As I watched the finale of Game of Thrones, I spent a lot of time thinking about sexualized shame. We’re in a kind of ongoing conversation about internet shame lately, with much of the drama focused on white people who feel really uncomfortable being taken to task by historically marginalized groups (people of color). The status quo is so worried about these white folks that Jon Ronson wrote a whole book about them, and keeps taking to the internet to tone police us.
Me, I’m worried about when shame interacts with power, rather than when people without power collectively use shame. One way is to think about punching up/punching down, but first of all – I don’t like punching. Second, I think the simple verticality of power spectra is almost never clear (this is true for comedy).
Instead, I recommend thinking about whether a given situation undermines hierarchies and stereotypes or replicates them. When Tim Hunt is called out for his sexism, the collective action undermines hierarchies. When Adria Richards was harassed out of her job, the collective action replicates and reinforces hierarchies.
Recently, Jeb Bush’s 1995 call for more public shaming came to light. His actions as a governor reinforcing that shaming mentality did likewise. In fact, the public shaming of women for their sexual choices has a long history and remains a fully modern aspect of our society today.
In Salon, I wrote about the 13-year-old girl Izabel Laxamana, who killed herself after her father shamed her for sending a selfie. I wrote about Jeb Bush. I used Cersei Lannister as a jumping off point, because too many responses to that pointed at the scene as a kind of thing “other people” do. It’s not. It’s us.
And then we come to Bush’s anti-choice credentials. At its core, the discourse of anti-choicers embraces the need to shame women for their sexual choices, functioning as what Amanda Marcotte calls “the sex police.” For single women in particular, the anti-choice movement wants their decision to have sex visible to the world, a warning sign to others. And Bush’s anti-choice credentials — again, drawing from his history as governor — are severe. In 2003, Bush declared himself the “most pro-life governor in modern times.” He fought to keep an intellectually disabled rape victimand, in 2005, a 13-year-old rape victim, from having abortions. He now says he is willing to consider a rape and incest exception to a ban on abortion, but that’s it. For all other women, in the views of Bush, the decision to have sex is a public matter.
Shame is a powerful tool. It can be used to shed light on prejudice and injustice, but the power dynamic between a state and a woman being shamed by the state is inherently abusive. When we take a scene like Cersei’s walk and justify it as a dramatic re-creation of a bygone era, or the kind of thing that only happens in other places, we miss the ways such dynamics continue to play out in our society. That’s not a criticism of “Game of Thrones,” but a criticism of us.
The public shaming of women in order to control female sexuality is not a medieval throwback or a fictional problem, but a major part of our culture today. It killed Izzy Laxamana. And it’s still being perpetuated by at least one man seeking to become the most powerful person in the world.
Public shaming has a body count.