Last weekend, in Boston for the Women, Action and the Media conference, I met a lot of brilliant women, activists and journalists alike, and left thoroughly inspired by their amazing work.
But after the dust cleared, the one image I couldn't shake from my mind was a new perspective I got on a man, a man that I will always have a deep, abiding affection for, a man with whom I spend nearly every night.
I'm speaking, of course, of Jon Stewart.
Jon came up during a panel on reproductive justice featuring Rewireers Emily Douglas, Amanda Marcotte, and Cristina Page along with Pro-Choice Public Education Project executive director Aimee Thorne-Thomsen. During the question and answer session, Cristina mentioned that a Daily Show staffer had dismissed the idea of her appearing on the show to promote her book, "How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America." The reason? The topic was "too serious." And yet, Page pointed out, Stewart constantly has guests who come on to talk about Iraq, which is as serious as it gets. But somehow the Daily Show writers have managed to find ways to mix humor with biting analysis in their discussion of the war.
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The actual answer is not that abortion is too "serious," but it's that it's a serious women's issue, and is therefore marginalized by our misogynist society. Reproductive justice as movement is wrapped up with female bodies and female sexuality, and poses a challenge to class and race privilege. None of these concepts have been adequately absorbed by the hip, progressive movement of which Stewart is a figurehead.
As a friend said to me after the panel, the problem women's advocates face in trying to conquer popular media is that "sexism is cool."
After her comment, I thought about Stewart's guests, the people who show up at the end of each show hawking a newly-released hardcover book. There's no question that most of them are men, a lot of them are men who write "serious" books about war, the economy and politics. And the show's (wonderful) cast is also mostly male — Samantha Bee alone has been holding it down for her gender since I started watching the show in the 2004 election.
The show, I realized, is kind of a frat-house, albeit an incisive, witty, and progressive one.
But The Daily Show isn't the only problem — it's just a symptom of a larger cultural illness. When Stewart's counterpart Stephen Colbert, who is more feminist-friendly than most men on TV, introduced his writers after the strike, even they were predominantly male. The fact is that these dudes, with their scraggly hair and sneakers, pen hilarious — and sometimes painfully cutting — critique of every reactionary aspect of our society, and that includes anti-feminists. Compared to the staffs at shows like Letterman and Leno, I'm guessing Colbert's writers' eyes are less likely to glaze over when they hear "abortion" or "reproductive rights." But it would be nice for there to be a few more women among their ranks, whose perspective might give advocating for our issues, not just making fun of those who seek to undermine them, a position of centrality within the broader progressive conversation.
The dudely subculture — the smart-funny-cool-ironic hybrid that defines our age and has raised effective challenges to everything from Iraq war to onscreen taboos to the surveillance state — has been too silent when it comes to the rights of women that have been so viciously been eroded in the past eight years (and incidentally, silent about the very real connection between the two tragedies).
Bill Maher offers unbelievably insightful, BS-free comments about foreign policy, and the best discourse on TV, but gets the heebie-jeebies from public breastfeeding, and that's just the tip of his women-bashing iceberg.
Meanwhile on the less political side of things, Judd Apatow, comedy's boy wonder and the smartest person in Hollywood (says Entertainment Weekly), is lauded for a movie that ends with the male character affirming that not wearing a condom was the best thing he ever did. Apatow has edged film forward by showing everything from a crowning baby to full-frontal male nudity, but as Katherine Heigl noted (and got slammed for), he managed to challenge these conventions while setting back the status of women onscreen.
"Dude" culture is not just a male thing — just spend a couple of day reading Slate's the XX factor to get an idea of how some women from a fairly liberal, funny and intellectual background, think advocating for women's rights too strongly is decidedly uncool.
The problem for those of us who want to make women's lives better — through sex education, contraception, health care and yes, safe legal abortion — is that we're caught in a world that devalues us as people, and therefore devalues our legitimate concerns and even our health crises.
But the hope that we have is in the burgeoning reproductive justice framework. In its emphasis on all women's bodily autonomy, on the entire spectrum from sex-ed to contraception to children's health care, it gives us a chance to critique the right-wing's hypocrisy. The hypocrisy of claiming to love children but denying them health care, of claiming to hate abortion refusing to take realistic, practical steps to prevent it. Slowly, our culture is waking up to this absurdity, and as Amanda said at the panel, this is our moment to seize.
We have to attack using a two-pronged fork. By directly challenging cultural misogyny in mainstream popular media, we are paving the way for our legal and social rights. And by using the powerfully holistic framework of reproductive justice to advocate loudly for those rights, we can enable our allies — like Stephen Colbert — to ramp up coverage of "women's" issues without causing any viewers to change the channel.