by Richard Leader
Smug liberals gleefully deployed double and triple entendres in an effort to squeeze every ounce of rape-humor from the Right's campaign against health care. But is it worth it? What do we lose when we label right wing demonstrators "teabaggers"?
Raping Faces for Progress
by Richard Leader
“The language of pornography is just a more glossy form of racism, sexism, ageism, and classism.”
There’s no point in sugarcoating it or delaying the inevitable: the term teabagging describes the act of placing one’s scrotum in or around the mouth of an unwilling or unconscious person. It’s not oral sex. It’s a spectator sport, done for the benefit of a crowd, or better yet, a camera. There are some who will argue for a more consensual definition, if only to mitigate how much trouble they might get in when using the phrase to be obnoxious. Thanks to the feminist movement, it’s hard to sell jokes about something that’s always rape — although it’s still easy enough to get away with joking about something that is almostalways rape.
Familiar labels such as gay or straight miss the point of the behavior. All “lifestyles” exist in a wider culture of humiliation that is used to enforce hierarchies. This particular humiliation is both popular (over 20 definitions for teabagging have been posted at UrbanDictionary.com, with over 20,000 votes tallied in favor or against certain explanations) and is widely considered hilarious.
Teabagging received widespread attention when liberals mocked the 2009 Tax Day protests. The Republican-kindled events invoked the Boston Tea Party. They invited participants to mail bags of tea to their local and state representatives to voice their disapproval of “big government,” whatever that might mean when applied to a world superpower. Liberals seized onto this aspect of the protests, clearly preferring “tea bags” over “bags of tea,” wondering at the naivety of Party goers. Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post cheers, “There is only one thing in all the world worth noting about the people behind these things, and it is this: everyone involved is apparently unaware of what the term ‘teabagging’ means.”
“Conservatives are far more plugged in than many are willing to credit them.”
Mailing small objects as a form of minor activism is on the upswing. The practice has been invigorated by several recent campaigns to save canceled television shows: if anything, the concept showed that conservatives are far more plugged in than many are willing to credit them. No one directly “behind” the Parties made any reference to “teabagging,” although there was an anonymously created channel on Twitter called “Teabag Obama.” While I suspect that the channel was set up by person without any standing, the fact that Republicans weren’t willing to claim any of the official events (in order to maintain the charade that the Parties were grass roots led and non-partisan) does make it difficult for them to deny anything in this regard.
Despite protesters never using the teabagging phraseology, it didn’t do anything to slow down hecklers who quickly named them Teabaggers. Daniel Kurtzman’s political humor blog at About.com listsalmost a dozen mainstream personalities who were able to get away with graphic jokes about face-rape on cable news: David Schuster, Anderson Cooper, Keith Olbermann, Stephen Colbert, and more. Rachel Maddow and Ana Marie Cox won the trophy as the pair managed to say “teabag” euphemistically scores of times in a segment lasting all of a few minutes. Kurtzman declares, “right-wing protesters who staged the rallies may have been oblivious to the true meaning of ‘teabagging,’ but that just made taunting them all the funnier.”
If ignorance of frat house culture alone is considered an open invitation to mock someone, liberals had a second justification for being amused at their own invocation of teabagging. The theory goes something like this: as teabagging is sexual (even if it’s almost always used to describe a sexual assault) and is typically perceived as “more gay than not,” the fact that the tax protestors, assumed to be prudish and homophobic, are engaged in “teabagging” is a delicious irony to be savored.
“Almost a dozen mainstream personalities were able to get away with graphic jokes about face-rape on cable news.”
While being a prude has nothing to do with being a homophobe — Miss Manners and the rapper Eminem both come to mind as each possessing one quality but not the other — liberal culture is more concerned with punishing the uncool than it is with punishing the ethically bankrupt. This is why Eminem gets to skate and Tea Party goers don’t. (Eminem is even allowed to engage in jokes that celebrate the homophobic component of his persona, as he did with Sasha Baron Cohen.) However, here it’s liberals who are proclaiming sexual assault to be sex and, more than that, something that gays do on a regular basis, as if this theory is doing homosexual men any favors. The alleged homophobia of “teabaggers” was used to justify using the term to mock them.
Daily Kos, a Democratic stronghold on the internet,had a topic that invited its users to post their “favorite teabagging pics” from Tea Parties. While many of the images taken of actual protestors were truly vile, people holding placards comparing Obama to Hitler and tax payers to Jews in ovens, the headline itself bore a picture of a “Kossack” who attended the event just to heckle. One Brendan Skwire is shown with a banner that read, “Down with Sodomy! Up with Tea Bagging!”Links were given to additional pictures of him licking a pair of dangling tea bags.
Although the Republicans never, as far as anyone can tell, claimed to actually “teabag” anything with their postal campaign, deliberate misrepresentations like the Daily Kos’ “sodomy” image worked to make it appear otherwise. Public perception now “remembers” public claims of teabagging. This wasn’t just to make conservatives look like ignorant old fogeys. It accomplished that well enough, but the purpose of those misrepresentations was wider than just ageism: if Republicans get to joke about sexual assault, progressives are perfectly entitled to joke about it too. The underlying desire for why progressives needed to make such jokes was never questioned.
“Liberal culture is more concerned with punishing the uncool than it is with punishing the ethically bankrupt.”
While the jokes might have begun with the premise of “conservatives teabagging the government” (I’m deliberately invoking the classic “subject-verb-object” construction of rape), they quickly turned to liberals claiming the prerogative to rhetorically teabag anyone they found deserving. Matt Taibbi, under the aegis of TrueSlant.com, entitled a column, “Teabagging Michelle Malkin.” He wrote:
“I have to say, I’m really enjoying this whole teabag thing. It’s really inspiring some excellent daydreaming. For one thing, it’s brought together the words teabag and Michelle Malkin for me in a very powerful, thrilling sort of way.”
As “gay” as teabagging might be, it seems perfectly situated for putting women in their place. Taibbi’s article reminds me of a recent video Henry Rollins produced where he invites Ann Coulter to be his bitch and clean his house for him. Then there are the young liberal men who donned “Sarah Palin is a Cunt” shirts to impress their female friends during the election. It’s very likely that their plan was successful.
Even if one is unconvinced that there is such a thing as patriarchy, all of this is evidence that the very same white youth culture that’s celebrated for “making” President Obama is in love with bullying. Indeed, bullying is love: in personal ads today, just about every person under 40 believes that the adjective “sarcastic” is the most suitable and efficacious way to describe him or herself to potential partners, unaware of the true meaning of the word and its link to cruelty and power plays.
Liberals have criticized Bush and his cowboy swagger for the past eight years, but that was just jealousy. Obama — the anti-war candidate who wasn’t against war but only “dumb war,” sweeping aside weeping bitches like Cindy Sheehan, Code Pink, and anyone who wouldn’t promise a smarter war in Afghanistan, Iran, and even Pakistan — put all of America on an even playing field: we’re all invested in the macho game now.
“One Brendan Skwire is shown with a banner that read, “Down with Sodomy! Up with Tea Bagging!”
Of course, the playing field isn’t entirely even. It can’t be, by design. Parity only exists for white males standing across the aisle from each other as liberals and conservatives. “Politics” exists as a food fight, with talking points, gotcha-moments, and a cacophony of name calling. In the past, progressives were at a distinct disadvantage in that regard. Virtually every insulting expression in our vocabulary compares its target to a politically weak or disadvantaged group. Some attack the handicapped (lame, retarded). Others threaten sexual and ethnic minorities, with some like Indian Giver or gypped (referring to gypsies) having entered into our language wholesale. Many of the most powerful insults focus on females, portions of their anatomy, or their socially dictated sexual-roles as “bottoms” or masochists (“this is worse than ‘sucks,’ it swallows”). When progressives claim to represent the interests of all these groups, one can hardly invoke their likenesses when cursing out political opponents.
In our post-political age, however, where “progressivism” is just another facet of the Obama brand, a coolness that exists independently and above traditionally liberal causes, name calling is back in force. Just as Kossacks thought they were doing gays a favor by piggybacking an anti-homophobia message onto their teabagging jokes, many feminists concluded that because they believed Palin to be a threat to women’s rights that it was more than justified to direct misogyny her way. Political Correctness — also known as basic human decency — is now something that even liberals find themselves straining under: it’s an impediment when it comes to name calling and is thus a political liability.
The problem is that masculinity is more than “only words,” as the feminist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon described it in her book named exactly that. The first time I heard the term teabagging (everyone seems to be able to share a similar story, as if it were reminiscing about where you were when you heard about the death of a celebrity) was about a decade ago. It was a short segment on the radio, where explicit details were given about how the guys in the band Blink 182 would pull the stunt on sleeping friends.
“Many feminists concluded that because they believed Palin to be a threat to women’s rights that it was more than justified to direct misogyny her way.”
Since then, I’ve listened to Judd Apatow, voiced by Jonah Hill, conclude in his Knocked Up that the practice is, in fact, more gay than not. Some consider that monologue to be among the best he’s ever written. I’ve even seen a major television network name a character T-Bag, drawing laughs from people clued in enough to know its “true meaning,” as Daniel Kurtzman would say. T-Bag was a rapist and a pedophile (so much for the consensual definitions!) on FOX’s Prison Break: the fact that the character’s given name just happens to be Theodore Bagwell was enough to get it past censors. (Yet FOX News freely complained about the use of “teabagging” by their rivals on the cable-only MSNBC.)
And then there’s Halo.
Videogames provided the cultural watershed for teabagging. While the first-person shooter genre is no stranger to controversy (whether it was DOOM’s satanic imagery or Duke Nukem’s strippers), typically the media has focused on the behavior of game designers, rather than that of players. Online matches allow defeated characters to “respawn” after a few moments’ wait. During this limbo, the player’s view is fixated on his or her corpse. Opponents can use this interval to walk over the body and rapidly toggle between standing and crouching over the player’s face, simulating a teabagging assault. While Microsoft’s flagship title for their Xbox console, Halo 2, was certainly not the first game where this was done, it brought it to an immensely larger — and younger — audience. Moreover, it did it with corporate sanction.
Bungie, the creator of the game and then a Microsoft property, wasn’t shy about using teabagging to promote their product. They held Wednesday Hump Day events where their own team would take on challengers. The “hump day” double entendre was frequently joined with a picture of Halo’s metal-suited soldiers teabagging fallen adversaries. Fully animated versions of the same images on Bungie’s website can be found on the internet, including one where the viewer sees the crotch coming directly at his or her face. Bill Gates, philanthropist that he is, wasn’t above virtual-rape to make a buck.
“Bungie wasn’t shy about using teabagging to promote their product.”
There is even a secondary market for teabagging imagery. One business sells tee shirts depicting what they see as “The Complete Frag.” (Frag, once the politically charged term for the deliberate killing of a superior officer, now cheerfully refers to any virtual death.) The artwork involves a series of silhouettes where one figure shoots another and then proceeds to grind up and down over its head. The final frame, much larger, shows a graphic of a bag of tea with a smiley face. The company behind the product gives discounts to those who send in photographs of themselves wearing the item, preferably while mock-teabagging a friend, someone who can take a good joke.
Not everyone is so kind natured and understanding about face-rape, however. A school in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey once disciplined a group of boys who pinned down classmates for fully clothed teabaggings as a component of their bullying regimen. Halo was given as the inspiration for the attacks. When this news hit the internet, it was primarily picked up by young hipster sites like Nerve (a destination for overeducated sex braggarts) and Kotaku (a Japanese loanword that English speakers typically interpret as “pervert geek”), demographics that would be ideally suited for conscription into Barack Obama’s campaign.
Rather than concern over the teens’ welfare, the primary worry was that gaming culture would be unfairly targeted by the mainstream media. Comments typically expressed macho-bootstrapping stories (I was bullied, I fought back and won, it was a character building experience) or complained that teabagging has been around forever and always will be a basic fact of human existence so there’s no use whining about it and being Politically Correct. It’s unlikely that very many of them could imagine that only a year later they’d be reading columns by their more successful peers, like Matt Taibbi, where rhetorical teabaggings would be given out in mainstream publications.
“The artwork involves a series of silhouettes where one figure shoots another and then proceeds to grind up and down over its head.”
Matt Taibbi is best known for his work on the economy for Rolling Stone, treating the serious subject with irreverence and colorful metaphors. One might wonder if he would have been given such a plum assignment if he didn’t give teabaggings: are writers who can’t bring themselves to verbally face-rape someone at a disadvantage in the marketplace?Do female journalists and non-white men have an even tougher path to walk as they are required to act like grownups?
Rachel Maddow and Ana Marie Cox put everything on the line to “out guy” the guys and while it keeps them employed, they get little of the respect that Taibbi garners as an authentic thinker. Columbia Journalism Review named Taibbi the “enfant terrible of the business press.” Cox, on the other hand, is largely considered a product: a face that mogul Nick Denton picked to make a corporate enterprise (Wonkette) look like a homegrown blog; her claim to fame was getting another woman a gig at Playboy. Teabagging might get you a seat at the table, but you have to have real balls for it to matter.
“Teabagging” itself is downright pedestrian at this point: “butthurt” is the most exciting addition to the male-stream vernacular, a term that describes anyone complaining (and is thus automatically feminine), as if they had been anally raped and were exaggerating the pain of the experience. This is often coupled with jokes about PMITA (pound me in the ass) prison, as jargon now exists for every conceivable absence of pathos. As Democrats now control the status quo, it’s liberals to the left of Obama’s “center-right” leadership who are destined to petty whining and accusations of acting butthurt. That dreaded victim-mentality. And yes, the same MSNBC that ran cheering sections for both Obama and the teabagging of his opponents spends hours everynight televising infomercials about the efficacy of the prison-industrial complex.
While Nerve and Kotaku might sound like niche publications, and they are, the thoughts written there are emblematic of our culture as a whole. The Tea Parties might have been partisan (but so was the peace movement, which lost corporate funding when Obama was elected and those still willing to march got exiled to the fringes of society), but rape culture is not: it infects both conservatives and progressives alike.
“'Butthurt' is the most exciting addition to the male-stream vernacular.”
People want nothing more than corporate sanction to act horrendously. Every comic book hero gets to break the law and put the public at risk because someone he knew in the distant past was harmed, forming an ongoing justification. Obama offered young white people, especially, an excuse to act out their most unspeakable dreams: whatever they said or did during the elections — no matter how beyond the pale — was warranted as they were acting on the side of history.
That power was exciting and people were drawn to it. That power, however, is not absolute: many new Democrats are discovering at Obama’s healthcare “town halls” that there are others who are more than capable of out bullying them. If conservatives own the language of age-old hatreds, liberals own the language of pornography. That language is particularly attractive for use in the political “foodfight” because it’s thought to be off limits to conservatives due to their religious affiliations. But the language of pornography is just the rebranding of those same age-old hatreds. It’s just a more glossy form of racism, sexism, ageism, and classism. It still enforces hierarchies and holds those divisions as inherent to people’s nature, some natures being better than others.
While calling conservatives teabaggers has little use beyond feel good tribalism, one should remember that libertarians, whether traditional ones or the new breed of “South Park” conservatives, have no compunction about using both old style hate-speech and pornographic musings. They’ll out bully a true progressive any day of the week. So even using the language of porn alone — as misguided as it might be — is still bringing a knife to a gunfight. Audre Lorde’s famous quote seems appropriate, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
“Many new Democrats are discovering at Obama’s healthcare 'town halls' that there are others who are more than capable of out bullying them.”
Barack Obama, himself, prefers “tea bags” to “bags of tea.” He managed to use the construction in a televised speech, mocking those who would be “waving teabags around.” Obama, as a rule, does not mock conservatives. Praise them (admiration for Reagan), placate them (gay marriage is legalizing incest and bestiality), and do everything short of installing Dick Cheney in the Lincoln Bedroom? Yes. But mock them? Never. By making a deliberate — if disavowable — joke about teabagging, he was speaking to a wider demographic, one that is truly bipartisan.
Even if you believe that the coolest man in the history of our planet was unhip to what he was doing when he put the words “tea” and “bag” next to each other, you can be sure his young Director of Speech Writing at the White House, most emphatically, did. This would be the same speech writer, Jon Favreau, who once plastered his Facebook page with an image of himself groping the breast of a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton. He did this while a buddy (wearing a shirt proclaiming him “Obama Staff”) pretended to pour beer down her throat. The dude wrote the book on teabagging.
“Libertarians, whether traditional ones or the new breed of 'South Park' conservatives, have no compunction about using both old style hate-speech and pornographic musings.”
Much has been said about how Obama “winks” to his black constituents. Writers have keyed in on brief comments, subtle clues, like announcing to wait staff that “we straight” when settling a bill, to grandstanding expressions like “hoodwinked” and “bamboozled.” All of this, according to some, is proof that he remembers his heritage and is secretly working on behalf of his people, even though his consistent policy — like Reagan’s — is that a rising tide helps all boats. Perhaps Obama is capable of speaking Black. He’s certainly just as capable of speaking other forms of English.
Far less has been said about Obama’s winks to patriarchy. I believe his “waving teabags” remark was just that. There have been others. Most notable was his interview with Katie Couric. He answered that The Godfather was his favorite film of all time (“this combination of old world gentility and you know, ritual with this savagery underneath”). It might sound ridiculous but publicly announcing one’s love of mob movies, no small feat for someone aspiring to the presidency, has become shorthand for declaring yourself part of the vicious generation, where even blog rebuttals are considered “takedowns” akin to bitch slaps and teabaggings. To be sure, Obama knows how to speak Rapist. Unlike his Black constituents, however, it’s unlikely he’ll ever sell rapists down the river.