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?
November 29, 2009
Thursday night on NBC should really be renamed from “Must See TV” or “Comedy Night Done Right” to “Ladies’ Night.” The staple show for me is The Office at 9 p.m. EST. As I have mentioned in other posts, on this show, office lovers Jim and Pam have gotten married and own a house together with a private art studio for Pam in the rear yard – wouldn’t Edna Pontellier of The Awakening be jealous!, and “matronly” Phyllis is happily married rather than – as some might expect it – withering away as an “old maid,” her unattractiveness to the opposite sex limiting her romantic prospects. At 9:30 p.m., on 30 Rock, we get to witness the career exploits of successful female Television Writer-Producer and Third Wave Feminist Liz Lemon. But before all of that begins, we can spend 30 minutes with Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee, Indiana. Parks and Recreation, a picaresque show, features the industrious Knope trying desperately to claim abandoned Lot 48 for a new park, which, as she envisions it, will be “a perfect park with state of the art swing sets, basketball courts and, off to the side, a lovely sitting area for kids with asthma to watch the other kids play.”
She really has thought of everything.
I love Leslie! She is completely earnest but not always politically savvy, much like myself. She challenges established authority, often makes a fool of herself when drinking too much and almost always says “the wrong” thing thinking it’s the right thing. Her office is full of portraits of her political heroes (Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright to name a couple) and she dreams of being the first woman President. (I let that dream go when I was 10 or 11.) Wouldn’t Knope’s election to Mayor, State Senate, Governor, Congress or even President be a fine ending to this empowering story?
When it comes to protecting her department’s claim to the former construction site turned abandoned pit, Leslie runs into certain obstacles: lack of funding, public disapproval and the “diabolical, ruthless bunch of bureaucrats” known as the Library Department. “They’re like a biker gang; but instead of shotguns and crystal meth(amphetamines), they use political savvy and shushing… The library is the worst group of people ever assembled,” she tells us, the viewers. “They’re conniving, rude, and extremely well-read, which makes them very dangerous.”
I had no idea that librarians could be that nefarious. (No wonder I’ve always stammered when asking for help with the Dewey Decimal System.) When led by Tammy, Leslie’s boss Ron’s ex-wife (Megan Mullally), that’s exactly what they become. Tammy is smart and pleasing to men. In other words, she’s Veronica to Leslie Knope’s Betty. And everybody knows that, in the world of classic comics, Veronica always gets her way.
In Betty and Veronica, an Archie Comic circa 1950, two high school girls, best friends and simultaneously worst enemies, fight over one boy, namely Archie, and other things like clothes and popularity. And it always comes down to somebody winning out: on the material side, Veronica Lodge finds herself happy in her enviable position as a wealthy teen; but on the side of morality, Betty Cooper wins as the girl who will always do the right thing. In theory, every girl would like to be Veronica with pretty clothes and tangent high school boys fawning over her. But in reality, even if we want this kind of material wealth and attention, only some of us will have it. And the rest of us will have to settle, as “Bettys,” for whatever is left over. In the comic’s 600th issue, Archie proposed to Veronica. Poor, poor Betty.
Of course, it’s all relative. There are many Veronicas I see that make me feel like a Betty. But I’m sure I’m probably Veronica to somebody.
It’s not that Veronica is all bad – or that Betty is all good, for that matter, it’s that Veronica is in possession of the things we validate as achievements in our culture, especially for women: money and good looks. Veronica therefore exhibits a sense of entitlement to all things within her grasp, where as Betty is prepared to fight for the things she wants in life. And of course, classifying women by “types” – such as how some men have done over the years thinking of us as either Madonnas or whores – is reductive. But this Betty/Veronica invocation is theoretical hyperbole used to examine our actions and how they affect the women in our lives.
Pawnee’s own Betty and Veronica, Leslie and Tammy, find this age old conundrum to be true: will Veronica or Betty get the thing they both covet? At first, Leslie thinks that she’ll be able to talk Tammy out of “stealing” Lot 48 to build a new branch of the library. She optimistically enters Tammy’s office, confesses her true passion for the park and finds that Tammy is strangely accommodating, agreeing to drop her crusade to rule the lot. “We government gals have got to watch each other’s backs, right?” Tammy remarks. And even though Leslie suspects that something about Tammy isn’t completely sincere, she shakes hands with Tammy. “Government Gals,” to our Betty, sounds like a wonderful and empowering organization. For shouldn’t women really want only the best for other women? (Yes, I have fallen for that trick too.)
Wanting to return the favor, Leslie tries to help her boss and his ex become friends again, which works and the two engage in an exaggerated and humorous series of sexual encounters. “I truly believe everyone should be friends with their exes,” Leslie tells us. “I can’t even tell you how many of my ex’s weddings I’ve been to.”
Leslie feels quite satisfied with her actions until she realizes that the sexual activities between Veronica and Archie – uh Tammy and Ron – are part of Tammy’s plot to seize control of the lot. “That woman really knows her way around a penis,” Ron confesses, adding that sex with Tammy is “like doing peyote and sneezing slowly for six hours.” Then he admits something quite controversial. Tammy and he have arranged a trade: sex for the land.
Leslie confronts Tammy:
I know what you’re doing. You don’t care about Ron. You’re just using him to get Lot 48 for your library.
Leslie, that’s crazy; and correct.
Why are you doing this?
Les, there are two kinds of women in this world. There are women who work hard and stress out about doing the right thing. And then there are women who are cool. You could either be a Cleopatra or you could be an Eleanor Roosevelt. I’d rather be Cleopatra.
Cut to: Leslie, direct-to-camera interview
What kinda lunatic would rather be Cleopatra over Eleanor Roosevelt!?
Cut to: Leslie and Tammy at the elevator
Haven’t you ever messed with a man’s head to see what you could get him to do for you? We do it all the time in the Library Department. You should come join us some time.
I would never work at the Library Department… We’re no longer Government Gals!
And that was the end of female political unity in Pawnee.
Well, not really; but this scenario does take us right back to the classic love triangle featuring two women and something they both love: giant pits of dirt. And it also stirs up a lot of moral murkiness. For instance, is trading sex for something acceptable in the political arena or anywhere else? There are theorists like me who would argue that trading sex for money as a service (prostitution) is morally acceptable and consistent with feminism provided that all ground rules are met: participants are safe and the money that is agreed to in advance is exchanged. However, I take issue with trading sex in this case because the sex represents an unfair advantage of one woman over another. Ron tells us that he likes pretty brunettes and breakfast food, and that Tammy made him breakfast while naked earlier that morning. He doesn’t want breakfast food (sex) from blond Leslie. Therefore, Leslie does not have the means to compete with Tammy.
Furthermore, in a professional environment where sex is restricted from being a commodity, Leslie and other women shouldn’t have to compete on a sexual turf for Lot 48 or any other resource. They should be able to make their best arguments for the use of the land and let an impartial leader, who isn’t sleeping with either of them, make an impartial decision. (I know: when does that ever really happen? Like Leslie, I’m optimistic that fairness is possible.)
The other issue I take with this type of sexual maneuvering is that it’s really bad for our feminist cause. It isn’t that Tammy is physically or emotionally hurt in the process – though Ron sustains some emotional scars, it’s that Tammy will damage her reputation and the potential for herself and other women to advance in their careers. Ever heard a man or woman around the workplace refer to another woman as requiring knee pads to do her job? This kind of cynicism makes it very difficult for women to get ahead because of their intellectual merit. In other words, the Veronicas of the world owe us Bettys some fair dealing when it comes to peddling sexuality lest we all will be undermined in our careers. Just because Tammy sleeps her way to the top, doesn’t mean the rest of us do. And just because a woman sleeps with her boss doesn’t mean she isn’t good at her job.
These are real paradoxes that exist for some women. I am really anxious to find out what will happen in the careers of David Letterman’s co-workers and simultaneous sexual “partners.” While our culture hasn’t been very hard on Letterman, human resource departments will struggle over whether Letterman’s ladies are Veronicas or Bettys: women who took advantage of male sexual desire to get ahead in business or women who were taken advantage of. Their ethics will be questioned even if his aren’t. Were they actually good at their jobs or just good in the sack? And what about why they did it: did they think they had to sleep with the boss lest they be excused from employment at The Late Show? It’s really muddy water over there at CBS…and everywhere in puritanical America where sex is concerned, I’m afraid.
This episode would probably have ceased to be funny if Leslie had done what I would have done: file a report with human resources the minute Ron told me he was participating in a sex trade. I’ll cut her some slack in the name of sitcom frivolity. (Shame on Ron, however!) But I do want to mention the opposing argument that I met with many times in graduate English seminars when talking about women in Victorian literature. Let’s take The Wings of the Dove, for instance, wherein a woman schemes to marry a poor man by asking him to seduce a dying woman so that, once she dies, all of her money will go to him and he’ll be free to marry the schemer. I remember a classmate explaining to me that I couldn’t be mad at the schemer because she’s a woman and she has to operate within the boundaries of the period and culture she lives in. The only way she can marry the man she loves is if they have some money, and the way she’s found she can get that money is to con an innocent out of her fortune.
That’s tragic. I’ve never been able to agree with this viewpoint, however, because I think a woman hurting another woman is counterproductive. This is why we have an expression “kicking someone when they’re down.” Women historically have been the underdog, so why would we kick each other? That same sympathetic logic applied to the Pawnee triangle would mean that Tammy’s actions are acceptable, even though Leslie gets hurt, because the limitations of Tammy’s circumstances make it difficult for her to get the lot any other way than by sexual means. Leslie was first to claim Lot 48 and she’s been working on her park idea for months. She is an obstacle for Tammy that can be overcome through sex. So, for me, the sex is just the means to a horrible end: Leslie loses her park. Is the sex wrong? Yes, because Leslie gets hurt and not because it’s sex. Bribery with any commodity like money or a promotion or food, etc. would also be wrong…because Leslie gets hurt.
Which is the prevailing feminism? It probably isn’t mine. In my experience, many feminists aren’t critical of women in these types of hypothetical scenarios. The tendency is to blame the man: it’s Ron’s fault, he’s in charge and he’s letting what he wants get in the way of doing his job, he’s using Tammy for sex and nothing more, etc. But in my book, I think that, while Ron is contemptible, so is Tammy. Tammy also should know better. Tammy should be kinder to a female comrade, a fellow “Government Gal.” Tammy should play fair and pose her argument for the lot to higher powers based on practical concerns for the community. (Where will the children with asthma sit in her library, for instance?)
And I agree with Leslie: only a “lunatic” would rather be a conniving, manipulative person over a bona fide hero.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945, married to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her legacy includes such democratic feats as: co-founding Freedom House to evaluate the level of human rights consideration in government, supporting the creation of the United Nations and even serving as a delegate, as well as proving instrumental in launching the “Second Wave” of the Feminist Movement.
Perhaps she too was a Betty. Nothing like a conventional beauty, she often sacrificed personal satisfaction, adoration and comfort for a life of public service. And she had her own Veronica: Lucy Mercer Rutherford, her former social secretary. Informed and angry about the affair between her husband and her former employee, Eleanor reportedly threatened him with divorce, also known as political murder/suicide. She arrived at his deathbed to find Lucy by his side, which is really a tragic end to an unsatisfying romance.
However, Roosevelt’s unhappiness in love did not infect her political, feminist and humanist triumphs. Betty she may have been, but she was no less than the Betty I want to be.