New Rules for Bill Maher

Bill Maher has been surfacing recently in the news over past remarks made about Sarah Palin and other women. Since he clearly has been feeling the heat, we thought it opportune to review his evolving rationale about sexism and politics.

To be fair, Maher says harsh things about both men and women, but sexism doesn't lend itself to a math equation—given that the status of men and women is hardly equal in terms of media representation. On his March 9 show, Real Time on HBO, Maher made this distinction between his approach and that of, say, Rush Limbaugh: “I am a potty-mouth, that’s different than being a misogynist.”

But in a profile in New York Magazine by Joe Hagan released this week, Maher says about his reputation as a misogynist:

"I’ll take the rap for some of that reputation I have," he says now. "Some of it was just me being insensitive or trying to get a laugh.”

What about instead of “taking the rap,” Maher actually tried to clean up his rep? Maybe sign our Media Pledge of Gender Neutrality. (That would be a good start at least).

Mockery is certainly fair media commentary on politicians of either gender, but jokes become sexist when the punchline hinges on something that can only be said about women. To steal a concept from another comic, if your joke about women reinforces sexist troupes, you just might be a misogynist.

Maher's early reaction to the onslaught of criticism directed at Rush Limbaugh—for three days of misogyny directed at Sandra Fluke—was a March 6 tweet encouraging the liberal world to get over its anger about sexism:

He expanded on his tweet with a March 21 op-ed in The New York Times, where he wrote “I don’t want to live in a country where no one ever says anything that offends anyone.”

Maher has often cast himself as a free speech advocate, as if any attempts to call out sexism in media, using whatever culturally appropriate tools women have, was in any way an attack on his free speech. We’re still wondering when the right not to be jailed for what you say turned into the right to be paid millions of dollars to have a TV show/radio program and remain criticism-free for anything you could say. To Bill Maher his right to “free speech” means others have to pipe down.

On his March 9 show, his catch-all apology demonstrates he's still not-getting-it:

But if I offended women, I'm sorry. I have no problem saying I'm sorry. I don't know why women would want to align themselves with Sarah Palin. I don't know why an insult to her is an insult to all women, but if it is, I'm sorry.

Maher wants to live in a world where you can call a powerful woman a c-word or other sexually degrading remarks, just because you don’t like her politics. Those who complain want to "mak[e] people disappear," as if losing a TV show is like being sentenced to hard time in a gulag

He literally doesn’t understand why using those unacceptable words reduces women to their sex. Which is why our campaign "Name It. Change It." protests media sexism against women whatever their politics. If the c-word can be safely used against Palin, it can be used to denigrate any other woman.

The "change" part of “Name It. Change It.” is about changing the culture. When members of the media, who have a greater reach than your average Facebook commenter, use sexist language in the process of political commentary, it expands the acceptability of sexism in general.

Maher has defended his “right” to brand Sarah Palin (and presumably other women) with sexist remarks because he did it during his stand up act, not on his TV show, something he calls his “last bastion of free speech.” Perhaps he should take a cue from another political comic Jon Stewart, who manages to mock women and men generally without crossing the line into sexism.

Stewart took on the notion that people who call themselves “comedians” can get away with making certain remarks. “Language in general has repercussions,” he said.

There are repercussions for what comedians say. When you’re doing it in a club, ask Michael Richards. Ask Tracy Morgan. If you do comedy on television, there are repercussions. Ask me. … So don’t pretend that by people saying they’re comedians, they’re "hiding." They’re not.  They’re just telling you that the language of satire is slightly different than the language of newscasters.

Bill Maher, you say you believe that women should not be marginalized and should have a voice for their choices on birth control. Try this: practice what you preach. When you use the c-word on Sarah Palin, or call Governor Jan Brewer a "delusional cat lady," you become a part of the reason why women have been marginalized. You ask us in your Times op-ed to consider this "crazy" idea: "from now on if you see or hear something you don't like in the media" just "turn the page or flip the dial or pick up your roll of quarters and leave the booth.”

Except that it’s not like women can walk away unaffected by sexism. Yet when we speak up against it—when we name what you are doing wrong and let everyone know—then we have power too.

Published by Rachel Larris on 04/11/2012

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