May 26, 2018

"Given the torrent of revelations of abuse against women in the #MeToo era, the [term 'wife-beater,' for the sleeveless undershirt] suddenly seemed grossly inappropriate."

That line was a forehead-slapper for me. It's by Moises Velasquez-Manoff in "Are We Really Still Calling This Shirt a ‘Wife Beater’?" (NYT).

The word that got me was "suddenly." Is Velasquez-Manoff telling us that he just noticed the transgressive violent edge to "wife-beater"? It's right out there. If you think it's okay that you didn't mind until #MeToo woke you up, then why should we condemn the men who are at the receiving end of #MeToo accusations? Without #MeToo to enlighten them, they didn't realize how bad their behavior was. Why not indulgently advise Harvey Weinstein, et al., to go and sin no more?

I've never not noticed that "wife-beater" is a terrible joke of a name for a shirt. And that's what it is, a joke:
“People aren’t calling it a wife beater because they believe that beating your wife is O.K.,” Adam Klein, an assistant professor of communication studies at Pace University, told me. But the willingness to casually evoke violence against women implies a strange double standard. “We accept misogyny as cool,” he said, even as we know that racism is unacceptable.
The question is whether you think it's a good joke. You know what it is. You hear the words, but did you/do you think it's cool? And "'We accept misogyny as cool,' he said, even as we know that racism is unacceptable" is a nonsequitur: Those who know racism is unacceptable may still use "hipster racism" — expressions that are racist but are thought not to  convey actual racism because they come from someone who is understood not to be racist. It is accepted as cool (by some!). And it's the same way with misogyny. Even among those who know it's unacceptable, it can feel cool. It's a joke. It's hipster sexism.

I think it's a bad joke, though I can picture myself in a situation, with an intimate friend, where I might let loose and say, "I see you're wearing your wife-beater." But as a casual, general term, it sounds like you don't care about domestic violence or you think you have hipster privilege... and that's not a good look.

75 comments:

rhhardin said...

Wife is sexist.

tim in vermont said...

It used to be a put-down until getting buff at the gym and showing off your guns got so popular. Look at the physique of men in the movies in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Owen said...

Professor A: You are beating "wife-beater" to death with a tired irony.

Bill, Republic of Texas said...

THAT'S NOT FUNNY!

Ralph L said...

AKA Dago Tee. If we have to get rid of sexist language, can we bring back the ethnic slurs?

PJ said...

I always understood that expression more as a class putdown than as betraying indifference to domestic violence on the part of the speaker. That is, the sort of guy who would be seen in that shirt (especially in public) probably beats his wife. Disapproval of wife-beating was implied and was an essential part of the putdown. Similarly, the use of “When did you stop beating your wife?” as an example of an improper courtroom question has an element of jokiness in that the outrageousness of the question illustrates the point in a memorable way, but disapproval of wife-beating is implied. Must we add these expressions to the “unspeakable” list?

Rory said...

It was supposed to connote that domestic violence was a lower class thing. Upper classes kept their (usually full T) underthings hidden under other things.

Oso Negro said...

I think it comes down to where the line is drawn in defining "sexist" or "racist", and these terms are greatly in play. Citizens who are concerned about social conformity must be constantly worried about how their diction may be construed. The left has been attempting to capture the language since goodness knows when. I used to think that the elimination of the word "negro" (dog-whistle, Tim in Vermont!) was the beginning of PC, but I feel sure now that I was wrong. Back in the '30s the Roosevelt Gang was using the term "rugged individualism" as a perjorative to peddle American Socialism, and if a study were done, language shading probably runs all the way back to Eden.

The downside, of course, is this. The term "sexist", in my boyhood, meant a person who thinks that women are inferior to men, should be barred from certain occupations, dedicate themselves to serving men, etc. Here in 2018, the simple assertion that there are biological differences between men and women may be construed by some to be "sexist". So, too, with "racist".

gilbar said...

"can we bring back the ethnic slurs?"
i think only if in unfunny jokes about streets

Rick said...

I've always understood it as an insult tying something obviously offensive to the Italian working class most closely associated with the shirts. That the phrase was ever not offensive seems discordant.

rhhardin said...

The #MeToo movement is another form of playing house.

The #Bemused response to it so far hasn't gone official.

Oso Negro said...

@ Rick - I feel sure I heard this type of shirt called a "guinea" long before I heard it called a "wife-beater".

tim maguire said...

The term "wife beater" does not make fun of wife beating, it makes fun of the sort of backwoods redneck who is normally seen wearing this shirt by identifying him as the kind of person who would beat his wife. That is, it's a playful joke in possibly bad taste on a dark side of our national culture, but that playful joke is not related to the act of wife beating.

tim in vermont said...

(dog-whistle, Tim in Vermont!)

Oh, it’s not the “negro” in your name that led me to call out many of your comments as racist. Don’t clutch your pearls about that.

tim maguire said...

PJ beat me to it, and he's exactly right.

tim in vermont said...

it makes fun of the sort of backwoods redneck who is normally seen wearing this shirt by identifying him as the kind of person who would beat his wife

I always pictured an Italian guy on a stoop in Brooklyn with a cigarette in hand. It’s amazing how the term does serve as kind of an ink blot though.

Ralph L said...

Is Spouse-beater OK?

Sposo battitore in bad Italian.

TwoAndAHalfCents said...

Always thought it was an indirect put down about trailer park folks. If you ever watch an episode of Cops you're guaranteed to see someone in this style of shirt. Never head the Italian angle before.

traditionalguy said...

That's the worst in Patriarchy Wear, and it should offend all of the clothing civilized people. It's almost as bad as horrid clip-on ties.

Oso Negro said...

@Tim in Vermont - There are probably more negroes in my zip code than in the entire state of Vermont. I cheerfully live among them and am delighted to have them as neighbors. If you notice me advocating for their oppression, please flag it as a sign of my nascent racism and we will have something to discuss.

Tank said...

I always thought it was an Italian thing.

Mrs. Tank is Italian (OK, her ancestors were). Her dad and uncle did not wear wife beaters, but many of her mom's 14 brothers did. Mrs. Tank would look GOOD in a wife beater.


Tank was also struck by the word suddenly.

traditionalguy said...

As for me and my house, we will only wear V necked T-shirts.

Rick said...

Never head the Italian angle before.

The person I first heard the expression from was from New Jersey. From others' comments the working class relationship seems universal while the other specifics vary based on region.

PJ said...

Isn’t there a different word for a wife-beater type shirt when it’s worn by a woman? It’s on the tip of my tongue . . .

Ralph L said...

V necked T-shirts
I can wear a buttoned up dress shirt and tie all day (had to in HS), but a crew neck Tee is unbearable. Something about that spot where the bone ends.

Meade said...

When did you stop wearing your wife-beater?

Tank said...

Meade - LOL.

Ralph L said...

The dirtier the better.
With lots of armpit hair.

Bay Area Guy said...

The focus on trivia by the "woke" crowd is astounding. Nobody has a vested interest in calling or not calling a white tank top a "wife-beater". The focus should be on actual beating of a wife and how to stop it - to the extent it occurs.

The Left enjoys the role of language police which piqued George Orwell's interest nearly 70 years ago.

As an aside, women in tank tops can be very sexy. However, in Santa Cruz, CA, the women in tank tops often are highly tattooed, often a bit heavy, and often found on the back of a motorcycle with some biker dude.

So there's that.

Birkel said...

That's not funny!

Birkel said...

The Godfather's oldest son, Sonny, before he got shot on the causeway, was at home wearing a wife beater.

That character was played by James Caan.

Birkel said...

Sonny, as you may recall, did not approve wife beating.

Fernandinande said...

"Person of color beater" doesn't sound right.

Oso Negro said...

@PJ Camisole!!!

n.n said...

#MeToo #SheKnew #SheProgressed Female chauvinists have been bad for women, men, and especially fetuses, or offspring, conventionally known as babies.

Racism is a prejudice that discriminates between individuals by the color of their skin. Today, diversity is a progressive institutional and individual prejudice that denies individual dignity and discriminates between individuals by the color of their skin and other incidental features. Colorful clumps of cells, fetus or offspring, and other divergent mental modes that denigrate individual dignity and debase human life.

Gahrie said...

I claim the right to use the term "wife beater" in the same way that Black people retain the right to use the word "nigger".

Inga...Allie Oop said...

“Isn’t there a different word for a wife-beater type shirt when it’s worn by a woman? It’s on the tip of my tongue . . .”

Tank top.

Gahrie said...

?it makes fun of the sort of backwoods redneck who is normally seen wearing this shirt by identifying him as the kind of person who would beat his wife.

It was actually referring to poor urban immigrants, mainly Italian.

PJ said...

If you hurry through the Althouse Amazon portal (only 3 left in stock!) you can get a six-pack of “100% Cotton Wife Beater A-Shirts” for only $18.99.

n.n said...

Sex, male and female, politics, with an underlying chauvinistic, male and female, thread.

mockturtle said...

In a lot of old movies, the tank-style tee shirt was worn by brutish husbands who beat their wives. Hence the name. I first heard it from my grandson and still think it's funny.

Meade said...

Hey, just because I might look like Boris K, do you really need to tread on mewife-beater?

Anonymous said...

Those who know racism is unacceptable may still use "hipster racism" — expressions that are racist but are thought not to convey actual racism because they come from someone who is understood not to be racist. It is accepted as cool (by some!). And it's the same way with misogyny. Even among those who know it's unacceptable, it can feel cool. It's a joke. It's hipster sexism.

There's a whole world of people out here who don't consult the likes of Moises Velasquez-Manoff, Adam Klein, or the most recently published errata to hipster bibles to decide whether or not to laugh at things.

Charlie Currie said...

He acted tough in his wife beater t, but she was a real ball buster...she persevered.

Wince said...

Notice, no matter what the term, it's women who are allowed to draw the offense.

Even when men are dubbed "wife beaters" simply by virtue of the undergarments they wear, the humor is supposedly at the expense of women.

What next? Jokes about the side "man boobs" made visible by "wife beater" t-shirts?

On behalf of men everywhere, you disgust me!

tcrosse said...

Brando rocks a Sister-In-Law beater in Streetcar.

Jupiter said...

Marlon Brando. A Streetcar Named Desire.

Meade said...

A good husband might play with dollies but he never beats his wife.

Clyde said...

"To the moon, Alice!"

Darrell said...

It's settled. The new name is commie-beater.

mockturtle said...

There's a whole world of people out here who don't consult the likes of Moises Velasquez-Manoff, Adam Klein, or the most recently published errata to hipster bibles to decide whether or not to laugh at things.

Exactly so, Angle-Dyne. I laugh at what's funny. To me. Regardless.

tim in vermont said...

"Sonny, as you may recall, did not approve wife beating."

Then he set Sonny up and got killed, himself, for it. That's why I claim that depression is an evolutionary adaptation. If he had just sulked and whined to his wife about how unfair the world was to make him a beta, he would have lived comfortably to a ripe old age.

tim in vermont said...

Oso, do they like being called "negros"? I think that they prefer "black, " though I admit to never having tried anything else. I live in Florida in a black majority district, much of the year. I have black friends unlike the vast majority of Vermonters. I remember the sixties, and I would not bring that time back in terms of race relations, and "negro " is from that time.

I have never heard a black person over the age of thirty use the term "African American", BTW.

Rob said...

Does calling a psychiatrist a head-shrinker condone head-shrinking? What about sawbones? Saying someone’s at the end of their rope? Saying a comedian killed? Going crazy? On fire?

Users of hyperbole, metaphors, irony, beware. The language police are coming to get you.

Michael K said...

When my 16 year old daughter referred to that type of shirt as a "wife beater," it was the first time I had heard the term.

It was pretty funny but I was shocked she used and knew the term.

J. E. Malthaus said...

I see there is not the "Era of That's Not Funny" on this post.

Althouse is insightful about many things, but comedy can be a bit of a blind spot for her at times.

I am not saying that she does not have a sense of humor; I am saying that her sense of humor often has a lawyerly sort of tunnel-vision that does not let down its guard.

Well: maybe it's not a tunnel, but rather a bubble, or perhaps an Audi rather than an old-school van with an airbrushed scene of warrior chicks and totally rockin' clouds on the side. Like this.

Inside that Audi tunnel-bubble:

The New Yorker.

David Sedaris.

Seinfeld.

My Dinner With Andre.

The idea of Lenny Bruce, but maybe not a lot of the actual jokes.


In other words, things that have a dry sense of detachment, with the proper sensitivities and strata.

Perhaps this post could get a "Things Althouse Doesn't Find Funny" tag.

LWL

mockturtle said...

Well done, LWL!

Bad Lieutenant said...

The word that got me was "suddenly." Is Velasquez-Manoff telling us that he just noticed the transgressive violent edge to "wife-beater"? It's right out there.

Orwell to the white courtesy phone. And it's guinea-T not dago-T. What is even the proper name for the garment? The nicknames have driven it out of currency.

Michael said...

"Wife-beater" is classist, not misogynist. The idea is that working class men wear sleeveless t-shirts around the house, and treat their wives badly, while gentlemen are properly attired and do not. This, obviously, was never true and looks particularly bad now.

mockturtle said...

The idea of Lenny Bruce, but maybe not a lot of the actual jokes., per LWL, explains AH very well, I think.

Wince said...

I'm waiting for Robin Givhan to address the "wife beater" sartorially before commenting further.

Phil 314 said...

A shirt

tim maguire said...

Blogger Gahrie said...
?it makes fun of the sort of backwoods redneck who is normally seen wearing this shirt by identifying him as the kind of person who would beat his wife.

It was actually referring to poor urban immigrants, mainly Italian.


Maybe by the people you've heard using it. Not by the people I've heard. You need to watch more Simpsons.

The Cracker Emcee Refulgent said...

Gahrie is right. It’s a Guido thing. Crackers are were still wearing long underwear when Wops were rocking wife-beaters.

Zach said...

I never heard it as a misogynist joke. I heard it as a really, really classist joke:

"Blue collar people who wear sleeveless shirts beat their wives! Ha, Ha!"

tcrosse said...

Where I grew up in North Jersey, The Untouchables was commonly called Guinea Gunsmoke.

dustbunny said...

Originally, I think it was just called an undershirt.

Char Char Binks, Esq. said...

It's a joke, but not at the expense of women. The joke is on the supposedly deplorable knuckle-draggers who wear the shirts.

Char Char Binks, Esq. said...

I see a lot of you get the joke, too, although I don't think it's ethnically specific.

Bad Lieutenant said...

I've actually started wearing these, as undershirts for work, when the hot commute gets too much. So the Oxford shirts don't sweat through and stick to my skin. The A-shirts are much lighter than T-shirts, and are much more porous. Of course they would be obscene to wear in public, whereas the T is practically the American uniform.

Oso Negro said...

@Tim in Vermont But Sometimes Florida - Negro is a perfectly respectable term. Martin Luther King was a negro and used the word without shame. I don't care if Stokely Carmichael and Jesse Jackson liked other words. Dick Gregory was comfortable with "Nigger", but that wasn't considered polite in the St. Louis of my youth. As a free person, I am uninterested in permitting others to control my word choice. If I bear animus towards someone, they will know it soon enough, no matter what I say.

FredwinaD said...

Ugh - I'm always too late on these threads for anyone to read my comment, but here goes anyway. In South Jersey, it's also known as a "guinea T" and has been for as long as I remember (and I'm in my 50's). So Oso Negro is correct, it started out as an Italian-American thing. No one ever cared about that, though, apparently.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Anyone who is only just now realizing that the term wife-beater expresses unacceptable misogyny really deserves to be bitch-slapped.

Meade said...

It's morally wrong to stay in a marriage in which you are falsely accused of being a wife beater or even an abusive husband.

Get out!

Meade said...

(...or any relationship for that matter.)