Friday, June 12, 2009

David Letterman's Joke About Knocking Up Gov. Palin's Daughter

From the NY Daily News story about a comment made by David Letterman on his show:

[...] during the seventh inning, her [Sarah Palin's] daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.

The first problem for David Letterman is the fact that the daughter who attended the Yankees game wasn't new mother Bristol Palin who at 18 has chosen to be a public figure, it was her younger sister, Willow, who is only 14 years old.

"We were, as we often do, making jokes about people in the news," Letterman said.

"These are not jokes made about her 14-year-old daughter. I would never, never make jokes about raping or having sex of any description with a 14-year-old girl," he added.

"Am I guilty of poor taste? Yes. Did I suggest that it was okay for her 14-year-old daughter to be having promiscuous sex? No," Letterman said.

I believe Letterman's clarification, but his word choice in his second question is telling since it plays on sexual stereotypes about the younger sisters of teen girls who become pregnant.

Unlike many people who have reacted to David Letterman's jokes I don't believe they were rape jokes because those jokes relied on attitudes about the assumed sexual aggressiveness of certain girls. These jokes depend on the erasure of the possibility of rape of those girls. The difference may seem small but it is significant.

A commenter who goes by pissonrushsgrave wrote on a YouTube story about the jokes and the backlash:
you sound like an ignorant hick..Bristol is no virgin, unless she is the Virgin Mary...and the Palins set themselves up for humor when they claim to represent virtue and morality AND insinuate that those on the left are immoral. The joke was funny because it had truth to it. If Bristol ever met A-Rod she´╗┐ would be all over him.

This is why Letterman's joke is so dangerous even if he was talking about Bristol Palin being the one knocked up as he claims. In this view, A-Rod would be the hapless target of a promiscuous girl who might not take no for an answer.

The harm is in more than the target's hurt feelings. The harm is in how this stereotype impacts boys' and men's behavior toward girls and women, how it impacts the way sex crimes are investigated and prosecuted, and how it impacts the perceptions and behaviors of bystanders.

Bristol isn't a virgin, therefore Bristol has no sexual morals and will have sex with just about any man. This attitude about teenage girls who give birth is not just a liberal attitude as it reflects pervasive attitudes which are also held by many conservatives who support or demand abstinence-only sex education because of their belief about what teens would do if they were given comprehensive sex education.

The virginity pledge is predicated on this good girl, bad girl binary. I've lost count of the times an otherwise respectable man is arrested or convicted of statutory rape of a girl and some commenter to the story will make it clear that the victim, "was no innocent victim."

Talking about all non-virgin girls as if they are no different from dirty toothbrushes is even more offensive than what Letterman said and the damage it can do to girls who have been victims of repeated sexual violence has been ignored by the conservative groups who have rallied against David Letterman.

The difference is that comparing a non-virgin girl to a dirty toothbrush isn't done as part of a joke. It is done as serious education. And this education directly feeds the attitudes which Letterman tapped into when he made sexual jokes about Sarah Palin's daughter.

If we are against the message which underpinned David Letterman's joke because the message itself is toxic rather than simply because of which family that joke was directed at then we must be opposed to all permutations of this message.

When Bill O'Reilly made serious and dangerous comments about victims of violent criminals, including about Shawn Hornbeck who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted beginning when he was 11 years old and only ending over 4 years later, I saw no efforts by conservatives to go after O'Reilly's sponsors until he was fired.

When people protested the decision by the It Happened To Alexa Foundation to have O'Reilly give a keynote address those protesters were mislabeled by many conservatives as being against rape victims. The labels applied to O'Reilly's protesters included, "These radical left wing loons are right out of Nazi Germany."

If protesting those who hired Bill O'Reilly after his offensive comments about a child kidnapping victim and a murder victim is right out of Nazi Germany then so to are the demands that David Letterman be fired from CBS.

If we are serious about challenging dangerous messages which harm children then both David Letterman and Bill O'Reilly must be acknowledged as having crossed dangerous lines. Those who demand that Letterman be fired need to demand that O'Reilly be fired as well.

Dangerous is dangerous no matter whether that danger comes from a comedian or a pundit and no matter whether it comes from the left, middle or right.

H/T: Social-psyche via email

Update: For the conservatives who agree with Sarah Palin that Letterman owes all girls an apology for contributing to dangerous attitudes about girls, please speak up against your fellow conservatives whenever they do something like describe a 14-year-old alleged rape victim as a whore.

From The Coos Bay Thunder Pot by John Obermyer, who is a conservative blogger as evidenced by his blogroll, about a case where 2 15-year-old boys are accused of getting a girl drunk prior to an alleged gang rape:

Did the girl just happen to find herself drunk? Did the boys force the alcohol down her throat at gunpoint? Was the girl kidnapped?

Mothers need to teach their daughters to not booze and whore with anyone.

This is the type of conservative message which undermines the credibility of Sarah Palin's and other conservatives concern for all girls. This order to mothers in no way supports good values since it denies rape.

Update (6/13): Last fall when it was announced that Bristol Palin was pregnant, Jay Leno made a similar joke (via Alan Colmes).

"Gov. Palin announced over the weekend that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter is five months pregnant. And you thought John Edwards was in trouble before! Now he has really done it."

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 8:00 AM   22 comments links to this post


At June 12, 2009 11:57 AM, Anonymous Kali said...

We should speak out against rape-supporting attitudes, whether they come from people on the left or the right. What Letterman said is despicable and harmful regardless of the attitudes of (some) conservatives. The fact that some conservatives have misogynistic, rape-supporting attitudes (e.g. O'Reilly or John Obermyer) doesn't lessen the offense of Letterman.

At June 12, 2009 12:37 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Kali, you are right that other people's offenses don't lessen the offense of Letterman. However, those who want Letterman fired because they claim to be opposed to rape-supporting attitudes need to be against those attitudes even when they come from their closest allies. Their own actions need to be free of rape-supporting attitudes.

If they fail to do so they are not genuinely against rape-supporting attitudes and are only using the harm done to rape victims as a political tool. I find that as offensive and more dangerous than Letterman's joke.

At June 12, 2009 1:01 PM, Anonymous Kali said...

Not everyone who wants to have Letterman fired, including me, are "using the harm done to rape victims as a political tool". I will take whatever outrage I can find against rape-supporting attitudes instead of quibbling about "where were you when ...". My loyalty is to women and girls first, not to left or right.

There will be plenty of opportunities to hold conservatives accountable for their rape-supporting attitudes. But using the Letterman situation in this way just detracts from the outrage about what Letterman did, unfortunately giving liberals the opportunity to minimize their own misogyny.

At June 12, 2009 2:10 PM, Anonymous ladypat said...

I hardly find humor in comedy. I think most of it is tasteless. I do love jokes, even about other people, but to degrade and disgrace another person, especially a child is totally disgusting. I am not a Republican, but I do have concerns and
values. I would not like anyone to talk about my granddaughters like that.
Want to Help a child?
Go to to find out more.

At June 12, 2009 2:14 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Kali, I didn't say everyone who wants Letterman fired is using this situation as a political tool. But some clearly are and I believe their decision to do so harms girls and women while they pretend to be helping girls and women.

Too many of the blog posts I've read about Letterman's joke (especially the oldest) put their emphasis on liberal and feminist bashing rather than on a desire for Letterman to be held accountable for his words and to see everyone be respectful toward children and rape victims. Some of the bloggers who were quick to jump in about Letterman's joke have a history of exploiting victims of statutory rape to attack Planned Parenthood.

Their response to Letterman's joke and the harmful policies they support related to sexual violence are why my post wasn't only about Letterman as it would have been otherwise.

I also believe that some people who are defending Letterman, such as the liberal man I quoted from YouTube, do so with no care about the harm done to girls and woman.

This morning on the Today Show Sarah Palin made the insinuation that David Letterman is a child rapist who would attack her daughter if he could. Matt Lauer asked her to clarify and she refused. This false accusation might make Palin feel smug, but it transforms this into a grudge match where child rape victims are treated with all the care of a baseball being swung at from both sides.

At June 12, 2009 3:39 PM, Blogger hotfive said...

It's funny to hear the Palins, in their quest for the media spotlight, use the term "rape" when referring to Dave's joke about A-Rod impregnating their daughter--most feasibly, the daughter thrust into the national spotlight due to her ill-timed teenage pregnancy. (Similarly, A-Rod was a part of the joke due to the media's recent coverage of his romantic relationships with various women.)

When Sarah Palin chose to discuss and put a positive public relations spin on her daughter's much-publicized underage sexual relations and pregnancy, she never used the word "rape" to describe what the then-18-year-old Levi Johnston had been doing with her then-17-year-old daughter.

Even if Letterman DID intend to make the joke about the 14-year-old Willow, it's a stretch to claim that he was in any way insinuating that any "rape" [forcible sex] had happened.

It's been fun marvelling at this pitiful, disgusting crusade by the Palins; but I hope nobody gives them their own late night show.

At June 12, 2009 3:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to change the subject, but everyone is saying Willow is 14 because Sarah SAID she was 14. However, Willow is actually FIFTEEN. She was born in January 14 of 1994.
As to whether that's a reflection of Sarah's dedication to her children, I'll let others decide

At June 12, 2009 3:54 PM, Anonymous mistresssparkletoes said...

Thank you for writing on this. I read an article earlier and was absolutely disgusted by Letterman's "joke" and his attempt at an apology.

The apology covered the "I didn't mean to imply statutory rape" angle, but it didn't come close to covering the "Sarah Palin's daughter(s) can't keep her legs together" angle.


here via shakes

At June 12, 2009 4:19 PM, Anonymous Kali said...

Even if Letterman DID intend to make the joke about the 14-year-old Willow, it's a stretch to claim that he was in any way insinuating that any "rape" [forcible sex] had happened.

Are you suggesting that statutory rape is not real rape, as opposed to "forcible sex"? Let's not try to justify sexually abusive attitudes and behaviors just because we don't like the targets of such behaviors. This is how the rape culture is supported.

At June 12, 2009 4:24 PM, Anonymous Kali said...

This morning on the Today Show Sarah Palin made the insinuation that David Letterman is a child rapist who would attack her daughter if he could.

No, she did not. If any man had made such comments about my daughter (if I had a daughter), I wouldn't want him anywhere near her either. But that doesn't mean that I think he will rape her or that he is a rapist.

At June 12, 2009 4:47 PM, Blogger hotfive said...

I'm in no way supporting "rape culture" when I state my belief that Letterman was obviously referring to the Palin daughter known to the world--for better or worse--as "Bristol Palin, teenage mother".

Were the Palins supporting rape culture when they chose not to use the term "statutory rape" when referring to their grandson's conception?

At June 12, 2009 4:55 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Kali, you may not have interpretted Sarah Palin's statement as accusing Letterman of being a personal danger to her daughter but that's the message which came across to me and it is the reason Matt Lauer asked her to clarify -- which she refused to do.

Letterman has been flat out called a pervert and the fact that he was an unwed parent has been tossed out as a moral insult by people who seem unaware that they are also insulting Bristol Palin's morals since she is an unwed parent.

At June 12, 2009 7:46 PM, Anonymous Chrystal said...

Gotta find this on youtube.

At June 12, 2009 8:21 PM, Blogger o3man said...

I believe that if imus was fired, that David Letterman should also taste unemployment.

This will send a message that candidates children are off limits for jokes. I am certain that if DL had insulted Obama's daughters it would be a different story.

At June 12, 2009 9:37 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

O3man, the problem with firing Letterman for the reason you give is that Bristol Palin is an adult who has chosen to become a public figure separate from her mother.

I'm sure A-Rod was offended at being linked with Palin's daughter but nobody is saying he should be off limits since he's considered a public figure.

Those who believed that Letterman was making a rape joke had to believe that A-Rod was cast in the role of rapist. But nobody is calling for Letterman to be fired for that alleged slur.

At June 15, 2009 1:53 AM, Blogger adagioforstrings said...

I'm one of those conservatives that annoy you so much. Letterman's attack just seemed to be the last straw in a long litany of verbal abuse. Sandra Bernhard advocated that Palin should be gang raped during the election. Playboy recently a list of top 10 conservative commentators that they wanted to hate f**k/rape & now Dave is calling for Palin's daughters to be raped. Meanwhile, nobody left, right, or center seem to be doing anything to stop the abuse. Instead, anonymous McCain advisors & TV talking heads tell us to STFU, play nice & rise above everything. We're angry & Dave seems the most likely candidate against whom to focus our anger.

re: Marcella Chester: "Those who believed that Letterman was making a rape joke had to believe that A-Rod was cast in the role of rapist. But nobody is calling for Letterman to be fired for that alleged slur."

I disagree, I believe people are. People are wondering why A-Rod doesn't protest that he's being used by Dave in a perverted attack.

At June 15, 2009 9:09 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...


I notice that you made the choice to be silent about Bill O'Reilly's offensive comments about crime victims and to be silent about the conservative who called an alleged rape victim a whore.

This communicates that your anger on this issue is dangerously shallow and the problem is not the behavior of those who offend you but is only in their choice of target.

You have chosen to be inaccurate when you say David Letterman called for Palin's daughters to be raped. He did no such thing. You have added that meaning to his words which undermines your credibility.

There is a difference between wondering why A-Rod didn't protest and speaking out directly against that insinuation.

At June 15, 2009 9:52 AM, Anonymous Kali said...

This communicates that your anger on this issue is dangerously shallow and the problem is not the behavior of those who offend you but is only in their choice of target.

I don't think that is a reasonable assumption. The same logic could be used against you since you have not commented (i.e. chosen to remain silent) on Playboy's hate-f**k list and Sandra Bernhard's call for gang-rape. I know that you care about all rapes and abuses, regardless of the target, so we know that is not true. But, someone who doesn't know that can make the same assumption about you that you are making about people (including Adagio) who are outraged about Letterman's attacks on the Palin family.

Usually I agree with you 100%, so I am disappointed that you are minimizing Letterman's abuse, and focusing your outrage on those who are against this abuse rather than on his abuse.

At June 15, 2009 11:02 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...


Actually the same logic couldn't validly be used against me since I wasn't responding to a specific post and choosing to completely ignore one of the core issues of that post in my reply.

I included a post on the Playboy article in today's carnival so I haven't chosen to ignore it. Sandra Bernhard's name is one I've heard but I can't put a face to that name and don't know what she said about gang rape.

When Adagio wrote about Letterman's joke being the last straw he only referred to 1 family and the group that family belongs to. He claims nobody is doing anything about the abuse but this ignores that many people he scorns have been doing something about this and other abuses for years. When this action has been legislative, conservatives often actively work to block these efforts.

I disagree with many people's assessment that David Letterman was trying to refer to Willow Palin and believe his target was Bristol. And I disagree that he was joking about 1 of those daughter's being raped.

I believe his joke was about Bristol Palin's perceived lack of sexual morals as proven by her status as an unwed mother. For this joke to work Letterman needed widespread beliefs which many conservatives support or ignore -- until the nasty fallout from those beliefs hit too close to home.

If Letterman were fired and nothing were done about the underlying attitudes behind his joke which are often an official part of abstinence-only sex education then Letterman's firing would do nothing to reduce sexism or sexual violence.

I do have a problem with those who use an instance like this to claim to be against abuse and sexism while they continue to support or ignore the foundations of abuse and sexism. Those people are not genuine allies.

All conservatives have the potential to be effective allies in the fight against abuse and sexual violence without becoming liberals, but too many will not challenge their own bias or the bias of fellow conservatives.

At June 19, 2009 8:09 AM, Anonymous m Andrea said...

"Usually I agree with you 100%, so I am disappointed that you are minimizing Letterman's abuse, and focusing your outrage on those who are against this abuse rather than on his abuse."

Er, seconding. Normally, you don't let anyone's "intentions" mitigate the actual harm, so I'm not sure why you are doing so in this case.

I expect the conservatives to act like sexist a-holes, but from the liberal folks, who are supposed to be in favor of minority rights, I expect better.

"If Letterman were fired and nothing were done about the underlying attitudes behind his joke which are often an official part of abstinence-only sex education then Letterman's firing would do nothing to reduce sexism or sexual violence."

His firing would send the exact same message as firing anybody else under the exact same circumstance. It would send the message that the public will not tolorate this kind of woman-hating. For public figures like Letterman, firing is the only thing which gets people's attention. You do not normally defend someone like this keeping his job, and I still don't understand why the conservative's "intentions" matter at all. There are a whole lot of non-conservatives who would like to see him fired, so your only focusing on the conservatives appears to be a strawman.

However, you are generally most awesome, so whatever... lol

At June 19, 2009 9:31 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

m Andrea,

Actually I highlighted the serious harm in David Letterman's joke which mirrored jokes made by Leno, Conan, et al since it was announced that Bristol was pregnant. So the claim that I've ignored harm from Letterman's joke is an incorrect claim.

The only difference based on intentions is whether the joke was a rape (statutory or forcible) joke or "she'll have sex with anyone" joke. I didn't make my assessment on "trust" I made it based on understanding the narrative which Letterman was trying to tap into. I in no way approved of that narrative.

Many of those who were at the center of the call for Letterman's firing have ignored or minimized the harm done by all the "she'll have sex with anyone" jokes and I find that not only disappointing I find it deeply disturbing.

At the "Fire David Letterman" rally Letterman's wife was called a slut and his son was called a bastard and Leno, who made a similar joke, was praised. Rape itself was minimized by the way the word was misused.

From every video I've seen of the rally I saw no evidence that the overall problem of rape and the sexual exploitation of girls were serious issues to the protesters.

If Letterman was fired and others who were as bad or worse were supported or ignored that too sends a message, but it isn't the message that the public will not tolerate woman hating. Women and girl hating would still be seen as fine, but occasionally it can be used as an excuse to go after an individual which certain people don't like for other reasons.

This is a dangerous message which many people are ignoring.

I'm not going after conservatives because they are conservative, I'm going after those who are only selectively against harmful statements and attitudes related to child rape and violence against women. That in no way is a strawmen argument.

At June 19, 2009 10:23 AM, Blogger hotfive said...

What's being ignored by those of you who are [still???] discussing this non-story is that what Letterman said was a JOKE. Sure, it might have been one of the worst jokes he's told; but he tells a lot of them. And most of them are exaggerations of pop culture occurences that have already been exaggerated by the media spotlight. The absurdity is that we as a nation were--for months--force-fed stories about Bristol Palin's ill-timed, almost certainly accidental pregnancy from every angle; that the media--as a whole--need not show any restraint, respect, or compassion when shining its bright light on anyone who is even tangentially related to a "celebrity". Letterman's joke was most certainly not about rape, but about the flippancy with which society learns to regard stories such as Bristol Palin's--and A-Rod's, for that matter. That so many thousand "news" stories are written about anyone's sex life--at any age--is mind-numbingly absurd, especially to an old-fashioned, Midwestern sensibility. If you've seen any other episodes of David Letterman's show(s), you've doubtless seen him highlight myriad other aspects of society's absurdities. He's got a knack for it, which comes from his continuing surprise and befuddlement at just how nonsensical is all of it.


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