Are prominent conservative pundits really in a catfight over body fat?
At first, it just made you go hmmm: Here was Meghan McCain, 24-year-old daughter of the former Republican presidential contender, blitzing the airwaves with her thoughts on what ails the GOP and using her column in Tina Brown's the Daily Beastto pick fights with Ann Coulter. In a deliberately controversial column that decried Coulter's tendency to deliberately court controversy, McCain wrote: "I straight up don't understand this woman or her popularity. I find her offensive, radical, insulting, and confusing all at the same time." That earned her a week (now spilling into two) of prime time television spots including The Rachel Maddow Show and The Early Show.
But the blonde-on-blonde catfight spiraled into a third dimension of lowlights when conservative radio show host Laura Ingraham—perhaps feeling left out—mocked McCain on her show last Thursday (listen at link) for being, among other things, cute, liberal, and, er, "plus-sized." Meghan, forced now to defend her weight as well as her politics, posted what she termed a "thoughtful" response at the Daily Beast, criticizing Ingraham for making her size an issue, then took the fight to The View yesterday morning, winningly telling Ingraham—while, of course, channeling Tyra Banks—to "like, kiss my fat ass."
In case you're still scoring all this in the margins of your seventh-grade Brenda Walsh yearbooks, Ingraham then took yet another swipe at McCain on her blog, calling her a "useful idiot" and "flavor of the month."
You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. This is the female version of the Rush Limbaugh-Michael Steele- David Frum smackdown for the soul of the GOP? One skinny blonde attacking another skinny blonde who is angrily defended by a third skinny blonde, after which everyone retires in a huff to their favorite health blogs to angrily discuss the importance of a positive body image and the need to support a healthy body mass index?
Ever wonder why some men think women are less than serious political thinkers? It certainly helps explain why so many men continue to believe that when it comes to "political discourse," women are all long, sprawling legs and silky blond hair in a tangle on the dessert cart. It's one thing to air your dirty laundry. But are we really stupid enough to be having a front-page battle over a plus-size thong?
Can you imagine the Y-chromosome version of Meghan McCain's recent appearance on The View? With Rush Limbaugh sitting at a round table surrounded by four supportive men, lamenting that men should help one another out more and that weight is the "last socially accepted prejudice" in America? Can you imagine David Frum sneering about Limbaugh or any other well-known political critic, "I've never heard of him before" as Meghan McCain giggled yesterday about Ingraham? (And can you imagine any serious television hosts chortling in girlish solidarity that "Laura Ingraham" was "the lady from Little House on the Prairie?" Grow up, View!)
If you're going to fight about politics, fight about politics. Here's a useful litmus test: As long as the media continue to cover women's political differences in their "Health" sections, we are probably doing something wrong. Just as Michelle Obama has been reduced to a perpetual fashion story, the fight for the future of young women in the GOP has now become a body-image story. Well done, ladies! Way to get your thoughts and preferences taken seriously!
Michelle Cottle suggests that Ingraham's mistake lay in the criticism by one leggy, blond sex kitten of a younger leggy, blond sex kitten. Perhaps. But I'm uncomfortable taking Anne Baxter's * side over Bette Davis' or vice versa where spectacularly pointless catfights are concerned. My view is generally that an eyelash for an eyelash leaves the whole world blind.
Were Ingraham's comments about McCain's weight thoughtless and stupid? Of course. Are McCain's hands lily white in the catfight rules of engagement? No. Don't believe me? Consider that her first column on Coulter attacked the Republican pundit for, among other things, her "voice." It reminded me of nothing so much as Sarah Palin's claim that she couldn't stand Clinton's "whining." When women, or men, criticize women's voices—whether we're going after Michelle Obama's allegedly angry one or (forgive me, Tina Fey!) Sarah Palin's allegedly crazy one—it's not all that different from going after their weight. It's a way of reducing what they have to say to what they sound like. It's a way of questioning their entitlement to speak at all. Which is why it's not something men typically complain about in other men.
Then there was McCain's nasty little zinger about Ingraham's age. Maybe you missed it amid all the fat chat. But in her column asking Ingraham to lay off the gratuitous weight comments, McCain dug deep and landed this little gratuitous snot-bomb: "Unfortunately, even though Ingraham is more than 20 years older than I and has been a political pundit for longer, almost, than I have been alive, she responded in a form that was embarrassing to herself and to any woman listening to her radio program who was not a size 0."
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Meghan McCain on Slate's home page by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.