AOC addressed the absurdity of Yoho’s attempt to re-frame the incident during her response on the House floor this past Friday, refusing to accept Yoho’s denial and deflection. She called out the structures of power that support impunity for violence byfor men, and the resulting dehumanizing of women. Her remarks were deeply relatable and absolutely necessary, which is why they’re striking a chord for women across the nation. This experience of sexist degradation is common for women, as is the denial by its perpetrators. Not unexpectedly, her remarks put many people on the defensive, because it’s not yet normal for women to practice a public, immediate, articulate and unwavering call for accountability.
But there’s more to this incident than just Yoho’s threatening insult and AOC’s House remarks. A particularly defensive rhetorical framing of this incident comes from the New York Times. On July 21, NYT’s Luke Broadwater reported on Yoho’s initial offense in an article entitled “Ocasio-Cortez Embraces a Republican’s Insult.” Broadwater wrote initially: “…Mr. Yoho walked away from Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, uttering a pair of expletives.”
Two days later, when reporting on AOC’s response, he meta-quoted her, writing: “Representative Yoho called me, and I quote: ‘A Fucking Bitch’”–choosing to spell out the previously censored expletive when it came from her mouth, but not when uttered by the man who insulted her.
Broadwater then wrote, almost like an accusation, that AOC was “punching each syllable in the vulgarity.”
Attributing the vulgarity to AOC seems like a common trick-mirror tactic, used to make it seem as though women who speak out against the harm caused to them are somehow impure and dramatic, as if the words are somehow “dirtier” coming from the mouth of a young woman than they are out of an older man.
Broadwater also described this moment as “norm-shattering.” When drama was thrust upon AOC out of the blue by a colleague who made an active decision to fling a cascade of misogyny onto her, shouldn’t the norm be for her to defend herself and to hold him accountable?
It is Mr. Yoho’s language that should be norm-shattering, and the fact that it is not framed as such elucidates our epidemic of systemic misogyny.
This moment was “norm-shattering” only because we still exist within a paradigm of male power in which AOC was implicitly expected to accept harassment as part of her job. Patriarchal patterns of behavior have normalized a social order that has degraded women into silence, so it is easy to label her as vulgar for using the same language to shed light on a systemic injustice as Yoho did to attack her.
If this were not the case, AOC’s self-defense would not only be normal, but common. It is not normal to live in a world where men like Yoho, without any accountability, are allowed to abuse on the basis of sex. Even men who may speak out against Yoho may still fear that they may be in his position one day, so they must make sure that AOC is still cast as a little bit “too much” for their own future deniability.
It is the norm for these men to use women as shields, even in the foundation of their rhetoric, as if the only way men could possibly sympathize with a woman who has been harmed and harassed is by having them imagine that it happened to their daughters or their wives. As if their wives and daughters wouldn’t be faced with the same treatment if they were to be in AOC’s shoes.
If the writer, Broadwater, wanted to focus on vulgarity, he should have focused directly on the mouth from which it was originally uttered.
What should no longer be normal are men, especially political representatives with tangible power over people, who lash out in displays of fear and anger with the vulgarity of teenage boys because they’ve never learned empathy. Nor should we perceive as normal the gaslighting and denial of systemic misogyny, intersected with racism and classism, that have given the Ted Yohos of the world an easy out for centuries.