Of Senators and Playmates

Weighing in on the Al Franken/Leeann Tweeden blowup

As a quiet recluse, it often seems to me that people in society are constantly fighting with each other, trying to destroy each other. One day it’s whites against blacks, the next day Christians against gays, the next day women against men (or vice versa), with populist media always fanning the flames, heating things up to the point of mania.

Observing these fights, I’m often reminded of John Le Carré’s description of the latter stages of the cold war: half-angels fighting with half-devils, and no one knows who the goodies are. It makes me want to remain a conscientious objector.

From my remote observatory, the Al Franken/Leeann Tweeden blowup looks so junior high school. Franken is like the dorky guy rehearsing a play with the sex queen, so he has to act like a jerk (back in 2006) and try kissing her. (If that’s what happened. Franken says he remembers it differently.)

If I were a teacher-referee, I would sit the kiddees down and explain to Franken that just because Leeann Tweeden got her start as a Hooters waitress and parades around half-naked in biker & skin mags doesn’t mean he can take diabolical liberties. I would also explain to Tweeden that women who launch their careers by strutting their stuff in multiple venues tend to attract dorky guys who want to prove their manhood. The two types go together.

I’m a liberal, but not a knee-jerk liberal. I open myself to criticism from fellow liberals by saying that I’m more sympathetic to Franken than Tweeden. Why? Both come from an entertainment industry culture which is highly sexualized. But from all appearances, Al Franken made a conscious decision to break with that culture and become a staid, responsible political leader who has worked quietly for positive change this past decade. Leeann Tweeden is still part of an entertainment industry which is puerile and narcissistic. I don’t see her so much as a victim as an opportunist who’s using an ancient incident with Franken as another stepping stone in her career, jumping on the me-too bandwagon at a convenient moment in time, when a woman isn’t part of the sisterhood if she doesn’t have an abuse story to tell. Faux feminism at its worst.

It’s hypocritical to spend years feeding the beast (as Tweeden has done), then complain that it is ravenous. She has nothing but praise for “Hef” (as she calls him) — the late Hugh Hefner, who founded Playboy, gave Tweeden her big break, and more or less institutionalized the notion that women should be “playmates,” and wear bunny costumes that would define their roles even visually. See this HuffPo article discussing the Hefner legacy.

To Tweeden, Playboy is “iconic” and “cool,” but it might not be that way to women who’ve fought hard to create a world where women aren’t judged or commodified according to their looks.

Tweeden has no problem being a playmate or calendar kitten as long as it makes her famous and can be used as a springboard for a career in mainstream media, where looks count nearly as much as they do in the porn industry. (Does CNN really have its own peroxide factory, or is that just fake news?) On Tweeden’s Internet store, you can currently buy a “Personalized December 2011 Playboy Magazine” featuring her for a mere $100. Is that feminist empowerment?

KABC talk radio, where Tweeden currently works, rarely misses an opportunity to tout her history as a playmate, and the KABC website was the initial launch point for Tweeden’s public offensive against Franken — leading me to wonder how much of this is just another publicity stunt to boost ratings, and how much is pure politics. In a way, it’s a contest to see who has the strongest stomach for public confession as a form of therapy and self-stroking. Tweeden has yet to puke, though listeners may.

There’s a distinct odor of politics to her claims and their timing. Tweeden is a right-winger who’s fanatically pro military, while Franken is a left-winger who’s reasonably pro military, while also fighting to end abuses — notably, the problem of rape. Do a Google search for Franken anti-rape amendment and you’ll see a host of articles about how he forged ahead and got his amendment signed into law. See this 30-second spot by Amy Lawday Productions highlighting the amendment’s significance:

According to Emily Douglas, senior editor at The Nation:

Upon hearing the amendment passed, Jamie Leigh Jones told the Minnesota Post: “It means the world to me… It means that every tear shed to go public and repeat my story over and over again to make a difference for other women was worth it.” It’s a reminder that rape survivors go public with their stories at a serious emotional cost, and the onus is on political leaders and advocates to make it worth what could be only in the most euphemistic sense be referred to as their while.

— Emily Douglas, “Franken’s Anti-Rape Amendment”

Just because Franken has fought against rape as a senator doesn’t mean he was entitled to act offensively toward Tweeden back in 2006 when they were rehearsing for a USO skit together. But if I’m any judge of character, Franken is not by nature abusive, has matured considerably since his days as a comedian, and is a decent sort of bloke.

But in fighting against the DoD to get the rape amendment passed, and in fighting with Jeff Sessions over both the rape amendment and Russiagate, did Franken identify himself as a target to military brat Tweeden and her minders? On a gut level, I can’t shake the feeling that she’s the aggressor here, and that there’s something of the Kellyanne Conway about her: snowing the media to advance a hidden agenda, going on a well-planned “confession tour” to distract attention from the Trump administration’s dirty deeds.

According to CBS news, Trump oppo research guy Roger Stone knew Tweeden was about to hit Franken hours before her allegations went public, and tweeted (through an intermediary) that it was Franken’s time in the barrel. This suggests the attack was coordinated to fall on a day when the Trump administration needed maximum distraction from the Republican tax plan, which is a huge wealth transfer from the middle class to the richest Americans, and which includes a provision partially defunding Obamacare.

On the same day, the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era ban on importing African elephant trophies from Zimbabwe, and the FCC relaxed ownership rules for media companies, ensuring that in some markets citizens will have only one pro-Trump corporation (like Sinclair) controlling both newspapers and TV. A good day to pitch a bright shiny object (or dull shiny object) in the direction of the media.

The disgusting use of a confession tour to sandbag Franken reflects deeper problems in our society which won’t be solved by the present accusation culture. People on social media are commenting that this culture has reached the level of a moral panic. “menckenjr” on DailyKos writes:

Franken shouldn’t have clowned her like that. It reflects poorly on his judgement at the time. If there are more credible complaints, he has to go.

Having said that, however, it’s easy to believe that Ms. Tweeden is lending her (possibly grossly inflated) outrage for partisan purposes and misremembering how she felt. This is starting to feel a lot like the moral panic over satanic child-molesting day care centers from the 1980’s with the whole “recovered memories” scam springing up without paying any attention to how malleable memories are. Anyone can say anything they want to about how something made them feel a long time ago and absent any other contemporaneous accounts there’s no way to tell whether they’re telling the truth or not. If there are people she talked to about it at the time, that’s one thing. If this is just her on right-wing Tea Party radio trying to muddy the waters and help Roy Moore squeak through in Alabama, that’s another.

With all the changes in society in recent decades, both women and men are struggling to make sense of their roles, to find ways of getting along together — even loving each other.

Franken may have acted boorishly by taking a comedy skit way too far, and by mugging for the camera, pretending to grab at Tweeden while she was asleep on the plane in heavy military gear. But in this murky contest between half-devils and half-angels, Tweeden looks to me like the bigger devil for trying to wreck Franken’s political career, which (unlike most media faff and soft-core porn) is irreplaceable.

The photo in question, which was intended comedically, has been described as “lewd,” though it contains no nudity or even partial nudity. The obvious question is, compared to what? The photos of Tweeden which appear in men’s magazines?

According to FastDate.com, which publishes a larger version of this photo of Tweeden, she’s a former FastDate “Calendar Kitten” who “has her own website with a sexy Members Corner showing more hot shots like the one above.” http://www.fastdates.com/PitLaneNews2006.05.03.HTM

I’m not a prude and am not offended by either the Franken photo, or the many being circulated of Tweeden prancing about in the nearly altogether. My point is that there’s clearly some kind of double standard here. Like Claude Rains in Casablanca, Tweeden is “shocked” at the attention she receives from men. The operational folk wisdom is: “Don’t turn them on if you’re not comfortable turning them down.”

Leeann Tweeden – lingerie shoot (thumbnail)

The optics are important due to the bright shiny object factor, and the deceptive nature of the PR blitzkrieg unleashed by Ms. Tweeden. Most press reports seem to show her wearing dark business attire and geek glasses, but that is not the attire for which she is known, and on which her career has been largely based. It’s not the attire she was wearing when she appeared at Budweiser promotional events, autographing 8×10 glossies of herself.

People have a right to change their image, though the fact that she’s still selling her Playboy and Budweiser paraphernalia makes the change dubious. What people don’t have a right to do is skewer people from their past, for relating to them according to the image that they consciously projected at the time.

Note also that the Franken photo was not considered “lewd” in 2006. It was apparently included in the courtesy book or disc issued by the USO at the end of the tour. In its original context, it was a picture of two entertainers who had a reputation for joking their way through the tour. Comedian Franken is pretending to grope calendar kitten Tweeden, who’s fully clothed in a flak jacket and helmet, and is either asleep or pretending to be asleep for the photo. In the uncropped version (not always shown), another person is seen seated beside her to her left.

MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt was lambasted on right-wing media for describing the photo as showing “mock groping,” but she is correct.

Franken used various comic personas in his act, including that of the man-child who refuses to grow up (a la Jerry Lewis). For some unfathomable reason, the lecherous idiot persona is one which never fails to elicit a guffaw from troops. It has persisted since the days of vaudeville, when comics and strippers often performed in tandem; but perhaps it’s time to let it go the way of the dinosaur, like the Benny Hill Show, which often consisted of little more than Hill groping women (who were part of the act) for supposedly comic effect.

The context is important because according to USO sources, entertainment provided to the troops is typically racy, with lots of sight gags and sexual humor. Not to go all Dr. Strangelove, but women are chosen for their– well, previous USO stars have included Ann-Margret, Joey Heatherton, and Raquel Welch. Indeed, a PR puff piece on Tweeden appearing on MilitarySpouse.com notes that ever since she was an itsy-bitsy girl, her ambition was to please her Air Force mechanic father by becoming just like Raquel Welch and entertaining the troops — whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or wherever they may be sent to help the local population discover the benefits of American-style democracy (sometimes known as the “babes and bombs” strategy). Here’s a snippet from the actual copy by Kate Dolack:

A Father’s Journey, A Daughter’s Love

While helping her father sort through old photographs when she was young, Leeann had come across a signed photograph of bombshell Raquel Welch. At the time, she hadn’t heard of the USO. In their talks, her father described meeting Welch while he was stationed at Phan Rang in Vietnam. “He said Bob Hope had brought Raquel Welch. And for the first time he was over there, he forget [sic] where he was for a moment.”

And so the spark was struck. Maybe I could be someone’s Raquel Welch, she thought.

Definitely a light-bulb moment! 😉

UPDATE: As the story has dragged on in the press (I almost said “evolved”), this YouTube video of the 2006 USO tour with Franken, Tweeden, and Mark Wills has been scrutinized. It underscores the raunchy atmosphere established by the performers, and includes footage of Tweeden (at around 5:50 to 6:01) which raises serious questions about the sincerity of her account. Watching the full video, one would find the Franken prank photo extremely mild by comparison.

A separate sociological or political critique might be penned concerning the portion of the entertainment commencing at 10:00, where a bearded man identified by Tweeden as “Saddam Hussein” is dragged to the microphone by two uniformed soldiers, and proceeds to shout “F-ck you!” repeatedly, as everyone laughs. A hangman’s noose is placed around his neck, and he continues to complain, curse, and joke with Tweeden about rape as she feeds him pre-rehearsed straight lines. It’s not for the squeamish, and neither is Tweeden, who’s decked out like Louise Linton in the famous “money shot,” but with more cleavage and something resembling Bugs Bunny on her head.

leeann-tweeden-uso-2006-modeling

Leeann Tweeden, 2006 USO show, modeling the Louise Linton Collection

Conclusions

The cry of serious, intelligent women that “We are not playthings!” deserves to be treated with utmost concern, respect, and empathy, as does the cry of migrant workers and hotel maids. That cry is less persuasive when coming from women who are (literally) Playboy playmates selling autographed copies of the mag (thereby spreading the Playboy philosophy). Rights are rights, and Playboy playmates have just as much right not to be inappropriately kissed as lawyers or brain surgeons. (Maybe we should ban all the novels that employ the dated simile “sweet as a stolen kiss,” including Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Ban François Truffaut’s film Stolen Kisses too?)

But in trying to make sense of the New Frontier in which we find ourselves, and bring peace to the Battle of the Sexes, we should all beware of hypocrisy. Given human nature, women who continue to make their money in whole or in part from the sex industry are going to rack up more incidents of unwanted attention than those filing their briefs with the Court of Appeals.

As a good liberal, I really want to close ranks with women on this issue. But I can’t, because most liberal women seem to be taking sides solely on the basis of gender, and helping to fuel the present moral panic. This culture of constant public accusations with a new target every day is not healthy for either men or women (or children, and possibly not even for pets).

This seems to be a particularly unhappy time in America, with the media leading an obsessive search for scapegoats. Everyone seems to have forgotten the UVA rape hoax, and the lessons that journalists and on-air personalities were supposed to have learnt from it. One piece very much worth revisiting is Cathy Young’s “Crying Rape” on Slate.com. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Rape is a repugnant crime — and one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, in the not-so-distant past, the belief that women routinely make up rape charges often led to appalling treatment of victims. However, in challenging what author and law professor Susan Estrich has called “the myth of the lying woman,” feminists have been creating their own counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies.

A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.

Our focus on getting justice for women who are sexually assaulted is necessary and right. We are still far from the day when every woman who makes a rape accusation gets a proper police investigation and a fair hearing. But seeking justice for female victims should make us more sensitive, not less, to justice for unfairly accused men. In practical terms, that means finding ways to show support for victims of sexual violence without equating accusation and guilt, and recognizing that the wrongly accused are real victims too.

— Cathy Young

Another must-read is psychologist Tana Dineen’s trenchant article “Are We Manufacturing Victims?”

All in all not a happy time, with Leeann Tweeden’s confession tour being a lurid display far more shocking than anything put on by the USO stars of yesteryear.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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2 comments on “Of Senators and Playmates

  1. Pingback: Leeann Tweeden and Blaming The Victim | Ethics and Spirituality

  2. Pingback: Al Franken, Sexual McCarthyism, and Moral Panics | Ethics and Spirituality

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