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The Rec Report

Sunday, 10 February 2008


It's Hard out Here for a Pimp (like Shuster): Cable "News" and the Pimping of Myth

Remarks by MSNBC reporter/anchor, David Shuster, about pimping Chelsea Clinton have caused a petit mal convulsion. In case you missed it, Shuster, subbing for the snarky Tucker Carlson this past Thursday night, remarked regarding Chelsea Clinton's calling on Super Delegates for Hillary: "Doesn't it seem as if Chelsea is sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?" Let's analyze this comment and consider why it has caused a minor uproar.

On the first level of signification, the level of language, the comment posits Hillary in the role of pimp, and Chelsea in the role of prostitute. Despite the remonstrance of Republicans, Obama fans, and other Clinton haters-that the vernacularism has been divested of its strict denotation and the word "pimp" has lost its sexual significance- "pimp" still retains the meaning of sexual hustler. That's exactly how such vernacularisms work. Let me explain.

In "Myth Today," Roland Barthes introduced the notion of a "second-order semiological system," in which the first order of semiology, language, is adopted and to some degree mutated within a second level of statement, myth. Within a second order of meaning, the strict meaning of language ("Chelsea is sort of being pimped out") becomes meaningful within a historically specific, socially distinct context, myth.

Thus, within the Clinton myth, where Shuster thought he was exclusively operating, the original meaning ('Hillary is selling Chelsea sexually as a pimp does a prostitute') is emptied out to some extent so that it can function as a signifier within the level of myth. It must lose its particularity, at least momentarily. We must forgo the meaning of "pimped out" to understand the statement as a part of the Clinton mythology ('the Clintons will do anything to win').

But, as Barthes noted in "Myth Today," this process of exchanging original meaning for a new significance is never absolute, never complete. In fact, in order to function as a signifier within myth, the original meaning must remain an available substance to the signifier as a ready alternative to its new role within myth. That is, the original meaning of "pimped out" must remain available so that the Clinton myth can work as such. If the "original" meaning had been completely lost, the vernacularism would cease to function as myth. The undertone of the remark, supposedly made "innocent" in its new use within myth, is always present and ready to be recuperated, which is why Shuster is in trouble. Entranced by the order of meaning within the Clinton mythos, Shuster forgot that a speaker is always responsible for the first order of signification, language's original meaning, which can come back to bite you on the ass.

To see how myth works, just imagine the situation reversed in terms of the two remaining Democratic candidates. Imagine, that is, that Shuster had instead intoned: "It seems like Obama is pimping out his daughters in some weird sort of way." We would see that the original signifier would also function in a second order signifying system of myth. But now the words invoke a different myth. The new myth is not the Clinton myth, but rather the racist myth that black men are pimps and black women are prostitutes-thus, the implication that Obama, a black man, should not be elected president. The mobilization in this context would create a major uproar, as well it should. But neither of these mobilizations within disparate myths would work unless the original meaning of the word "pimp" was retained as an available resource for the myth to work from.

I hope that the Shuster faux pas will serve as a lesson to those who get so caught up in myths that they think all their remarks are made "innocent" in the context of those myths. This has been the case on MSNBC regarding the Clinton myth, so much so that commentators, especially Chris Matthews, have used it to smuggle in all sorts of sexist analogies. Myth does not wash one clean of intent. In fact, it often only serves as a foil for it. The Clinton myth has been used as a foil for misogyny. Further, the misogyny has been smuggled in under the cover of refusing the racist myth. Sexism cannot be justified, not even in the context of refusing the racial myth.

Dr. Rec, The Rec Report

Michael D. Rectenwald, Ph.D.


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