It’s been more than a week since his off-color comments, but Rush Limbaugh is far from removed from the spotlight.
After Georgetown University Law student Sandra Fluke testified before Congress in support of mandated private health insurance coverage of contraceptives, Limbaugh took to the airwaves of his conservative talk radio show to deride her as a “slut,” among other crude statements.
The situation highlights issues of gender and politics, said Mandy Gallagher, assistant professor of communications and coordinator of the women’s and gender studies program at Elon University.
“There has always been debate and discussion, but this seems like debate and discussion not contributing to any outcome, just everyone wanting to get their voices heard,” she said.
In her statement, Fluke argued in support of requiring all private insurance plans to cover the cost of contraceptives, including religious institutions. Speaking from personal experience, she explained that birth control had cost her $3,000 over the course of three years at Georgetown.
“There’s a whole other side that’s left out of this debate,” Gallagher said. “Because she’s a woman talking about birth control, she has to be one of these horrible things and that’s problematic in and of itself. He’s been known to distort information. So am I surprised? No. But what I’m actually quite pleased about is that there’s been so much backlash against him.”
According to a report published Monday by The Atlantic Wire, 141 companies requested their ads not be scheduled within 15 minutes of Limbaugh’s show and other “controversial” personalities such as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.
Issues of women’s rights and contraception have long been on the forefront of public debate, Gallagher said. The difference lies in how society has responded, which she said has changed greatly since decisions such as Roe v. Wade were handed down.
“Now you have more discussion happening, but it’s more fragmented,” she said. “You will still get called out for calling someone a name, but the outcome is a little bit different. A lot happens because of social media and not in the traditional ways that it happened in the time before new technology.”
In what is believed to be an attempt to save face, Limbaugh has since issued an apology, which Gallagher described as simply redirecting blame elsewhere.
Fluke disregarded his words as “insufficient.”
“It’s probably a thing that will help her keep her credibility in line,” Gallagher said. “Her response is really the appropriate one. Had she stooped to his level and engaged in that back-and-forth sparring, it would have damaged her credibility, as much as she might have wanted to say more.”
Limbaugh, known for his conservative stance on women’s issues and his popularization of the term Feminazi, has remained popular on the air and created a niche audience, Gallagher said, despite the advent of other media outlets and political pundits over the years.
“As sick as it is, I’m sure that he has probably seen an uptick in people paying attention to him,” Gallagher said. “Sometimes, you have these hosts that have the tendency to fall off the radar and have to put themselves back out there. I guarantee people are paying more attention to what Rush Limbaugh says. In that weird way, he’s becoming more relevant.”
And no matter where the controversial content is coming from — his own personal beliefs, the writers of his show or an act he is putting on — the intended shock effect is still the same, Gallagher said.
“It angers me as a woman and it also angers me in terms of how other people are looking at the United States and this dialogue we’re having,” Gallagher said. “There’s a much larger global impact of it, too.”
Gallagher cited other nations known for treating women as second-class citizens, including placing limitations on travel, work and education.
“It may not be calling them one of these names, but it’s treating them as something less than men in the country,” she said. “While they’re not calling them names, women are still getting a label. It’s just not as verbally communicated as what Rush Limbaugh did.”
While talk radio has always been an important part of the news process, Gallagher said comments such as those from Limbaugh hurt the fundamental role of journalism to inform the public — and generally, that damage is done by white males.
“Women are an easier target because a lot of these people making comments are white men from a particular point of view,” Gallagher said.
But that’s not to say the use of name-calling is singular only to men.
A recent article in The Daily Beast reported that women from Columbia University took to the Internet to post derogatory comments about other women at the nearby all-girls Barnard College, after the latter was chosen to receive a commencement address from President Barack Obama.
It’s a trend particularly troubling and complicated, Gallagher said, but one that is generally perpetuated by media and social norms.
“Why do we have shows that feature women fighting each other?” Gallagher said, referencing the ABC hit “The Bachelor," which pits 25 women against each other as they vie for the attention of one man. “The world likes drama and expects them to act in catty ways with other women.”
And while Gallagher said it’s only in her dream world that such instances of derogatory language are absent from public and political speech, she said women of the Roe v. Wade era would be surprised that debate still swirls around issues that have long been constitutionally and legally decided.
“I don’t think the words themselves will go away — we live in a world where we like to apply labels to people, and labels are the way some people make sense of the world,” she said. “Labels aren’t always bad, but it seems like the labels we think about and names we call each other are always the more negative kind versus the positive. Unless you recognize that the behavior isn’t great, you’re not going to change how you look at things.”