ON MAY 15, I submitted an article to the Counterpunch website, objecting to its treatment of Angelina Jolie's public disclosure of her recent preventative double mastectomy. This article has since appeared at both SocialistWorker.org and ZNet under the title "Why Counterpunch owes women an apology."
I will restate here that I was repulsed by the Counterpunch promo that appeared in my e-mail inbox on May 14 announcing, "Ruth Fowler unsnaps Angelina Jolie's bra and exposes privilege, health care and tits," linking to the article "Angelina Jolie Under the Knife: Of Privilege, Health Care and Tits."
I have no principled objection to using the word "tits." But all words must be judged within the literary and social context in which they are used, usually in the form of a phrase or sentence. As it happens, the word "tits"–often conjoined with "ass"–is one way in which women's bodies are systematically objectified and degraded in this society. (A brief Google search of "tits and ass" transports the reader to a host of online porn sites, many of them misogynous, displaying this point graphically.)
Millions of women experience this type of sexist degradation on a daily basis while walking down the street, when their bodies are loudly rated according to the perceived desirability of their individual body parts by male gawkers. If the women targeted by this uninvited abuse object to this treatment, the conversation often turns ugly, and the words "bitch" and "cunt" frequently make an appearance.
Anger against this sexist degradation if anything is on the rise today, as the Everyday Sexism Project–started just one year ago on Twitter and since gone viral–reveals clearly.
In this context, I found Fowler's article and its promotion–containing imagery of unsnapping a woman's bra and exposing her "tits"–both gratuitous and insulting, especially in the context of the current breast cancer epidemic. I objected not only to the use of sexist imagery, but also to the content of Fowler's article.
As a socialist, I am well aware of the class divide in this society, and have written numerous articles documenting the gross inequality in the profit-driven health care system, some of which have appeared on the Counterpunch website. I normally welcome other authors' insights on this urgent issue.
My critique of Fowler's article, however, was directed at wondering why, as I wrote, "Jolie has been singled out for such scorn" since she "neither created nor can resolve the health care crisis. That responsibility lies squarely with the medical-industrial complex, including its government lackeys, who sustain the class disparities of the for-profit health care system. The conditions are ripe for a movement that demands health care for all, but it must take aim at the appropriate target to be effective."
While I am committed to a class analysis, I am also well aware that women's oppression, including the degrading sexual objectification of women's bodies, is endemic to the capitalist system. My article was about sexism and the responsibility of those on the left (including self-proclaimed "radical" critics) to oppose it. Sexism is a serious matter, and it warrants a serious response.
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I WAS therefore taken aback to receive the following "rejection" letter from Counterpunch managing editor Joshua Frank, which implied that the editors use the word "tits" to increase web traffic:
On May 15, 2013, at 8:06 PM, Josh Frank wrote:
Thanks for reading. You are upset by the word tits in the title? We like to entice folks to click and read. Glad you did. If you can direct the argument of your piece more toward a critique of Fowler's piece, instead of hollow rhetoric, we will be happy to consider it.
Sent from my iPhone, please excuse typos.
Later that evening, I received this missive from Counterpunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair:
From: Jeffrey St Clair
Date: Wed, May 15, 2013 at 11:45 PM
Honestly, this is one of the most reactionary things I've ever read. Read it over again. If we printed this, next thing you know you'll be being interviewed on the 700 Club by Pat Robertson. Really. What would Simone De Beauvoir think of this? Such piety over words.
Nowhere in the e-mails above did the Counterpunch editors contradict the notion that they were responsible for the language choices in question. On the contrary, they appeared self-righteous about their editorial decisions.
I was not surprised at their decision to refuse my piece–which, of course, is their right. I was surprised by their glib dismissal, however, particularly since I had been a regular Counterpunch contributor for a number of years. Most recently, editors Joshua Frank and Jeffrey St. Clair saw fit to include an article written by me in their collection of essays, Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published in May 2012.
If St. Clair, Frank or Fowler engaged in a serious debate (that was, after all, what I attempted to provoke), I would have welcomed it. Instead, they resorted to the tiresome technique known as "bait and switch" so often employed by those backed into an indefensible political corner. They simply changed the subject from one about sexism to a new one about "censorship." This technique is also known as "grasping at straws."
They quickly pounced on a new claim: They accused me and my comrade Sherry Wolf (who voiced a similar objection to sexism at Counterpunch on her Facebook page) of having demanded that they "aggressively censor" Fowler–as if we had put through an emergency call for assistance from the Christian Right, with Al and Tipper Gore waiting in the wings, eager to pounce. Perhaps we would soon put through a call to the FCC and attempt a government crackdown?
[Fact check: It seems that, unless the Counterpunch editors have ceded their own editorial control, they remain responsible for the content that appears on the website that bears its name and its promotion. Indeed, Frank admitted, "We did talk about changing 'tits' to 'breasts'… We wouldn't have picked that word on our own," but deferred to the word choice of this woman writer. My own experience as a woman writer at Counterpunch was that the editors frequently and unceremoniously replaced my own titles with those they preferred.]
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THE SMIRKING editors (egged on by their shrinking coterie of equally smug "admirers" at the Counterpunch Facebook page) thereby magically transformed the debate over sexism into a passionate defense of their own civil liberties. In this new context, my voiced opposition to sexism morphed into a "reactionary" stand.
Counterpunch's very right to use the word "tits" was apparently now in peril. Surely, they argued, those opposed to sexism must simply be opposed to sex! It must be simply the word "tits" their critics objected to, not its sexist usage in the context of breast cancer. We critics must be therefore aligned with all the forces of reaction aiming to quell the right to freedom of expression, which Counterpunch courageously champions on a daily basis!
While I am hardly one to keep smelling salts at my side lest someone let loose a profanity in my presence, it is absolutely ludicrous to associate Sherry Wolf with the 700 Club crowd. Anyone familiar with this anti-authoritarian, frequently potty-mouthed, proud lesbian would laugh heartily at this preposterous suggestion. Indeed, she mischievously proposed to the Counterpunch editors: "I suggest this nifty title for your post after Angelina Jolie has her ovaries removed: "Rich Cunt Mutilates Pussy"–that should get you lots more readers!" I'm guessing Pat Robertson would not be inspired by Sherry's clever turn of phrase, much less aim to sign her up for his cause.
As the Everyday Sexism Project notes on its website, "In this 'liberal,' 'modern' age, to complain about everyday sexism or suggest that you are unhappy about the way in which women are portrayed and perceived renders you likely to be labeled as 'uptight,' 'prudish,' a 'militant feminist,' or a 'bra burner.'" Indeed, there is a longstanding caricature of feminists as man-hating and/or sex-hating, bitter and humorless women who find sexism everywhere they look.
This odious caricature, while regularly employed by those on the right, also has an indefensible legacy among men on the left. It is an unfortunate fact that many men from the 1960s New Left ridiculed attempts by women to call attention to their own oppression within the larger movement.
As early as 1964, when women active in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) wrote a position paper called "The Position of Women in SNCC," leader Stokely Carmichael replied (allegedly in jest), "The only position for women in SNCC is prone." In a similar vein, a Berkeley underground newspaper stated in 1968, "Our line on the women's trip–LET THEM EAT COCK." Those women who failed to appreciate all this hilarity were informed that they must simply lack a sense of humor.
These were not isolated events but regular occurrences, leading to the steady exodus of women's liberationists from organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the late 1960s.
Counterpunch was not satisfied with employing the tiresome caricature described above. St. Clair added a strong dose of "slut shaming." Slut shaming is a form of "victim blaming" directed against women for behaviors that are deemed exceedingly sexual, implying that they are responsible for any harm that comes their way. This approach is summed up in the all-too-familiar phrase, "She got what she was asking for."
St. Clair wrote, "I will say that I don't think it would been have morally 'wrong' for me to substitute the word 'tit' for 'breast,' since Angelina has herself flaunted her 'tits,' that is sexualized them in films promoting the CIA, assassination and looting of indigenous cultures." In a separate comment, St. Clair remarked, "As for us 'sexualizing' Angelina Jolie, how is that even possible? Her self-sexualization has been totalizing & she made a lot of millions doing it."
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LIKE SCHOOLYARD bullies, the Counterpunch gang then scrambled around and slung mud from a variety of directions in the hope that something would stick. They hurled a range of accusations in my and Sherry's general direction, which landed together in an incomprehensible mess.
On the one hand, Sherry and I were accused of promoting "identity politics" and "political correctness"–which are apparently stand-alone offenses now in some left quarters. St. Clair and Frank also advanced the fiction that we expected "Ruth Fowler to apologize to herself," as if women are not capable of promoting reactionary ideas that insult other women.
Continuing this ridiculous train of thought, St. Clair targeted my history as a smoker to ask, "shouldn't Sharon, applying her own logic, publicly apologize to all lung cancer and emphysema victims for giving financial support to the cancer industry? Surely this habit has caused more far more real harm, minute as the damage might be, to real lives than Ruth's provocative use of the word 'tit'?"
Other insults consisted of standard red-baiting fare, targeting my and Sherry's organizational affiliations. These included both denunciations as being "Stalin-like" and "Trots"; a "narrow 'left' worldview"; "underestimating the importance of Seattle in '99"; "follow[ing] the latest cause du jour;" "ignoring the genocidal acts and throwing support behind Libyan and Syrian 'rebels'"; and, of course, the alleged crimes of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
Geez, all we did was object to sexism.
Finally, St. Clair boasted, "Fowler has written a response that will destroy her [me]…I almost feel sorry for her [me]." Even I found myself eagerly anticipating the appearance of this response that would result in my impending destruction. What a letdown when it arrived. (Consider me not "destroyed.")
Fowler's response recycled more attempts at "tits" shock and awe, this time also repeatedly referring to Jolie as "dumb," while asserting that those who objected to Fowler's contempt toward Jolie are "sad starfuckers."
Although St. Clair had publicly declared that Fowler's second article was a response to mine, Fowler's response did not even dignify my critique by linking to it or even acknowledging me by name. Instead, I was dismissed as "Sharon whatsit in The Socialist Worker," and my critique as written by a "paternalistic idiot." Once again, the issue of sexism went unaddressed.
I must say, however, that when Counterpunch puts someone in the doghouse, they mean business! Actually, it feels more like an outhouse in here.
Perhaps Counterpunch should just cut to the chase and henceforth refer to that potentially deadly disease as "tit cancer"? That should get them a few extra web hits from their disproportionately older and male readership.
Now, even more than before, Counterpunch owes women an apology. In the meantime, a visit to the Everyday Sexism Project might help to update their awareness of rising feminist anger among women–which, for the record, has no association with the 700 Club.