So here’s what happened: a female freelance writer for the Dallas Observer wrote a post on the paper’s music blog about a popular local country group, the King Bucks, criticizing what she felt was their lackluster live performance chops. The band is by all accounts exceedingly popular, but popularity is hardly their only calling card–the King Bucks are very talented musicians who have worked for decades, I think it’s fair to say for at least a couple of them, writing and performing music that makes many proud to say they’re from Dallas.
I mean, tell me this Danny Balis record isn’t a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. A King Buck, Balis is also a popular radio personality on the local sports talk station. By virtue of their musical acumen, professional connections and winning personalities, Balis and the rest of the King Bucks carry as much or more cultural caché as/than anyone in Dallas, particularly among those who take an interest in the city’s alternative music scene. They are big men on campus.
Anyone familiar with the way the internet works will perhaps, then, not be surprised at what happened after Sophia Dembling said she kind of thought the King Bucks were not giving it their all during live shows. She was called an ugly, fat old bitch not by the usual anonymous troll brigade, but by people signing their names to posts on Facebook.
Here’s the gist of what Dembling wrote:
“Nothing wrong with their music, and they have chops. They’re good lookin’. They have some fine ironic facial hair.
But I don’t like ‘em and I’ll tell you why: Because they don’t care about me. Not me personally, but me as a member of the audience.
The couple of times I’ve seen the King Bucks, they’ve played skillfully but put out no sparks. Occasionally one or the other muttered something unintelligible into the mic, but mostly they didn’t bother with patter. They seemed to be looking at something deep in their own heads rather than at the full-house crowds that had shown up to commune with them. They didn’t show us any love.
Ergo, fuck ‘em. I’m not interested.”
Dembling, a music critic by virtue of the fact that she’s a writer writing on a music blog, expressed an opinion about the band as a group of entertainers. She made no personal attacks. I think it’s obvious her comments (positive ones!) about appearance and facial hair are relevant to the analysis of the performance appeal of professional entertainers. I’ll say here that I don’t know Dembling, and don’t think I’ve ever met her. And so I don’t know if Danny Balis ever has either, but he did casually call her a bitch in his Facebook link to her blog item:
I believe that the use of the term “bitch” by men against women is not playful nor throw-away, but a verbal threat. Like the use of the word “cunt,” when a guy uses a gendered insult after he believes a woman has wronged her in some way, it is an assertion of power and privilege. Quite frankly, to be called a “bitch” by an angry man is scary. It conjures up images of violence and danger. That the term is used casually does not make it less frightening–in fact, it sends the message that the guy is so powerful, he can do whatever he damn well pleases, and who will believe her word against his when it comes down to it?
Now, I’ve been writing online for close to fifteen years now, and I can tell you that when a woman writes something that folks dislike, the go-to response is a personal attack on that woman’s weight, appearance and perceived sexual availability (or lack thereof). Very often, this comes from anonymous commenters. But this time, I watched as people I knew and liked and have shared drinks and dances with derided a woman for being a woman, rather than for being a person with ideas. Women’s value, in our society, is concerned first and foremost with their sexual appeal in heteronormative terms–how well they adhere to certain beauty standards and work to be pleasing to a particular male gaze. Women who fit this are celebrated (sometimes). Women who do not are derided, however intelligent, thoughtful and compassionate they may be otherwise. Fat? Ugly? Old? Three ticks off before anyone ever looks at your academic report card.
Of course, some folks did engage with with Sophia Dembling’s argument. And then some folks said things like this:
The things said on the Hardline radio show yesterday afternoon, of which Balis is a co-host, about Dembling were along similar lines and much worse–I can’t find a podcast available to link to y’all yet (anybody help out, there?) but suffice to say that everything that you might imagine a bunch of posturing men of privilege in a bro-tastic echo chamber would say about a woman, well, they said about Dembling. That kind of thing is expected on talk radio, especially sports radio. But you know, it’s all just members of the historically oppressive group demeaning the historically oppressed group in good fun, just for funsies and ratings, so nobody should worry about it too much.
So I’m not going to say I’m disappointed that a bunch of dudes on a talk radio station got their radio rocks off by talking disrespectful, sexist shit about women. I understand that it’s their job and I can’t be bothered to take that on right this second. However, I do want to say that it is hard, and saddening, and frightening to watch real people you really meet every day in the real world say hateful things.
I have heard that Danny Balis apologized to some folks for the things he said, and I respect him for that. It’s hard to say you fucked up. But what Balis, and the other folks who joined in on the sexist chorus, should know, is that an apology is a first step, not a solution or an end. The next step is to quit acting like a sexist asshole, even for a minute, even if you think it’s for fun and jokes, and stop saying sexist things and perpetuating sexist ideas like, for example, the notion that women are not valuable unless you think they are sexy, whatever that means. Because if that happens over time, I can believe that good hearted people just make mistakes and can learn from them.
If it doesn’t happen over time, I’ll continue to see these folks out at bars and shows, and I’ll remember their thumbs-upping of sexist comments, and their gleeful skewering of a woman who they feel isn’t pretty enough to have thoughts or opinions, and I’ll think less of people I once knew and liked. I know people fuck up. I know they do. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still scary and sad, when you are a member of the group that your friends and acquaintances, however casually or however briefly, expressed hatred and disdain for.
I want to note that the kind of sexism that places value on women’s appearance before anything else and silences women not for their intellectual work but for superficial and aesthetic reasons, is not really, in any true way, about physical attractiveness. Flaws can and will be found with any woman if hateful people need them to be there–no matter how thin, blonde, busty, slutty or chaste she is. Women who feel safe hiding behind fat- and slut-shaming other women should know that the tides turn easily when the basis of insult is predicated on femaleness first. Every accusation that a woman is too fat, too ugly or too old to have a valid opinion worth expressing is a cover for a very simple, very timeless idea: a woman is too female to have a valid opinion worth expressing.
What I think this incident reveals is the degree to which hateful beliefs can become ingrained and invisible, and come out especially in moments wherein people feel threatened. We might think to ourselves, I am not racist! I am not sexist!, but when our instinctual, and later intentional, defensive response is one that is predicated on racism or sexism or able-ism (calling someone or something “retarded,” for example), we owe it to ourselves not to sweep our actions under the rug and say we are super really a good nice person except this one time, but to take an honest look at what the root of the issue is.