On Imus and sexism

Is overt sexism more socially acceptable than overt racism?

by Jason Stahl

So Don Imus has been fired from both his radio and television show a week after he called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos” during a discussion of the team’s play in the national championship game. What more can possibly be said about this incident?

For the past week and a half since Imus made the comment, he has been national news with everyone weighing in on the matter. For this reason, I originally was not going to write a column on the subject. However, I changed my mind yesterday when a female friend of mine argued that Imus would not have been fired if he had avoided using the adjective “nappy-headed” to describe the team. In other words, she argued that it was the overt racism of his comment – rather than its overt sexism – that was the problem for most people. Thinking about this, I believe she is probably right. In particular, if one examines the form the debate took within the media, it is hard to disagree with this assessment.

First and foremost, note the way in which nearly all the mainstream media debate was focused on the single sound bite of “nappy-headed ho.” This ignores that this comment occurred within a longer discussion in which the main point was to overtly sexualize the players on both the Rutgers team and the Tennessee team that they played. The “girls” from Tennessee were “cute” while the “hardcore hos” from Rutgers look “exactly like the Toronto Raptors,” or “The (Memphis) Grizzlies.” Imus’ producer at one point even argued that the two teams reminded him of the Spike Lee film “School Daze” with the Rutgers team as “The Jigaboos” and the Tennessee team as “The Wannabes.” This comment occurred right after Imus himself said the Tennessee team “all look cute,” thus what his producer was insinuating was that they were “less black,” and thus, more attractive.

This might very well be the first time you’ve heard the entire context of the conversation, as opposed to simply the single sound bite. By reducing discussion in this way, much of the overt sexism of the conversation is lost in favor of a discussion that centers the single phrase. In other words, what was lost was that this conversation was designed to “put the ladies in their place” by reminding them that, no matter what they’ve done in life, they can always be objectified and sexualized by a group of men who are afraid of them and their accomplishments. Because of this, both teams deserved an apology. However, because the majority of the conversation was ignored, no one thought to ask why Imus was not apologizing to Tennessee as well as Rutgers.

Secondly, as another example that the sexism was not the problem, note that when the subject did come up within the mainstream media debate, it was by Imus himself when he tried to use it as a defense. Namely, Imus and his defenders relied on the “black rappers say ‘ho,’ too” argument whereby they argued that the culture writ large is sexist, so they cannot be held responsible for their sexism. This attempt at dodging accountability for his own words is laughable, but the overall point Imus unintentionally raises is a good one. Namely, there is an element of American culture that now encourages men to bond across racial lines in their objectification of women. Thus, elite white record company owners, black rappers and the Don Imuses of the world can come together to “put women in their place.” This message then filters down through the culture, sending the message that sexism is not only fine, but valued by those in power.

This tolerance of sexism – which has been ignored or excused in the Imus incident – needs to be addressed in the same way as the racism of his words. Feminist columnists and bloggers have been doing this, but within the mainstream media one continues to hear overwhelmingly male voices that, by and large, choose not to address the sexism of the comments. This is regrettable, because this moment could have been a chance for progressive women and men to not only acknowledge the sexism which pervades American culture, but also to put forth new definitions of what it means to be masculine, definitions which do not rely on a the need to continually reassert male supremacy through the denigration of women.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected].