"There's a place in Hell reserved for women who don't help other women." Madeleine Albright, keynote speech at Celebrating Inspiration luncheon with the WNBA's All-Decade Team, 2006
I'm not sure if we're tired of that quote yet; it's been used and used again, sometimes mangled beyond recognition, by women making a point about sisterhood and who we're supposed to be rooting for. It's a good point. I personally feel a great solidarity with my "sisters," old enough to remember when things weren't quite as equal as they currently -- though still unequally -- are. When culture was oblivious to issues like sexual harassment (just watch a little Mad Men!) or a woman's right to choose; when ceilings were glass(ier), job types more limited, and even something as banal as not wearing a bra was worthy of slut-shaming (can you imagine Rush Limbaugh in the '70's?).
While there are far more heinous ways in which women are oppressed throughout the world, for the moment I want to focus on the "Sisterhood of the Unraveling Pants," that fraying-at-the-seams female solidarity that's been battered by strident political polarities, the mission creep of religion into public policy, the lessening of good manners and social decorum, all leading to -- and I hate to say it -- the catty ways in which too many women respond to any idea, person, or party that does not align with their thinking.
There are many elements responsible for this crumbling of Girl Power, but let me start by putting blame squarely on the media for its hiring of and pandering to female pundits and commentators who seem hell bent on competing with the worst of the guys like Rush, Sean, Bill, Glenn, Keith and their ilk: sneering rejoinders, snide and often fact-challenged criticisms, eye rolling denunciations, passive aggressive (sometimes just aggressive) baiting, all thrown together and doled out by the gals with an added dollop of talon-bearing, bathroom brawling, girl-snark. Think Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Laura Ingraham, most of the women on Fox and, of course, the once ubiquitous Sarah Palin. That's on the Right. On the Left there seems to be a smaller cadre of female commentators of any style, the biggest being Rachel Maddow, who operates on a much higher level of discourse than any of the aforementioned. But before Air America crashed and burned, the Left managed to crank out a couple of their own snarling sallies, including Janeane Garofalo and Stephanie Miller, who, it could be said, offset the slap of their snark by having bona fides as comedians.
The point I'm making is that a good number of high-profile women who have the bully pulpit of big market media have set a tone that is often intentionally bitchy and lacking substance while simultaneously lowering the bar for what passes as social discourse. And this trend seems to have trickled right down to the most prosaic forms of communication between everyday women on places such as Facebook, Twitter, even female-centric social media sites like BlogHer. I'm often stunned by the "Coulterizing" of communication between women of opposing political parties and religious views found in comment threads that reveal a vitriol so counterproductive I wonder, what is the point of this verbal bullying? Where are we going with this?
One of my favorite essayists and opinion writers was the late Christopher Hitchens. I didn't always agree with him, sometimes vehemently, but I always appreciated the brashness and literary courage he exuded in making his points. He didn't care if he pricked anyone's pique and he stood by what he had to say, sometimes against great pushback (I'm thinking of a certain Mother Teresa piece!). Yes, he used snark and could often be incendiary, but his theses had gravitas, there was always a point being made, and he bolstered his unkindest cuts with facts, intellect, and perspective that was thought-provoking.
You can get away with some edge under those circumstances. There is no purpose to snark, however, when one's only intent is to:
1. Denigrate intelligent women speaking at a convention simply because they're in the acting profession;
2. Insult and demean a young woman for speaking up about women's healthcare issues your party doesn't support;
3. Dismiss the many concerns of a large contingent of women simply because those concerns are not shared by your political party;
4. Demonize women who believe in certain civil rights your religion finds anathema;
5. Attack women whose religious beliefs are not your own;
6. Embarrass, degrade and make fun of women for how they're aging, the shape of their bodies, the way they dress, the men/women they sleep with, and the work they do simply because they're of a different political party... or you think you're prettier, thinner, younger, smarter, and more famous.
Clearly women don't have the franchise on snark-speak -- men not only hold their own, they dominate, adding a layer of pugilistic bluster that's specific to the chest-butting, head-bashing male stereotype. On the same hand, women who traffic in the Cult of Catty seem to have studied the movie Mean Girls and come away with a mandate to emulate the sneering Regina George and her crew of "Plastics." Funny in a movie, not so much in real life.
These are very polarized and complicated times and the issues we're dealing with, all of us, regardless of creed, party, or gender, demand a level of thoughtful consideration, honest exchange of ideas, and a willingness to collaborate and compromise. Culturally we seem to struggle with that paradigm but we better do better these next four years, regardless of who's sitting in the Oval Office!
But we women? Are we obligated to help each other out, as Madeleine Albright suggests, by sheer virtue of our shared gender? Should we expect female solidarity to trump our differing worldviews? I doubt that's possible for many, certainly not the Plastics out there mauling the media with their assaultive speech. But I can't help but believe the rest of us, with our particular sensibilities and intuitive ability to grasp and communicate, can do a better job than we're doing. Believe me, I'm not suggesting Pollyanna-ish pabulum. Cutting satire, insightful perspective, candid commentary, and no-holds-barred whistle blowing are all part of a vibrant, entertaining, and constructive culture. We need that and we need smart, witty, thoughtful women (and, yes, men) providing it. But lobbing grenades for no other purpose than to feel superior?
Let's leave that to the movies.
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