The XX Factor

Sexpots in Jackets and Puffy Coats

The Twitter avatar photo

AFP/Getty Images.

I’ll admit, I was too distracted for about two minutes by the use of the word “females” in this Fishbowl DC headline “Females on Campaign Trail Go For Sexpot Look” to even start feeling outraged at the word “sexpot.” The use of the word “female” as a noun when referring to human females is never a good sign; in 99.9 percent of cases, it signals that the person using it takes a sexist, essentialist view of gender relations. (The other 0.1 percent of the time, it’s someone who mistakenly thought “females” was an acceptable substitute for the clunky phrase “women and girls.”) But as the current rage on Twitter will attest, the word “sexpot” is probably worse. Not only does commit the style crime of euphemism, it does so badly, assuming that sounding old-fashioned is an acceptable way to accomplish euphemism. What next? Calling brash young male journalists “ruffians”?

Then there’s the article itself, written by editor Betsy Rothstein. Rothstein is deeply concerned that female journalists are slutting it up on Twitter. At first, I was concerned that Rothstein believes that women with Twitter handles like sexxygrl8 hitting you up with messages like, “Looking for a good time, wanna chat?” are prominent journalists working the campaign trail, but no, she means actual journalists. I know, because she names them by name and helpfully includes the offending Twitter avatar pictures that she is so concerned are unprofessional with all the sex pouring off them. What makes this whole thing completely strange is that even by hysterical sexist standards, applying the “sexpot” label to these pictures makes no sense. You’d have to reach back to the standards of a fundamentalist Oklahoma farmhouse circa 1890 to really find these pictures suggestive. The top one features a woman in a winter coat looking backward in a car while making a funny face, the second one shows a woman in an evening gown sitting in a car, and the third shows a woman in a jacket looking sideways. While there’s shoulder bareage in one (though less than Rothstein shows in her own Twitter picture), the only reason to take offense at any of these is because you’re making an ill-fated attempt to make it shameful for women to show their hair in public. Not that it would be cool to shame women for wearing genuinely skimpy clothes or deliberately trying to be sexy in their pictures, but when you claim they’re doing it when they’re clearly not, it drifts from being plain sexist to being straight-up weird.

Obviously, Fishbowl is just trolling for clicks, which is why I even hesitate to pay attention to this. (Though it was all worth it just to see this response.) But “ignore it and they’ll go away” has its own dangers, particularly when it comes to obnoxious misogyny like this. As recent culture war dust-ups over birth control demonstrate, ordinary women can, at any point in time, be declared a threat to public decency by sending out sex beams that destroy all that is good and holy around them. Unless that kind of nonsense gets countered loudly, it runs the chance of gradually being taken seriously.