Friday, March 8, 2013

A Feminist Rant, Part 1: Notes

The other day a friend tipped me to "A Feminist Rant", a wonderful article by "pruriginosus". I had an unusually strong positive reaction that compelled me to understand the author's rhetorical methods. The more I analyzed the article, the more I wanted to emulate it. This is the first step of that process. The original article appears on the left, with my notes on each paragraph to the right.

Addressed to the male friend whom I will probably be forcing to read this in the near future: The author starts with a rhetorical device: tension. I trust her because she has a male friend she cares about enough to write this, but mistrust her because she's going to "force" him to read this. She feeds my prejudice as well as my hope. I'm curious.
I can understand why you might not, at first, be inclined to see things from a feminist perspective. This is one of many aspects in which I see sexism as akin to racism: I don’t think about race – at all, ever – because I don’t have to. It doesn’t adversely affect me. I was born white, so society gives me the default settings. So it follows that most men probably don’t think about gender because they don’t have to; it isn’t a constant detriment to them. But I don’t expect men to apologize for being men any more than I would be willing to apologize for being white. We didn’t choose to be what we are, and we can’t always help the shitty things that other people do. She empathizes with me, establishing common experience. She makes it clear that she doesn't hold me accountable for the actions of other men. She's already won more of my trust. 

Her assertion that she never thinks about race seems fatuous to me. Be that as it may, it is the opposite of my experience. I grew up in a racist family. I think of race all the time. I'm glad she included this bit, though, because my view of racism and homophobia informs my view of sexism. A variant of this paragraph will be important to my version.
So understand that I’m not trying to assign blame. I’m not trying to evoke sympathy or make you feel apologetic. I just want you to understand this stuff because it’s important to me; understanding feminism is crucial to understanding me and my perspective. And I only care that you understand my perspective because you’re important to me. So really, the fact that I’m trying so hard to make you get it is a compliment. Trust me. With this paragraph I am along for the ride.

The thought of writing about feminism fills me with anxiety near to despair. I'm afraid that, no matter what I say, feminists will dismiss me as a whiny man trying to equate his suffering with that of women who have been marginalized, abused and raped. 

I would never do that, and I would never ask for sympathy, much less apology. I crave understanding, though I've accepted that I may not get even that. So I intend to proceed according to my own lights, asking only not to be dismissed.

I know that people will dismiss me anyway: that they will ridicule and hate me. I know the pain to which I'm opening myself, because it's the same pain I've avoided through more than twenty years of silence. I want people to understand why I'm bothering to break that silence.

I'm horrified at the state of gender discourse. I want to contribute to a world where people hurt each other less. Bitterness and fear cloud my writing, yet my perspective can't be irrelevant. I don't deserve to be dismissed. I want people to see that I'm doing this because I care too much not to.

The author shows me that she shares all these feelings. She ends with the words "Trust me," and I do. 
Commencing rant: She has already earned enough trust for me not to be apprehensive.
Over the past year or so, I’ve come to the conclusion that the worst thing about being a woman – at least, in the context of my own time, place, ethnicity, age, etc. – is the notion that women are for fucking. Sure, it’s the 21st century; you can become a scientist or major in business. You can be tough, smart, funny, whatever – as long as you’re also, first and foremost, sexy. Because sex is what women are for, and sexy is the most important thing for them to be. I agree with this. I've seen the way men are. Take away the counterpoint, and it's how I am. Sometimes I look at a woman, and the first and most important thought in my mind is how much I'd like to fuck her.

Yet I wonder if the phenomenon she points out represents an overeager capitulation. I never asked anyone to deform themselves according to my desire. I don't want that kind of power--not just over women, but over anyone

Ah, but look what I'm doing: trying to assign blame, which is what she explicitly said she's not trying to do. So far she's given me no reason to disbelieve her.

Now that I've noticed my own reaction to this paragraph, I'm struck by the absence of blame. Its actual content stands in counterpoint to what I was reading into it. She's not saying men make women feel this way; she's just saying that women feel this way.

I see now how readily I cast the very sort of blame that makes me bristle. I'm left humbled, and determined to emulate this humane clarity in my own writing. She seems to think that we're all in this together, a belief that drives my own feminism. The least I can do is to see what she's saying, and what she's not saying, because that's all I want when I write.
That’s the message I feel inundated with on a daily basis. Even when I was a kid, before I’d started really analyzing these things and forming concrete opinions, I noticed it. When confronted by various media, I wondered, “Why does it seem like the women are only there for the men? Why do the men get to be serious and dignified, and the women are just coquettish and exposed? Why is it that every attack on a woman seems to involve rape?” These things unnerved me, but I hadn’t quite figured out why. This rang true to me because I remember well the feeling of having a thirteen-year-old daughter and seeing posters in shop windows of highly sexualized teenagers. It seemed like our culture, and advertising in particular, was imposing sexuality on girls at a younger and younger age. I can't blame her for being unnerved.
Turns out, it’s because sex is depicted as women’s ultimate purpose. This makes it quite easy to feel, as a woman, that you can be 1 of 2 things: a sex object, or invisible. If you suit the Western heterosexual male standard of attractiveness, then congratulations, you get to be masturbation fodder. If you don’t, then you’re worthless. That’s why inadequacy means so much more than undesirability – it means being disregarded entirely. I think that’s why “unattractive” women, or women who refuse to indulge certain socially imposed practices like shaving, are the object of so much hostility; lots of men seem to feel this sense of entitlement toward women, like it’s our obligation to make ourselves attractive to them. So when you don’t, you’re an affront to them; you’ve failed at what they see as your most basic purpose. Bear in mind, these are usually men you don’t even fucking know, yet they still think that you owe it to them to please them and that they’re within their rights to comment on you and your choices. This seems authentic, and it brings to mind my own experiences as a socially retarded youth. From the time of my adolescence to my twenties, I was baffled by relationships. Everyone I saw seemed able to fall into them effortlessly, and to treat them with a commensurate fecklessness. I looked at them the way a starving man looks at someone throwing away a half-eaten sandwich.

And through it all, I saw how women seemed to just love men who acted like assholes. So I also felt that I could be one of two things: an asshole, or invisible.

I also know what it's like to feel unattractive and therefore disregarded. I grew up morbidly obese, and by adolescence the assumption that no woman would ever want me was part of my landscape, like the ground I walked on. I would no more have thought to comment on my undesirability than a fish would have commented on the water. 

Again, I am not equating my experiences with those of women. I am saying that my experiences help me understand the "death of a thousand paper cuts". I've felt the pain of regard and of disregard, so I know how both can press down on your skin like rain on a sagging tent, eventually soaking through.
This creates very high stakes for women who don’t measure up. We live in a society that constantly tells you how important it is that you live up to this standard, while simultaneously telling you that you don’t. This can easily make you feel like you don’t count. After all, if the most important thing you have to offer is sex, and people don’t want to have sex with you – what are you good for? The answer, of course, is nothing, and countless women and girls really do start to believe that; so they become desperate to modify their appearances and begin to loathe themselves if they can’t. This is all clearly true. I need look no further than the memory of a singularly disturbing conversation with my daughter, again when she was about thirteen. She told me that she'd started plucking her eyebrows, and when I began to protest that she didn't need to, she said with exasperation "But Dad, I've got a monobrow!"
So please don’t fucking tell me that there is nothing to be unhappy about. I understand that sexism is more understated here than it is elsewhere; women here are allowed to drive, own property, travel unaccompanied. It’s illegal to throw acid on us. Basic human rights, fantastic! Societies and governments that endorse human rights are not to be congratulated; the ones that don’t are to be condemned. There is a difference. I agree. People too often equivocate. Many times I've bristled at praise because my behavior that prompted it constituted mere human decency. I do not deserve praise for decency. I would be unambiguously deserving only if I did something both extraordinary and costly. Common decency is all too often extraordinary, but is usually not costly. My gay rights activism has cost me more pain than I can readily articulate. But simply acting as though women are human beings? That deserves no praise.

Joss Whedon expressed this notion better than I ever could when he said, during an Equality Now speech, "I believe that what I am doing should not be remarked upon." A few years ago I wrote an article about that speech from the perspective of an LGBT ally, and it continues to spawn fresh resonances in me as I negotiate my relationship with feminism. The following words echo in my mind as I claim my right to express the pain that gender roles have caused me.

"...Because equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity, we need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and women who’s confronted with it."
So don’t tell me, “So what if you feel dwarfed and invisible and worthless on account of being a woman? That’s nothing!” Yes, there is a difference between harming a group psychologically and harming them physically. But think about it: slavery, segregation, and unopposed lynchings are no longer norms, but that doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist here. We don’t have a Ugandan-style death penalty for homosexuality, but that doesn’t mean homophobia is not at play. So, similarly, you can’t use the extremes of misogyny to claim that nothing is wrong. I would never call feelings nothing. I've worked for decades to come to terms with my own racist upbringing, and have been an LGBT rights advocate for years, so I know that psychological harm is nontrivial. I don't think nothing is wrong. On the contrary, my certainty that gender discourse is fundamentally broken is what compels me to engage with feminism.
The fact that people are so quick to deny the existence of sexism, in spite of the claims of innumerable women, just goes to show how deep-seated sexism really is. It’s a vicious cycle: we don’t take women seriously enough to assign validity to their perspectives, and yet somehow fail to realize that this, in itself, is a sexist mindset. We refuse claims of sexism because it’s women who are making them. We claim to know their perspectives better than they do, dismissing those who protest as oversensitive, irrational, overreacting. In other words, we reject sexism in completely sexist terms. And the roots of the problem run so deep that, somehow, people don’t even make the connection. I agree. And I have a knee-jerk reaction to point out that men are dismissed from feminist conversations in terms every bit as sexist. That wouldn't be useful in this context for two reasons: it would give the incorrect impression that I'm equivocating; and it would be unjustifiable as a response to an author who has been careful not to cast blame.
It’s largely a problem of representation. Even I, with my adamant feminist ideals, have been socialized to see men as the default and women as something extra – an adornment to the human race. That’s how it feels when you look at almost any group, whether it’s a writing staff, a boardroom, a movie cast; you see the overwhelming number of men, and you start to think automatically, “Oh, but that makes sense, because there just are more men, generally.” Even though we all know that’s ridiculous! That’s sure as hell how it looks though; the raw number of men in the world appears larger than that of women because that’s the ratio you see represented. And the women you do see tend to be there for sex appeal; remember, it’s sex object or nothing. This narrowness of number and variety has a huge effect on the way we perceive real women, develop schemas about gender, and form expectations of individuals. This all rings true. It's hard to look at any form of popular entertainment and not see women as adjunct and adornment.
So how do all of these overarching societal themes affect me as an individual? Why does it all depress me so much? Because it makes me feel like, no matter what I do with myself, my worth will always be determined by whether guys want to fuck me. It makes me feel like I can never have sex with a man as an equal because my sexuality is nothing more than a commodity. It makes me feel like I can never have sex for my own personal satisfaction because society typically uses women as mere devices to please men; the media promote the idea that women exist to facilitate male pleasure, so women’s enjoyment of sex must be secondary. The message that sex is all you’re good for seems to be everywhere; get that message enough, and the psychological effect is pretty devastating. Yet again I'm ambivalent. I accept as true both the author's feelings and the reasons she cites, and I feel frustrated that women care so much whether men want to fuck them. I never asked, never wanted, a woman to care that much whether I want to fuck her. There's a distinction between wanting a thing and thinking that I deserve a thing. 

I accept that many, if not most, men do not make that distinction. I am aware that I say things that sound similar to what misogynistic men say. The tension between that awareness and my determination to express myself is why I'm working to improve my communication. 
I didn’t even touch on sexual assault (though there is a reason, male friend, why I double-check my locks and do a quick sweep of my apartment every time I get in the shower or go to bed, and you sometimes forget to lock your front door), the pay gap (which, despite what Republicans like to say, does exist, both between genders and among races), or race- or LGBT-specific issues (being a straight, white female, I wouldn’t be entitled to comment on either; my only input would come from statistics and secondhand accounts). It was a conversation about sexual assault that compelled me to reenter the gender conversation.

I believe these are all real problems, and I want to work against them. However, I'm curious about the author's assertion that she wouldn't be entitled to comment on race- or LGBT-specific issues, and this leads me right back to my worry about being dismissed. If she believes that she has no right to comment on those issues, then presumably she believes I don't have a right to comment on feminism.

I would disagree with both assertions. I've struggled for decades to be the person I want to be, rather than that child deformed by racism. I've worked for years to support LGBT rights because to give me any consideration over others because I happen to be straight is a personal insult to me. It lessens me. All of these inequalities lessen us all. Why on earth should either of us not be entitled to comment?

Regardless of my disagreement on this point, I'm grateful to the author for her work. Parsing my reaction to this piece has helped me see the semiotic path I want to walk as I engage with people on all these questions and tensions.


Joanna said...

I think the author was being very careful to disclaimer herself regarding race and orientation. It seems to be the hallmark of thoughtful discourse in this day & age. Not that we don't all have at least some valid experience or observation in areas outside our 'home turf', just that polite liberal etiquette seems to require a certain amount of effacement.

I also think some of her commentary about being regarded as 'man-fodder' isn't so much directed to specific men, but more result of recent evolutionary biology. Our culture has selected for certain behaviour patterns, much like we select for a border collie to be obessive about sheep.

In absence of sheep, the border collie fixates on tennis balls. Modern human females 'fixate' on being man-fodder. It has become our default mode, much like the default mode for males is to objectify females.

Obviously, not everyone does this, but it seems to underlie much of our inter/intra-gender interaction.

I do like the concept of equality as gravity. If it truly were, then we could relax and enjoy our differences, without fear of being considered 'less-than'.

Unknown said...

I like it, Hugh. I see her points, BUT

A lot of feminists seem to think that it is perfectly ok to stereotype men and lump them all together as pigs. It's kind of like punching somebody who has already apologized.

You are not a pig, my husband is not a pig, my 17-year-old son is not a pig. But as a divorce lawyer, I hear stories about pigs all the time. Just this week I had a client whose ex tried to forcefully take her car away from her because he doesn't want any of his child support money to go to her car payment and he doesn't want her living in any kind of luxury now that they are getting a divorce. That's a pig. They are common, but they are not everybody.

Like the gay community has embraced straight allies, feminists need to recognize that there is a continuum for every type of human and there are lots of great men out there. Everybody can use a little consciousness raising from time to time, but the Hugh Yemans of the world already get it. Not sure how to reach the pigs, but from the trenches I can report that there are a lot more of them in the lower socioeconomic strata, and that's going to be a tough nut to crack.

Also, as Joanna said,women....."some women" foster their own stereotypes, and those women should not complain about being objectified.

Having said all that, I am now in the ranks of the invisible. I'm 50, and men don't flirt with me any more. On the one hand, there are some advantages to this, one of which is that I learned that I used to trade on my sex appeal to some extent, consciously or subconsciously. So there is a growth experience there. But also, I do not feel discriminated against. I do think that possibly I am taken more seriously these days because of my age. I look experienced. I'm a lawyer, I'm in the courtroom week after week in front of many female judges, and I believe that my performance and my success has absolutely nothing to do with my gender, my beauty or lack thereof, or, with my shortness (another oft-claimed source of discrimination). I win some, I lose some, I learn from my mistakes and I try to improve my preparation and my performance. In terms of my out-of-court negotiations, I have friendlies and not-so-friendlies, both male and female. I don't feel like anybody is trying to shout me down. Women have come a long way in this field. Feminists ought to give some credit, I think, to those who are trying to live discrimination-free lives. We ain't perfect, but we are trying.

Unknown said...

Oh, and this is Robin Welch. I didn't know I'd show up as "unknown"

Unknown said...

I'll add one more thing. I have a few transgendered friends now. Actually, I probably have the same number of transgendered friends that I've always had, but lately they are coming out of the closet in droves. Most of them complain that they do not get love from the gay community, despite the "T" in LGBT. This is the next frontier of discrimination that we are going to confront. We are going to have to accept that there is a continuum of humanity. Boys born girls who want to date girls, boys born girls who want to date boys, girls born boys who want to date boys, and girls born boys who want to date girls. First, we have to let all these people choose who they want to be and which bathroom they want to use, and when we do, maybe we will grow as a society because we can stop needing to put a label on every human we meet. After all, sexuality is not relevant to the vast majority of human interactions. "I would like to buy this bubble gum, please." "Well, are you a boy or a girl?" I remember one of my English relatives complaining once that "because Americans all speak the same, I don't know how to treat you." That's exactly the point. We "supposedly" treat everybody the same. Or we can all try and keep trying.

Hugh Yeman said...

Joanna: "...polite liberal etiquette seems to require a certain amount of effacement." Yes, and when I was her age (I believe I read somewhere that she's a college student) I toed that line of effacement. Since then, I've come to see it as counterproductive. Inequality deforms us all. We all should be involved in fighting it.

Now here's an important question: Why are the concepts of evolutionary biology so attractive to us? I had a palpable reaction to your border collie example, and I *have* to be suspicious of ideas that are so attractive to me. It would be hypocritical not to, given the conflict of interest I point out in many religious arguments.

I can explain at least part of my reaction. It's a simple matter of relief. For decades I've felt like I've been walking through a minefield because of that environment of deference you brought up. The moment you framed the conversation in terms of other species, I could *feel* the relief, like a massive weight had been lifted from me. I felt like the conversation was no longer fraught with peril, no longer charged.

But here's where it gets a bit dicey: I'm also a reductionist. There's something deeply attractive to me about considering human beings under the same clinical light we use to analyze other species, or even to analyze machines, because I believe we *are* machines. That scares the hell out of people, but it gives me comfort. Like many agnostics, I believe the notion of a mechanistic universe is *more* beautiful and miraculous than the other thing. But be that as it may, the point is that reductionism is extremely attractive to me, so I wonder if that compromises my empiricism in conversations like this.

Hugh Yeman said...

Robin, I would extend your punching metaphor. I've had experiences with women who use feminism in a way that resembles swinging punches into the air. It's profoundly counterproductive because the punches will *never* connect with the assholes who *deserve* have their asses kicked; those guys will never bother to come within striking distance. The only guys who'll get hit are *exactly* the guys who least deserve it: those whose guilt makes them all too willing to step right into that swing.

About the socioeconomic aspect: yeah, that's worrisome. I have hopes that, if I continue to hone my writing, it will reach people who are educated enough to follow my ratiocination. But in my current incarnation I have no idea how to reach others except on an individual level. I'm setting a great example for my niece, my nephew, my Little Brother and my Goddaughter, simply by treating Grace like a respected peer. But I have no illusions that my writing can effect a broad swath of people as it stands.

Thank you for saying I get it, and I wouldn't go that far yet. I was just talking to Grace during our hike about my feelings of awkwardness as I process twenty-plus years' worth of bitterness. I'm angry at myself for walking into those swinging fists, and that makes it damned hard for me to express myself in a way that accurately represents my intent. I'm *still* not quite comfortable calling myself a feminist because I spent *so* much time associating the abusiveness I experienced with feminism. It's going to take some more time before I let go of those associations enough to own my feminism.

I'm glad to hear of your experiences. You seem able to hold opposing ideas in your head, e.g. that discrimination exists, is pernicious, and needs to be fought, and that not everyone has the damsel-on-the-railroad-tracks experience. Both truths must be acknowledged for a true view of the landscape.

Unknown said...

Yes I definitely have opposing views in my head. Like you, I'm working on reconciling those. Not sure if it's possible.

Have you read, "The Myth of Male Power" and "Who Stole Feminism"?

Hugh Yeman said...

I've met some transgendered people through my LGBT advocacy. I *think* I understand why LGB folks resist the T, though I'm far from an expert on this topic, so I'll refrain from commenting. Then again, in one way I don't think it's complicated at all. The LGB resistance to T is the same as the LG resistance to the B. It's a fractal, and I consider it to be ugly, beautiful, saddening and reassuring. It validates the very heart of my LGBT advocacy: the notion that people are people. When you see one group of people who've been shit on turn around and shit on another group, you *know* we're all just human.

Hugh Yeman said...

I haven't read either, though it's funny you mention the latter, because I just returned it to the library yesterday. Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to read it, but I'm *definitely* going to get that one out again and read it. Judging from the summary on the back, the author has felt burned by gender feminism in much the same way I have.

Unknown said...

Christina Hoff Sommers is a little right wing for me. But the strength of her book is that her footnotes are immaculate. You can see exactly where she is getting her data and how she draws her conclusions and then draw your own.

Warren Farrell says a lot of things that don't get said much. Like, secretaries don't get paid that much, but they are not risking their lives like truck drivers. He has a point there.

Hugh Yeman said...

Nuts. I was afraid she was coming from a right wing perspective. That's unfortunate. We need to be able to untether ideas. Again, I was talking to Grace about this today. I say "A" and, since A has been so dogmatically tethered to B, some people are *going* to hear B regardless of whether I actually said it or not. It's like that conversation of which you were a part, where a friend of mine threatened to unfriend me. I said something to the effect that we are machines, and what she heard was "men are uncontrollable fucking machines". Those are two vastly disparate concepts, but dogma has tethered them. Likewise, the tethering betweeen "rapists are motivated by sexual urges" and "I am a misogynistic right-wing fucknut who thinks there's no such thing as rape". I'm afraid that if I say that first thing, people *will* hear the second. If we're going to stop grinding our gears, we need to parse ideas on a *much* more granular level, and cultivate the decoupling of closely associated ones.

...and again... I have little hope of a wide audience for my writing. :-/

Unknown said...

From the divorce law trenches, there are certain things that women say about men, again and again and again, and other things men say about women. And other things that never get said.

Women say, "When he is with our child, he is not really *watching* our child. That really scares me."

Women also say, "He was controlling."

I've never heard any man say either of those two things about any woman.

Another thing only women say, "All he really cares about is his toys." (aka pickup trucks and jet skis, etc.)

"She won't let me see the kids" is way way more common than, "He never comes to visit the kids."
Women ARE very possessive about the children and that may be biological. I used to worry when they were out alone with my husband and we are happily married. It's just hard wired. Whenever you read stories in the media about "deadbeat dads" it always involves a man who skips out. This is far from the whole story. And these stories are always written by women.

Men say, "She is crazy." (often with very good reason!)

"She is lazy and does not want to earn a living. She wants someone else to pay her way." And I have to say I agree with this one too. Women tend to be much less ambitious in the work world. The "70 cents on the dollar" thing (part true, part myth) is also partly their....our......own doing. Also, the type of man who gets married to a woman with no career ambition is also likely to be the type of man who wants to be dominant in the relationship, so it's a double problem and a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

I have only seen one case where a man was really physically abused, and he was stabbed with a knife by a drugged out wife. Usually, where a woman is inclined to physical violence, the man is really not afraid of that. He knows he can defend himself. However, many of them manage to get the wife arrested anyway. If somebody has a minor scratch, the other party gets arrested.

I have seen many cases where the woman says she has endured years of mild physical violence, ALWAYS combined with mental abuse. I have a case now where the husband insisted on driving the wife to work every single day, to prevent her from having an affair, and would try to scare her by driving dangerously. When you hear this level of detail in the stories, you know they are not making it up. In another case, husband would sprinkle baby powder to catch wife's footsteps and then accuse her of having an affair. It's always about this jealousy thing.

And when you have hundreds of people telling very similar stories, you know they are not making them up.

So those are my contradictory stereotypes, and if you don't like them, I have others.

Unknown said...

Hugh: "We need to be able to untether ideas."

This is a big problem with the atheism thing. "I don't believe in God" is so often interpreted as an attack on Christianity or an ad hominem, which it is neither. I find it constantly frustrating that people like Richard Dawkins always seem to be accused of being shrill or "militant". If you listen to his words without predisposition, he is neither of those things. EVERYONE on the POB list agrees that Dawkins is those things, which is why I went to lurking. It was affecting my blood pressure.

Unknown said...

So I guess I want to say that while feminism works to create equal opportunity for women and has made great strides in that direction, there are a lot of women out there who either cannot or do not want to go there. Likewise there are men who do not want them to go there.

Hugh Yeman said...

Sure. Our wiring is powerful. That's the frustrating thing for me: the degree to which most people recoil from the notion of wiring. To acknowledge the wiring is *vital* to any attempt to *modify* the wiring. If we pretend it ain't there, how the *hell* can we ever hope to make it better?

Unknown said...

Yeah, it's not politically correct to acknowledge the wiring. We have nature and nurture, and nurture is supposed to win. However, reality refuses to budge. We have to get a place where we recognize that because there is a difference does not mean that one is inferior. Different means just different.