In his opening monologue on SNL this past Saturday, Dave Chappelle made a joke about staying at a Trump hotel:
“I’m staying at the Trump Hotel right now. I don’t know if he’s going to make a good president, but he makes a swell hotel suite, Imma tell you that. Housekeeping comes in in the morning, cleans my room. And I just, ‘Hey, good morning, housekeeping.’ Grab a big handful of pussy, and say, you know, boss said it was okay.”
For just a moment I recoiled at the misogyny and sexual violence of the anecodote. Then I remembered that Chappelle was simply commenting on the unrepentant misogyny and sexual violence of the president elect.
Chappelle’s sardonic commentary perfectly illustrates the phenomenon of shifting baselines, a term that refers to an alteration in the measurement of systems relative to prior reference points (i.e. the baselines). There was a time not so long ago when misogyny and sexual assault were widely tolerated in western society. During that period a wealthy and powerful man could sexually assault a working class woman with virtually no concern about reprisal or stigma. But slowly that began to change.
In the last few years the spotlight has increasingly been shone on some of the last places of bald abuse such as bars and college campuses. We are now increasingly aware of the dangers of rape culture, body shaming, et cetera. We are increasingly aware of how whistles and unwelcome comments — once considered harmless, even benevolent compliments — are in fact harassment.
These shifts in the baseline of acceptable conduct were won only after extended cultural battle with misogynist and sexist attitudes that remain deeply entrenched in particular subcultures.
But battles that were won can be lost again. Over the last several months Donald Trump has led an unprecedented assault on women from his unrepentant body shaming and threats of incarceration for abortion to his bragging about sexual assault. At a recent Trump rally one woman proudly wore a shirt that proclaimed “Donald, you can grab my pussy!” Today Megyn Kelly will appear on Dr. Phil to describe her experience of receiving verbal threats from Donald Trump prior to the debate she hosted last year. Trump has a long history of threatening journalists, but in particular female journalists. On several occasions he has denounced specific female journalists by name at rallies including CNN’s Sarah Murray and MSNBC’s Katy Tur. (For further discussion of Trump’s relationship with female reporters see here.)
Donald Trump is not yet in office and already the baselines are shifting. One can only imagine what will be considered acceptable conduct toward women after four years of his administration.