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
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 make us laugh at
them – in the world of reality TV, that’s always the true goal.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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"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
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
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
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.
But 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
be 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
Instead 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.