Dueling charges of misogyny from the left and the right have become a depressingly regular media circus—one that, regardless of the real issues, is mostly about moral posturing and political point-scoring. Worse, both sides are feeding a toxic obsession with women-as-victims and promoting a sexism of special treatment rather than equality.
Conservatives accuse liberals of ignoring and condoning sexist slurs against right-wing women. Liberals accuse conservatives of ignoring and condoning sexism except when it's directed at conservative women and can be used as a weapon against the left.
One can argue ad nauseam about which side is more misogynist and more hypocritical. There is no question that crude and sex-themed attacks on "enemy" women have come from both camps—be it vulgar language directed at Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, or, most recently, the Hustler magazine photomontage of conservative pundit S.E. Cupp performing a sexual act and the recent Twitter comment by blogger Dan Riehl inviting liberal pundit Joan Walsh to perform a similar act on him. I would say that, generally, the left has more consistently (if often grudgingly) condemned such behavior in its ranks while the right has been more likely to circle the wagons.
But here's a question: Does any of this warrant the cries of outrage about misogyny?
Yes, that Hustler montage was vile. But it's not as if publisher Larry Flynt has ever held back on sliming male social conservatives. He was behind the famous parody ad that had Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell confessing to a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse (prompting a Supreme Court ruling that protected such satire no matter how distressing to its targets). Just last September, Flynt ran ads soliciting reports of illicit sex with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then a leading Republican presidential contender.
Riehl, too, is an equal-opportunity offender: He has posted plenty of crude insults and taunts toward male journalists, including insinuations of pedophilia and public lewdness—drawing only a fraction of the criticism his comment about Walsh set off. Perhaps we should be less concerned with offenses against womanhood and more with the general levels of hostility and vulgarity in our discourse.
The silliest tempest in the war-against-women teacup has been the brouhaha over the video of labor activists in South Carolina bashing a piñata with the face of union-unfriendly Gov. Nikki Haley. Tacky and nasty, yes. Sexist, as claimed by some conservatives including Glenn Beck and Slate.com blogger Rachael Larimore? Hardly, especially considering the basher was also a woman. Barack Obama piñatas are sold on Amazon.com (there's a YouTube video of one being whacked by children), and George W. Bush piñatas have been around as well.
It is worth nothing that three years ago, some feminists made an equally silly fuss over a conservative Oklahoma newspaper's cartoon of then-Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as a human piñata, claiming that it was telling women to "know your place, or we'll take a stick to you and teach you a lesson." Once, conservatives used to mock this politically correct victim mentality. Now, they're aping it.
What about sex-specific or sexual insults? Feminists have a point when they say that such attacks on women are uniquely damaging because historically, women have been so often demeaned and disempowered by being reduced to their sexual functions. Today, too, women in public life can face unmistakably misogynist rhetoric, whether it's Salon.com publishing a Palin-bashing screed filled with degrading sexual imagery or Rush Limbaugh repeatedly portraying Clinton as an emasculating female; whether it's conservatives suggesting that feminists are not "real women" or liberals suggesting the same about women who don't toe the feminist party line.
But not every crude and hateful slam at a woman is misogynist; sometimes, it's just crude and hateful. An anatomical epithet toward a woman is not automatically worse than the male equivalent. Calling a female politician a bitch is not automatically worse than calling a male politician a scumbag, an overwhelmingly male-directed slur. Rocker and right-wing activist Ted Nugent's invitation to Hillary Clinton to "ride one of these into the sunset" while brandishing two rifles at a concert in 2007 was no more disgusting than his simultaneous invitation to Barack Obama to "suck on this" (and there's no reason to think that Nugent would have been kinder to a top Democratic presidential contender who was male and white).
Nor are male politicians immune to sexual denigration. After Rick Santorum angered gay activists with negative comments about homosexuality, he was targeted for an Internet campaign promoting the use of his last name as an obscene sex-related term. Print ads seeking dirt on Rick Perry were run not only by Flynt but by Ron Paul supporter Robert Morrow. (Imagine the shrieks if a respectable newspaper had run an ad asking, "Have you ever had sex with Sarah Palin?")
In the 21st century, women may not have yet reached parity in public life. But they are clearly no longer outsiders. If their gender can still be an obstacle, it can also be an asset: a source of extra star power as well as extra voter sympathy. They have come far enough to not be treated as especially vulnerable, an expectation that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In 2008, when Clinton's campaign complained about sexism in media coverage, a conservative woman responded, "When I hear a statement like that coming from a woman candidate with any kind of perceived whine about that excess criticism, or maybe a sharper microscope put on her, I think, 'Man, that doesn't do us any good, women in politics, or women in general, trying to progress this country.'" Sarah Palin may never have spoken wiser words.
Contributing Editor Cathy Young is a columnist at RealClearPolitics, where this article originally appeared.