Feminéma resurrects to splutter about Paula Deen’s Old South

3 July 2013

I know, I know … lots of radio silence from my end. Hey, it’s been a busy summer, after a busy school year.

Paula_Deen_can_cookBut holy crap, the Paula Deen story has brought me out of my writing-and-watching-tennis malaise. Maybe you’ve heard about Deen’s racism, her frequent use of the N word to her employees and her poor treatment of Blacks in her several businesses. In focusing so intently on her use of the N word, however, journalists have ignored the vast bulk of the story which deals with sexual harassment, misogyny, racial and sexual violence, and over five years of ignored complaints about all of the above.

Don’t want to read the full formal court complaint? Let me offer some crucial details as I ask: What’s wrong with our culture that we can’t see this is a case of BOTH racism and sexism?

It would be easy to attack Deen’s public persona, the syrupy-accented Food Channel cook who naughtily put more butter into everything while winking at her viewers. But no matter how you feel about that persona, you have to admit she’s a canny and spectacularly successful businesswoman — a woman who has used gender to her advantage in every way. She has built a multi-million dollar empire on food and her self-portrayal as “The Lady” — her restaurant in Savannah is called The Lady and Sons, for example.

The problem is not just that behind the scenes Deen is a racist. It’s also that she maligns, under-pays, and permits sexual harrassment and violence toward her female employees. Old South, indeed.

Mainstream coverage of the case has focused on racial slurs used by Deen or implicitly condoned by her when her managers or business partner/brother used them. But Deen and her partners were equal-opportunity bigots. They referred to the litigant as “almost Jewish” because of her business acumen — in fact, Deen’s brother Bubba (sigh) called her his “little Jew girl” — while they insisted on a strict policy of paying women far less than men, and refused to promote women to positions that might pay more.

bubba

Deen’s brother Bubba (“Uncle Bubba”) Hiers, the main source of the charges of sexual harassment and physical violence

“Women are stupid because they think they can work and have babies and get everything done,” was one such (alleged) pronouncement by Karl Schumacher, the douchebag who oversaw compensation for Deen’s empire of companies. Schumacher was also responsible for taking away the litigant’s annual bonus when she got divorced, because he disapproved of divorce. (Hm. Deen herself was divorced at the age of 23. Oh well, never mind.)

Meanwhile, the court documents reveal that brother Bubba sexually harassed the litigant with sexual and misogynistic jokes, pornography, insulting comments about female employees’ weight or physical attractiveness — all the while skimming profits off the top and wallowing about in a drunken stupor.

All in all — by my eyeballing of the 33-pg court document — the specific cases of gender bias and sexual harassment total about three times the amount of evidence of racial discrimination and violence. This should not surprise us, as the litigant is a white woman and has launched the case based on her own experiences as a manager within Deen’s empire; doubtless a Black employee would have far more evidence of racial crap. Nevertheless, I’m stunned by the fact that the vast majority of misogyny is ignored by the mainstream press in order to focus most of all on the racial slurs used by Deen, Bubba Hiers, and her managers.

The racism is stunning and awful — but why can’t we see that it is of a piece with Deen’s and Hiers’ overall plantation mentality? Why can’t journalists demonstrate that this is not a case of simple racism, but a corporate culture in which white men and a single plantation “lady” reign supreme, all the while insisting on the subjection of all black and female others?

I’m sorry, but I think the American public can grasp that the Old South exemplified in the Deen corporate empire is not simply racist. Leaving the female employees’ stories out of the mainstream coverage is a crime, for it points out the kinds of experiences that millions of women encounter every day in their jobs as well.

Racism and sexism aren’t separate problems in the workplace; nor do they fall in a hierarchy in which one or the other is more important. Racism and sexism intersect in myriad ways, all of which become clear in the court documents in the Deen case. The public is smart enough to recognize that — and smart enough to know that when mainstream media coverage ignores 3/4 of the damning evidence against the Deen empire, it represents an implicit message: “Ladies, your workplace complaints are not important.”

It may be that Deen getting fired from the Food Channel and losing her corporate sponsors results entirely from those accounts of her using the N word to her employees. That would be too bad. I venture to guess that a huge percentage of her support comes from women — women who see her story of a young divorcée building success in a classically American way (bootstraps, gumption, self-made woman) as inspiring and worthy of support. That‘s the public that needs to hear how women of all races were treated behind the scenes. Because Deen’s claim to be “The Lady” has a long history in the United States — a history rooted more in the Plantation Mistress than the Self-Made Man. We need to know this.

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12 Responses to “Feminéma resurrects to splutter about Paula Deen’s Old South”


  1. Didion, you have perfectly captured the complex horrific situation that is Paul Deen right now. I lived most of my life in Georgia and I did read the full court complaint. Sadly, Deen colludes with and is part of the dominant discourse. Even sadder is that she does not seem to want to embrace this as a moment of education and change. There is no lens of social justice at all.

    p.s. glad you are back. You have been missed.

    • Didion Says:

      Michael, thank you! I’ve definitely been under a rock for a while. So behind. So much to do. So many half-finished posts.

      Having lived in Texas for much longer than I ever intended, I know whereof you speak — the old boy insistence on racial and gender hierarchies that are so radically out of keeping with modern times. But to reduce this to a story of race alone is almost as bad as Deen’s clear awareness of how much she needed to keep her private views out of the public eye. I’m just as happy that her “apologies” have found little purchase, because she so clearly isn’t sorry at all.


      • You and I are as one here. I suspect that is where my deep sadness comes from is that her hollow apologies only reveal that she supports the white, male, heterosexual, dominant culture.

      • Didion Says:

        Isn’t that the truth?

        It’s also made me reflect on something I love to hate-watch: the public apology speech. Ever since the tearful Jimmy Swaggart public apology that I found so riveting as a teenager, I’ve become fascinated by these frequent apologies — and there have been so many. Just think about all the infidelity speeches we’ve seen in the past few years from politicians. These apologies seem to be both essential to a public figure’s continued public life, and an impossible genre to get right.

        The more I think about the apologies made by Deen (and yes, there’s more than one) the more I think she cannot be forgiven for her actions, considering how hard she worked for years to keep them out of the public eye — all the while continuing with the very unforgivable behavior that she’s finally been charged with. I hope this litigant wins a whole lot of money from the Deen empire, because clearly money is the only thing they care about.

  2. fedoralady Says:

    I was born and raised and returned to live in LA (Lower Alabama) to care for aging parents.There are many things I love about my native South. However, I’ve never have been a big Paula Deen fan, I hate the “N” word and it makes me furious to see women subjected to this kind of sexual and racial harassment in the workplace.

    I am so tired of the media’s one-sided portrayal of the issue. I see so many people on FB who have jumped on this bandwagon to support sweet, innocent little Paula who is being crucified for using the “N” word once or twice years and years ago . . . if only that were all this was about,isolated incidences of an otherwise nigh-blameless human being using a hated racial slur..We’ve all made mistakes, right, errors in judgement that should forgiven and forgotten?

    Only, clearly, it is not.

    I have a friend who had family featured in one of Deen’s magazine layouts for a Christmas issue a while back. She said things were seen and heard then that made her relatives think somewhat differently about the smiling southern charmer packaged for us by the media. We have to look beyond the glossy airbrushed images . . .

    • Didion Says:

      Yes. Amen to everything you’ve said. I truly do admire Deen’s business smarts, but now that I know about her behind the scenes, all my admiration is gone.

  3. Servetus Says:

    Remind me to send you a long, objectionable document again the next time I think it’s been too long since you blogged.

    • Didion Says:

      I can’t believe I forgot to acknowledge you as the source of my need to vent in public. Let’s hope this jump-starts a bit more of a blogging trend. I have so many movies to talk about.

      • Servetus Says:

        Do not apologize for not acknowledging me as the delivery mechanism for a document like that. Reading it made me feel dirty. (shivers)

      • Didion Says:

        Yes. The document is riddled with ick. But I do love indulging in a good blog rant, and it’s been far too long.


  4. I really, truly wish I could like this more than once. :} Well said. And I find it horrifyingly fascinating (and oh so timely to note on this 150th anniversary of Gettysburg) that the protection of the mythos of the Old South continues, with roots back past “Birth of a Nation” all the way back to Reconstruction… I have some really interesting books on this.

    • Didion Says:

      Yes! exactly! so frustrating. It’s no surprise that the Old South was built on a gender system as much as a race system. Many thanks, Christine.


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