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As insults go, this one's a yawner

It's hard to get too worked up over this particular edition of 'Gaffes Gone Wild.'

October 14, 2010|Meghan Daum

Women of California: You have been insulted. Not by the Beach Boys, who valued your bikinis over your brains. Not by Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg, whose electro-pop "California Gurls" makes some blanket assumptions about your willingness to participate in certain, uh, Jeep-based carnal activities. No, the misogynist of the hour is (allegedly) Jerry Brown.

That's according to his opponent in the governor's race, Meg Whitman, who took umbrage at remarks recorded on voicemail after Brown inadvertently failed to hang up the phone when he left a message. In a blunder worthy of a "Three's Company" episode, the recorder captured Brown's frustration with Whitman's approach to pension reform in law enforcement. He wonders aloud if he should release an ad attacking her for cutting deals with unions in exchange for endorsements. A muffled second voice can then be heard suggesting, "What about saying she's a whore?"

To which Brown replies: "Well, I'm going to use that. It proves you've cut a secret deal to protect pensions."

Many questions arise here. Such as what exactly is he going to "use"? And what proof is he talking about?

But never mind the details; a nasty word was spoken and Brown didn't let it interrupt his train of thought. Therefore, he was casting sexual aspersions, labeling Whitman in a way that harms a woman's reputation beyond repair. We're told this even though it's clear from the tape that "whore" was being used as a metaphor and that Brown himself didn't utter the word (there's now speculation that it might have been his wife).

Just ask the Whitman staff member who called the remark "an appalling and unforgivable smear" and "an insult to both Meg Whitman and to the women of California." Just ask Whitman herself, who continued to hammer away at the point during Tuesday night's debate. Just ask the audience members who gasped when Brown disagreed with the suggestion that "whore" is to women as the "N-word" is to blacks.

Right about here I'm supposed to say that the word "whore" has connotations that are inherently degrading to women. But Brown is right, and I just can't get worked up over this particular edition of "Gaffes Gone Wild."

It has nothing to do with politics. Whether I loved the candidate or despised the candidate (and neither Brown nor Whitman qualify on either score), I'd feel the same way. That's because, like so much these days, whores just aren't what they used to be. Once relegated to seedy neighborhoods or (until recently) the "adult services" section of Craigslist, they're now everywhere. From ambulance-chasing lawyers to corporate shills to just about anyone who's ever tried to forge a career in advertising, public relations or the entertainment industry, the concept of whoredom is now less about selling your body than about selling your soul. Heidi Fleiss' ring of old-fashioned whores might have made her a "Million Dollar Madam," but Enron's empire of modern-day whores — most of them men — was a far bigger, and arguably sleazier, operation than that.

The P.C. police will say that the official definition of whore still refers to a woman who has sex for money, that no equivalent slur has historically been aimed at men, and that bandying about such words restricts women from corridors of power. The first two points are valid enough, but on the last I would submit that the exact opposite is true. When words are bandied about indiscriminately, the effect is just that: no discrimination. "Whore" may be low-hanging fruit if you're looking to pick an empty fight (see also "lipstick on a pig"), but anyone unaware of its myriad nonsexual, non-gender-specific uses should probably get out more — or at least turn on cable TV and behold the "attention whores" of every possible stripe.

As for actual ladies of the night, they may have a legitimate right to be offended by the taped exchange. For starters, since when is it acceptable to say they'll compromise their positions on fiscal reform for the sake of political gain? Moreover, the preferred term is "sex worker." You should know that, Jerry Brown!

But the real insult is indeed the one aimed at women everywhere. Not because of the mere use of a sexist word but rather the suggestion that such a word can't break through the glass ceiling. God knows, if any word deserves equal opportunity rights, it's that one.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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