THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joanna Weiss

What’s the shock about trash talk?

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / October 19, 2010

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FORGIVE ME for not feeling great sympathy for Meg Whitman — or womanly outrage on her behalf.

The California candidate for governor has gotten ample political mileage from being called a “whore’’ — in a cellphone conversation, recorded and leaked, between her opponent, Jerry Brown and an aide (who did the name-calling). In a year filled with formidable female candidates, this may have been the most gender-loaded dustup, and the most predictable. Whitman claimed the high road, demanded a mea culpa for the women of California, and watched the headlines pile up.

Of course, in a tight race, a wise candidate takes any advantage they can get. But surely, Whitman knows better. And surely, as the former head of eBay, she’s heard worse.

I’m not suggesting that women don’t have built-in disadvantages in politics; let’s compare the number of women and men with young children in high office, and then talk about whether the playing field is level. And I’m not saying there aren’t slurs against women that should be verboten — or that “whore’’ can’t be a hurtful, literal term, in certain contexts. Rap songs. Prostitution rings.

But language evolves. And you have to have been living in a 1940s movie not to know that the word is now applied in a gender-neutral way — to men and women who compromise their principles, engage in shameless pandering, even enjoy things to excess. (By Whitman’s standards, a male blogger who calls himself “The Wine Whore’’ apparently owes himself an apology.)

Likewise, you have to have been trapped in the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse not to know that, in the backrooms of politics and business, people use bad words. No, Jerry Brown didn’t rush to Whitman’s defense when his aide said “whore.’’ But he also didn’t intend the conversation to be public; it was recorded on a voice mail system, and needs to be taken in context. The gripe was that Whitman had compromised a policy stance to win a union endorsement. Even the head of California’s chapter of NOW called her a “political whore’’ for that.

But female candidates understand that rattling old sabers can still drum up old sympathies. In 2008, after complaints from Hillary Clinton and other female leaders, MSNBC suspended correspondent David Shuster for saying Clinton was “pimping out’’ her daughter in the presidential race. It was an absurd charge, and a choice of words that may have been too MTV for the MSNBC demographic. But in the pantheon of ill-advised statements on 24-hour cable, it hardly ranked as a firing offense.

In politics, it’s far more instructive to search for words and attitudes that are truly gender-loaded, and suggest deeper truths about the candidates who use them. The slur from Brown’s aide seems far more benign than when Mitt Romney told Shannon O’Brien, his opponent for Massachusetts governor in 2002, that she was acting “unbecoming’’ for trying to pin down his stance on abortion.

And it’s instructive to see how Linda McMahon, the former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO who is running for Senate in Connecticut, is trying to manage her campaign’s gender gap. Turns out, Connecticut women aren’t thrilled about an enterprise that features barely-clad women tossed on the ground by burly men and told to bark like dogs. So McMahon put out an ad featuring two fictional suburban women, who defend the WWE in gender-loaded terms: It’s a “soap opera,’’ that McMahon “tamed.’’

If that sways her female skeptics, I’ll be shocked. On the other hand, the nature of the WWE might make its own case for McMahon’s political future; if she can boss around a bunch of burly wrestlers, she might stand a chance of keeping certain lobbyists at bay.

That’s the sort of argument Whitman ought to be making now. The notion that the billionaire head of a Fortune 500 company would be crushed — or even surprised — at a little trash talk is absurd. And if she’s somehow deeply wounded by an aide on a cellphone, how would she handle a rambunctious State Assembly? The fact that she can slough off slurs should be a badge of honor — and a model for women who want to play the game.

Correction: The original version of this column misstated the punishment given to MSNBC correspondent David Schuster. He was suspended, not fired.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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