Oprah, how could you?
February 14, 2010
The question of whether of not Oprah identifies herself as “feminist” isn’t easy to answer. I asked Google and it told me what other people think, but I haven’t been able to find out what she herself thinks of feminism and whether or not she belongs to our club, divided though it may be. I had always assumed that Oprah was a feminist, and my kind of feminist at that: one who worked hard to empower women. She’s somebody who has struck a clean balance between changing the system of television to suit her and adapting to the establishment to get ahead. For all of her wealth and success, it’s what she does for other women that interests me most. Do I care if she calls herself a feminist? Not really.
It may be more accurate to label Oprah – if you’re interested in labels – a “humanist.” She’s certainly a philanthropist and works to relieve poverty, aid struggling veterans, educate the world’s children and encourage others to give. So perhaps her interests lie less in helping women specifically and more in helping humanity. As she herself has said, “Unless you choose to do great things with it, it makes no difference how much you are rewarded, or how much power you have.” Good for you, Oprah! I know several women who would consider themselves humanists rather than feminists. You don’t have to be part of team feminism if you don’t want to.
But feminists have sometimes demanded that she show allegiance to women specifically. Why? Is it because women have formed the core of her consumer base and can be partially credited with Oprah’s rise to power and fame? Okay. I get that. What’s fair is fair. I don’t agree that Oprah was in the wrong for endorsing Barack Obama for President instead of Hillary Clinton back in the 2008 Democratic primary. According to the TimesOnline, critics of Oprah’s decision flooded her Oprah.com expressing anger that she chose “her race over her (sex)” and calling her a “traitor.” Oprah wasn’t the only prominent woman to choose Obama, however. According to The Huffington Post on February 3, 2008, “(m)ore than 100 New York feminist leaders released a joint statement Sunday afternoon criticizing Hillary Clinton and supporting Obama for president – evidence that Clinton’s support among women activists (had) declined significantly in the days before the super-Tuesday primary.”
It’s not anti-feminist to choose a male political candidate over a female candidate because you agree with his message more than you agree with hers. Just like it wouldn’t have been racist for Oprah to have endorsed Clinton over Obama.
I’ll tell you what is anti-feminist: endorsing somebody who hurts women. As far as I know, Obama is not guilty of that. However, David Letterman is.
Let me be very clear about one very important thing: I am not condemning (nor am I condoning) Letterman’s act of cheating on his girlfriend/wife.
Cheating is a moral issue and we, as feminists, cannot be party solely to moralizing another’s sexuality. If we allowed ourselves to do that – to say things like “cheating is wrong” and “marriage is best when monogamous” – we validate arguments made against some of our causes like “abortion is wrong” and “gay marriage is immoral,” etc. Morality has no place in the feminist analysis of Letterman’s 2009 sexual scandal, in my opinion. You can personally shame Letterman, but when representing Feminism (capital F), you need to remember the question at hand, which is NOT was Letterman acting immorally, but is rather was Letterman acting illegally and hurting the Feminist (capital F) agenda for female equality? The answer to the first question is a draw because different feminists have different moralities. The answer to the second question: YES!
How did he do that, you might ask? In a nutshell, David Letterman allegedly created a hostile work environment for women at his production company. Women may have perceived that: 1. sleeping with Letterman could advance their careers in television, a truly unequal realm for women and 2. not sleeping with Letterman could result in damage to their careers or even dismissal from employment. That’s illegal: maybe not criminal to result in jail time, but against the law nonetheless. So why is David Letterman getting a pass?
“Prove it,” says the iron (man) judicial system. It’s difficult to prove when the women who slept with Letterman are likely afraid to call any more attention to themselves for fear of damaging their careers subsequent to working with Letterman. Almost nobody hires the woman who allegedly slept her way to the top, thereby belying her professional credibility, unless the hirer anticipates the employee doing it again for his own benefit or unless the hirer is a feminist looking to give the woman a break. And sexual harassment is also difficult to prove because it usually boils down to a he said-she said argument with no possible victor.
The history of Letterman’s love life in the professional arena according to ABC News is as follows:
Just before he was named the host of NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” in 1982, he began dating (Merrill) Markoe, who would become the show’s head writer… In typical Letterman fashion, he and (Regina) Lasko (a former “Late Show” staff member) were married in a secret ceremony on March 19, 2009 at the Teton County Courthouse in Choteau, Mont. The couple already had a son together, Harry, in 2003… (In October) a CBS News employee tried to blackmail (Letterman) for $2 million by exposing the sexual affairs he had with female subordinates… His admission on the air (Oct.1) to having not just a one-time romantic affair with a single staffer but to having ‘sex with women who work with me on this show,’ shed new light on what the public does know about his love life.
Reportedly, none of Letterman’s affairs outside his relationship with Lasko occurred during their marriage. While that may be comforting to fans and Lasko alike, it is irrelevant to the question of whether or not Letterman’s behavior constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace. The focus of the legal investigation surrounding the scandal has been on the blackmail. The public consequence for Letterman: a little embarrassment. The Oct. 14 cover of Entertainment Weekly magazine depicted Letterman with his pants down. Ha ha! His show’s ratings rose temporarily and then drifted back to where they were before the scandal. Nobody cares about the female employees it seems; nobody but us feminists. “‘Clearly CBS has a moral and political obligation to investigate this,’ says NOW president Terry O’Neill, who’s also a lawyer. But a Worldwide Pants spokesman says that the company circulates an employee manual each year that addresses harassment, while also saying, ‘Dave is not in violation of our policy, and no one has ever raised a complaint against him.’” (Oh, why did O’Neill use the word “moral?”)
At least one former staffer has spoken out about the professional atmosphere under Letterman’s employ since the scandal broke, though she didn’t report it to Human Resources during her tenure. Nell Scovell wrote “Letterman and Me” for Vanity Fair online.
At this moment, there are more females serving on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing for ‘Late Show with David Letterman,’ ‘The Jay Leno Show,’ and ‘The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien’ combined. Out of the 50 or so comedy writers working on these programs, exactly zero are women. It would be funny if it weren’t true. Late-night talk shows have long snubbed female writers… There’s a subset of sexual harassment called sexual favoritism that, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, can lead to a ‘hostile work environment,’ often ‘creating an atmosphere that is demeaning to women.’ And that pretty much sums up my experience at ‘Late Night with David Letterman.’
Scovell goes on to claim that, while Letterman never hit on her, he did pay her enough extra attention that another writer spoke to her about it. She claims that Letterman and other “high-level male employees” were having sex with female employees and that these affairs gave the women in them an advantage over other women in that workplace by virtue of favoritism and their having additional access to information that allowed them to “wield power disproportionate to their job titles.” Scovell concludes that there was most definitely a hostile work environment permeating the show and that she felt demeaned. So, she quit, or as she puts it, “I walked away from my dream job.”
Now why are David Letterman and his fellow high-level male employees getting a pass and what does all of this have to do with Oprah?
Well, as I mentioned before, sexual harassment is difficult to prove and as CBS asserts nobody ever reported Letterman for it. Of course, that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. But several high-profile women have given Dave a pass just like his audience. On “The View,” Barbara Walters remarked that Dave “is a very attractive man” and excused his affairs by saying that it’s perfectly acceptable to meet people and begin relationships at work and by claiming that she could recite a list of names of executives who were guilty of the same thing. As if that makes it alright! Joy Behar called Letterman “smart” and championed his political savvy in revealing his affairs rather than denying them. And Oprah appeared with him in a high-profile Super Bowl commercial to promote his television show. Take a look:
Whether or not this spot is funny is irrelevant to this discussion. Oprah agreed to do the spot to promote Letterman’s show and possibly, if he hasn’t learned his lesson, unwittingly to keep a hostile work environment for women in play over at the “The Late Show.” There are those who would point out that Letterman is innocent of sexual harassment until proven guilty. I agree. But that doesn’t make him any less responsible for it. Whether the legal system catches up with David Letterman or not, he and his production company are responsible to Scovell and others who endured the hostile work environment of his creation. And Oprah, as a female pioneer of the male-dominated industry that is television, should know better and should champion equal opportunities for women in its workplaces. I see her actions as anti-feminist and as a direct violation of women’s equality in the workplace. She can hold any moral opinion of Letterman in private, but as a public personality I think she should stand for what’s right for women.
Am I seriously off the mark here? Is Oprah only responsible to women if she wears the feminist label? Is she responsible to women at all?