is. Nappy headed Hos racialized the term in a way that as Seth pointed up the unity of black and white male sexism could not hold.

The question is not if hos, whores, or any other offensive reference would have outraged you but if it would have forced execs and advertisers to change their policy. If you think it would maybe spend an afternoon or two listening to some right wing radio.

What I heard from even the liberal chattering class was not the universality of sexism, but oh he volunteers for Autism, he's such a nice guy, he's a changed man now. He was just mirroring rap music. Even FrankenKerry had the audacity to entertain going on a future show of his. Whatever collective female solidarity there was he certainty wasn't pressured by it.

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April 21, 2007  

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