|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.
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.