No Paula Deen, It’s Not Just Men Being Men

No Paula Deen, It’s Not Just Men Being Men

Sick of hearing about Paula Deen? Yeah, I know, it’s been a little overwhelming. Not only have we found out that Deen admitted to using the “n-word” in the past, that her ignorance about race still exists, and that she has subsequently been dropped by several sponsors, but we also have endured many, many responses to these events in the last few weeks. Well, I hate to break the bad news, but I am going to give you another commentary. One with a very different viewpoint, however, so please bear with me. The case against Deen and Bubba Hiers (her brother) is not that complicated, but the responses to Deen’s deposition raise issues of privacy (“we can say what we want in private”), reflect double standards regarding race (“well, African Americans call each other by that name, why can’t we use it?”), suggest the belief that time erases all sins (“she’s of a certain time period” or “well, she said it so long ago, it does not matter anymore”), and even elicit offerings of olive branches (an excellent example of this is here). But as much as this episode in the continual series “Celebrities are not Gods” demonstrates that racism is alive and well in America, I must remind everyone that Lisa T. Jackson is not just suing Deen and Hiers for racial discrimination, but also for sexual discrimination and harassment. These charges have gotten lost in the shuffle.  Why?

Most of the attention has been on Deen’s racist behavior, ignoring that during her multi-hour deposition, each and every time Deen was asked about sexual discrimination and harassment, her responses included a mixture of ignorance, denial, and victim blaming. The case also alleges that Hiers showed pornography, told lewd jokes, kissed and spat on Jackson, and made disparaging remarks to other female employees about their weight and appearance. Somehow all of this did not cause an outrage. So, as I read the lawsuit and then the deposition, I questioned why the news media ignored some of the most disturbing demonstrations of the justification of crude male behavior and victim blaming that mirrors what we see on an almost daily basis. Cynically, I wondered if racism sells more than sexism, since it seems sexier to print “Paula Deen used the n-word!” than “Paula Deen is a lover of patriarchy!” (The Huffington Post claimed that “Most shockingly, the lawsuit  alleges that Deen and her brother are terrible racists.”)

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Crass, I know, and my goal here is not to pin racism against sexism. But given the almost daily attacks on women’s rights, which reflect a pervasive social and cultural misogyny, does the silence on this portion of the lawsuit speak to this misogyny? Why wasn’t Deen also forced to apologize for still believing that “it’s just men being men,” when it comes to harassment?

Although the term “sexual harassment” only emerged in 1975, the actions that we would recognize or define as sexual harassment on the job existed the minute females entered into either blue or white collar employment. From that moment, questions almost instantly emerged about whether or not they were fair game in a world dominated by men. Men used touching, fondling, ogling, lurid and lewd language, and pictures to mark the work space as male.  At the same time, those actions also ensured that the workplace remained a heterosexual space, where men jockeyed for women workers’ attention, even if it was clearly unwanted. Demanding or suggesting sexual favors and “joking” about sex gave men (especially male supervisors) an avenue to maintain male dominance. For a working woman, entering this male space raised questions about her trustworthiness. What were her “real” intentions at work? Was it to earn money, or was there a larger plot? Was she a vamp or gold digger looking to snag a lover or husband? It was a woman’s responsibility to make her motives clear, and if she did not, men should not be blamed for being confused and turned on by mixed signals. [1]

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As important as defining sexual harassment and discrimination has been legally and culturally, neither has ended.  Deen’s case, as well as other well-known cases, highlights that doubts emerged as to whether the woman, not the perpetrator, was telling the truth.  If a working woman’s intentions are not considered fully trustworthy, then why should her allegations be?

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The following excerpts of Deen’s deposition reflect the pervasive sexism, distrust of women, and the denial of sexual harassment as serious problems that permeate this case.

“I think I would recognize it if I saw it.”

Deen was asked several times about the allegations that Hiers repeatedly told sexual jokes in the workplace and showed pornographic material during meetings and in his office. In one part of the questioning, Matthew Billips, Jackson’s lawyer, referred to the jokes made by Hiers and then asked Deen to define sexual harassment. Billips asked, “Okay. Your style of joke generally has some sexual component to it, is that fair?” Dean replied, “Yeah, lots of times. . . . I poke fun at myself and other women.”  

B: Now, do you have, on your own, any kind of a working definition of what sexual harassment in the workplace would mean?
D: I think I do.
B: Okay. Tell me what your definition of sexual harassment would be.
D: I would think coming on to a person. I would think holding one back because of their sex.
B: You mean holding them back in their job?
D: Yeah.
B: Okay.
D: Oh, no, that – that would be discrimination. But I would think just coming to someone or – I don’t know.
B: Okay.
D: I’ve never experienced it in my business. I’ve never been the recipient or the giver of it, so I just think I know it in my head.
B: Okay.
D: I think I would recognize it if I saw it.

“No, because he – he – he’s not that kind of person. He may kid and joke and – ”

In another section of the deposition Billips asked, “Prior to his deposition, did you ever ask him if he had engaged in sexually harassing conduct in the workplace?” Deen replied, “No, because he – he – he’s not that kind of person. He may kid and joke and – ” Later during the same vein of questioning, Billips asked, “Would you see anything wrong with him doing that? I mean, since it’s his business?” (Deen consistently said throughout the deposition that this was Hiers’ restaurant, even though her company supported it financially.) She answered, “You know, each situation can – can be different. It’s not black and white. There’s a lot of gray in that.” Billips then asked again, “So if Mr. Hiers was showing pornographic videos to his subordinate staff, would you consider that to be appropriate workplace conduct?” To which Deen remarked, “I would not recommend it.” [3]

“I was coming to realize that she blew everything way out of proportion while she was still there.”

Jackson’s case alleges that she endured years of sexual harassment and discrimination. It is clear that by the time she left in 2010, she was suffering both mentally and physically. In one instance during the deposition, Billips asked Deen, “Were you aware that when Miss Jackson met with Miss Mack (another employee) and was given an opportunity to discuss what was going on at Uncle Bubba’s, that she broke down in tears?” “Yes,” Deen replied, “but that was not unusual.” “It was not unusual for Miss Jackson to break down in tears?” Billips questioned. “Yeah. I think she –” Deen started, but Billips asked, “Why do you say that?” Deen answered, “Well, because we realized over time that that [sic] was the way she operated.” “When – did you realize that, before or after she left?” Billips asked. “I was coming to realize that she blew everything way out of proportion while she was still there.” [4]

“It’s just men being men.”

After being asked about pornography and jokes of a sexual nature, Billips asked Deen again why she did not ask Hiers about the pornography he allegedly showed at the restaurant. She replied, “I know all the men in my family at one time or another they’ll tell each other, look what so and so sent me on my phone, you know. It’s just men being men.” [5]

Deen’s responses to questioning highlight so many of the myths of sexual harassment that exist today. Jackson’s tears and emotional breakdown obviously show that sexual harassment is not harmless, yet Deen’s response demonstrates a continued belief that claims usually are just exaggerations of harmless jokes by men. At the same time, Deen justified the pornography shown during meetings and in Hiers’ office as part of traditional manly behavior, not as a clear indication of Hiers’ need to hold power over his female (and male) workers and, in a sense, to also prove his heterosexuality. Deen’s disturbing inability to define sexual harassment raises questions because as a part owner of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House and the head of Deen Enterprises, LLC and Lady & Sons, LLC, and The Lady Enterprises, INC., knowledge about the law and discrimination, as well as the ability to define both, seems to be good business practice, right? Lastly, Deen’s apparent hostility toward Jackson’s claims of sexual harassment reminds us that it is not just men who blame or dismiss victims; women can be just as cruel. Just like with racism, Deen has internalized social and cultural acceptance of sexism. We can’t always assume a sisterhood, but in this instance it is quite clear that none existed.

Deen should be losing her sponsors, not only because of these views, but also because she obviously is a horrible manager when it comes to everyday operations of her businesses, which includes creating a healthy, safe, and equal workplace. How can I just take the word of Deen, when it’s obvious she cannot be trusted to act in accordance to the law?  And yes, she did have to apologize to African Americans, but she also owes women an apology, too. Because Paula, honey, it’s not just men being men.



[1] Julie Berebitsky, Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

[2]Lisa T. Jackson vs. Paula Deen, Paula Deen Enterprises, LLC. The Lady & Sons, LLC, The Lady Enterprises, Inc., Bubba Hiers, and Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, No. 4:12-CV-0139, 81-82.

[3] Ibid., 66-67.

[4] Ibid., 101.

[5] Ibid., 69.

Cheryl Lemus earned her PhD from Northern Illinois University in 2011. Her dissertation, “‘The Maternity Racket’: Medicine, Consumerism, and the American Modern Pregnancy, 1876-1960,” examines the rise of the modern pregnancy in 20th-century America. She is mainly interested in gender and women’s history, the history of medicine in America, and the rise of consumer culture.