By now most of you heard the story of ESPN sport reporter Britt McHenry who was caught on camera humiliating a tow lot attendant. If you haven’t seen the video you can check it out here… If you don’t want to see it, here is the gist of what McHenry said to the woman employee:
- “I have a degree and you don’t… I am on television and you’ re in a f….g trailer.”
- “Lose some weight baby girl…Maybe if I was missing some teeth [the towing company] – would hire me, huh?”
- “I am in the news sweetheart, I will f—-g sue this place.”
McHenry quickly apologized after the video leaked and made the following statement on Twitter: “In an intense and stressful moment, I allowed my emotions to get the best of me and said some insulting and regrettable things… as frustrated as I was, I should always choose to be respectful and take the high road. I am so sorry for my actions and will learn from this mistake.”
If you pay close attention to the factors at play leading McHenry to verbally humiliate this woman it is clear the tirade was deliberate. Psychologists have long known that in moments of frustration, the risk of verbal or physical aggression increases significantly. We also know that in a variety of social settings we censure information in order to come across as attractive (physically or intellectually) and be viewed in a positive light. This is particularly true for women in television where every word uttered is analyzed and every dress worn is scrutinized. But what happens if frustration occurs in private settings? In these circumstances, risk of social judgment decreases and freedom to express true thoughts and feelings increases. Put differently, in situations of private anger we drop the mask and become real. McHenry is not sorry because she insulted this woman. She is sorry because she got caught; she meant every word. I will now discuss her statements outlined above and explain why each one reflects McHenry’s true psychological belief system.
Entitlement: “I am in the news sweetheart, I will f—-g sue this place.”
One of the key features of American society is the right to sue whenever we do not get what we think we deserve. But because we have a right to do something (e.g., to sue) does not mean it is right or reasonable to do so. People who threaten to engage in legal action in situations when they are at fault (McHenry parked in a clearly indicated wrong spot overnight) are folks who typically cannot tolerate being wrong. This attitude is a feature of the ‘me, myself, and I’ motto that permeates much of the American psychological landscape and a key feature of what sociologists call Western/individualistic cultures. Western cultures, such as that of America, tend to place particular emphasis on individual success and self-improvement as opposed to collectivist cultures who favor the common good, sometimes to the detriment of personal growth. In McHenry’s case, her obvious individual success indicates she is better than others and therefore must be entitled to more than others. In other words, how could a tow lot attendant be asking her to pay a price for her illegal parking when she is such a success story?
Social Class and Status Stereotyping: “I have a degree and you don’t… I am on television and you’ re in a f….g trailer.”
The expression ’15 minutes of fame’ is well-known in America and represents short-lived popular success. When Andy Warhol made his famous quote some 45 years ago it was meant as prediction that, with an increasingly media-oriented culture, anyone with a skill will eventually become visible. However, most recent success stories have shown that Americans are rather unique for making TV ‘stars’ out of people who have no significant skill or talent other than their ability to cause drama and look attractive/cameragenic. (The list is long but first to mind are Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Octomom, and Kate Gosselin). This illusion of specialness makes folks such as McHenry – who has a graduate degree and some reporting/sports talent – believe they are God’s greatest gift. And when people don’t recognize her as such, she is quick to attack the source of her frustration. By reacting as she did, she no longer censured her thoughts/feelings and stereotyped the woman with regards to social class and status. McHenry believes she is superior to the woman because the reporter is:
- Educated and the attendant is not – because she surely can’t be educated if she works at a towing company;
- Wealthy and the attendant is not – because she can’t even afford apartment living.
Physical Attractiveness Stereotype: “Maybe if I was missing some teeth [the towing company] would hire me, huh… lose some weight baby girl.”
Any google image search of McHenry will make it abundantly clear she represents what can be described as the female beauty ideal in America. There is no space in this article to describe why and how such standards of beauty have developed regarding women* but we can safely state the following: Being a thin, tall, young and blonde woman can get you far in the world of visual media. Which, incidentally, are all physical attributes McHenry possesses. While we have no information about the weight of the woman being verbally attacked, we do know that McHenry’s comments (by both tone and choice of words) indicate it is a negative quality. The famous reporter is also acutely aware of her own good looks because she goes farther than the typical stereotype of thinness-as-better as she belittles the woman’s facial characteristics. Thus, not only is McHenry super-hot because she is tall, blonde and thin but she also has a full set of amazing (and white) teeth which, should – naturally – give her additional argumentative points against someone who doesn’t.
* For an excellent book on this topic read The Body Project by Joan Jacob Brumberg.