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Column: Women Take Congress, Misogynists Lash Out

  • House Democratic women members of the 116th Congress gather for a group photograph on the East Front Capitol Plaza on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, as the 116th Congress begins. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

For the Los Angeles Times
Published: 1/10/2019 10:30:04 PM
Modified: 1/10/2019 10:30:16 PM

Just over a year ago, a writer named Kristen Roupenian published a short story in The New Yorker called Cat Person. It chronicled a brief, mediocre romance. At first, it was hard to say what made the story newsworthy.

Still, just as #MeToo was taking off, Cat Person became history’s first viral short story. Something in Roupenian’s tale of Robert and Margot’s relationship — testy, opportunistic — felt familiar. And then there was the word mild Robert uses at their breakup, when he finally believes he has nothing left to lose: “Whore.”

Cat Person laid out the ways men can pretend to tolerance of and even affection for women while also seething with sexist resentment of their power.

The Cat Person parable has been germane this past week. As the new Congress convenes, with a record 102 women taking office, a crew of men in right-wing media and politics seems to believe they’ve tolerated this whole women-in-power exercise for too long.

They’ve been patient. They’ve been gallant. They praised Ivanka Trump’s grace. They hat-tipped Sen. Susan Collins for helping put brother Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. They sat for the #MeToo tedium.

But now, like Robert, they’ve had enough.

Shortly after being sworn in, freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., boasted that the new Democratic House majority would “go in there and impeach” Trump, whom she called by a commonplace vulgarism beloved of Norman Mailer and Samuel L. Jackson. She landed the line to perfection, and her supporters loved it.

Understandably anxious about impeachment, Republicans decried Tlaib. They pretended not to mind her political zeal, though; it was her coarseness they took umbrage at. For a woman of color, and one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, using a bad word is evidently criminal unseemliness. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, from Bakersfield, Calif., huffed and puffed about how indecorous Tlaib had been and was essentially laughed off the dais by people reminding him of Trump’s long record of barnyarding it up.

Tlaib on Tuesday apologized for the “distraction” her comment caused, but added that she “will never apologize for being me and for being passionate and upset.”

Next on the Women to Hate List is — shocker — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s the newly minted congresswoman from New York’s 14th District and, hoo boy, does she make bitter conservatives bitterer.

Having calculated that savaging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wasn’t firing up the he-man pitchfork crowd as much as they had hoped, conservatives are now trying to smear Ocasio-Cortez as young, dangerous, naive, stylish and a good dancer. They also seem unaccountably panicked that she was once known as Sandy.

To many of the attacks, Ocasio-Cortez has issued Twitter clap-backs that deftly surface the barely concealed sexism of her detractors. When conservatives last week tried to make hay out of a dance video she made in college, she made another dance video, chiding the GOP as prigs who hate women who dance.

To a prominent right-wing troll looking to get a rise out of her, she earlier tweeted, “Like catcalling, I don’t owe a response to unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions. And also like catcalling, for some reason they feel entitled to one.”

Catcallers and anti-dancing scolds are two sides of the age-old misogyny coin. What they’re saying to her, as Ocasio-Cortez well knows, is that she’s either frigid and won’t respond to their catcalls or a “whore” because she dances too much.

Ocasio-Cortez’s responses make her detractors even more furious; no one likes to have his ugly misogyny brought to light. When Ocasio-Cortez, in white, stood to vote for Pelosi as House speaker, Republicans broke all precedent and booed her.

“Don’t hate me cause you ain’t me, fellas,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. By turning up the volume on the Republicans’ terrified sexism, as a digital native does best, she’s made quick work of her haters.

By contrast, the latest attacks on Pelosi are listless. After seven years of trying to stir up hatred for the distinguished representative from San Francisco, conservatives seem to be running out of steam.

During Pelosi’s swearing-in as the first person to return to the speakership since 1955, and the first and only Italian-American and first and only woman to hold the post, Pelosi found President Donald Trump attempting to steal her thunder by staging a hasty press briefing. Trump’s non-briefing was so desperate-seeming it only made Pelosi’s swearing-in more formidable — and existentially threatening to the president.

Finally, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., announced last week that she’s entering the 2020 race for president, and she also got some hazing from Trump, who often refers to Warren by a racist nickname.

Almost the second some pundits wondered ridiculously whether affable Warren is “likable” enough — c’mon, fellas, wouldja want to have a beer with her at a strip club? — “likability” was flagged as a moronically sexist metric.

Is the girl nice? Does she use salty language? Does she dance? Does she refuse to smile and flirt when you hoot at her?

These moth-eaten virgin-whore tropes have become self-satirizing. If you think misogyny has faded since Mad Men days, you’re wrong. In fact, as women pack the halls of power, it seems more virulent than ever, as conservatives convulse in fear at losing their old rubrics of control. They lash out more than Don Draper ever did.

But rather than deafen themselves to the primitive hatred beneath the surface of “likability” and anti-dance discourse, figures like Ocasio-Cortez send up the subtext, just as Roupenian did in Cat Person.

Demeaning dancing and texting the word “whore” to a woman who scares you is, when you think about it, pretty laughable. And to have the dynamic laid bare is almost a relief.

No wonder Pelosi is running the House, Warren is running for president, Tlaib is calling it as she sees it, and Ocasio-Cortez is dancing. Their enemies are losing strength, while they’re gaining it.

Hanover native Virginia Heffernan is a journalist, critic and author, most recently, of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is a contributing editor at Wired, a cohost of Slate’s Trumpcast podcast , and a columnist at the Los Angeles Times.

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