Until now, my favorite tabloid headline came from the New York Post: “Headless Body in Topless Bar.”
- The July 26, 2013, cover of the New York Daily News
That paradigm of textual parallelism has been supplanted by this recent wordplay from the New York Daily News: “Same Old Schlong & Dance.” The Yiddish slang for penis — or should I say schlang — is bowdlerized only by the substitution of a round “Race for Mayor” badge over the letter “o.”
The image is of disgraced mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner clutching a phallic carrot at a soup kitchen. Weiner’s unfortunate name, his sexting misadventures, his sacrificial wife, and his unbridled narcissism have turned him into a laughingstock.
As my colleague Anna Li points out, the key word here is “stock.”
In Puritan days, Weiner would have been pilloried — chained for shame in the public square, his head in the stocks, his sins on display, with his critics hurling insults, epithets, rotten food, and the occasional dead animal in his face.
It seems as if that function — mass public humiliation — is now the task of tabloid newspapers, late-night comics, and political bloggers.
As a pervy former Congressman — “perv” and “pervy” being the headline words of the moment — Weiner is such an easy target that even the stately New Yorker magazine got into the act. The New Yorker’s cartoon cover image — an homage to King Kong — shows Weiner straddling the Empire State Building, restoring phallic imagery to popular culture and giving new meaning to the edifice complex.
- The Aug. 5, 2013, cover of The New Yorker
To put this in a literary context — sorry, it’s what I do — the insult has been a staple of serious literature and popular culture for millennia, with its history extending from ancient heroic epics to rap competitions like the ones in Eminem’s movie “Eight Mile.”
You can find it in written and oral culture high and low. In Shakespeare, the insult is an instrument of wit, resulting in some of the Bard’s most colorful language: “Mad mustachio purple-hued maltworms!” Just as clever in African-American popular culture, it’s called “playing the dozens,” as in “Your mama’s teeth so crooked, she got a job at Home Depot — makin’ keys.”
Jason Fry notes in an email that the culture of public shaming is alive and well on the Internet, “where tales of poor behavior go viral and everybody digitally leaps on the offender for a day or two. I suspect the tabloids are familiar with this dynamic and now egg it on quite happily.”
The fact that mayoral candidate Weiner is an easy target — along with his reluctant tag-team candidate Eliot Spitzer, of call-girl infamy — doesn’t diminish the craft of the clever headline and the daring double entendre. Here are some of my recent favorites:
For those of you not up on your disgraced New York politicians, that’s Spitzer smiling on the front page of July 27′s Daily News.
As for July 24′s “BEAT IT!” — next to one of the least-flattering photos of a political candidate in history — it was a front-page tease to a Daily News editorial: “Enough of all the lies & salacious revelations. Weiner is not fit to lead America’s premier city.” (The pun may indeed be the lowest form of humor, but “Beat It!” suggests the masturbatory escapades of the candidate, even as it editorially points the arrow for him to get out of town.)
That issue of the Daily News featured a two-page spread that included an orgy of naughty word play in headlines and subheads:
- “Crotcha, Anthony”
- a chonology labeled “His wanky panky trail”
- four sext messages under the headline: “New Weiner Shame Unzipped”
- a supportive quote from Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin under the head “I stand by my perv!”
It may not be possible to have more fun writing short.
It should be said, of course, that there is a level of hypocrisy in high moral outrage underwriting titillating coverage and gossip. The editorial may say “Enough of all the…salacious revelations,” but that doesn’t stop the News and the Post from publishing as many of them as possible.
Let’s also remember that not every person held up for public humiliation deserves it. There are still people — I am one of them — who think that public and private moralities can be separated in the public interest, and that people with unusual sexual behaviors or appetites can — and have — turned out to be excellent mayors and even presidents.
There is a role for insult journalism — and for the front page as a pillory — as an antidote to gross misbehavior in the public sphere. But such a role for the press can be easily abused, and may need its own occasional remedy.
In the most celebrated case of pillory literature, Hester Prynne was made to wear a “Scarlet Letter” to signify her adultery, and to stand on a public scaffold to feel the scorn of her community. In the end, Nathaniel Hawthorne returns her to that place of shame and transforms it into place of tolerance and compassion for sinners great and small. It’s the Puritans who got it wrong.
For more from Roy Peter Clark, see his new book “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times,” to be published by Little, Brown on Aug. 27. Read more