Women have come a long way since I was a teenager but it seems like they still take a hit especially when they drop the F-word in a relatively tame setting.

Or when they talk tough to powerful men.

Consider the fuss made about Sen. Mazie Hirono after she was bleeped out in a National Public Radio interview when she used the phrase, “fuck them.”

The critical letters to the editor in Honolulu Star-Advertiser that followed made me wonder if Mazie’s swearing would be equally slammed if she were a man.  Of if she were a New York senator rather than a Japanese-American woman from the land of aloha.

Sen. Mazie Hirono says when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment allegations, she’ll continue speaking bluntly. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

A  Kailua letter writer faulted Hirono for tarnishing the aloha spirit with her blunt talk.

What is with all the shock and awe in the 21st century? Is a woman still rude if she expresses her anger in salty language?

In another letter to the editor, Russel A. Noguchi of Pearl City wrote: “In all due respect to Congress, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono is losing her cool by swearing a lot in view of the camera. She has been recorded as saying “God d—-,” “f—- them,” “bulls—t,” perhaps others. They can all be seen by Googling “Mazie Hirono swear words.”

That is a funny pastime: Googling Mazie Hirono’s swear words, especially when you consider that Hirono used to be portrayed as the smart, polite, good girl of Hawaii politics, a background player. Some critics even called her boring.

“I find it hard to believe that the F-bombs are randomly dropping out of Mazie’s mouth without her first carefully thinking about what she’s saying. And the attention she is getting will not discourage her from doing it in the future.” — Professor John Hart

Mazie’s use of the F-word in an NPR interview came when Nina Totenberg asked her about her practice of asking each one of President Trump’s nominees if they have ever “made unwanted requests for sexual favors or committed any physical or verbal harassment or assault of a sexual nature.”

Hirono told Totenberg that she wants judges who are fair and qualified and care about “individual and civil rights.” And then, she added, “If that’s considered liberal as opposed to what I call justice and fairness, I am wont to say ‘fuck them.’”

That alone might have gone relatively unnoticed. Not everyone tunes in to public radio.

But add it to the statement Hirono made outside of the confirmation hearing of then-Supreme Court nominee and accused sexual abuser Brett Kavanaugh that not only women but everyone should be concerned about the continuing sexual harassment and assault of women that’s gone on for “time immemorial.”

And then there was this line: “Guess who is perpetuating all of these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country. And I just want to say to the men in this country — just shut up and step up. Do the right thing for a change.”

And Hirono told a Washington Post interviewer her involvement in fighting for the rights of sexual misconduct survivors was not new: “I’ve been fighting these fights for a — I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono said in the interview, glancing over at an aide before uttering the expletive that was apparently censored in the Post article.

More swearing came from Hirono on camera on the third day of the Kavanaugh hearing: “That is such bullshit I can hardly stand it,” she said after Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said the committee was having difficulty contacting Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, flanked by Sarah Burgess, left, an alumnae of the Holton Arms School, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., right, is applauded by demonstrators as they arrive to speak to reporters in support of professor Christine Blasey Ford, who is accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of a decades-old sexual attack, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. Christine Blasey Ford was a student at the Holton Arms School, a Maryland all-girls school, in the early 1980s. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Hirono is applauded by demonstrators as she arrives to speak to reporters in support of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of a decades-old sexual attack. AP

Hirono’s office in Washington points out it has received just as many positive calls and emails as negative regarding the senator’s frank language.

One of the supportive letters was from Hirono’s sixth grade teacher at Koko Head Elementary, Yoshinobu D. Oshiro. Oshiro wrote  to the Star-Advertiser to say he was proud of Hirono, whom he remembered as the captain of the school’s Campus Patrol. He called her recent language “salty and peppered, topped with kim chee spice.”

National opinion writer Patricia Murphy praised Hirono for having the “Hawaiian coconuts” to speak her mind during the Kavanaugh hearings. She complimented the senator, along with Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Rep. Maxine Waters, for calling out “male b.s. and, in the process, speaking out  for the millions of women in America who have been talked over, walked over, dismissed or ignored by a man at some point (or many points) in their lives.’”

Hawaii political scientist Neal Milner says the reaction to Hirono’s swearing is like everything else in politics today: partisan. Republicans decry her as rude. Democrats, especially women, applaud her direct statements as righteous anger.

“It is something that is heard in all quarters today,” Milner says. “Walk past an intermediate school today and you will get hit with so many F-bombs you will want to go into a shelter.”

“It rallies the troops but it can also push people who are teetering on the fence to go over to the other side. It is risky.” — Professor Dana Alden

Kathy Ferguson, professor of political science and women’s studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa, thinks the strong reaction to Hirono’s language is driven not only by partisan politics but also by gender and age. As Milner mentioned: A lot of people swear today, especially young people.

Ferguson says there are still language taboos for women. She called Hirono’s shut up and step up statement a mild breaking of  a language taboo for women — they do not usually talk to men that way. And Hirono’s use of the word F-word is a “more startling”  break in the traditional rules for women’s language.

But we are in a time of accelerated rule change. Ferguson says having a president who swears a lot and talks tough opens the terrain for other people to do it.

Ferguson adds that unlike President Donald Trump, Hirono does not use harsh language to be cruel to people who can’t fight back.

“She is speaking because she is angry and in her conversation, she explains logical reasons for her anger.”

Hawaii Pacific University communications professor John Hart sees Hirono’s shut up and step up line as a perfect slogan for a T-shirt. He believes Hirono carefully calculates most of her words for the impact and the attention they will draw.

“I find it hard to believe that the F-bombs are randomly dropping out of Mazie’s mouth without her first carefully thinking about what she’s saying,” Hart says. “And the attention she is getting will not discourage her from doing it in the future.”

Professor Dana Alden, chair of the Marketing Department at the UH Shidler College of Business, is concerned about the increasingly angry and harsh language spoken by both Republicans and Democrats.

Alden says the tough talk could backfire.

“It rallies the troops but it can also push people who are teetering on the fence to go over to the other side,” he says. “It is risky.”

Alden says angry language “erodes efforts at compromise, which is the bulwark and strength of a democracy. I get what she is doing. But from a marketing standpoint I would advise against it. It can result in both sides just digging in their heels harder.”

I think it is sad and ironic that Hirono’s stepping up and refusing to shut up is prompting reactions steeped in the very sexist stereotypes that she decries: That an angry man is confident while an angry woman is aggressive or confused.

Or, here in Hawaii, that her direct way of speaking is devaluing the aloha spirit.

Hirono says she will continue to ask nominees appearing before the five committees she is on if they have ever been accused of sexual misconduct and will continue speaking bluntly to keep alive the issue of “sexual harassment to draw attention to the need for permanent change.”

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