Last week, the Republican Women's Caucus in California endorsed a gubernatorial candidate who as recently as July had gloried in the prospect of shoving a woman's head into a filthy toilet bowl. The GOP women rationalize that Arnold Schwarzenegger "supports family." Mark that endorsement the death knell of Republican claims to represent traditional family values.
Schwarzenegger's remarks in an interview with Entertainment Weekly cannot be easily discarded as an excess of youth, the commercial need to promote a macho view of bodybuilding, or any of the other flip rationalizations Schwarzenegger has offered for his frequent and persistent expressions of misogyny.
No, the statement in question was made by a 55-year-old man who was openly contemplating a gubernatorial campaign. It was not made 26 years ago, when the Oui magazine article mentioning group sex came out, but only two months ago, in July. What it suggests is that the violence and stupidity of his cinema roles may reflect the thinking of the actor.
In all fairness, the statements made on the set of "Terminator 3" to Entertainment Weekly should be evaluated in their entirety, within the context of the article, which reads as follows:
"But nothing in T3 bears Schwarzenegger's creative stamp more than his epic tussle with the Terminatrix, a battle that begins in a bathroom. The sequence was made longer and more elaborate thanks to the actor's largess -- and his singular imagination.
"'As we were rehearsing, I saw this toilet bowl,' says Schwarzenegger, an impish smile crossing his face. 'How many times do you get away with this -- to take a woman, grab her upside down, and bury her face in a toilet bowl? I wanted to have something floating in there,' he adds. Apparently, he was vetoed. 'They thought it was my typical Schwarzenegger overboard,' he says. 'The thing is, you can do it, because in the end, I didn't do it to a woman -- she's a machine! We could get away with it without being crucified by who-knows-what group.' (Note to California's Democratic strategists: The soccer-mom set is now yours for the taking!)"
Perhaps the magazine's reporter was right about the soccer-mom vote, but why wouldn't men also find this blatant expression of hostility toward women deeply offensive?
The issue here is not puritanism, and I am on record as having defended Schwarzenegger in 2001 in this column when Gray Davis' consultant, Garry South, made too much of a largely unsubstantiated and irrelevant Premiere magazine article concerning the actor's alleged sexist and crude behavior on movie sets.
But the head-in-the-toilet-bowl remarks are in a very different category and raise issues that a political candidate should be expected to answer.
Most important of those is whether Schwarzenegger makes any connection between the incessant depiction of extreme violence in his films and the astonishing violence of our society. If he pushes an "evil" woman's head in the toilet and laughs, does he bear any responsibility if some guy goes home and does it to his girlfriend the next time he gets angry?
I don't believe that there is a simple answer to these questions. Yet, from Bob Dole's run for president to John Ashcroft's just-launched campaign against violent pornography, such arguments have been a staple of the Republicans' rise to power under the self-righteous "family values" banner.
When Schwarzenegger mocks the "who-knows-what groups" that might have raised objections to his proposed sicko movie scene, he is certainly not just speaking of feminists, since the Christian right would presumably raise strenuous objections to such a scene.
More specifically, does Schwarzenegger, as it appears from this interview, delight in the extreme violence he peddles? And, regardless, why was none of this of interest to Oprah Winfrey, Jay Leno, Larry King or the right-wing talk show hosts whose programs have accounted for the majority of the actor's obsessively controlled media availability? As governor, Schwarzenegger would be appointing judges whose sensitivities to the civil rights of all groups, including women, is of decisive importance; isn't this relevant to that process?
In previous elections, the barest hint of a candidate's hostility toward a group of people could destroy a candidate. But Schwarzenegger has been given a free ride by the media and the GOP on this question and others arising from his long history as a celebrity. How hypocritical that a man whom the media anointed as the leading candidate from his announcement on "The Tonight Show" solely because of his celebrity should now get away with claiming that anything he said or did as a celebrity is irrelevant to his candidacy.