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March 16, 2012

Women As Helpless Victims

At the beginning of this week I wrote about the disturbing embrace by some on the right of the "men as helpless victims" meme.

My point, in that post, is that it's problematic when conservatives use arguments that run counter to their professed beliefs to score rhetorical points. There's a way to point out the hypocrisy of your opponents, and it's fairly simple: apply their arguments to a situation where, if we all played by their rules, the outcome would be unacceptable to them. Then point out that if you only support Policy X when it favors your team, you don't really support Policy X. What you really support, is any policy that allows you to win.

The affirmative action for men suggestion in the "Men as Victims" fails on two counts:

1. Conservatives have always argued that affirmative action doesn't really help the intended beneficiaries. But more importantly,

2. Suggesting that liberals are hypocritical for not extending affirmative action to men when that happens to be exactly what they're doing just makes you look ignorant. And arguably, stupid.

Over at Firebrand Blog, Elise skillfully points out exactly what is wrong with the victim narrative in Sandra Fluke's testimony. Fluke has been relentlessly criticized on the right for a lot of things she didn't actually say. Such willfully ignorant exaggerations and distortions make it far too easy to dismiss legitimate objections to what she did say. Responding to Fluke's parade of heart rending anecdotes, Elise deftly exposes what should have been seen as an inherently self refuting narrative: women as smart, liberated, fully equal adults who - despite being admitted to an elite law school - apparently cannot decipher an insurance policy or (even more amusingly, considering the skills required of a licensed attorney) advocate for their own legal rights:

She is powerless to force the pharmacist to give her something she can’t pay for. She is powerless to force her insurance company to pay for something for which it did not contract and she did not pay. She is powerless to force Georgetown to offer a different insurance policy.

However, she was not powerless to read and understand the conditions of the insurance policy she signed up for. She was not powerless to choose a school other than Georgetown, one which would offer the kind of insurance that is so crucial to her. She was not powerless to understand that Georgetown’s insurance policy would not cover birth control pills and decide to postpone attending for a year while working at a crummy job and living in a crummy apartment with three roommates so she could save enough money to cover expenses when she did attend Georgetown.

Furthermore, she is not powerless to decide to refrain from sex until she can afford birth control pills. She is not powerless to do research on whether there are cheaper forms of contraception, perhaps even cheaper birth control pills. She is not powerless to ask her sexual partner (or partners - it is absolutely none of my business whether we’re talking singular or plural) to provide some form of contraception or to chip in for her purchase of birth control pills. And she is not powerless to leave school and take a job which will allow her to purchase items she wants to purchase.

To say, “Women like her have no choice but to go without contraception” is to make an intelligent, ambitious, hard-working, disciplined adult into a helpless pawn in life. I’m extremely uncomfortable with the idea that women have stopped waiting to be rescued by Prince Charming, only to begin waiting to be rescued by Uncle Sam. How about if we rescue ourselves? Or, better yet, let’s stop thinking that the very state of being female means we need to be rescued by anyone or anything. Instead, let’s start thinking in terms of what options we have, of making our own decisions and living with them, of taking care of ourselves. It’s like Fluke is living in some bizarre version of a 1950’s sitcom where wifey can’t take care of herself financially and must cajole hubby into doing so. Not everything retro is good.

If young women at an elite law school aren't smart or capable enough to read an insurance policy or negotiate with and defend their own rights, what client in his or her right mind would hire a female attorney to navigate the American legal system on their behalf?

Fluke's victim narrative directly undercuts the image she wants us to have of women as smart, independent, and fully capable. If you care about whether your cause is gaining traction with the public, making arguments that directly undermine it is probably not the best way to be the change you seek.

Posted by Cassandra at March 16, 2012 06:20 PM

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