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The Female Perception of Howard Stern
On the surface, Howard Stern would appear to be a very obvious and hostile enemy to the state of modern feminism. And with respect to the way that women view him in general, we may reflexively be inclined to presume that the predominance of males in his radio talk show listening audience is a significant indicator of how women must surely feel about the shock jock. His sexually frank, frequently profane and often decidedly chauvinistic perspectives are a frequent basis for Stern's radio show programs. Indeed, he has become noted and famous for the controversy which often surrounds his unflinching sexual objectification of women and the denigrating comments that accompany conversations on the subject of male-female relationships. However, these assumptions are not sufficient to understand how women truly feel about the satellite radio star. While a significant portion of the population does feel exactly this way, there are nonetheless a great many women in his listening population and even a number of influential figures and women who would identify themselves as feminists that would argue on Stern's behalf. As the discussion here will show, there is truly no consensus on Howard Stern against the women of the world. As many women are repulsed by him, there are that many who find the radio personality fascinating. In the true fashion of a shock jock, Stern repeatedly defies expectations, speaks with a frankness that knows no political affiliation and, as a consequence, commands a sharp dividing line between detractors and devotees. This same dividing line applies to the population of women moved to acknowledge Stern one way or the other.
First, we consider the conventional logic on Stern. Here, the text by Attwood (2009) shows a figure who is routinely lumped into broader discussions relating to the 'sexualization' of women in popular culture. Here, Attwood reports on sexualization that "at its broadest, the term has been used to indicate the contemporary preoccupation with sexual values, practices and identities; a public shift to apparently more permissive sexual attitudes; the proliferation of sexual media; the emergence of new forms of sexual experience; a concern with the breakdown of consensus about regulations for defining and dealing with obscenity; and the prevalence of scandals, controversies, and panics around sex in the media." (Attwood, p. 288) Howard Stern's apparent topical obsession with the sexual habits of his in-studio guests, with his own sexual escapades, with the sexual behavior of celebrities and with the deviant sexual lifestyles practiced by the porn stars, strippers, prostitutes and other professional sex workers who visit the show all conform with this perception of culture as experiencing an intensifying sexualization. Moreover, in Stern's case, many feminist women would make the argument that this sexualization is done at the expense of the roles which women are expected to play in society. By creating a powerful media artifact routinely consumed by significant portions of the male and female populations that appears to endorse the singular elevation of the social role of women as sexual objects, many would accuse Stern of extending male-female sex-power constructs that are highly reductive of female roles in society.
A text by Jurisic (2004) in which the author is self-identified as a 'feminist' makes the argument that Howard Stern's general perspective on and treatment of women endorses destructive tendencies toward a wider cultural disregard of women's equality. Because the content of the radio show is so largely driven by discussions and segments which sexualize women, there is an endorsement of this reduction of roles such as the female professional, the female innovator, the wife, the mother, the daughter or virtually any social role that might easily be fulfilled by a member of either gender. Jurisic laments that Stern's popularity is a demonstration of the reciprocal relationship between the content of his show and the audience segment he attracts. And within this relationship is, consequentially, a continued reference to values that debase the woman as a human being and instead project her as an object only of fantasy, fetishism, submission and financial commoditization. According to Jurisic, there are distinct consequences to "Stern's - and society's - objectification, condescension and general treatment of women." (Jurisic, p. 1) Indeed, Jurisic even connects Stern's antics of sexual subjugation to more permeating political and economic conditions which retain the relegation of women. As women continue to earn less than their male counterparts in the workplace and as laws on sexual assault, harassment in the workplace and the status of abortion continue to hinge most substantially on the determined political authority of men, it may be that cultural content such as Stern's show has done untold damage to the movement for the advancement of women's rights.
Of course, this is not the only perspective on Howard Stern's show or on the material, content and opinions expressed there within. In fact, Stern is a somewhat more complex figure than these voices of objection might suggest. To this, one feminist observer admits to a passing affection for Stern's sense of humor and goes further to assert that Stern is in fact satirizing the male sex drive and the male sexualization of women through his show's extremity of sexual frankness. According to the text by Prather (2006), Stern's show toys with the apparent duality between man's dominant sexual posturing and his true insecurities. Because Stern is equally open about both dimensions of his own psyche, Prather argues, many women tend to view his frankness as humble and attractive. Accordingly, Prather reports, after identifying herself as a feminist, that "Stern's humor can be a lot more subtle and intelligent than his detractors give him credit for . . . Yes, he presents sexuality and sexual humor from a male point-of-view -- but at the same time as he repeatedly urges women to get naked in his studio, he is primarily lampooning male sexuality. His humor always struck me as not so much about trashing women. . . . But more about mocking the shallowness of his own inner 14-year-old. Stern laughs generally at human beings' basest instincts (base because, as he himself ruefully acknowledges, these instincts are often at odds with any redeeming social value). Of course, he indulges in these instincts as well but always with a humorous self-awareness that (unfortunately) his imitators utterly lack. It's that self-awareness that, in my view, always saved him from descending into misogyny." (Prather, p. 1)
Here, Prather takes a dissenting view to that which characterizes Stern as a woman-hater. Though Stern channels his admiration for women through the sexual form, Prather supposes that this is admiration nonetheless. More than that, Prather seems to argue that Stern's perspective is something instinctual in American boys and men, something perhaps responsive to the puritanical value system from which American cultural initially emerged. Figures such as Howard Stern, feminists such as Prather would argue, are merely challenging the social conventions governing our collective sexual behavior.
Indeed, Prather's argument that Stern is not a misogynist and further that Stern does not support the reduction of women to sex objects might actually be supported by instances on Stern's radio show. According to Flutter (2010), a segment on Stern's show in which the radio personality discussed the events of a previous night's Dancing with the Stars reality TV show may have demonstrated Stern's true feelings on male-female power dynamics. Here, Stern garnered positive reviews from female listeners when he criticized professional dancer Maksim Chmerkovskiy for his sexist treatment of dance partner, singer and actress Brandy. Stern stated on his show, "Well, he is dancing with Brandy & #8230; This guy is yelling at her, giving her the business about how she has to work harder. . . She's being a good sport about it, pretending like this actually matters if they're dancing…[continue]
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