The value of Dr. Phil’s rape tweet
Last week I did something I thought I’d never do: I sided with Dr. Phil. Wait — don’t change the channel. There are plenty of reasons to mock him: the moustache, the catchphrases (“You’re only lonely if you’re not there for you”) and the fact that he isn’t even a licensed psychologist.
But the tweet he sent out last Tuesday isn’t one of them.
“If a girl is drunk, is it OK to have sex with her? Reply yes or no to @drphil #teensaccused.”
People immediately labelled Phil McGraw (best known as the name of his TV persona, Dr. Phil) a rape apologist. It was like watching a minnow dropped into a piranha tank.
Aside from the innocuous snark that characterizes Twitter — “Aren’t you married?” — the criticisms were an ugly distortion of the original message.
“Why are you looking for a green light to rape from Twitter”? asked @Settler Colonial and “You know good and goddamn well that ‘asking’ when a girl ‘deserves’ to be raped is a destructive question in itself,” tweeted @femme_esq. Huh? The message spurred a change. org petition demanding Dr. Phil apologize and “produce a show that shines a light on survivors of rape and sexual assault and being a national conversation about the specifics of consent.” Um, I think he was getting to that. Unless you truly believe Dr. Phil, a man who has built his career on espousing family values, decided to crowdsource how far he could go with extramarital kicks, I think we can agree the tweet was strictly business. And unless you’re plain delusional, you know the issue of alcohol and consent needs more discussion (see Rehtaeh Parsons; Steubenville, Ohio; the infamous summer anthem Blurred Lines; and memories of any high school party as proof).
Yet the fact Dr. Phil was promoting an upcoming show about sexual assault where roughly 3.4 million viewers will hear Rehtaeh Parsons’ mother speak was eclipsed by outrage over a tweet. And that’s the problem with political correctness: it often prevents us from having desperately needed conversations.
I’ll give this much: that tweet was clumsily worded. It read more like something you’d overhear in a locker-room full of 14-year-old boys than from the moustachioed mouth of a top-rated television personality.
Salon’s Prachi Gupta nailed the problem: “It completely ignores the idea of consent, as if sex is something done to a girl by a boy who wants it.”
An editor might have suggested: “Can a girl consent to sex when she’s drunk?” This could have started an important conversation about alcohol and sex without sounding like it came from a dude wearing board shorts, sipping a tall can of Bud Light.
If we want debates to happen outside of ivory towers, we need to loosen up a little over language. Often those who finger-wag over political incorrectness are already experts on a subject — lawyers, activists and academics — rather than the people who still need to learn about an issue. For most American parents, hearing Rehtaeh Parsons’ mom tell her daughter’s story on Dr. Phil will teach them more about sexual assault than debating the patriarchal bent of his tweet.
Besides, a little excitement often stirs a mainstream audience to confront topics they would rather ignore. Humans need the immediately gratifying or controversial to engage with the important. Cheese Whiz on broccoli. Free pizza at volunteer meetings.
But the web is undoing that ageold trick. Social media jumps all over the slightest hint of unorthodoxy, and people’s snap reactions to attention grabs become the story while the larger issues get lost.
Take Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Rolling Stone cover. The selfie of the tousle-haired terror suspect was meant to create buzz in advance of a major article. But people got a little too riled up.
How could they have let this monster occupy the same coveted space as Taylor Swift and P. Diddy? Pundits accused Rolling Stone of glamorizing terrorism. Largely lost in the discussion was the goal of the provocative image: to promote an 11,000-word story that took two months of reporting and presented a nuanced portrait of Tsarnaev and his motivations.
But everyone missed the point. The mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts both denounced the cover. The drugstore CVS banned the issue.
Putting up politically correct pylons around a subject is the best way to ensure the wrong discussion ensues. Remember figure skater Kaetlyn Osmond, who appeared mid-kick on the cover of the Globe and Mail? The 17-year-old teen made headlines because she placed eighth at the World Figure Skating Championships, securing Canada two spots at the Sochi Olympics. But rather than focus on her talent, we fixated on her crotch. Did the photo expose too much? What was the Globe thinking?
What a great way to boost a young athlete’s self-esteem.
Effective promotion will always be slightly controversial. It’s our job as consumers to recognize bait as a launching point for meaningful conversation rather than an end in itself. Otherwise, the mainstream will never engage with issues often dominated by low and highbrow thinking. And I can think of nothing more offensive than Robin Thicke and gender studies grads shaping our views on sexual assault.