No doubt state Rep. Kenny Havard shouldn’t give up his part-time day job for a career in comedy. Yet the reaction by some fellow state leaders to his ill-conceived and unapologetic joke also displayed some cluelessness as well.
Certainly, Republican Havard may deserve a running out of town on a rail for other things he has promoted as a legislator. He authored a bill, eventually vetoed by former Gov. Bobby Jindal, that largely would have prevented privatization efforts that previously saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars. He backed financially ruinous and ineffective Medicaid expansion. He put unions before the public good when helping to kill a bill that would stop organized labor from using taxpayer resources to collect dues. He seems to equate fees with taxes and demands the Legislature micromanage every one of them. And Republicans might view him with disdain for his public support to elect Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards.
While such dumb moves merit approbation, he drew anger during House debate on a bill raising the minimum age to work as an exotic dancer from 18 to 21. Havard proposed an amendment on the House floor to set an age limit of 28 for exotic dancers and a weight limit of 160 pounds, presumably to weed out weathered and/or hefty strippers. He quickly retracted the amendment, claiming it was a humorous attempt (that did garner some laughter and tossing of dollar bills) to point out the absurdity of overregulation.
In the ensuing hours, several female legislators said the incident showed that sexism stalked the Legislature. Collectively, male lawmakers voiced a mishmash of apologies and protestations that they had their minds right on this issue, insisting that Havard didn’t reflect their views. Most called on Havard to apologize, which he refused by saying he would not bow to political correctness run amok.
Just about everybody missed the event’s larger meaning, beginning with Havard. His stillborn search for laughs went unappreciated because he missed the actual absurdity that would have made for effective satire: The entire strip-club industry, even if constitutionally protected, defines itself by the objectification of dancers, who are mainly women. Because the original bill sought to exclude younger and likely more attractive women, Havard could have protested overregulation by proposing to raise the age limit into seasoned-citizen range, arguing that exploitation would be less likely among the most wizened.
Havard’s not alone in embracing objectification, or the treating of people as objects. Research in political psychology reveals that, particularly concerning low-profile elections such as those for the Legislature, candidates perceived as more attractive have an electoral advantage. Legislators apparently understand this already because they often try hard in their campaigns to make themselves appear physically appealing to voters. Lawmakers who reacted to Havard’s gag by condemning a culture defined by looks don’t seem to mind that it may have helped at least some of them win elections.
Granted, this episode reminds us that lame comedy from legislators isn’t in short supply. But neither, it appears, is selective outrage.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana Government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at http://www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at http://www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.