By now, it’s widely known that Jon Favreau, Barack Obama’s soon-to-be director of speechwriting, was caught in a photo fondling the breast of a cardboard cut-out of Senator Clinton while another Obama staffer holds a bottle of beer to her lips. These two young men are smiling broadly in the photo, apparently enjoying their mime of groping Senator Clinton as they get her drunk. What has become almost more startling than this photo is the way it has been addressed, or not addressed, by the incoming Obama administration and the media.
President-elect Obama has not made any public statement about this insulting and sexist behavior on the part of the 27-year-old Favreau. Obama has not seen fit to publicly denounce this behavior, to ensure that Mr. Favreau make a public apology, nor has the president-elect deemed it necessary to fire Mr. Favreau. Instead, Barack Obama has remained silent, providing yet another example of how his actions do not match his words. Barack Obama has stated a commitment to work for women’s rights, including the reduction of violence against women. However, here we have his main speechwriter miming an act that is the prelude to what is now commonly referred to as date rape, miming sexual molestation that is specifically directed toward the woman who in all likelihood will be the next secretary of state, and for this Obama has not a word to say.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media has downplayed Favreau’s actions in numerous ways. CNN anchor Campbell Brown appeared to feel that what Favreau did was wrong. However, after devoting all of three sentences to that, she redirected the bulk of her attention to Senator Clinton’s response, calling Clinton out on what she perceives as Clinton’s change of attitude regarding sexism. In so doing, Ms. Brown perpetuated the blame-the-victim mentality.
CNN aired a segment with Wolf Blitzer, James Carville and Kevin Madden chuckling their way through their commentary. Mr. Blitzer appeared concerned with “how people have to really be careful nowadays,” suggesting that the problem is simply that Favreau got caught. Initially directing his comments to an organization called the New Agenda whose mission is to advance women’s rights, including the issue of violence against women, Mr. Carville spewed: “It’s a piece of cardboard, stupid!” In one fell swoop, Mr. Carville not only spoke in a highly disrespectful and demeaning manner to this group of women (or anyone listening who might have found Favreau’s behavior offensive), but discounted the power of images. Is James Carville seriously suggesting that a cardboard image of a black person hanging by a noose is meaningless because it is cardboard? How might Carville feel about an effigy of a person being beaten or burned? What if that effigy were an image of Mr. Carville? According to Mr. Carville’s misguided rules, there is no reason for concern if another human being interacts with an image because the image is inanimate, as if there is no relationship between images and behavior.
Mr. Carville’s commentary noted that Favreau was “just having a good time” and that “he did absolutely nothing wrong.” Mr. Carville further comments that he hopes he’ll be doing the sort of thing that Favreau did when he is 67. Mr. Carville could not say enough good things about Favreau, describing him as “a very talented young man.” Mr. Carville appeared to feel that the real issue of concern pertained to the “really sick people who put this stuff up” while suggesting that those who posted this photo on the Internet have mental problems.
Curiously, Mr. Carville sets out what he believes are the truly important areas for women, citing violence against women among his top three issues. Apparently he feels confident stating that violence against women is a serious matter while simultaneously demeaning women for expressing concerns about that very issue as such concerns pertained to Favreau’s behavior.
Kevin Madden focuses his attention much as Blitzer did regarding how careful one must be in this day of modern technology. This perspective suggests that the behavior is not what we need to focus on, but more importantly, one’s care in not getting caught! He comments, as did Carville, about Favreau’s speechwriting talents, as if they had any bearing on the matter.
Kathleen Parker’s piece in the Washington Post also minimized Favreau’s actions, noting that everyone needs to lighten up and have a sense of humor. She slapped the wrist of feminists by suggesting energies would be best directed to the more serious matter of, “say, Iran, where yet another woman recently was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery.” Ms. Parker traded solid investigative research for a snide remark since many feminist organizations in America are concerned about and involved with taking action against the treatment of Muslim women and all oppressed women around the world. Unfortunately, Ms. Parker could not see her way clear to realize that a college student getting date-raped because some young man thought it perfectly fine to exploit her in this way is horrendous in it’s own right. We needn’t look overseas for egregious acts against women. Sadly, we have plenty right here at home.
Robert Schlesinger of U.S. News and World Report acknowledges that Favreau’s behavior was “dumb” and “crass” but is “not reflective of deep-seated misogyny.” Mr. Schlesinger appears to have the astonishing ability to crawl into the heart and mind of Mr. Favreau and determine the nature and the depth of his attitudes toward women.
The confused and misguided notions expressed by major media commentators suggests numerous double standards:
Double Standard No 1: Partisan Politics — If the speechwriter in question had worked for a Republican and not a Democrat, would the press would have handled the matter differently? In light of the persistent media bias in favor of Democrats and critical of all things Republican, it appears reasonably safe to assume they would have pounced all over it as a sign of something very wrong, which of course, it is.
Double Standard No 2: Race vs. Gender Bias — If the image on the cardboard cut out had been Michelle Obama or any other prominent black woman, would Obama’s response and the media’s response be different? Based on what we’ve witnessed all year, I would venture to guess that the response would be radically different. There would be outrage. There would be cries of racism. It would be a front and center issue, as it should be.
Double Standard No 3: Clinton vs. Female Family Member of Media Commentators — If the image were not of Senator Clinton but rather the mother, wife, or daughter of one of the commentators, would they have a different view of the entire affair? If not, that would be disturbing in and of itself. If so, then they have a double standard regarding their treatment of this situation.
Double Standard No 4: Favreau and Staffer vs. Ordinary Guy — What if the men miming the act of getting a woman drunk while groping her breasts were not privileged, “talented” young men? Perhaps blue collar. Maybe not quite so handsome, so seemingly charming. What if they were a couple of guys that looked like they lived on the other side of the tracks? Would people be more offended? Would they find it wrong that such young men were engaged in these kinds of behaviors toward a person who will likely be our next secretary of state?
Double Standard No 5: Heterosexual Image vs. Homosexual Image — What if Favreau and his buddy were interacting in a sexually provocative way with a cardboard cut-out of a man? What if the image were of Barack Obama? Would the Obama campaign feel differently about it? Would the media take offense?
What Jon Favreau did is important and it is not only women who should be outraged. We all should be.
Violence against women often begins with the behaviors mimed by Jon Favreau and his buddy. A woman is rendered semi-conscious and then fondled, often raped. In some cases, she is killed. If you’re female, you don’t have to live in Iran to wind up dead because of the simple fact of your gender.
What Jon Favreau did was wrong. It was wrong because of the powerful symbol it conveys and the message it sends. Obama’s silence on the matter condones the action. The media’s dismissal reinforces the message to those who may be inclined to emulate Jon Favreau that it’s fine to do so. And it tells women and girls that demeaning treatment will be tolerated.
Women across America are being beaten as we read these words. Such behaviors do not occur in a vacuum. They occur within a social context that accepts it by participating, nurturing, minimizing, or simply ignoring it.
Jon Favreau, through his actions, Barack Obama, through his inactions, and the media, through their complicity, have all fueled, just that much more, a cultural context that accepts what we all must reject at every turn: the full range of degradation toward women.