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I’m going to say right up front that this post is aimed at the women among my non-existent readers.

Guys are welcome to stay around and read the rest of the post if you want to. I’m not planning on talking about chick flicks, or shoes, or any of the other things men seem to think women talk about when no men are present. It’s just that the things I have to say will more likely be of concern to women than men.

I want to talk about John McCain and women today.

Perhaps, I should be more specific, though. I don’t want to talk about the fact that he cheated on his former wife with the woman who is now his wife, or the fact that he divorced her after a serious car accident apparently left her not pretty enough for him. Though I think both of those facts say rather a lot about the kind of man John McCain is.

Neither do I want to talk about McCain’s positions on women’s issues, atrocious though they may be. Although I would caution any Hillary Clinton supporters who are thinking about voting for McCain because they are angry that she didn’t get the Democratic party nomination to look carefully at his positions on matters like abortion, family planning, and equal pay before revenge voting in November.

No, I don’t want to talk about McCain’s position on women’s issues. I want to talk about his issues with women.

This past week, a story surfaced about a joke McCain told back in 1986. A wildly inappropriate joke regardless of the setting, involving a woman and a gorilla.

It’s hardly the first wildly inappropriate joke the man has told – witness his singing of “Bomb, bomb Iran,” and his comment about the cigarettes the United States is exporting to that country being “one way to kill them.” But this one is part of a subset of his inappropriate jokes and comments that suggest some troubling things about McCain’s character.

I think that John McCain is a bully.

More specifically, I think that he is the kind of bully who gets off on making women feel powerless. Vulnerable.

Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?

We’ll start not with the story that surfaced this week, but rather a joke the man told during the Clinton presidency. I don’t feel like googling the thing to get the exact words, but the gist of the joke – and here I am stretching the word joke well beyond its definitional limits solely because that is how others have described the remark –  was that Chelsea Clinton was ugly because Janet Reno was her father.

What a breathtakingly cruel thing to say of a teenage girl.

Having been a teenage girl at one time in my life, I feel comfortable in saying that there was probably very little he could have said of her that would have hurt her worse than that casual remark. Most teenagers, and particularly most teenage girls, are insecure about their appearance. It comes with the territory. They are in that awkward transition between childhood and young adulthood, when hormonal changes and social pressures and the process of growing into independent individuals separate from their families tend to combine to produce a perfect storm of angst.

To have someone, some senator, say she was ugly in such a public way just to get a laugh could not have felt good. Even if she could shake it off, and shrug to her friends and say, “What an asshole,” that sort of comment initially hits you like a punch in the stomach and can linger to eat away at your confidence for years.

So, strike one against John McCain.

There have also been reports that McCain called his wife – his current wife, that is – a cunt.

Guys, if any of you are still reading this, let me give you a hint:

Never, ever call your wife or girlfriend a cunt.

Just, don’t.

It’s okay, if crude, to use the word to refer to that portion of her anatomy if you find the term vagina too clinical. (“The gynecologist sticks this thing into your cunt? EWWWW.”) And it’s not completely off-limits during an argument (“What crawled up your cunt and died?”), though its use will probably have you sleeping on the couch for a few nights. Used judiciously under the right circumstances, the word can even be arousing. (“When I touch you like this, can you feel it down in your cunt?”)

But when you call a woman a cunt, when you say the words, “You are a cunt,” or “You cunt,” you are verbally reducing her to nothing more than that portion of her anatomy. Not a human being, a person with complex hopes and fears and dreams. Not a partner in your life, someone to walk through the world beside you, to share your laughter and sorrows. Just a receptacle for your sperm, to be used when the urge hits and otherwise ignored, unimportant.

Some might argue that calling a woman a cunt is no different than calling a guy a dick, but I strongly disagree. It’s about power dynamics in society. The men are the ones who have most of the power in the world. They build war monuments that are really nothing more than huge phallic symbols, and don’t even get me started on the whole Freudian thing with guns and missiles and other weapons. So to call a guy a dick doesn’t carry the same simultaneously devaluing and threatening overtones toward the guy that calling a woman a cunt does toward her. If anything, a guy who is a dick would be more of a threat to the people around him.

But when you call a woman a cunt, you are reducing her to that one function. Something that exists solely for a man’s pleasure, something that is interchangeable with some other cunt should the man tire of this one.

When you call a woman a cunt, you remind her that in a world full of men who are dicks, she is vulnerable.

Men are the conquerors, the invaders, the destroyers. Not all of them, maybe not even most of them, but enough of them that we know that they are there, a threat to us. Our bodies are literally open to the threat of invasion against our will.

Which brings me around to this week’s revelation about that “joke” that McCain told, back in 1986. The one that his campaign staffers are trying to shrug off with statements about McCain’s “bad boy” side.

I’m not sure why one would even call it a joke, or find it funny. It apparently involved a woman who was beaten and then raped repeatedly by a gorilla. The punchline is that when she wakes up after the attack, the first thing she asks the doctor is, “Where is that marvelous ape?”

As if a woman who was beaten and then raped repeatedly (and apparently those were the terms McCain used when telling this wonderful joke) would ask longingly about her attacker.

As if this were matter worthy of a few chuckles over dinner.

Women don’t generally find much to laugh about when talking about rape.

For one thing, far too many among us have been raped. It’s hard to say how many, because so many go unreported, for a variety of reasons. Date rapes, girls who get too drunk at parties and wake up with memories of things they would never have consented to when sober, things that fall into a gray area where the woman or girl is afraid of reporting it because people will somehow say or think that they deserved it, because they wore short skirts, or got drunk, or went to a guy’s apartment, or let themselves be alone with the wrong guy.

And before you ask, no, I have not been raped. I consider myself rather fortunate in this respect because there were a couple of situations in my undergrad days that could have turned ugly for me but didn’t. I have many female friends who were not as lucky.

A friend from law school once posited, as we sat around a table eating horrible fast food between our classes, that in our society, every woman, or nearly every woman, has some experience, some moment in her life that forces on her the awareness of her vulnerability on a physical level. When that moment comes (usually in one’s late teens or twenties, though it can come earlier or later), it is a very shocking awakening for the woman or girl who previously felt relatively safe or protected in the world.

My friend wasn’t talking about the kind of awareness that one gets when one hears lectures on the subject of date rape at freshman orientation, that abstract sort of awareness that, yeah, okay, this is something that can happen, but it probably will never happen to me.

She was talking about the kind of awareness that grabs hold of one with an icy fist and says, “You are vulnerable. You can be beaten, or raped, or killed, and there’s not much you can do to defend yourself, because they are men and you are a woman. You are weak, and they are strong.”

Sitting at that table on the day when my friend talked about her theory were perhaps seven or eight other young women, myself included. All well-educated, mostly self-assured, secure in our knowledge that we could do just as well as our male classmates when we went out into the business world. All women with the sort of forceful personality it takes to even consider entering the field of law. We were ready to take on the world, and no one was going to stop us.

And every single one of us started nodding when she finished telling us her theory.

Each one of us had some definite moment in time that she could point to, some event that happened or very nearly happened, and say, “This is when I knew.”

And every woman I’ve discussed this theory with since that day has had that moment experience at some point in her life.

After that moment, the little reminders are there, popping up in random places as you go about your life, just in case you should forget your vulnerability. Little things that say, “You are weak.” And no matter how much you work out at the gym, or how many self-defense classes you take, those reminders never quite lose their power.

There are men in the world who play on that vulnerability. I don’t mean the obvious ones who do it within the context of intimate relationships, though certainly there are plenty of those running around.

I’m talking about the type who wear business suits, and spend their days working on business deals, negotiating, trading, bargaining, arguing, walking the corridors of power and getting stuff done, who welcome women into the board rooms and conference rooms and offices because the law requires them to, but still use their physical presence as a way of asserting their dominance over women. They are particularly likely to use it when it gains them a business advantage, but also sometimes when it doesn’t, just because they can.

You usually see these men, and they are usually among the taller men in the room if they are playing this particular game, looming over the women who are present. One I knew of would stand nearly toe-to-toe with a woman when negotiations became particularly heated, forcing the woman to tilt her head back and look up at him, trying to take advantage of that feeling of vulnerability.

Sometimes this works rather well for the men. They get concessions in the negotiations as the women both literally and metaphorically back away from their original position.

Sometimes it works…less well. I ran into a few guys back in my lawyer days who tried to use this tactic on me. The thing is, I am 5’9″ – six feet tall in heels (and back in my lawyer days I almost always wore heels). Relatively few men are able to truly tower over me, and a good percentage of the ones who can play basketball professionally. More often what happened was that they would stand up to start the game, and then I would stand up and look them more or less directly in the eye, no head tilting required, which led to a few priceless facial expressions when they realized they weren’t going to win that particular game.

But I digress.

Men who lack the physical presence to play these power games so blatantly in the business world often find other ways to remind women of their vulnerability, however, as a way of asserting power in social situations.

Some of them tell off-color jokes, or at least say words in a voice that suggests that they are joking. Sometimes those jokes are about rape or physical violence directed at women.

Which brings us back to Senator McCain.

His staffers have tried to play off the gorilla joke as something that he doesn’t remember telling, but certainly might have said, and claim that it’s just a reflection of his “bad boy” side.

Because he’s a maverick, that McCain is, no matter how many times he’s supported Bush’s proposals over the past eight years. You just can’t control a maverick. It’s part of his charm.

News flash, guys. Picking on teenage girls, calling one’s wife a cunt, and making jokes about rape don’t make one a maverick or a bad boy.

In my book, things like this say bully. And that’s what I think McCain is.

There are other examples of this sort of behavior from the man, abuse directed at people less powerful, that I could have cataloged here but chose not to. A little googling would turn up several of them within minutes. But I think that, at least for my own purposes, the three incidents I’ve written about are sufficient for me to draw the conclusion that I have.

John McCain is a bully.

And if there is one thing this country does not need right now, after the last eight years, it is to have another bully in the White House for the next four.

jane doe

Update: I wrote this post yesterday, but found this site today. It’s a much lighter take on John McCain and women’s issues.

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July 2008
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