If you’ve had any contact with the news or the radio- or even newsradio- in the last few months you’ve most likely heard the hoopla surrounding Texas Governor Rick Perry’s controversial decision to mandate HPV vaccinations for young girls in Texas.
Sadly, you’re probably more aware of the controversy as a fulcrum point issue, marking the decline of what was Perry’s initial momentum going into the GOP Presidential Candidate debates, rather than as an issue of public health.
As the HuffPost writes in their coverage, “In the two most recent presidential debates, Perry has had to repeatedly explain and defend the executive order, which he says he signed in order to help prevent girls from developing cervical cancer as a result of contracting the sexually transmitted virus.”
Did you also know, dear reader, that a CDC advisory panel also, just recently, announced that boys ages 11 to 12 also get the shot? Oh yes, “Despite the recent controversy among presidential candidates regarding the effects of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, a CDC advisory panel voted (recently) to recommend that boys ages 11 to 12 get the shot.” This announcement garnered way less coverage and generated way less outrage and controversy than when the announcement made was targeted at young girls.
And why is the CDC Advisory panel only just now getting around to mentioning that, if you’ll allow me, “it takes two to tango?”
Two points before I launch into this whole cluster of issues:
1) Although I can’t really fathom agreeing with Rick Perry on most counts, I do agree with his decision on this matter and I am proud of him for defending it. As the Huffington post mentioned in their coverage, “The Texas law would not have been a pure mandate either… As in Virginia, parents would not have been required to have their daughters vaccinated. The law would have just made the vaccine available and affordable to all girls, insured and uninsured, through the state vaccination program.”
2) Although I am supportive of the incredible progress that has been made with the use of most vaccines, I also understand parental concerns around the manufacture, clinical testing, and business side of the vaccination and pharmaceuticals market, especially as it pertains to the U.S. healthcare model. I believe that questioning the processes and methods of engineering and testing these vaccines is productive and worthwhile. That being said, if I had a kid right now, that kid would receive vaccinations- a lot of them.
I’ll now put all of those opinions aside, because what I really want to get at here are the rhetorical constructions being used to have this conversation by politicians, the media, and the public- whether consciously, or unconsciously.
Before we officially begin, a few figures:
- HPV is now the most common sexually transmitted disease in the US
- 20 million people are affected by it every year
- At least 50 percent of sexually active Americans will contract genital HPV in their lifetimes, often unwittingly because symptoms aren’t always overt (http://theweek.com/article/index/220717/the-controversial-hpv-vaccine-now-for-boys)
- Condoms alone cannot 100% prevent the spread of HPV, beccause it is transmitted through skin contact
- The vaccine may prevent cervical cancer in women, and anal cancer and mouth cancers in boys, as well as prevent the spread of the infection to sexual partners
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cervical cancer is the second leading cancer killer of women in the world. Almost 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and 90 percent of cases of genital warts are linked to the four strains of HPV that can be prevented with Merck’s Gardasil vaccine or GlaxoSmithKline’s Cervarix (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/13/rick-perry-hpv-vaccine_n_961159.html)
- The CDC recommends that girls receive the vaccine at the age of 11 or 12, in order to increase the likelihood that they will be vaccinated before having sexual contact. It consists of a series of three injections over a six-month period. Similarly, the hepatitis B vaccine is a 3-shot series that prevents a disease that can be transmitted through blood and sexual fluids. It is is administered at birth, or within a 2 month time frame, and in most states it’s required for entrance into school system (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/13/rick-perry-hpv-vaccine_n_961159.html)
Now that we’re all up to date on the factoids, let’s do some analysis of the language being tossed around. Regrettably, for research purposes, most of this language is coming from one prominent source: Michele Bachmann.
At various points during the seemingly never-ending cycle of GOP Presidential Candidate Debates, Michele Bachmann has used the following language to describe the vaccination mandate:
A “government injection” of a “potentially dangerous drug
“I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate,” Bachmann said. “She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.”
“To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong,”
Rick Santorum also chose to weigh in on the vaccine, describing it as:
“having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government.”
Group A Words:
- “LITTLE DAUGHTER”
- “INNOCENT LITTLE GIRL”
Group B Words:
Each of these terms is very charged, which is, of course, why they were selected and used in this way.
In the Group A Words, we have “Little girl,” little daughter,” “innocent little girl.” These terms are deeply psychologically embedded for Americans, and connote a strong visual image.
It’s basically this:
Associated terms: cherubic, innocent, helpless, in need of protection.
And then, as a counterpoint to this- placing them alongside terms of force, rape, exploitation and violence such as “force,” “injection,” and “compulsion,” makes the juxtaposition that much more jarring.
It’s the same as saying “stab duckling,” or “sodomize kitten.”
The point is, the language is doing some subconscious, heavy lifting here, and it is further charged by an already traditionally conservative, puritanical American tradition. That we are like this is not news, it is in fact our history as a United States.
That doesn’t change the fact that I am saddened that this very important debate– which should only extend as far as whether the federal or state level has the right to mandate certain healthcare treatments for U.S. citizens– has instead landed us smack in the middle of a firestorm addressing female sexuality, female independence and the archetype of the femme fatale.
NPR asked why there wasn’t nearly the level of attention being paid to the announcement concerning the boys’ vaccine. “’There’s been a surprisingly muted reaction,’ says Dr. Don Dizon, a Brown University oncologist.” Why? “’We tend to believe that girls are chaste and are going to ‘save themselves for marriage.’ But, you know, sexual activity is something that’s almost expected of boys.’”
They even found a seventeen-year-old boy to back up that theory, “Connor Perruccello-McClellan agrees. The idea that teenage girls might have sex is ‘just a touchy issue, a taboo, I guess,’ he says. ‘It’s just not as accepted for girls.’
Wow, Connor…ya think?
As we have already seen (thanks, Salem Witch Trials), females in the United States often have the dubious experience of living through a number of different stages of characterization by the general public and American lore. We begin as “innocent little girls,” but, once sexually active, menstruating, and/or assertive, we become “femme fatales.”
The term femme fatale in modern-day usage is more frequently used to refer to strong, female leads in movies-i.e. women with a penchant for the vindictive. However, according to its original definition, a femme fatale “is a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. She is an archetype of literature and art. Her ability to entrance and hypnotize her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural; hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, vampire, witch, or demon.”
Relying heavily on Wikipedia here, “The femme fatale has generated divergent opinions amongst social scholars. Sometimes, the femme fatale is closely tied to fears of female witch and misogyny. Others say Femme fatale “remains an example of female independence and a threat to traditional female gender roles,”or “expresses woman’s ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm.”
However, historically and un-ironically, “the myth of the femme fatale of the 19th century is believed to be partly derived from the devastation of syphilis, with classic examples in literature including John Keats‘ La Belle Dame sans Merci.”
Well, so isn’t that interesting?
I don’t have space to summarize an excellent article I found in “The Nation” on the topic of Michele Bachmann’s poor fact-checking and poor history, but one of the most important points to make here is that because of the oldest profession in the world, women have historically been most connected with outbreaks of Syphilis. Yet “Syphilis is believed to have infected 12 million people worldwide in 1999… After decreasing dramatically since the widespread availability of penicillin in 1940s, rates of infection have increased since the turn of the millennium in many countries… This has been attributed partly to unsafe sexual practices among men who have sex with men.” Men who have sex with men.
But it’s nearly impossible to turn the tide of cultural and literary history, and nearly impossible to eradicate archetypes once they exist in our shared cultural stores.
To summarize my point- the HPV vaccination debates are fascinating to me because I see that two completely divergent female rhetorical frames- “the innocent little girl,” and “the femme fatale”- are being called upon, in concert, to rail against these mandates. That is what brings us to this very point in American rhetoric.
There are no such strong literary or cultural archetypes for boys through which to view their plight at being forced to vaccinate. Thus there are no images of young, innocent boys being exploited or abused, no nubile young men who travel the world poisoning their lovers.
HPV vaccine adoption is ultimately failing because it prevents “children” from getting STDs. We have the juxtaposition of “child” with “sexually transmitted disease” here. In the American mindset, those two things are never supposed to be associated. Yet Americans vaccinate their children all the time against Hepatitis B, which is also a multi-dose vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease.
I want to leave you, dear readers, with one closing thought about these vaccines and what they represent, from a USA Today article covering the CDC Advisory Board’s announcement:
“This is cancer, for Pete’s sake,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
“A vaccine against cancer was the dream of our youth.”