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Posts Tagged ‘Dominique Strauss-Kahn’

When the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn was dismissed on Tuesday, it occurred to me that what we had in front of us was a good metaphor for one of the tawdry underbellies of American life.

Call it the power of privilege — the unacknowledged advantages that permeate so many layers of our public, and not so public, lives.

I’m not here to argue the merits of the case, or to rant about the legal system. We are, in fact, a family that is lousy with attorneys. On any given day, you can’t walk down the hall without bumping elbows with one. On Thanksgiving, we joke about replacing the kids’ table with a lawyers’ table.

But this is essentially a case of he-said, she-said, right? Of parties whose closets apparently hold more than a couple of skeletons. So our thought question for today is this: Why is Strauss-Kahn, a powerful white male, who asserts that the sex was consensual, more believable than Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel maid who fled her native Guinea for asylum in the U.S., who says she was raped?

And why has Diallo’s background cast doubt on her story when our erstwhile defendant’s past is equally checkered? As Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman wrote on Tuesday:

A woman who gets intoxicated can be raped. Prostitutes can be raped. And a poor woman who has told lies can be raped. In fact, it is often the women who “don’t make good victims” who are most at risk because they are the most vulnerable, and it is these women who are least likely to be listened to.

I confess I know no more about the case itself than do any of you, and I am willing to admit that it’s possible that there was no criminal case to be made. But – evidence notwithstanding apologies to the attorneys in the family– I still wonder about the larger issue, which is this: All things being equal, why is it that the scales always tend to tip in favor of privilege?

One of the worst aspects of privilege, whether in the courtroom or the workplace, is that those who have it tend not to notice. What’s second-worst is that, because of the above, privilege tends to perpetuate itself.

Back in 1989, Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D., associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, wrote a pivotal paper entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In the paper, she listed the contents of that knapsack, a collection of invisible “privileges” she enjoyed by virtue of her race – from being able to buy or rent a home wherever she wanted to being assured that when she’s pulled over for a traffic stop, it’s not because of the color of her skin.

Her point, derived from her work in women’s studies, was this. While those with privilege may be willing to admit that those without it are indeed disadvantaged, what they don’t seem to notice is the other side of the coin: doors automatically open for some folks simply because of their skin color – or their gender.

As McIntosh noted, it’s a source of power and advantage that is largely unearned. And it automatically puts many of us on the other side of the power divide. That includes women, even when we enjoy the privileges of race. Need a refresher? We make less money than our male counterparts. We’re often stymied on our way up the corporate ladder simply because of something related specifically to our gender: motherhood – or in some cases, lack of same. And then there’s the workplace itself, which is still structured around the outdated concept of the ideal employee, who can put in the 52 hour workweek, secure in the knowledge that there is someone at home to take care of business.

We’ll stop there.

My point, at least today, is not to vent about the inherent inequities – but to suggest that we start paying attention to the power that some folks hold through no fault of their own. Which brings us back to the case at hand.

Diallo has filed a civil suit against Strauss-Kahn, whose attorney has announced that Strauss-Kahn is considering a lawsuit of his own because he has suffered “enormous damages.”

Should both lawsuits see their day in court, let’s lay some odds, shall we? Who do you think is likely to prevail?

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And so I came across this post from the Daily Beast offering an apologia as to why the unfortunately named Mr. Weiner could not keep same off of the internet.   And it’s this:  Men feel invisible after a certain age.  To wit, once they hit that gray zone, they can no longer go into a cafe and get the twenty-something server to give them the eye.  And so they have to compensate.

Spare me.

Before this post ends in a sputter, let’s check what the writer, Christopher Dickey, Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor for Newsweek Magazine and The Daily Beast, had to say:

I had lunch recently with a good friend who is a veteran of the CIA and one of those spies who is a study in grays—handsome enough, but always in the background; never the first person you’d notice in a crowded room, and very possibly the last. Given his profession, I thought he wanted to be that way. So I was surprised when, early in the conversation as a college student served us iced tea in the diner, he said to me that one of the worst things about getting older is that you become “invisible to women.” It’s not just that they aren’t interested in you, he said, “it’s that they don’t see you.”

Not many men admit this, I think, although I am sure that many men in their 50s and older, and not a few in their 40s, must feel it. And I suspect that it is this sensation of invisibility that makes some men—especially politicians and actors who have made careers trying to be loved in public–make ridiculous spectacles of themselves as they get older.

For Rep. Anthony Weiner , 46, the fear of invisibility would seem to be so profound that he took to tweeting pictures of his depilated chest and distended crotch to complete strangers on Twitter and Facebook. (The congressman may have worried all his life that nobody would see him, and he’s such a geek he’d be pitiful if he weren’t so arrogant. One wonders, is Rick Moranis too old to play him in “Weiner: The Movie”?)

Similar concerns about invisibility, articulated or not, probably lurked in the head of 62-year-old Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was director of the International Monetary Fund and the leading contender to be the next president of France until he allegedly forced himself on a 32-year-old African immigrant hotel maid in New York City. “Do you know who I am?” he kept asking her, according to several reports. “Do you know who I am?” And by every indication she did not. Strauss-Kahn, now awaiting trial on criminal sexual assault and related charges, has denied any wrongdoing, but he can’t very well deny looking like a fool.

And then there was California’s actor-politician governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was pushing 50 when he fathered a child with his not-so-hot-looking housekeeper in 1997. After news of this broke last month, the tabloids told us Schwarzenegger, now almost 64, preferred women who thought he was more beautiful than they, or that he thought might think so; women, that is, who saw him as he wanted to be seen.

Blah, blah and effing blah.

Yes, I get it that men might feel that twinge when they’re suddenly the wallflowers at the orgy (Wish that were my phrase.  It’s not.  Credit Nora Ephron)  But let’s face it.  Men of a certain age can still be powerful politicians.  They can be CEOs.  They can run states and they can run Wall Street.  They can be new fathers, for the love of God.  And when their hair goes gray — to refer to the metaphor Dickey used above — they are considered distinguished.  They have gravitas.

Women?  Right.  Not so much.  We’re not only invisible when the gray starts to sprout — but in many careers, we’re looked upon as redundant when it comes to our professions.   We come to be defined by our age in ways that have little to do with our sexual capital.

Case in point, a drop-dead gorgeous friend who let her short hair go natural after a bout of chemo.   Steely gray, and with her clear blue eyes, killer gorgeous.  And yet.  What she found was that she was treated differently.  And it had nothing to do with catching the eye of anyone serving her iced tea or the bagboy at Safeway.

Case in another point.  Some years back, when I used myself as a guinea pig to teach my j. students  interviewing techniques, I encouraged them to suck it up and ask my age.  One courageous soul always did.  And when I gave my answer, there was always an intake of breath.  As if to say:  how can you still be relevant?  (I’ve since chucked that part of the exercise.)

The truth is that women are defined by externals in all-pervasive ways that men are not, and age is one of the worst markers of all.  Frankly, I don’t know how it feels for former studs to feel that they’ve lost their mojo.  But what I do know is this: college-aged servers aside, what they haven’t lost is their ability to take charge.  To be taken seriously. To be considered relevant.  To continue their ascent into the world.  To be the boss.  Or, God forbid, to marry women half their age, without being met by a roomful of snickers.  (Well, okay.  I tend to think that nothing makes a man look more like a jackass than having a woman the age of his daughter who isn’t his daughter on his arm, but that’s just me.)  All you have to do is go to the movies, where more often than not, you’ll see the old guy paired happily with the smiling ingenue.  But what about the reverse?

Think about it.  Okay, done.

But, because I play fair, I will include a bit more from  Mr. Dickey’s post, which redeems him somewhat:

In truth, invisibility is inevitable. And women have always known that, and felt it, and feared it and discussed. I have rarely spoken about this question with women friends over 40 who didn’t understand immediately what I was talking about. Yet the most beautiful and painful expression of invisibility’s tragedy that I know is actually a poem written in the 1960s by Randall Jarrell, a man who was then approaching his 50s and who was writing about a woman more or less the same age. Her only wish is that “the boy putting groceries in my car/See me. It bewilders me he doesn’t see me.”

Welcome to the club, guys.  Times ten.


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Another day, another scandal involving a politician’s crotch. So much to say! And what I’d like to talk about first is this: the phrase “good wife,” and why it must be retired forever. Like yesterday.

In the disgraced politician script, the “good wife” is the one who stands by her man. The one who doesn’t comment and doesn’t leave. Her husband, a public figure, impregnated the “household staffer”, tried to solicit sex in a public restroom, or tweeted his weiner to strangers, and was discovered. In the throes of public (not to mention private) humiliation, the good wife must be not angry, not sad… not anything, really. Invisible is good. Stoic. Properly dressed. And then? Well, we generally rake her over the coals anyway. Shouldn’t she have left? What’s the matter with her? When did she know? What did she know? Did they have some sort of kinky arrangement? Was she just in it for the money, the Governor’s mansion, the vicarious power? 

None of the above is good.

(And hey, just for fun, let’s imagine the situation were reversed. Let’s say Hillary Clinton was caught tweeting crotch shots to random young blackjack dealers and porn stars, or getting oral from an intern… Do you think anyone would be waxing philosophical over whether Bill was or was not behaving as a “good husband”?)

And the guy? I guess it’s clear these husbands are not, as husbands go, good. And yet, generally, the caught men are not really subject to the same sort of judgment. We laugh (comedy writers must surely thank the heavens for the gift of Weiner’s name), we roll our eyes and say, “another one?” or “boys will be boys.” Or, as Maureen Dowd wrote:

We’ve moved from the pre-feminist mantra about the sexual peccadilloes of married men–Boys will be boys–to post-feminist resignation: Men are dogs.

Humiliation (and press conference) behind us, we happily move on to dissect the debate. The conversation goes meta: why is who saying what about who, who’s allowed to or supposed to take what side, and doesn’t saying this in this instance when you said that in that instance make you a hypocrite?

And we greedily digest the salacious details. They’re pretty entertaining, after all. (Seriously, Weiner… your chest? Ladies: informal poll! Would receiving such a tweet be… exciting for you?) But really: it’s none of our business. And is it really news? We can feign outrage all we want, but the truth, it seems to me, is this: sex sells.

Alas, sexism does not. As Susanna Schrobsdorff wrote for Time magazine,

Sure, we get a lot of mileage out of publicly humiliating (and occasionally indicting) famous men who’ve committed sexual transgressions, both legal and illegal. But in the U.S., the gender war is often more show than substance. It’s a spectator sport in which we designate national villains, good wives and so-called sluts…

Condemning Weiner and Strauss-Kahn (and former Senator John Edwards) sure does make us feel as if women get a better deal in the U.S. than in France. The problem is that the numbers show that all the fuss over philandering men doesn’t do most American women any good at all. Certainly not when it comes to wage equality. As it turns out, the gender gap in median pay for full-time work is slightly worse in the U.S. than it is in France, according to a 2010 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

And it’s pretty certain that all the salacious details emerging from Weiner’s Twitter account won’t help the millions of American women who don’t have even one paid sick day to take care of a child or themselves. For many of the women who clean hotels and serve food, taking a day off means losing a big chunk of a week’s pay. That’s something that French women would surely not tolerate. (In the U.S., only 41% of low-wage service-industry jobs, which are dominated by women, allow paid sick days.) And how about maternity leave? America is one of only two industrialized nations, along with Australia, that do not guarantee paid maternity leave, and only 11% of U.S. civilian workers get paid family leave.

Will hotel maids be any more secure in the long run thanks to the attention brought to their occupational risks by the Strauss-Kahn case? In a month or two, when the spotlight moves elsewhere, it’s unlikely that they will feel less fearful that they’ll either lose their jobs or their reputations or be deported if they complain about a customer. After all, even women at elite institutions can’t be too optimistic that their allegations of harassment will be taken seriously. This spring, Yale University was embroiled in a federal investigation on charges that it ignored complaints by women about a number of egregious incidents, including one in which frat guys stood outside a freshman dorm shouting, “No means yes, yes means anal,” and another in which men rated women on the basis of how many drinks they’d have to consume before having sex with them.

So, yes, Americans will lambast anyone from the President to Weiner if we suspect they’ve violated our code of sexual conduct. But we won’t pay a whole lot of attention to more tedious but important issues like that ongoing legal action against Walmart by female employees who are suing the retailer for back pay in the largest private gender-bias case in U.S. history.

Still reading? Good reader. I wonder. If this were the sort of country where the women of Yale and Walmart were given as much play as Weiner’s weiner, where corporate pay–and maternity–policy demonstrated that women were valued, well, I wonder if powerful men–and the women they sext–would behave any differently. And I wonder this, too: What’s it going to take, to make substance as sexy as scandal?

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Clearly on the extreme is the most recent string of pols abusing their, ahem, position.  First up, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who fathered a child over ten years ago with one of his housekeepers.  As in someone who for 20 years worked inside his home, where he lived with his wife and kids.  Ugh.

And then there’s IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, reputed to be the heir apparent of Nicolas Sarkozy.  Strauss-Kahn is currently being held without bail in Riker’s Island for chasing a maid around his suite in a Manhattan hotel while wearing no pants.  Or anything else, for that matter.  And oh yes.  He sexually assaulted her.  And by the way, have you seen a picture of this guy?

What I keep wondering is what makes these men with power — simply the latest in a long string of pols who couldn’t keep their pants on — think they can get away with this stuff.  (Can you imagine Hillary Clinton, for example, chasing around a bellhop?)  Oh, wait.  Did I just answer my own question?

What I think is that it has to do with entitlement.  And it goes a lot deeper — and it’s much more pervasive — than the shenanigans of a bunch of horny old men.  Shannon, in fact, went there Tuesday in her post about Bridesmaids, where she wrote that in our culture, “everything male-centered is standard, and everything female-centered is female.”  In other words, we girls are still seen as outside the norm:

It’s an issue we dissect pretty thoroughly in the book. And it’s all yet another reason why so many women are so damn undecided: yes, we’ve been told we can do anything… but the world continues to show us that we should probably stifle certain parts of ourselves to get to the point where we can do it. That we’re the fringe, lucky to be allowed to play in the men’s world.

Yep.  We’ve got all the doors open — we can be doctors or lawyers or comedy writers or anything else — but those doors still open up into the old boy’s network, where the structures were designed by and for men and where, at the worst extreme, guys with power think they can get away with running around without their pants.  Okay, that’s a metaphor, but you get the picture, right?  (Or maybe you would rather not.)  Cue the power differential, and guess where that leaves us.

Maureen Dowd went there, in a column about the coming season of network TV shows that feature Playboy bunnies, a Charlie’s Angels remake, and a show about sixties-era stewardesses “harking back to the good old days when women didn’t sit in first class, they simply served the men who did..”  Okay, barf.  Dowd points out that there are still some strong women featured on the small screen, but, she writes:

… Hollywood is a world ruled by men, and this season, amid economic anxieties, those men want to indulge in some retro fantasies about hot, subservient babes.

“It’s the Hendricks syndrome,” said one top male TV producer here. “All the big, corporate men saw Christina Hendricks play the bombshell secretary on ‘Mad Men’ and fell in love. It’s a hot fudge sundae for men: a time when women were not allowed to get uppity or make demands. If the woman got pregnant, she had to drive to a back-alley abortionist in New Jersey. If you got tired of women, they had to go away. Women today don’t go away.”

A top female entertainment executive says “it’s not a coincidence that these retro shows are appearing at the same time men are confused about who to be. A lot of women are making more money and getting more college degrees. The traditional roles of dominant and submissive roles are reversed in many cases. Everything was clearer in the ’60s.”

But have things changed so much?  College degrees and fat paychecks notwithstanding, we’re clearly not in charge.  If we were, would primetime really be centered around pointy bras, cinched waists and puffy cottontails?

Our last word comes from uber-feminist Roseanne Barr who, in a scathing New York Magazine essay spills it all on how she got screwed by Hollywood in the first year of her award-winning sitcom — and reminds us how much things have not changed.  She writes of how she had her ideas and jokes stolen out from under her by her producer, Marcy Carsey, and writer Matt Williams, who was credited with creating the series, even though it was based on her fierce Domestic Goddess, a character she’d created doing stand-up for eight years in “dive clubs and biker bars.”  And what she learned that first year was this:

It was pretty clear that no one really cared about the show except me, and that Matt and Marcy and ABC had nothing but contempt for me—someone who didn’t show deference, didn’t keep her mouth shut, didn’t do what she was told. Marcy acted as if I were anti-feminist by resisting her attempt to steal my whole life out from under me. I made the mistake of thinking Marcy was a powerful woman in her own right. I’ve come to learn that there are none in TV. There aren’t powerful men, for that matter, either—unless they work for an ad company or a market-study group. Those are the people who decide what gets on the air and what doesn’t.

Which leads us back to where we started.  Entitlement and where it leaves us.  In this case, writes Barr, it’s at the feet of Charlie Sheen.

Nothing real or truthful makes its way to TV unless you are smart and know how to sneak it in, and I would tell you how I did it, but then I would have to kill you. Based on Two and a Half Men’s success, it seems viewers now prefer their comedy dumb and sexist. Charlie Sheen was the world’s most famous john, and a sitcom was written around him. That just says it all. Doing tons of drugs, smacking prostitutes around, holding a knife up to the head of your wife—sure, that sounds like a dream come true for so many guys out there, but that doesn’t make it right! People do what they can get away with (or figure they can), and Sheen is, in fact, a product of what we call politely the “culture.”

And there you go.  We wonder where naked old men get the idea that it’s okay to chase a chambermaid around a hotel room, or why studio heads, as Shannon wrote, who believe “that one half of the population thinks seeing a movie about women will somehow cost them their balls” always get their way.

The answer is simple.  Because they can.

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