Is It Time To Sign Politicians Up for Tool Academy?

02/02/2009 04:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the past week, women have taken a verbal beating on national TV. In Washington DC, former President Bush the elder made a cruel public joke about being repulsed by an "ugly woman" who happened to be a pro-choice protester. To make it worse President Clinton said nary a word of rebuke, instead mourning his own inability to engage in ribald public humor.

Meanwhile, a group of DC congressmen couldn't get rid of their giggles during the discussion of family planning in the stimulus bill. (Seriously? The word "stimulus" is all it takes to bring out the fifth-grade level immaturity?) These are the people who have women's lives and health in their trust. But it looks like they're just not that into us.

While discussing the stimulus on TV's Hardball, Republican big-shot Dick Armey grew furious when contradicted by Salon's Joan Walsh. After shouting over her for most of the segment, he concluded by saying that he was glad she wasn't his wife, so he wouldn't have to hear her talking all day. It was a shocking moment, and host Chris Matthews, who has his own misogyny problems,
barely acknowledged it until prompted by the ever-gracious Bob Herbert, at which point Matthews muttered something about "crossing the line" and "gender." Meanwhile on Fox, Juan Williams was re-upping the attacks on Michelle Obama, baselessly calling her "Stokely Carmichael in a Dress."

If you flipped the dial a few stations away from MSNBC, however, you might see a guy who behaves like Armey, Bush, Williams or Matthews labeled exactly what he is: a tool. VH1's new reality show "Tool Academy" aims to take the most pathetically macho guys in America, the most sexist, self-absorbed, thoughtless, and pathological men and try to turn them, in the course of filming, into decent human beings. Well, the aim is actually to make us laugh at them - in the world of reality TV, that's always the true goal.

"Tool Academy" has joined a long list of problematic and sometimes scarily entertaining VH1 reality shows that pit sleazy, desperate people against each other for a prize, whether it's a love interest, cash or "a new lease on life." "Tool Academy" stays decidedly in that vein, but as Juliana at Bitch magazine said, it's fascinating to see the focus of such a show be on the rehabilitation of a ridiculous group of men. Scantily clad women and their fights, mishaps, and breakdowns have been the primary focus of the most popular Vh1 shows like "Flavor of Love," "Rock of Love," and "Charm School." Now there's an alternative to those shows which specifically posits misogynist behavior - ordering women around, womanizing, talking disparagingly about women's bodies, even aggression - as behavior that is laughable, stupid, and needs to be curbed.

Incidentally, the premise is that all these guys thought they were appearing on a show called "Mr. Awesome," but they're told upon arrival that they're tools in need of desperate rehabilitation. This sounds awfully familiar. Can we sign up certain former presidents, congressmen and pundits for season two?

Of course, "Tool Academy" fails in a lot of respects - by reducing behavior that veers into emotionally abusive territory to silly entertainment, it undercuts the real-life consequences of that behavior. And the Tools' girlfriends, who sit with them through painful therapy sessions and change-oriented tasks, are expected to stand by their men, because they signed up for the show too. It's a typical patriarchy-in-disguise idea: the idea that it's women's job to cure men of their sexism. Finally, there's no doubt that at least a few of the laughs are at the girlfriends' expense: how can she stay with such a jerk? - which reinforces stereotypes about abusive relationships.

But where "Tool Academy" succeeds in capturing the zeitgeist, and this would-be-blockbuster "He's Just Not That Into You" may fail, is that aggressive masculinity is trending downward. Swagger is out, sensitivity is in. As Amanda wrote, "I definitely think that a lot of right wing men are just throwing a giant temper tantrum because... Obama and congressional Democrats are gutting an anti-feminist project that they've been working for years on."

Just look at these widely-circulated pictures Jill at Feministe juxtaposed: in one, President Bush, surrounded by old white men in suits, signs a bill to curb women's reproductive rights. In the second, president Obama surrounded by women and men together, joyfully signs the Lily Ledbetter bill. Between that bill, the expansion of SCHIP, reversing the global gag rule and hints that expanded birth control coverage is coming down the pipes, change is here.

And beyond policy, it's a change in attitude. Obama may not be perfect, or perfect for women, as the family provision being axed from the stimulus package proves. But on an aesthetic level, his embrace of fatherhood, a strong wife, and a domestic and foreign policy based on cooperation rather than confrontation are a far cry from the cowboy Bush years. Furthermore, he's flanked not only by Michelle Obama but by strong female leaders like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, and he appears to love it. And America loves him.

So "He's Just Not That Into You" may prove to be a catchphrase more fitting for the Bush years - "he's super into you" seems more like it now. It will b interesting to see how audiences and critics react to the clingy ladies and commitment phobic dudes when the filmed version of that sexist self-help blockbuster hits the big screen next weekend. My hopeful guess it it's going to be panned.

Instead of accepting that they're just not that into us, American women have voted out the old guard of sexist politicians who made such fools of themselves this week. The 'tools' left in Washington need look inward, stop foisting their pathology on the public, and realize that like Tool Academy's participants, they "have a lot of work to do" - or face their own irrelevance.

Originally posted at RH Reality Check