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Jane Ahlin, Published March 10 2012

Ahlin: Limbaugh, media, politics and the culture of sexism

To say decency is not important to Rush Limbaugh is a cosmic understatement, sort of like saying he isn’t into women his own age. The current (and fourth) Mrs. L. is almost three decades younger than he and just a few years older than the law student Limbaugh so sleazily slandered. That ugliness has put him in a pickle. In fact, with more than 45 advertisers and two radio stations dropping him, Limbaugh hasn’t been in this kind of trouble since his dustup over obtaining prescription painkillers illegally (and later being caught by U.S. Customs agents with a bottle of Viagra pills not in his name).

Still, after a moment of satisfaction, folks who value civility don’t really expect Limbaugh to suffer lasting damage. His audience of “ditto-heads” earned that moniker honestly and won’t leave him over this. No, the real question for us is whether his extremism points to a more insidious attitude that’s tolerated. Put another way, have we been ignoring that much of the political debate centered on female candidates or issues associated with women is framed by sexism and plain old misogyny?

Two scholarly studies done at the University of Utah and published recently in the “Political Research Quarterly,” examined the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, specifically the preponderance and characteristics of “exit” talk about her. What researchers found was that she was the object of both overt and subtle sexism. That the examples were as much from left-leaning talk show hosts as from right comes as no surprise to feminists who were outraged at the misogynistic remarks – mainly from hosts on MSNBC – aimed at Clinton during the campaign.

There was Keith Olbermann suggesting the only way to deal with Clinton was that “somebody take her into a room and only he comes out.”

Chris Matthew was even worse, calling her by the names of villainous fictional characters, such as “Madame Defarge” of “A Tale of Two Cities.” He also bizarrely ranted about Clinton being a candidate only because “her husband messed around.”

Much of the sexism was more subtle, however, such as describing Clinton as “shrill” or referring to her as “Hillary” but referring to the male candidates by their last names. The final determination of the University of Utah studies was that, indeed, there had been a media push to get her out of the race, a push decidedly sexist in nature.

(Note: In this election cycle, whenever Sarah Palin hinted at entering the race or Michele Bachmann appeared to be gaining strength, words such as “bimbo” or “twat” surfaced. When the two of them seemed to be at odds, “catfight” was the term used.)

Women rarely employ sexist language against one another in political contests. The same cannot be said when it comes to reproductive issues. The strategy of those who originally were opposed to abortion but now have expanded that opposition to include birth control is a strategy of demeaning women, treating them as lesser human beings who have to be protected from the cold cruel world and even from themselves.

Legislators vacillate between condescension (poor thing, she doesn’t understand what pregnancy is) and contempt (she wouldn’t have a problem pregnancy if she didn’t have sex; get her an aspirin to hold between her knees). The narrative for each – pity or punishment – is couched in concern, but it’s phony concern that the media rarely examines. Of course, with more than a thousand bills on the subject proposed by state legislatures across the country, there’s a lot to examine.

Sen. Nina Turner, a Democratic legislator from Cleveland, introduced a bill in her state Legislature recently requiring men to undergo a cardiac stress test and psychological screening from a sex therapist before being allowed prescriptions for erectile-dysfunction drugs. As she put it, “I care about the health of men as well, and I thought it only fair that we illustrate that and make sure that a man is fully informed of the risks involved in taking these drugs and also the alternatives such as natural remedies or also celibacy.”

I share her concern.

Ahlin write a Sunday column for The Forum.