SHE SAID IT
"Just as long as newspapers and magazines are controlled by men...women's ideas and deepest convictions will never get before the public." - Susan B. Anthony

August 1999
Vol. 1 - #6


Said It: Feminist News, Culture & Politics  

in this issue:

The Stranger's Hip Sexism

City Council Race: Who's Talking About Women?

A Letter To Our Readers


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The Stranger's Hip Sexism
by Adriene Sere

There's something that hip culture will never include, and that's women. Women can be invited, and even exalted, by hip culture, but they are never hip on their own terms. That's because being hip is about being above, and whenever there is any kind of an above, women -- as women -- are put "below."

The hipster, by contrast, is a quasi-outsider, with full access to gender and class power. He loves the lowly street, its struggles and its energy, but he walks three feet above it. Something leads him there, near the street, to the outside: he chooses creativity over conformity, he is gay, he is a rebel. Very likely, he is between college and a successful career, ideally one of literary fame. He often expresses sympathy for his brothers, male and female, who walk directly on the cement. He defines himself against the suit and tie establishment. As an outsider, his politics are liberal, with a cutting edge.

If the hipster starts a new local publication, it is sure to be an alternative one. It must be a strange one. He calls it The Stranger, for the sake of existential nuance, and a salute to the literary men embodying cool. The strange paper is witty, a vibrant alternative to the stodgy dailies, and the aging, almost equally stodgy Weekly. It has a remarkable resemblance to other alternative weeklies started by hip men in major cities across the country: feistily pornographic, politically oppositional, low-to-the-ground arrogant, and most importantly, a lucrative business, capturing the energy of the margins, and bringing it to the bank.

Women are, by and large, the sum in the bank account. Hipness means superiority to women, and superiority to women means high sales. Superiority is disdain, and disdain for women is the closest thing to immortality, some men think, and they are willing to pay for it. The Stranger, full of pornographic ads of women, and disdainful editorial depictions of women, has not its cutting edge politics or its literary wit to thank for its monetary success, but its superiority to women and constant exposure of sex.

It's mostly men who read the Stranger. About 60% of its readers are male, and 40% are female. It's mostly men who run the Stranger. The publisher is a man. He invariably picks a woman, an ordinary writer of mediocre talent who is willing to hang her ovaries at the door, to fill the position of editor-in-chief. Her job is to let the men shine. And both the famous and wannabe's of the mostly-male staff are shinier than a freshly buffed shoe. Whatever else the transparent editor-in-chief does, she lets the personalities of the hip men shine.

The hip men's disdain for women is not always straightforward. Like most misogyny in society, their attitude is packaged in an apparent inclusiveness and equality. This apparent androgynous standard helps barricade the Stranger from accusations of sexism.

The constant exposure of sex, for instance, is supposedly applied to both genders. But it doesn't amount to equality. Stranger star Dan Savage, following his formula of quick and witty ridicule of both men and women, is singularly disdainful of women's sexuality. He feels free to describe women's cunts as looking like "road kill" and "bullet wound," confusing men's endemic violence toward women's bodies with women's bodies themselves. In the meantime, he describes men's penises with words of adulation.

This is simply a personal perspective of a "gay man," he has said. But if this is so, his gayness is based on his feelings of repugnance toward an oppressed class of people, specifically the parts of their bodies that distinguish them from the dominant class. This is sex as bigotry, coming from a popular, nationally read sex columnist. Imagine a popular "multicultural" columnist using his position to describe the skin of Black people as repulsive and "charred"--and then excusing the bigoted description with, "But I prefer associating with white people!"

While Savage follows some basic rules of morality--"mutual consent" is the qualifier to an otherwise "anything goes"--his explicitly expressed disdain for female sexuality is subtly infused throughout his columns, accompanied by his pretense of equal treatment of the sexes.

The Stranger's editorial approach to politics are a similarly liberal "live and let live," disguising the paper's allegiance to the establishment's oppression of women. The paper has taken strong against the Parks Exclusion Ordinance and the poster ban. They are against corporate welfare for sports stadiums. They are for racial minorities, and the underdog. They are for fairness. They are against rape, technically.

But the Stranger's sympathetic politics ultimately run up against pornographic sex and the hip identity. As a result, the Stranger vacillates between caring and detachment, between their rebellious stance as outside the establishment and their lucrative stand above the messy, hurting masses.

Their pornographic treatment of sex, the bread and butter of the paper, requires detachment. Sympathy for their guy on the street requires caring and attachment. Their superiority to all that happens below them requires detachment. Genuine radical politics requires connection, vulnerability, something at stake.

How do they reconcile the contradictions? They don't have to. Promotion of pornography, objectification of the vulnerable, disdain for women all passes for equality because, well, because the Stranger says so, and there's no one in town in a position of power who wants to say otherwise.

The "News Pages" exhibits a curled-lip disdain toward the "establishment," which passes for caring for the underdog and the ripped off. At the same time, the writing of the shiny male columnists, and occasionally the news articles, along with the sexually explicit ads promising naked dancing women, express contempt for women, for sex, and for the sentiment that things matter.

Charles Mudede's new column "Police Beat," a lousy spinoff of Trudy Weckworth's often praised column "Hash" in the Seattle Press, is (aside from the "women/sex for sale" ads) the least disguised example of disdain. Mudede's column is a listing of the crimes that occurred in the past week. Unlike Weckworth's column, however, Mudede does not simply describe the event in the present tense, based on the description of the police reports. Instead, he infuses the reports with contempt for victims of crime, particularly when they are women.

In a recent "Police Beat," Charles Mudede presented a woman's report to police that her boyfriend raped her with kitchen utensils. Mudede did not use the word rape. He wrote that the woman and her boyfriend were having sex in the kitchen, and the boyfriend started sticking utensils in her. The man would not stop though the woman told him to. Mudede is immensely amused, and contemptuous of the woman. He informs readers (just in case we might be alarmed) that the woman was stoned, and didn't make the report to the police until months after the rape.

A similar attitude toward sexual violence is reflected in the Stranger's "news" section. In the July 15 issue, Paul Axelrod covered the protest of the closing of the Seattle Rape Relief Center. According to SRR volunteers, who are trying to organize a new center, Axelrod's coverage was sensational and full of inaccuracies. The subject, unlike other progressive political issues the Stranger covers, was not treated with respect. The organizers were caricatured: "The crowd--college-age women accompanied by a few quiet, wide-eyed young men; pierced and tattooed 30 year old, trying to radicalize the group with talk of injustice and 'political solutions'; and an older generation of grieving and pissed-off women--huddled in the library basement for two and a half hours." Axelrod reported that these organizers had planned to seize the center with violence. The three articulate letters by SRR volunteers that were printed a couple of weeks later pointed out the errors in the article, and objected to Axelrod's sensationalism. The Stranger simply responded to these letters with "Editor's note: We stand by our story." Apparently, they felt no need to provide any explanation.

News reporter Ben Jacklet and news editor Josh Feit found themselves caught between progressive politics and misogyny in the same July 15 issue. They covered the kick-off campaigns of city council candidates Heidi Wills and Judy Nicastro. Based on politics alone, these events would normally have received strong, favorable coverage. But the progressive politics and past achievements of these two candidates ran up against the fact that they are young and attractive women. How are guys like Jacklet and Feit suppose to be stars if young, attractive women can choose to seek political office, rather than type these men's manuscripts and gaze with awe during their literary readings?

Jacklet and Feit had to make a choice, and they chose misogyny. Nicastro and Will were treated like jokes, bourgeois Barbie dolls. "Party Season: Prozac Democrats and Tanned Lawyers" the headline read. Feit's description of Wills: "...believe us, Wills, 31, is one seratonin-friendly candidate. With glowing eyes, bouncy coifed hair, and an Ultra-Brite smile, this is one upbeat woman." At the end of the article, Feit made a brief mention of the issues: "housing affordability, supporting the neighborhood planning process, gun control for Seattle, and fixing those potholes." Aren't these issues cute? Aren't they funny when raised by attractive women? Nicastro's kick-off party gets similarly disdainful treatment by Jacklet. Interestingly, Feit's article on the same page covering the campaign party of Alec Fisken, who is far more conservative than either Wills or Nicastro, is entirely devoid of mockery.

The Stranger's inclusion of "outsider" liberal politics does not simply exist side by side with, but is contingent upon, its reactionary use of women. The Stranger's treatment of women is both the basis of its hip identity and the financial vehicle through which the Stranger operates. Relying on its liberal, sometimes radical, politics and its literary wit alone, the Stranger would likely have to apply for grants in order to exist. That says something about this misogynist society. But it also says a lot about the Stranger's bottom line politics. The Stranger's hip pretense of being outside and scornful of the establishment turns out to be the biggest joke of all.

________________________________________

Copyright © 1999 Adriene Sere - All rights reserved by author.
All work contained in Said It is owned by the respective contributing authors or artists,
including all copyrights contained therein, and may not be copied, reprinted, or otherwise used
in any form without the express written permission of the copyright holder.



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