Friday, January 21, 2011

Taking the bitter with the 'sweetie'

While she was interviewing him about his retirement from the Senate, Joe Lieberman called Arianna Huffington "sweetie." It was definitely condescending, tacked onto a suggestion that she had not read the Duelfer report, which supports Lieberman's claim that Saddam Hussein was working on weapons of mass destruction as a justification for going to war with Iraq, a subject she covered in the interview. This brought to mind a 2008 incident in which a politician undermined a woman reporter in an otherwise civil discourse a little bit closer to home:

WXYZ-TV's Peggy Agar received an apologetic voicemail from the President shortly thereafter, but the event stands. Whether it's on national television or in the comments of, as the conversation gets heated, the talk can turn acerbically, well, sweet. Sometimes, as in the cases of Lieberman and the commenter "suyts", the use is to purposely demean and belittle the (almost always female) opposition. Other times, though, the intention is not malicious at all but completely innocuous or even good-hearted.

Which is, you know, kind of worse. Because it's easy to call out Joe Lieberman when he does idiotic things on television. That's just Joe Lieberman, being an idiot. But what about the man who won't walk through a door that you've opened for him, who says helpfully, "I can get that, sweetheart"? When do women stop being everyone's six-year-old granddaughter?

My boss at my high school job used to, completely unconsciously and without malice, call his women customers "honey," "sweetie," and (if you were over the age of thirty-five) "young lady." As in, "Erika, why don't you help this nice young lady pick out a pair of frames." Even if I didn't find it offensive to refer to a 60-year-old judge as "young lady," it's at least very misleading. Imagine my confusion when I would turn the corner from the back room to find a salt-and-pepper-haired woman in a suit and reading glasses flipping through the Economist. God help me if there were a teenage girl in the office at the same time: "Oh no," the judge would say, tucking the magazine into her briefcase. "I'm the 'young lady.'"

I confronted him about it once. "I'm just being nice," he told me. Why do you think adult women want to be referred to as little girls? I wanted to ask, but there was really no light he could have shed on that matter.

Inevitably, of course, the things that annoy us about other people begin to crop up in our own behavior. My fall from grace was epitomized when my parents and I were arguing about the advantages of participating in Amway. I maintain that my mother's characterization of Amway's business structure ignores some basic principles of economics, but that is beside the point because this was my response to her:

"I understand what you're saying, sweetie--" The word crossed my lips barely before the apology. "I'msorryI'msorryI'msorryIdidn'tmeanthatI'msorry."

"I'm not your sweetie," my mom said, raising her eyebrows.

Exactly, Mom. Exactly.

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