December
7th 2008
Gender, youth, culpability, and responsibility

Posted under: American history, childhood, class, Gender, students, women's history

Some of the commenters on the recent blog posts (here and elsewhere) about Barack Obama’s chief speechwriter Jon Favreau have suggested that his tacky groping of a Hillary Clinton life-sized cutout, his decision (or acquiescence) to be photographed doing this, and then the publicizing of this photo on his Facebook page, was perhaps due to his dewy age and youthful inexperience.  “Sure, it was ugly and stupid, but you can’t trash a young man’s career over prankish hijinks,” they say.  “Besides, he was drunk.”  (I’m paraphrasing here.)  Many other commenters here and on other blogs have cried foul at the implicit extension of “youth” to age 28 (at least?)  There was a humorous thread at Talk Left in which some commenters were presuming that Favreau was under 25 and commenting on the behaviors of men 12-24, until another commenter pointed out that he’s actually 27.

I agree that this extension of “youth” to the late twenties is ridiculous, because it clearly only applies to middle-class or elite men.  We don’t extend the same courtesy to young women who drink too much, party too hard, and do stupid things.  In fact, the standard young women are held to is precisely the opposite of the standard applied to privileged men:  whereas “boys will be boys,” girls are daughters of Eve and therefore they’re never too young to be blamed for everything we hate about ourselves and our culture.  I don’t read tabloids, but since I buy food at grocery stores, I’m well aware of the unstintingly harsh glare that was trained on singers and actors like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan in recent years.  (By the way, Spears just turned 27, and Lohan is all of 22, according to their Wikipedia pages.)  The emotional investment–to say nothing of the investments in money and time–some people have in trashing young women is truly shocking and disturbing.  Last year, when it was announced that Spears’ sixteen year-old sister Jaime Lynn was pregnant, she was held up as an example of everything wrong with the United States today.  So, talking about Favreau’s “youth” is yet another example of male privilege. 

The Spears sisters and Lohan appear to be troubled, but they’re insulated by their wealth and fame from the more violent fates suffered by many other young women.  When young women drink and engage in sex outside of marriage, that’s frequently used as an excuse to victimize them sometimes through rape or sexual assault, both by their attackers (“she was asking for it”) and by the public at large (“what was she thinking, drinking and then walking home alone in that state?”).  The men who attack them frequently were engaged in the same behavior, but although they are in fact the criminals, they’re rarely held accountable because of course, “boys will be boys.”  As grandoc pointed out helpfully in the comments on the previous post, testosterone does not in fact lead to greater criminality, so it’s clearly our culture that’s to blame for male predation.  But acknowledging and confronting that would be soooo hard, and it’s so much easier just to blame women for their own victimization.

Aside from the sex inequities, the “youth” dodge to excuse the criminal or merely embarrassing actions of men like Favreau in their 20s is also an expression of class privilege.  It’s only college men whose criminal behavior gets a pass because of their supposed “youth.”  College frequently functions as a magic shield of immunity for all manner of bad behavior, something I’ve always thought was terribly unfair.  Teen-aged and twentysomething non-students or working stiffs don’t get the same breaks that college men get when they engage in drunken criminal mischief or assault.  Because they hold down jobs and pay rent, like the adults they are, young working men are held to different standards than their infantilized and more privileged peers.

You don’t have to be a woman or a feminist or an old fogey to think that holding these men’s feet to the fire would be a good thing.  Depend upon it:  the fate of the nation might have been different if at least one entitled, lazy, drunken idiot had been held accountable for his actions when he was younger.  Or since he was selected President.

23 Comments »

23 Responses to “Gender, youth, culpability, and responsibility”

  1. twandx on 08 Dec 2008 at 4:14 am #

    It is encouraging that so many blogs are picking up on what we called “Genetic Pardons” in http://GenderGappers.blogspot.com

    There is talk of a new movement, which some sadly call “feminist” still. We think the name defeats the purpose. Why can’t we be women and continue the movement toward equality that our mothers and grandmothers worked and suffered for?

    It starts with each of us refusing to empower male privilege. We must all stop playing along with them to “be a good sport.”

  2. Historiann on 08 Dec 2008 at 9:30 am #

    Thanks for stopping by to comment, twandx. I just commented in the thread below that the week I turned 27, I started as a full-time lecturer teaching undergraduate and graduate students. I was a grown-up, and I sure as heck was aware of my extra responsiblities as a faculty member and educator of young people.

  3. Susan on 08 Dec 2008 at 10:27 am #

    Amen, sister. The messages we send out by what does and does not lead to mass criticism are really bad. I mean sure, it’s not clear to me that Britney, Jamie Lynn or Lyndsay are the brightest bulbs, but they can’t blink without being criticized. I think it will be interesting to see if Favreau does get away with this, because now that he is about to become a public servant, he is held to different and higher standards.

    That said, I will confess that even in my late 20s I sometimes did silly things that would have embarrassed me if someone had had a cell phone to take a picture :) Thankfully, we didn’t have cell phones then.

  4. Jon Favreau Needs to Be Fired… « Adoxography on 08 Dec 2008 at 10:30 am #

    [...] pricks, Jon Favreau, male privilege, The Democratic Party Hates Women … But, of course, he won’t. Jon Favreau: Douchemonkey [...]

  5. ej on 08 Dec 2008 at 1:40 pm #

    I have to disagree with many of the comments on this post and the previous one. I don’t think its about “youth” at all. I think its about success and the arrogance it can breed. This “youngish” man is a superstar in some circles. He wrote speeches that were universally lauded and was a prominent player in a historic campaign. In my opinion, he probably views himself the way successful athletes view themselves-as generally untouchable.

    I don’t find anything surprising about the photo or the timing. I think he believes himself to be beyond reproach. All this is speculative, of course, because I know nothing about him. And maybe its overly harsh. But I just don’t get the sense that this was an “oops” moment for him.

  6. Historiann on 08 Dec 2008 at 2:12 pm #

    ej, I think you’re right. I was writing about some people’s eagerness to blame it on his youth, rather than on more particular things like arrogance or a$$hattery. I don’t think anyone in this thread is making that argument however.

    I think your analogy to a successful athlete is a good one, since athletes are also known for their sense of entitlement to women’s sexuality (whether the women consent or not.)

  7. Ted on 08 Dec 2008 at 7:19 pm #

    If you want a more blatant example of dominance, have a look at this:

    http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=f2d_1228448707

    Sadly, I’ve worked with a number of guys like the MSNBC director in this video – who keep their jobs despite the fact that they don’t change their behavior.

  8. Historiann on 08 Dec 2008 at 8:18 pm #

    Thanks, Ted–or should I say, “thanks?” What a coincidence that that was a tornado in my neighborhood last spring.

  9. ortho stice on 08 Dec 2008 at 8:21 pm #

    These young men and their sexist acts will get a pass for one reason: they’re white.

  10. Geoff on 08 Dec 2008 at 8:54 pm #

    I am troubled by Historiann’s main post above as it relates to me and my posts on the previous thread. I was only one of two who could be construed as making a “youth” excuse, and it wasn’t the point of that post or any other. My main point there was that one shouldn’t judge someone by ten seconds of their life, and tried to illustrate that with examples from my own life. Other points I’ve attempted to make is that this episode is way overblown, and that I feel it disingenuous to be holding Favreau to such a standard when Bill Clinton served on Hillary’s campaign and performed (in my opinion) far more offensive acts to Hillary in particular and women in general than the picture with the cardboard cutout.

    But that’s what the previous thread is for. In the post above commenters (such as myself, I presume) are associated with defending the criminal acts of those in their twenties, and not holding young sexual predators to account. We are also implicitly with blaming the victim in cases of sexual assault.

    Historiann, please tell me I’m misinterpreting your thoughts above.

  11. Historiann on 08 Dec 2008 at 9:19 pm #

    Geoff–you’re not the only person to suggest that it was youthful hijinks. That was a common defense of Favreau in other threads at the other blogs I’ve linked to. This post wasn’t so much about Favreau as it is about what I see as the youth dodge. You and I disagree about the seriousness and the tenor of the infraction–fair enough. This post was about the broader issue of elite and middle-class male privilege. I’m not suggesting that you’re defending criminal acts–but I am suggesting that the impulse to lay off Favreau is related to the wider tendency to lay off privileged men in general, and to cherchez la femme when looking for someone to blame, regardless of age.

    Also, I don’t get why you keep bringing up Bill Clinton. This isn’t about him–this is about a high level Obama appointee’s bad judgment. I get that you really dislike and disapprove of Bill Clinton, but why would that lead you to tolerate the sexual aggression on display by Favreau? I don’t see the connection.

  12. Geoff on 08 Dec 2008 at 9:43 pm #

    I’ll discuss why I brought up Bill Clinton back on the other thread to maintain some cleanliness here. I appreciate your response.

  13. ej on 08 Dec 2008 at 9:49 pm #

    I think the difference in opinion here stems from how one reads this. Is it an isolated incident? Or is it symptomatic of larger attitudes towards women? Its a difficult call without the wider context and knowing more about this individual.

    And to suggest that it was an isolated incident is by no means to say that it is acceptable. I think that everyone makes mistakes and can be prone to act without thinking about the basic assumptions that inform their actions. What matters is whether or not there is some reflection after the fact, and a recognition that one’s behavior stemmed from thoughts that need to be examined.

  14. The Epistle of Miranda the MBA, 1 Manhattanites, chapter I: Yea verily I say unto you, this sucks : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 09 Dec 2008 at 6:43 am #

    [...] sign of entitled behavior, but I haven’t fully unpacked that yet.)  Ed. note:  I think commenter ej made this point on the previous post here–but there’s surely more to say on this [...]

  15. Ted on 09 Dec 2008 at 8:15 am #

    “Thanks, Ted–or should I say, “thanks?”

    Yeah, maybe “thanks” isn’t the right word. Perhaps something more like a Keanu Reeves’ “Whoa.”

  16. Historiann on 09 Dec 2008 at 8:16 am #

    Exactly! Anyway, I’m glad you stopped by to comment.

  17. Ted on 09 Dec 2008 at 8:43 am #

    Hey, you’re welcome! I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now — as a lurker, obviously.

  18. squadratomagico on 09 Dec 2008 at 9:25 am #

    I’m going to wade in, reluctantly, with a counter-opinion.

    I find the photo offensive, but for me the real issue is how it got onto the Facebook page. In my opinion, people — even people in the public eye — are entitled to do offensive things in their private lives. I, for example, in my free time, engage in various behaviors of which many people would strenuously disapprove. I could imagine the parents of some of my students, for instance, disapproving of my attendance at Burning Man, and regarding the things that go on there as extremely offensive and immoral. My circus is less controversial, but certainly people have objected to us for being too edgy; one mother complained to the Tourist Trap authorities about our show, after she found out that our main gig was at a gay nightclub. The substance of that complaint was: “How could you hire these people for a free, family show, when they mainly perform at a club for perverts and queers?” She was as outraged about us, as you are about that photo.

    My main point, however, is not that there are different opinions about what constitutes offensive behavior. I am happy to stipulate that the photo depicts offensive behavior: it is the visual equivalent of calling her a c*nt. Rather, my response to the outcry here is that I don’t find it either possible or desirable to police private behavior. Everyone is entitled to make an ass of him- or herself, AND even to be immoral and offensive, in the privacy of their own homes, at private events, etc. In my view, regardless of the nature of the offense, one’s private behavior is just that: private. I want my right to be offensive and immoral in private, without that being grounds for destroying my professional life; therefore, I will give him the same rights.

    However (and this is a key point) once the behavior migrates from an ephemeral moment at a private event, to a publicly-memorialized photo proudly displayed on a networking site, THEN it crosses a line, as it no longer is private behavior. For me, the main issue is how it got to Facebook, and what level of responsibility he had for it’s appearance on his page.

  19. Historiann on 09 Dec 2008 at 9:34 am #

    Sq., I don’t think this is a counter opinion. I think you make good points about your circus life and how that makes you feel differently about the public/private split. (This post was an argument that women and working-class men are held to different standards of behavior than middle- and upper-class men. Maybe you meant to post this comment on the thread below?)

    I can see your point of view, but I would bet that your performances don’t involve displays of sexual aggression–either against a person or an image of a person. (I may be wrong–this is just a guess.) I would have no problem with Favreau and “Obama Staff” guy photographed cavorting with a cardboard Hillary Clinton minus the boob grab and the tongue in the ear. (I personally don’t mind the beer they’re offering her, but others might disagree.) If they just had their arms around the cardboard cutout–that would be fine, too. So, I think the content matters.

    I think you’re right that the publicity makes all of the difference here. I think it was stupid and unprofessional for him to pose for such a picture, knowing that he may be a high-level Obama administration appointee. (And I think the photo was clearly posed–the camera before him probably inspired the pose he displays. At least, I think that’s the likeliest explanation.)

  20. Professor Zero on 09 Dec 2008 at 2:56 pm #

    The neighbor tells me that it is a lot more offensive to hang white guys in effigy than anyone else. If it happens to anyone else it is just a joke and people need to have a sense of humor. If it happens to a white guy it is terrorizing and a crime.

  21. Historiann on 09 Dec 2008 at 3:00 pm #

    Hmmm–that’s an interesting inversion of reality. But, I guess it also reflects reality in that white men’s interests are always defended (or advanced) at the expense of everyone else. As in, the real problem with rape is that so many men are falsely accused, or the real problem with racial harrassment is that so many white people are falsely charged with it.

  22. Drunk History, vol. 3: women’s history edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 09 Dec 2008 at 3:00 pm #

    [...] chips, and guacamole.)  Since we’ve been debating some heavy topics lately like displays of sexual dominance, hostile work environments, and public boob grabs, I thought many of you might appreciate this very [...]

  23. grandoc on 10 Dec 2008 at 1:39 pm #

    Almost 50 years ago my all male fraternity at Ivy League North was unable ( along with Wisconsin, UCLA and some other top schools) to get the national office to delete discriminatory admission clauses – and the college forced our frat to become “local”. We did a lot of hard partying on weekends, but did play bridge and poker during the week. We contributed zip to the local community. When the college went coed, women joined the frat. When I looked at the fratso or sofrat website several years ago, I was surprised by the number of programs the the group was sponsoring – battered women. prisoner literacy, Big Brother/Sister, school tutoring. Actually, I was embarrassed. Some of this altruism may have been administration-mandated but I think a large chunk was due to the women saying “Guys- we really shouldn’t sit around and drink 24/7. Grandoc. PS The college student in the picture belonged to AD, my school.