Yet Another Take on the Althouse Incident

[I’ve got a new blog on Vox, with these posts and a few others. Commenting, unfortunately, requires registration to the service, but I’ve got a few invite codes for it. Come visit.]

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle this weekend over Ann Althouse‘s treatment of Feministing‘s Jessica Valenti.

(I’m not going to call it “Boobiegate.” It’s been over thirty years since Watergate; can we stop framing everything in terms of the Baby Boomers and let that go the way of Teapot Dome?)

What It Was About

The short version: Ann Althouse responded to this photo of Bill Clinton with several bloggers by making an vague allusion to the Lewinsky scandal.

Let’s just array these bloggers… randomly.

(As other folks have pointed out, the bloggers were arrayed not “randomly” but in terms of height.)

The first commenter, Goesh, picked up on it:

Who is the Intern directly in front of him with the black hair?

The woman in question, Jessica Valenti of Feministing, takes offense at being reduced to an element of a joke:

The, um, “intern” is me. It’s so nice to see women being judged by more than their looks. Oh, wait…

And it all snowballs from there as Ms. Althouse gets defensive:

Well, Jessica, you do appear to be “posing.” Maybe it’s just an accident.

Jessica: I’m not judging you by your looks. (Don’t flatter yourself.) I’m judging you by your apparent behavior. It’s not about the smiling, but the three-quarter pose and related posturing, the sort of thing people razz Katherine Harris about. I really don’t know why people who care about feminism don’t have any edge against Clinton for the harm he did to the cause of taking sexual harrassment seriously, and posing in front of him like that irks me, as a feminist. So don’t assume you’re the one representing feminist values here. Whatever you call your blog….

She goes on to create a whole new post, entitled “Let’s take a closer look at those breasts“, in which she writes:

Sooooo… apparently, Jessica writes one of those blogs that are all about using breasts for extra attention. Then, when she goes to meet Clinton, she wears a tight knit top that draws attention to her breasts and stands right in front of him and positions herself to make her breasts as obvious as possible?

Maybe it’s just overexposure to comics, but I don’t really see that as anything more than standing up straight, turning to make sure she’s not blocking out Mr. Clinton, and smiling. Other people, especially those commenters who identify themselves as Ms. Valenti’s age or younger, seem to see it the same way.

After that post draws 500 comments’ worth of ire, defensiveness and trolling, she washes her hands of the whole deal with one more post:

I’m surpassingly sick of this comments thread from yesterday, and I’m not even going to read all the commentary on other blogs. The immense tiresomeness is actually undermining my will to blog this morning.

I don’t mind an intense, verbal fight about ideas, but this wasn’t that. This was, every time you expressed a substantive idea, the answer was, essentially, “Stop looking at my breasts.” (I’m picturing an SNL sketch based on that concept, and like the usual SNL sketch, it goes on way too long.)

Why Althouse Was Wrong

There’s not really much to be said on this point that other people haven’t already said better. Ms. Valenti writes:

You know, I was psyched to be invited to this lunch and was feeling pretty honored. But then things like this remind me that no matter what I do or accomplish, because I’m a young woman all I’m good for is fodder for tacky intern jokes and comments that I don’t “represent feminist values” because of the way I posed in a picture.

Here’s another quick rule of thumb: if you’re complaining about people supporting a sexual harasser, it’s best not to do it in a way that encourages future sexual harassment.

Althouse’s “Real Point”

Ms. Althouse is claiming that her critics miss the point, which seems to be something along the lines of (a) real feminists don’t accept invitations to meet with Bill Clinton; and (b) people should respect the office of the Presidency by dressing in formal business attire when meeting with a former President.

I’m not sure these two positions are completely reconcilable – “pleading in the alternative”
doesn’t work so well outside of a legal context – but the idea that she gets to be the one
who decides what the “real” issues are is the same thing that constantly gets done to feminism, as feminists are asked to put their issues aside for the important shit. That’s what Ms. Valenti was being asked to do – not complain about being used as part of a blowjob joke (I’m not exaggerating here; Ms. Althouse makes references to berets and blue dresses in her comments) because Ms. Althouse was making a point about Bill Clinton.

Generation Gaps

There’s another generation gap that is going on in these arguments, and that’s in the perception of Clinton. Here’s a fact that makes me feel old: Anyone younger than 28 (including Ms. Valenti) was never able to vote for Clinton, because they were too young during the 1996 election. Ms. Althouse is of a generation that was politically active during the Clinton administration, and for whom the impeachment issue was primary. For many of the younger commenters, that issue is of historical interest, but doesn’t leave much of a direct “legacy.” As one commenter, Parry_Lost, notes:

Allright, I’m sorry I lack in knowledge of the scandalous affairs of foreign presidents (I’m not an American) that happened while I was in middle school. Yes, I know many people do have such knowledge. Allright. My feminist and historical knowledge is lacking. I accept these flaws and will continue to try and work on them.

But why, why, why is it wrong to criticize Althouse for unfairly insulting another blogger?
What did her comments that Jessica was showing off her breasts to someone and that the Feministing blog is trying to get attention with breasts even have to do with the Clinton scandal of which I am admittedly ignorant?

This, of course, gets seized on by older commenters, who basically treat Parry_Lost and other younger posters as if they were still in middle school.

Althouse and Privilege

Ms. Althouse seems to run her blog in a much more “top-down” way than I’m used to – it’s more like a syndicated news column or radio call-in show, in contrast to the more “community” focused blogs I tend to read. At least in the posts I saw, there’s a divide between Althouse herself and other commenters. Often, she adopts her law-professor role and actually grades people’s comments (as she did with me when I commented there), which strikes me as an attempt to take the privilege she enjoys as a professor and apply it to contexts where it’s unwarranted.

Ms. Althouse gets a lot of mileage (increased readership, newspaper articles, etc.) out of her academic credentials; Ms. Valenti’s fame in these circles is mostly from her blogging.

Ms. Althouse’s attacks on Ms. Valenti’s appearance and youth seem to me to be founded in part on the idea that Ms. Valenti’s privilege is unwarranted, and must be to some extent based on being a conventionally attractive young woman, since she hasn’t paid her dues yet.

The trouble with this, obviously, is that it basically relegates young women to be nothing more than “eye candy.”

Basically, it’s a hazing mentality. Since Ms. Althouse (presumably) didn’t have these sorts of opportunities in her twenties (at the very least, she wouldn’t have been able to publish a blog), but does now, people in their twenties need to wait until she’s had her turn at the helm of public discourse before they demand their say.

A Confession

Somewhere out there is a picture of me with Christopher Cox, taken back in 1993. As a high school junior, I took a trip to DC and part of that trip invovled meeting with the members of Congress who represented us.

Mr. Cox addressed the Generation X concern (not really my generation, but we were high school students and didn’t have much of a political voice yet) that we would likely be economically worse off than our parents. And do you know what he blamed for that possiblity? Women in the workplace. I can only wonder what he would have said if there
were a female student there as well. The argument was something like this: back in the Good Old Days, a man got paid enough to provide for a family because women didn’t work; now the expectation is that both men and women would work, so a single income doesn’t have to go as far. (Privilege? What’s that?) Totally economically unsound, of course. Which explains why he’s now running the SEC, I suppose.

Anyway, what would Ms. Althouse say I should have done – respect the office of U.S. Representative, or stay away? Should I have walked out? I was 16, and had the understanding that this meeting was more about being presented with the program recognition, Argued back? I thought that you weren’t supposed to “make a scene” or ask hardball questions at those sorts of events. Besides, at that age I didn’t have a ready response; I knew there was a flaw in the argument, but didn’t know exactly what. But I guess it doesn’t matter, because I wore a blazer and slacks and don’t have breasts.


Althouse: Bill Clinton, lunching with the bloggers.
Althouse: Let’s take a closer look at those breasts.
Althouse: Comments, comments, comments.
Jessica @ Feministing: Feminists don’t pose
Jessica @ Feministing: The “dirty pillow” line of attack
Jill @ Feministe: Wherein Ann Althouse Shoots Any Credibility She Had Left
zuzu @ Feministe: More about that Clinton blogger lunch
zuzu @ Feministe: Know Your Place
Lindsey Beyerstein @ Majikthise: Let’s take a closer look at those nuts
Amanda Marcotte @ Pandagon: But there’s titties in that picture!
OTF Wank: Feminist wank.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Add to favorites
  • Reddit
  • Tumblr

6 thoughts on “Yet Another Take on the Althouse Incident

  1. I’m starting to think that I should do a small post about being photographed while having breasts. I have a lot of pictures of myself and what my breasts look like completely depends on the picture — not just my pose, but my clothing, the angle of the photo itself, and what the lighting’s like.

  2. I think someone did point out on one of the threads that a medium gray top is going to show more detail in a photograph than extremely light or dark clothing, which tends to show up as a person-shaped blob of white or black.

  3. I think Althouse’s objective, beyond sexually harrassing a popular feminist blogger, was to derail feminist discourse. Well it obviously worked like a charm! Not since Twisty Faster dared to state the idea that choice feminism is a house of cards has the discussion across every blinking feminist blog been focused on one single issue.

    I’ve enjoyed Amanda’s posts on the subject, I’ve gotten thrills from BitchPhD’s post, I’ve been stunned by how Salon’s Broadsheet has mischaracterized this as some sort of “debate” rather than a great many reasonable feminists stating that Althouse is sophmoric.

    The only real discussion that’s borne fruit has been that those who state Althouse is “just jealous” have missed the point completely. The rest of it feels like the same sort of thing that went around when Bush groped the Prime Minister of Germany or Ellison groped Connie Willis. “Don’t forget, lady. You might be a successful blogger and you might have won awards, but anyone can call you a slut and turn you into a thing again.” (hattip to ginmar)

    Althouse did the online version of breast-grabbing, and now she’s turned not only Jessica but all feminists into things. She tried to put us in our place.

Comments are closed.