The Fem Spot

Oprah, how could you?

Posted in Feminist Theory, media, News by femspotter on February 12, 2010

February 14, 2010

The question of whether of not Oprah identifies herself as “feminist” isn’t easy to answer. I asked Google and it told me what other people think, but I haven’t been able to find out what she herself thinks of feminism and whether or not she belongs to our club, divided though it may be. I had always assumed that Oprah was a feminist, and my kind of feminist at that: one who worked hard to empower women. She’s somebody who has struck a clean balance between changing the system of television to suit her and adapting to the establishment to get ahead. For all of her wealth and success, it’s what she does for other women that interests me most. Do I care if she calls herself a feminist? Not really.

It may be more accurate to label Oprah – if you’re interested in labels – a “humanist.” She’s certainly a philanthropist and works to relieve poverty, aid struggling veterans, educate the world’s children and encourage others to give. So perhaps her interests lie less in helping women specifically and more in helping humanity. As she herself has said, “Unless you choose to do great things with it, it makes no difference how much you are rewarded, or how much power you have.” Good for you, Oprah! I know several women who would consider themselves humanists rather than feminists. You don’t have to be part of team feminism if you don’t want to.

But feminists have sometimes demanded that she show allegiance to women specifically. Why? Is it because women have formed the core of her consumer base and can be partially credited with Oprah’s rise to power and fame? Okay. I get that. What’s fair is fair. I don’t agree that Oprah was in the wrong for endorsing Barack Obama for President instead of Hillary Clinton back in the 2008 Democratic primary. According to the TimesOnline, critics of Oprah’s decision flooded her Oprah.com expressing anger that she chose “her race over her (sex)” and calling her a “traitor.” Oprah wasn’t the only prominent woman to choose Obama, however. According to The Huffington Post on February 3, 2008, “(m)ore than 100 New York feminist leaders released a joint statement Sunday afternoon criticizing Hillary Clinton and supporting Obama for president – evidence that Clinton’s support among women activists (had) declined significantly in the days before the super-Tuesday primary.”

It’s not anti-feminist to choose a male political candidate over a female candidate because you agree with his message more than you agree with hers. Just like it wouldn’t have been racist for Oprah to have endorsed Clinton over Obama.

I’ll tell you what is anti-feminist: endorsing somebody who hurts women. As far as I know, Obama is not guilty of that. However, David Letterman is.

Let me be very clear about one very important thing: I am not condemning (nor am I condoning) Letterman’s act of cheating on his girlfriend/wife.

Cheating is a moral issue and we, as feminists, cannot be party solely to moralizing another’s sexuality. If we allowed ourselves to do that – to say things like “cheating is wrong” and “marriage is best when monogamous” – we validate arguments made against some of our causes like “abortion is wrong” and “gay marriage is immoral,” etc. Morality has no place in the feminist analysis of Letterman’s 2009 sexual scandal, in my opinion. You can personally shame Letterman, but when representing Feminism (capital F), you need to remember the question at hand, which is NOT was Letterman acting immorally, but is rather was Letterman acting illegally and hurting the Feminist (capital F) agenda for female equality? The answer to the first question is a draw because different feminists have different moralities. The answer to the second question: YES!

How did he do that, you might ask? In a nutshell, David Letterman allegedly created a hostile work environment for women at his production company. Women may have perceived that: 1. sleeping with Letterman could advance their careers in television, a truly unequal realm for women and 2. not sleeping with Letterman could result in damage to their careers or even dismissal from employment. That’s illegal: maybe not criminal to result in jail time, but against the law nonetheless. So why is David Letterman getting a pass?

“Prove it,” says the iron (man) judicial system. It’s difficult to prove when the women who slept with Letterman are likely afraid to call any more attention to themselves for fear of damaging their careers subsequent to working with Letterman. Almost nobody hires the woman who allegedly slept her way to the top, thereby belying her professional credibility, unless the hirer anticipates the employee doing it again for his own benefit or unless the hirer is a feminist looking to give the woman a break. And sexual harassment is also difficult to prove because it usually boils down to a he said-she said argument with no possible victor.

The history of Letterman’s love life in the professional arena according to ABC News is as follows:

Just before he was named the host of NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” in 1982, he began dating (Merrill) Markoe, who would become the show’s head writer… In typical Letterman fashion, he and (Regina) Lasko (a former “Late Show” staff member) were married in a secret ceremony on March 19, 2009 at the Teton County Courthouse in Choteau, Mont. The couple already had a son together, Harry, in 2003… (In October) a CBS News employee tried to blackmail (Letterman) for $2 million by exposing the sexual affairs he had with female subordinates… His admission on the air (Oct.1) to having not just a one-time romantic affair with a single staffer but to having ‘sex with women who work with me on this show,’ shed new light on what the public does know about his love life.

Entertainment Weekly coverReportedly, none of Letterman’s affairs outside his relationship with Lasko occurred during their marriage. While that may be comforting to fans and Lasko alike, it is irrelevant to the question of whether or not Letterman’s behavior constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace. The focus of the legal investigation surrounding the scandal has been on the blackmail. The public consequence for Letterman: a little embarrassment. The Oct. 14 cover of Entertainment Weekly magazine depicted Letterman with his pants down. Ha ha! His show’s ratings rose temporarily and then drifted back to where they were before the scandal. Nobody cares about the female employees it seems; nobody but us feminists. “‘Clearly CBS has a moral and political obligation to investigate this,’ says NOW president Terry O’Neill, who’s also a lawyer. But a Worldwide Pants spokesman says that the company circulates an employee manual each year that addresses harassment, while also saying, ‘Dave is not in violation of our policy, and no one has ever raised a complaint against him.'” (Oh, why did O’Neill use the word “moral?”)

At least one former staffer has spoken out about the professional atmosphere under Letterman’s employ since the scandal broke, though she didn’t report it to Human Resources during her tenure. Nell Scovell wrote “Letterman and Me” for Vanity Fair online.

At this moment, there are more females serving on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing for ‘Late Show with David Letterman,’ ‘The Jay Leno Show,’ and ‘The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien’ combined. Out of the 50 or so comedy writers working on these programs, exactly zero are women. It would be funny if it weren’t true. Late-night talk shows have long snubbed female writers… There’s a subset of sexual harassment called sexual favoritism that, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, can lead to a ‘hostile work environment,’ often ‘creating an atmosphere that is demeaning to women.’ And that pretty much sums up my experience at ‘Late Night with David Letterman.’

Scovell goes on to claim that, while Letterman never hit on her, he did pay her enough extra attention that another writer spoke to her about it. She claims that Letterman and other “high-level male employees” were having sex with female employees and that these affairs gave the women in them an advantage over other women in that workplace by virtue of favoritism and their having additional access to information that allowed them to “wield power disproportionate to their job titles.” Scovell concludes that there was most definitely a hostile work environment permeating the show and that she felt demeaned. So, she quit, or as she puts it, “I walked away from my dream job.”

Now why are David Letterman and his fellow high-level male employees getting a pass and what does all of this have to do with Oprah?

Well, as I mentioned before, sexual harassment is difficult to prove and as CBS asserts nobody ever reported Letterman for it. Of course, that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. But several high-profile women have given Dave a pass just like his audience. On “The View,” Barbara Walters remarked that Dave “is a very attractive man” and excused his affairs by saying that it’s perfectly acceptable to meet people and begin relationships at work and by claiming that she could recite a list of names of executives who were guilty of the same thing. As if that makes it alright! Joy Behar called Letterman “smart” and championed his political savvy in revealing his affairs rather than denying them. And Oprah appeared with him in a high-profile Super Bowl commercial to promote his television show. Take a look:

Whether or not this spot is funny is irrelevant to this discussion. Oprah agreed to do the spot to promote Letterman’s show and possibly, if he hasn’t learned his lesson, unwittingly to keep a hostile work environment for women in play over at the “The Late Show.” There are those who would point out that Letterman is innocent of sexual harassment until proven guilty. I agree. But that doesn’t make him any less responsible for it. Whether the legal system catches up with David Letterman or not, he and his production company are responsible to Scovell and others who endured the hostile work environment of his creation. And Oprah, as a female pioneer of the male-dominated industry that is television, should know better and should champion equal opportunities for women in its workplaces. I see her actions as anti-feminist and as a direct violation of women’s equality in the workplace. She can hold any moral opinion of Letterman in private, but as a public personality I think she should stand for what’s right for women.

Am I seriously off the mark here? Is Oprah only responsible to women if she wears the feminist label? Is she responsible to women at all?

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17 Responses

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  1. faemom said, on February 20, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    You raise some interesting points. I’m a little surprised that the women on “The View” gave Letterman a pass. First, there’s the issue of what should feminists do about Letterman. Should we boycott his show and sponsers because of his affairs with staffers, creating a hostile work enviroment and/or his inability to hire good femal comdey writers? If we boycott, do we hold that same standard to women who are part of his show, guest on his show, or do commercials with him?

    I’ll be honest and say I didn’t give much thought to the commercial. But as I slowly wrap my mind around it, it gets a bit sinister. And then I wonder are we reading to much into this or maybe a cigar is just a cigar and Oprah was happy to do a small commercial for a colleague for a substantial amount of money? I don’t know.

    • femspotter said, on February 21, 2010 at 8:30 am

      You’re right: I didn’t even think about the guests. Is being a guest the same thing as promoting his show at the Super Bowl? Probably, but to a lesser degree. I would decline to appear as a guest unless contractually obligated for promotion of film/television. In the case of Oprah, she chose to do the ad herself. She certainly doesn’t need the money. Why do it? Are they friends? I think that she probably doesn’t think about the lives of his ex-lovers/staffers.

      I guess what really upsets me about the Letterman scandal is that this hostile work environment issue is flying completely under the radar. Nobody is talking about it. Nobody cares. We’ve moved on to obsess over how many women Tiger Woods has slept with. As a feminist, I don’t care how many…just as long as they weren’t staffers on the pro golf tour being made to feel that sleeping with Woods was the only way to get ahead in their careers.

  2. faemom said, on February 22, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    The problem is that no one mentioned it being a hostile work enviroment before now. If no one says anything, how can any one do anything about it? We can assume that it might be because of the few women that work in the late night comedy industry. We can assume that there is a lot of pressure on these women. We can assume that since Letterman has been known to sleep with employees underneith him that there are obvious issues. But if no one complains, it’s also just as easy to assume those employees sought out that relationship, that they encouraged it, and that it didn’t effect their work enviroment. I know. How could it not? It still boils down that no one complained. And even this staffer didn’t complain until she had to say something to the media, long after she didn’t work there, after everyone knew about the affair, after her ex-boyfriend tried to blackmail Lettermen. So what can we expect of the media, of other celeberties, of ourselves, if no one complains?

    • femspotter said, on February 22, 2010 at 5:37 pm

      I know, this is very true. I wonder if there has been any digging, either by legal authorities or by the network, into whether or not any of these women would be willing to talk about it; not so that there are consequences for Letterman, because clearly he is beyond consequences, but so there can be change. As someone who has worked in television, I can attest with full certainty that it is primarily a man’s work world. A lot of that has to do with the traditional lift and carry aspects of the physical labor of crewing television shows, but it also has to do with the fact that it has always been men making shows for other men. Late night hosts are mostly male and they look for that same male perspective in the writing, producing and shooting of something branded to them. I get it, but it certainly isn’t fair.

      “So what can we expect of the media, of other celebrities, of ourselves, if no one complains?”

      I guess this is a question I can’t answer, but I will say that Oprah took neglect or looking the other way to the next level: endorsement. She endorsed David Letterman and his show, and in doing so, endorsed his potentially unethical business practices.

      • faemom said, on February 23, 2010 at 3:29 pm

        I see your point in endorsing the Letterman show.

        It’s frustrating to see a “man’s world” from the outside and want to change it, but when those working in it don’t complain then maybe I’m just an outsider that doesn’t know anything. I don’t think Letterman should get a pass for what he has done at all, but it’s hard to come to the aid of a staffer who took this long to say it was a hostile work enviroment. If the affair had never come to light, would she keep her silence? Is she saying it now to protect herself from judgement of other people, professionally and socially?

        Like I said, without whistle blowers, we can do nothing but assume. And you know what assuming does to you. (Of course I just thought of a whole lot of scenerios to blast my point to pieces.)

  3. faemom said, on February 22, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    As for marital affairs, I do believe it is anti-feminist to have an affair with someone in a relationship. It’s saying I don’t respect the other woman. It says that we must all compete against each other for the same man. It says that even if you finally secure “the man of your dreams” you have to be on constant vigilence against other women. So when one of Tiger Wood’s mistresses gives a tearful speech to the media about demanding an apology from Woods as well, I don’t really have a heart for it since she knew he was married, she knew he was lying to other people for her, she knew she was doing wrong. Not that this lets Woods off either.

    • femspotter said, on February 22, 2010 at 5:44 pm

      Fae, we’ll never agree on this point. You and I can speak as women and talk about cheating as a painful, damaging act. But what’s to say that Mr. and Mrs. Letterman don’t live in an open relationship? How do we know Mrs. Woods isn’t also a sex addict?

      I don’t think morality should play a part in feminism, at least not explicitly or as a reason something is declared anti-feminist. (Ultimately, all ideology is based in some kind of morality.) You’re for gay marriage and legal abortion. How do you counter a “gay marriage/abortion is wrong” argument if you are using the “cheating is wrong” argument on the other side?

      And I’ve always understood the emotional context for blaming “the other woman,” but ultimately the cheaters are Tiger and Dave here because they are the ones in the relationships. Can’t men also be moral agents? We shouldn’t have to look out for men-stealing women if we trust the “man of (our) dreams.” He’s the one who vowed not to cheat; other women did not.

    • femspotter said, on February 22, 2010 at 6:01 pm

      Also, feminists hurt my feelings all the time; but I don’t think they’d agree that in hurting me they are any less feminist.

      • faemom said, on February 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm

        I hold men respsonsible for their actions just as I hold women. Men shouldn’t cheat because they took vows to their spouses. It’s a legal contract just as much as it is a social, personal, and emotional commitment.

        You’re right. We don’t know what is between Letterman and his wife or Woods and his wife. What we do know is both men apologized to their wives for hurting them, and so it’s safe to assume that they do not have an open relationship.

        While I may believe it is morally wrong to cheat, I meant that as a feminist, one shouldn’t be knowingly causing harm to another woman. We should be looking out for our sisters and helping them out. We shouldn’t be competing over the same man, just like we shouldn’t be encouraging each other to do harmful things to our bodies. We shouldn’t allow others to turn us into enemies. We are the fashion police, and I believe that feminists will never achieve their ideal world until we realize that we must do it without expending our sisters.

    • femspotter said, on February 24, 2010 at 11:25 am

      Okay. So your feminism would have a rule that feminists don’t intentionally harm other women? That would be ideal in my book too. But none of Tiger’s or Dave’s mistresses are known to be feminists, are they? If they’re not playing by the “rules of feminism,” then that means they either 1) aren’t accountable by your rule or 2) your rule has nothing to do with feminism and just applies to all women, feminists or otherwise. Either way, feminism doesn’t play a part unless a declared feminist is harming another woman. Right?

      It’s wrong to cheat because people get hurt. That’s the moral argument. But some say it’s wrong to have an abortion because a fetus gets hurt. Where can we draw the line when using moral arguments like these?

      • femspotter said, on February 24, 2010 at 11:26 am

        P.S. This discussion is AWESOME! :)

    • femspotter said, on February 24, 2010 at 12:51 pm

      http://www.momlogic.com/2010/02/tiger_woods_is_a_role_model.php?adid=hot_topics

      This author believes we can’t blame the men who cheat because “IT’S RAINING WHORES!”

  4. faemom said, on February 24, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    It’s not just the moral issues or the pain. It’s about respect, respecting other women. Feminism looses ground because women simply don’t respect each other. We can become catty, manipulative, and judgemental. How can we change the world if we are constantly attacking our compatriats? Women who have affairs with men in relationships don’t respect the other women, putting all women on constant vigilence against each other. Why should we compete with one another, be on the guard with one another?

    As for that article, it’s just another in a long line of opinions that blame women for the actions of men. Wives have to be taught techniques to keep their husbands satisfied and from straying. Other women are just a bunch of whore throwing themselves at married men. Ugh. What about the men? Don’t they bare some responsibility to keep their dicks in their pants? The arguement that women have set the sexual boundries in the past is just as crazy because what power did a woman have in the 1950’s to deal with a cheating husband? What could a woman do with a cheating husband in the Victorian ages? Every one is responsible for his or her own actions.

    • femspotter said, on February 24, 2010 at 3:26 pm

      “Everyone is responsible for his or her own actions.” Totally! :)

      I just can’t believe that any woman would write that it’s “raining whores.” I have to say that I laughed out loud when I read that. I found the article on Feministe this morning. I’m banned from commenting there because women can be, as you say, “catty, manipulative and judgmental.” They don’t like my belief that women in the “First World” have power and that we should take action with it. I used the term “take responsibility” and they thought that implied blame. That’s why I now refer to that site as “Fasciste.” :D Don’t I sound bitter!

      • faemom said, on February 25, 2010 at 2:54 pm

        Not only did she write “It’s raining whores,” she used it to imply that men are completely helpless to the power of seduction that only women possess. Please. It’s my biggest arguement with traditional religions. How is that article supported by any feminist? I still can’t wrap my mind around the thought that women in the “First World” are helpless and that taking responsibility for our actions and reactions is the same thing as taking the blame for the situation. Lord. Should we start our own group?
        Hey, look! We found common ground again.

    • femspotter said, on February 25, 2010 at 3:23 pm

      Not difficult to do! :)

      I think there are many people who think this woman’s logic is whacky! Self-control and will power are difficult to master, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or that we shouldn’t try. I mean, it’s raining man whores all over the state of New Jersey but somehow I manage to control myself.

      • faemom said, on February 26, 2010 at 12:55 am

        Of course, you can control yourself. Women are naturally frigid and hate sex. Or is it they are lusty, nymphomaniacs that steal men’s souls through their dick? Crap, I can’t remember which one.


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