Gov. Rick Perry’s political action committee, RickPAC, grabbed headlines this week by hiring Jamie Johnson as senior director. It’s a surprising choice, because Johnson is a sexist. Not the usual kind that swears up and down he’s not a sexist while talking down to women or minimizing the impact of sexism, either. Johnson, who previously worked for Iowa Right to Life and the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, is bluntly sexist. In 2012, an email Johnson wrote surfaced in which he wrote, “The question then comes, ‘Is it God’s highest desire, that is, his biblically expressed will…to have a woman rule the institutions of the family, the church, and the state?’”
Johnson’s excuse was that he meant for the email to be private, as if lying about how sexist you really are to the public makes your sexism less offensive. Hiring someone known for his overt sexism should be politically poisonous, especially when Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee going into 2016, but Perry’s people actually have a good reason to think this is going to be no big deal, because this kind of overt sexism has become downright mainstream in conservative media as of late. Yes, even as larger numbers of women enter politics, men in conservative spaces seemingly feel freer than ever to let it all hang out, misogyny-wise.
Or maybe it’s because you’re seeing more women in politics, which, in turn, is creating a rather unseemly panic among conservative male pundits who are losing the ability to hide how freaked out they are about having to treat women like people with authority. On Wednesday’s episode of Your World with Neil Cavuto on Fox News, Charles Payne, while ostensibly praising Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen for not hand-holding Wall Street, still undermined her by saying, “She did it like a typical mommy would,” and suggesting that Yellen’s “mommy” personality made her a weak leader.
Sexism used to be conveyed, even in conservative media, with much more subtlety, but in the past couple of years, there’s been a shift towards hitting the audience over the head with it. Maybe the trend started with Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for using birth control in 2012. Or maybe it started in 2013, when Erick Erickson, Lou Dobbs, and Juan Williams went on Fox News to denounce women who make higher salaries than their husbands, saying that doing so signals the “disintegration of marriage” and that “the natural world” is one where “the male is typically dominant” and the female is meant for a “complimentary” role, which is a lovely euphemism for “subservient.”
Sexism just isn’t as subtle as it used to be and turning on conservative media increasingly sounds like listening to your Republican uncle at dinner after he’s had a few. This trend is epitomized by the Fox News show Outnumbered, which has four female hosts and one male guest, apparently for the sole purpose of giving men an opportunity to whine about how oppressive it is to be around all this female authority.
And boy how do the male hosts love to talk about they suffer, awash in the nattering of female voices. Guest Mark Fuhrman, whose main claim to fame is being so racist he helped screw Los Angeles out of a chance to convict O.J. Simpson of homicide, went on the show on Wednesday and joshed around about how having so many women around is “like female waterboarding.” In July, Charles Payne took the joke to another level, wearing cufflinks that displayed that creaky old joke of a caveman dragging a woman off to be raped, justifying them by saying he felt “intimidated” by all the women and “had to overcompensate.” By reminding them that while they may be TV hosts, they are still rape-able, I guess?
Every man who makes similar jokes on the show acts like it’s the height of wit—assisted, of course, with obligatory peals of laughter from the conservative female crowd. None seem to notice they’re making the same unoriginal joke, nor do they pause to consider that being the sole representative of your gender in a roomful of powerful people is a routine experience for ambitious women. But of course they wouldn’t notice. Men having power is treated as if it’s normal and expected, but women with power? That’s a threat. And one that is causing increasingly bold reactions amongst conservative men.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.