Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Whatever happened to consciousness raising?

I've been reading bell hooks lately.  She talks about the consciousness raising groups of the second wave, and how women need to first understand and divest themselves of their own internalized sexism before they can really be feminists.

I've thought about this a lot.  I know it was an obvious first step for me to examine my own attitudes and ingrained beliefs and values and to consider how I've been taught to uphold the values of the patriarchy.  It's a difficult process, to be sure.  Culture is a powerful force in that it creates an ingrained "normality" which takes a lot of work to examine and question.  It's also an ongoing process in that we are never free of the influences which shaped our worldview to begin with.

I know "feminists" in real life who are extremely active in the struggle for women's reproductive rights, yet actively promulgate the mores of masculinity and femininity in their personal lives.  I know "feminists" who do not believe that being anti-choice precludes the possibility of identifying as a feminist.

What I've longed for is a group I could meet with regularly, in person, to discuss feminism, to make the personal political, to prove, as hooks says, that "sisterhood is still powerful!"  I live in a fair-sized liberal city.  One would think that if such groups are still meeting anywhere, they'd be meeting here.  But after many frustrating google searches, I can't find a thing.

The Internet is an amazing tool, and I'm unspeakably grateful for the blogs I've found, the connections I've made, the education I've gotten, and the life-giving promise that I'm not alone in my thinking.  But can you imagine a room full of women sharing their experiences, offering ideas, supporting each other in the quest for a new paradigm for humanity?  Can you imagine a group of women of different classes, of different races, of different sexual orientations and identities, of all different backgrounds, coming together to fight our oppression in all its forms?

I can imagine it, and it seems like heaven.  I can picture these women in my living room, sharing their stories, their ideas, their hopes, as my toddler daughter wanders in and out, overhearing the snippets of conversation she'll someday participate in, enjoying the occasional fond embrace of any one of so many inspiring and diverse role models.  How I long for her to grow up in such a setting, and how I fear terribly for her in the world we're all inhabiting.

I believe in radical change.  I believe in revolution.  Surely I'm not the only one.  Surely there are other women right here in the lovely city I call home who believe in these things too.  My job (as in, the thing I do for a living) is a feminist job, and I've met some pretty awesome radical women there.  So where are the consciousness raising groups?

In real life, I'm an introvert, and even a bit of a hermit, when I can get away with it.  I don't like to be on center stage.  I don't like to be in charge of much beyond my own personhood.  I don't want to start a group, to promote a group, to run a group.  Besides my reticence,  I don't feel qualified.  But the allure of the warmth and light of intelligent, thoughtful females filling up a room with strength and hope is so great that I might just do it anyway.  My words on this blog feel like so much determination and hope cast into the ether.  My feminist job feels like a band-aid on a festering wound.  It's important to react to the damage that the patriarchy/kyriarchy causes, but I want and need more than that.  I want to be proactive.  I want to be a part of creating the world that I'd like to see my daughter grow up in.  I want to be part of the revolution, and I want to make that revolution happen now.

I want to see feminist schools, feminist community centers, feminist political parties, feminist shops, feminist television networks, feminist radio.  I want to see women rise up and demand what's ours.  We are more than half the population, so why the hell are women's studies generally confined to a shelf or two in even the most liberal bookstores?  Why are questions of our basic human rights relegated to the "special interest" category?  Why do even progressive men behave more often than not as if "women's interests" were something akin to the study of a remote and interesting but ultimately rather irrelevant tribe in some obscure region of the world?

This has got to change, and it seems to me that the change should begin with groups of real women who come together to talk about it.  It's all well and good for me to complain on the Internet about the daily injustices I face.  It's all well and good for me to complain to my favorite local bookstore that the "women's studies" section should be much, much bigger.  But I am nothing but a voice alone in the raging sea of misogyny, easily silenced with a few well-directed gendered insults.  I need a community of voices, clear and strong.  I need the power in numbers of women who are brave enough to buck the cultural training, to question the harmful lessons we've all been taught, to stand up and make waves and refuse to be passive any longer.  I need the hope and strength of a choir who, together, can make history.

Our voices will not be silenced.  Somehow, we have got to come together.  I'm going to keep thinking on this.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


I just had an epiphany.

This is one of those rare-ish moments, like the very first time it dawns on you that all those Sublime lyrics you sang along to in high school are actually really messed up, and you can't believe you didn't notice it at the time, and you start to wonder what else exists in your life that talks about women that way, and you wonder why no one else seems bothered by it; in other words, the moment you first become "not a feminist, but..."

This is like that, in that it's life-altering and that I can't believe, having seen it, that I never saw it before.

So here it is: I have sometimes been accused in relationships (with men) of being controlling, demanding, critical, or nagging.  This isn't true of all my relationships, or even most of them, but it's happened nonetheless.  And when you hear something a few times, especially when it's coming from someone in whom you're emotionally invested to some degree, you tend to mull it over and take it to heart.

I should qualify here: women are trained by our culture to take criticism to heart.  We are trained to believe that women who assert themselves, who make waves, who have and voice strong opinions, especially if those opinions are counter to the kyriarchal status quo, are bitches.  They are hormonal and crazy and unstable, and because of these qualities, they may be ridiculed, hated, maligned, but need never be taken seriously.

Nobody wants to be any of those things, and I care about the people who are close to me and value their opinions and want to make them happy, and so, I've spent a lot of years believing that, yes, I perhaps do have some terrible personality flaws that cause me to behave in ways that seem (or are) controlling, demanding, critical, or nagging, and which need to be addressed.  I've pondered the problem at length.  I've made enormous efforts to "choose my battles," to begin requests or complaints with some kind of compliment or expression of gratitude, to tone down my choice of words, my way of speaking, even my own needs and feelings.  And yet, in the relationships in which these criticisms were being leveled at me, these efforts never seemed to help a whole lot, and the attempts to reduce my expectations and stifle the need to assert myself left me feeling resentful, helpless, and a little depressed.

"It's me," I assumed to varying degrees, depending on the day.  "Why do I have to expect so much?  Why can't I ever settle for good enough?  Why do I always feel the need to speak up?"

But somehow, in all my ruminating over the situations and arguments at various points in my life that led to these criticisms, I never, ever saw the common thread.  Until tonight.  I was thinking about one situation in particular, and it struck me that the criticism (of me) occurred directly in tandem with my attempting to express an idea that bumped--SMACK!--right up against the guy in question's male privilege.  And the memories began to fall in my head like dominoes:  what exactly had occurred each time a guy called me a nag or said I was too critical or controlling?

It happened when I complained about the obvious and gross inequality in who was doing the housework.  It happened once when I was upset that a live-in boyfriend who'd earlier told me he'd be home right after work showed up three hours late without calling.  It happened when I told a stonewalling boyfriend that I needed more and better communication.  It happened when I expressed I was tired of being interrupted constantly, and when choices were made that affected me without my consent, and when I simply held a strong differing opinion about something.

In other words, it happened when I asserted myself, made waves, gave voice to feelings that challenged what was expected of me in my feminine role.  Realizing this was sort of a "no, duh" moment, except that I tend to date liberal, progressive dudes, and aside from the ones who displayed obviously abusive tactics (physical or otherwise), it really hadn't occurred to me that they could possibly have been defending their male privilege.  And honestly?  I seriously doubt it ever occurred to them.

I'm not perfect--far from it--but it's astonishing to look back and realize that it really wasn't me in those moments; I was not the problem.  I was looking for respect, equality, consideration; in other words, to be treated like a human being deserving of the same rights and with the same needs as any other human being.

But in this culture, when women attempt to assert their equality, it's taken as an affront to masculinity and all things right and natural.  Case in point?  How about the tradition that calls for a married woman to take her husband's last name?  It would be exactly equal and fair for each partner to keep hir own name, and yet, there are plenty of men (and women) who would consider such an act to be selfish on the part of the woman and emasculating for the man.

Or how about the case of family courts and domestic violence?  Strides have been made in the last couple of decades with VAWA and a greater number of resources available to abused women.  And yet, the situation is far from equal.  Although women wind up with custody of the children more often than men, this is because that statistic takes into account all custody cases, the majority of which go through by agreement between the parties.  In contested custody cases, men are more likely to win.  It's also true that the vast majority of judges, guardian ad litems, and other important court personnel are men.  Regardless of these realities, MRA's vocally persist in paranoid delusions which paint the family court system as a twisted "feminist" enclave in which women secretly pull all the strings, and the men are their hapless victims.

This is also why the stereotypes of feminist-as-man-hating-bra-burner continue to pervade our culture.  Because true equality would mean that men would have to examine their male privilege and subsequently give it up, and rather than face that terrifying proposition, they turn reality on its head, declaring that women who assert themselves and demand equality are victimizing them.

None of this is news to me; the epiphany part lies is taking these principles and applying them retrospectively to some of my own personal situations.  And now that I've seen that wanting to be treated as an equal and with respect, insisting upon it, does not, in fact, make me controlling, demanding, critical, or nagging, the key lies in remembering and reminding myself as often as I need to, because truthfully?  The guilt and fear and self-blame does not go away overnight, no matter how many other places in your life you've already discovered those feelings and begun to rip them up by their roots.  When you're a woman, in can take a lifetime just to learn how to feel human.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Who asked you?

Ever since the Schrödinger’s Rapist post on Shapely Prose, I've been giving some thought to how I'm approached by strange men.  There are a lot of complexities involved in human communication, and one of the things that's become clear to me is that it's often not exactly what a guy says, but how and where he says it, that determines my reaction.

Around a month ago, I was out at a bar with some friends when a guy who was a friend of a friend, and whom I hadn't specifically met, approached me.  He apologized for just walking up to me and speaking and then said he hoped I didn't mind if he said he thought I was beautiful.  He then clarified that he wasn't expecting anything from me, he just wanted to let me know, and then he turned and went back to what he had been doing before, talking with his friends.  I accepted the compliment and felt flattered.  Here's why:
  1. We were in a social setting where it wasn't unreasonable to think someone I didn't know would talk to me.
  2. He was not a total stranger; he knew some of my friends, and we'd all been talking in changing configurations of small groups, so he had a reasonable "in" to talk to me.
  3. He waited until I was momentarily unoccupied; he didn't interrupt me or approach me when I was obviously otherwise engaged.
  4. He apologized for the potential intrusion upon my boundaries, recognizing that I hadn't invited his attention and might not want it.
  5. He waited as I smiled and made eye contact and said I didn't mind his talking to me before he continued.
  6. He wasn't trying to get anything out of me, and he respectfully left me alone after he'd said his piece and I'd thanked him.
Today, I was standing around on campus after a class, talking to a female friend, when a guy I didn't know interrupted our conversation loudly and suddenly and said to me, "You're cute!  What's your name?  I'm [name I don't remember]."  I was completely taken aback and irritated.  Here's why:
  1. Although it was a generally social setting, there was nothing about my actions or demeanor that invited conversation from strangers.  If I'd been engaged in a conversation with a whole group of people, it would have been a different dynamic, but I wasn't.  I was specifically engaged in conversation with one close friend.
  2. I didn't know the guy, and there was no reasonable "in" to the conversation I was having that might have made it logical for him to join in.
  3. He didn't try to join in, anyway; he just butted in and cut me off mid-sentence, letting me know that in his mind, his desire to comment on my looks (as if I'd asked for his opinion) superseded my right to speak or to be engaged in something else.
  4. His demeanor demanded my attention now, and he made no apology for rudely interrupting my conversation.
  5. He completely ignored my unfriendly stare and my obvious discomfort.
  6. He seemed to expect me to jump for joy and hand him my phone number.  Despite my obvious irritation, he kept trying to talk over me, and I had to turn my back on him in order to continue the conversation I'd been having.
What really bugs me about these encounters is that I never seem to be able to come up with a way to articulate my reaction until the scene is over and the guy is gone.  Instead of explaining calmly that it was rude of him to interrupt and to comment uninvited on my looks, I just kind of glared at him for a moment before awkwardly stating my name, nodding along to a couple of inane things he said, and finally turning away so that I could continue my conversation in peace.

I didn't feel threatened by him during this encounter, largely because of the setting: a busy campus with lots of people around.  But I did feel encroached upon, objectified, and dismissed as a person.  How self-important is it just to assume that a perfect stranger gives a shit about your assessment of her looks, that she cares enough about your opinion that she won't mind being interrupted from an engaging conversation with someone else, that it's reasonable of you to demand her name after your uninvited proclamation?  If you approach a woman this way, you've already let her know that your "right" to her attention trumps her right to go about her life without being bothered by you, and by interrupting her to comment on her appearance, you're telling her that what she says is trifling and unimportant, but how she looks is not.

The whole encounter lasted maybe a minute or two, and I was caught too much off-guard to express any of this, but as I walked away afterward, I felt more and more annoyed and indignant, and I almost wished he was still standing there so I could go back and explain why.  Ironically enough, the conversation he interrupted was about feminism.  Or maybe that's not ironic at all.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Abuse: the myths (part 1)

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so I thought it would be a good time for a post on some of the cultural myths about partner abuse.  First, we'll start with some of the general misconceptions.

Myth #1:  Abusers are easy to spot.

This one comes in various forms.  I saw part of an episode of The Maury Povich show the other day which featured two abusive men and their partners (there may have been more, but I only made it through two before I couldn't stand it anymore and had to turn it off).  Both men were big, burly, angry dudes who yelled a whole lot and were more than happy to tell everyone how "their" women were their property and had better obey, etc.

This is a harmful misconception because it presents a very two-dimensional view of abusive men.  The truth is that the vast majority of abusive men are charming and likable, especially in public.  They are human beings with personalities just as complex as the rest of us.  They don't go around in a rage all the time, and they are very good at hiding their abusive attitudes.  Think about it: if a woman went out on a first date with a guy who told her, "Listen, bitch, from now on, you belong to me, and if you don't like it, I'll beat you," an abuser would never get a second date.

This is also one of the main reasons why people are able to feel such disbelief when the cousin/friend/co-worker/celebrity they like so much is accused of abuse.  They think, "But he helped me fix my car/walked me home all those times/stood up to my boss for me/makes such great music...he couldn't be abusive."  Abusers are in fact often unusually good at coming off as Nice Guys; they have to in order to keep abusing and get away with it.

Myth #2:  Abusers abuse because they were abused themselves.

Sometimes abusers were the childhood victims of abuse, and sometimes they were not.  But abuse is a choice, not an uncontrollable reaction to trauma.  It's true that a boy who grows up watching his father abuse his mother (or other women) is more likely to become an abuser himself, just as a girl who grows up in that situation is more likely to become a victim of abuse, but if it were nothing more than a fated cause-and-effect relationship, then all boys with abusive fathers would become abusive, and this just isn't the case.  The truth is that each individual has the opportunity to choose how he will react and whether to identify with the abuser or the victim.  I will say it again, because it bears repeating: abuse is always a choice.

Myth #3:  Abuse victims are weak, stupid, or suffer from low self-esteem.  They come from abusive homes.

Anyone can become the victim of abuse.  While there is a correlation between growing up in an abusive household and later being more likely to be abused (for girls) or to abuse (for boys), abuse can and does happen to women who had stellar childhoods, who are confident and self-aware, and who believe that they are "not the type" to ever "put up" with abuse.

The thing is, there is no type.  All-out physical, emotional, or verbal abuse does not happen overnight.  It's a gradual process, filled with deceit and manipulation, so that by the time something is happening that's readily identifiable as abuse, the victim is confused, uncertain, and convinced (due to the abuser's manipulation) that she is either somehow to blame or that there's something she could do to "fix it."

It is often implied or stated outright that abused women must "like" the abuse or that they must be stupid because they don't leave.  This is where it becomes very important to gain a basic understanding of traumatic bonding.  An abuse victim often feels unnaturally close to her abuser because of this process, which is sometimes called Stockholm Syndrome, after the hostage situation which first brought the phenomenon to public attention.  Traumatic bonding occurs when an abuser makes it seems as if the trauma is an experience that the victim and abuser are sharing and coping with together.  He hurts his victim while manipulating her to believe that he is also the only person who can make her feel better.  Abusers are also unusually good at appearing to be sensitive, engaged, and sympathetic, especially in the early stages of the relationship.  They tend to be more romantic and attentive than non-abusers because they have to have a way to draw their victims in and keep them around, despite the escalating abuse.

Another reason that women don't leave abusive relationships is simple fear.  Abusers view their victims as property, believing that the victim does not have the right to leave.  When threatened with the loss of the relationship, they make both overt and covert threats, and their track records with the victims tend to lend plenty of credibility to the idea that he could make her very, very sorry if she tries to escape.

The worst thing about this myth is that it implies that abuse victims are somehow to blame for their own abuse, an argument which is tantamount to claiming that a rape victim was "asking for it" by flirting or drinking or wearing a low-cut top or simply daring to be in the wrong place at the wrong time while alone and female.  This is victim-blaming, and it perpetuates the problem.  No one wants to be abused.  No one seeks out abuse because they have some secret desire to be hurt.  Abuse is always and only the full responsibility of the abuser.

Myth #4: Sometimes abuse is mutual.  "They abuse each other."

By definition, this is impossible.  Abuse is about power and control.  Two people cannot simultaneously dominate each other.  Sometimes, you hear about a woman screaming at her abuser or hitting him back or even hitting him first.

Think about this for a minute: let's say a woman has been raped repeatedly by the same rapist.  Let's say one day she knees him in the balls when he approaches her. Does this fact put her on the same level as her rapist?  Does this mean she has sexually assaulted him, too?  Of course not.  It means she's tired and frustrated and traumatized and has run out of options.  She does not want to be raped again, but if she can't stop it, then maybe she can at least try to fight back in the only way she knows how.

A victim of abuse lives with a feeling of powerlessness.  This is not a two-way street.  The abuser has the power in an abusive relationship, so no matter what a victim may try to do in self-defense, or even in retaliation, it does not constitute "mutual abuse."  Abuse is not a simple act of hitting or pushing or yelling a name; it's an entire pattern of controlling and manipulative behavior, and it is, by definition, a one-way street.

This myth is also victim-blaming, and as such, it perpetuates the problem.

Myth #5: Men are abused just as often as women!

It is possible for a woman to abuse a man, yes.  It happens, yes.  But we live in a misogynistic society, and the overall power dynamic creates a culture in which male abuse of females is by far the most prevalent type of abuse between the two sexes.  Abuse is based on power and fear, and in a culture where men have the power, and women have to fear that no one will believe her or help her (up to and including the police and the court system), in large part because of all of these myths, it's not hard to understand why female abuse of males would be comparatively very rare.

Women are taught from birth to be compliant, quiet, uncomplaining, and subservient, just as men are taught to be assertive, aggressive, and in charge.  Just because a woman is loud or spirited, it does not mean she hasn't absorbed or internalized these cultural messages to an astonishing degree.  Likewise, anger is considered an acceptable emotional expression for men; not so for women.  Women are stereotyped as being emotional and irrational, in need of calm, reasonable men to "keep them in check" for their own good.

All of these messages help to create and sustain a culture of male abusiveness, in which women are often not believed, and men are often excused and their abuse justified.  Even non-abusive men and women buy into these myths and wind up siding with abusers, whether they realize it or not, by saying things like, "She has a mouth on her; she must have provoked him."  See Myth #4.

Myth #6: Women often make false accusations of abuse for the sake of revenge for hurt feelings.

This myth is a direct result of female stereotypes which claim that women are vengeful, emotional, and controlling, and it also happens to be completely untrue.  Does it happen occasionally?  Sure.  About as often as women falsely accuse men of rape or sexual assault or sexual harassment.  This is red herring propaganda which distorts the nature of the problem and deflects responsibility from sexism, misogyny, patriarchal values, and most importantly, the actual abusers and rapists.

Once again, it is victim-blaming, and it perpetuates the problem.

Myth #7: Abuse is an anger-management problem.

Abuse stems in large part from an attitude of entitlement.  Abusers believe that they are entitled to have things their way at all times, to be catered to, to be the center of attention in their relationships.  When these unfair and unrealistic desires are not met, they become angry.  They use abuse as a tool to try to maintain control and to get what they want.  Abusers do not abuse because they are angry; they are angry because they are abusers.

Anger-management is not an effective form of therapy for an abuser.

This post is just the beginning of confronting harmful cultural myths which surround abuse.  There are many more that I'll attend to in subsequent posts.

If you or someone you know may be suffering from abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE(7233).  Abuse is not only physical; you can call this hotline for concerns about emotional and verbal abuse, too.  You do not have to identify yourself; you can just talk or ask questions.

You do not have to live like this, and there is a way out.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What it (literally) means to be a woman

Did you know that if you're female, it's impossible to express your existence in the English language without contextualizing yourself?

Here is the etymological proof:

The word "woman" is derived from the Old English wifman.  Wif meant "woman" and is the same word from which we derive the modern "wife."  Man meant simply "human being."  So to be a man is simply to be human; to be a woman is to be a qualified, and thus lesser, version of a human being.

The word "female" is derived from the Latin femella, a diminutive of the Latin word femina, which literally means "she who suckles."  So to call yourself a female is to reduce your existence to the biological function of reproduction.  In contrast, the word "male" is derived from the Latin masculus, which simply means "male."

The word "girl" is of unclear origin, but the two contenders are an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "garment" and an ancient Greek word meaning "virgin."  So to refer to yourself as a girl is to contextualize yourself in terms of your appearance or your sexuality.

The word "lady" is derived from the Old English hlæfdige, which literally means "bread-kneader."  So when you say that you're a lady, you're reducing yourself to the traditionally female social function of domestic caretaker.

"Madam," "madonna," and "dame" all come from the Latin mea domina, which means "mistress of the house."

What none of these words mean, unlike their male counterparts, is the essence of the thing itself; every one of these words reflect sexual or social status.  Even the language we use refuses to recognize women as sovereign entities.

On a separate but related note, the word "vagina" comes from the Latin vagina, literally meaning a sheath, as for a sword.

It really puts things in perspective, doesn't it?

Friday, October 09, 2009

Men's women

It began with the color pink.  Or, at least, that's the earliest memory I can point to for the opening scene of this narrative.  I was five years old, and I decided that I hated the color pink.  It's what girls were supposed to like.  I don't know what exactly I'd absorbed by age five that had already established subconsciously for me that a girl was something I did not want to be, but there it was.  Being unable to escape my physical gender, I made up my mind that at least I would not be like those other girls, you know, the ones who were scared of bugs, who didn't want to get grass stains on their knees, who were afraid to climb trees.  They were the ones who giggled when the boys chased them around on the playground, knocking them to their feet and running away, and I was not going to be one of them.

Instead, I played with G.I. Joes and matchbox cars.  I went outside in the mud and got as dirty as possible.  I collected cicada shells in a glass jar and scoffed at the girls who shrieked and backed away from them.  I built things with scrap wood and nails, and whatever the boys were doing, I'd go out of my way to do it better, faster, and more daringly, and I'd roll my eyes at the wimpy girls who didn't even try.

This is not to say that I never did traditionally "feminine" things.  I had dolls and a tea set.  But I was definitely a tomboy, and I intended to keep it that way.  Already, I was learning: in a man's world, it's easier to ally yourself with those in power than it is to fight the system.  Of course, I wouldn't have put it in those terms back then, but it's astonishing in retrospect just how early these cultural messages infiltrated my thinking and affected my choices and behavior.

In adulthood, this method of coping takes many forms.  Women align themselves against each other and ingratiate themselves with men, often without realizing that this is what they're doing.  It's an attempt at sharing in some of the power and privilege that men enjoy, and it's also an attempt to avoid terrifying feelings of powerlessness.  This is what's going on when:
  • Women say that female victims of domestic abuse are victims because they have low self-esteem, they like being abused, they're stupid, they're weak, and that abuse could never happen to the woman making these claims.
  • Women say that rape victims have at least some culpability in the crime committed against them because of the way they were dressed, their level of intoxication, their failure to "fight back" hard enough, their sexual history, or the fact that they supposedly lead the rapist on.
  • Women blame the woman that her husband/partner cheated with, rather than the man who did the cheating.  They call the other woman a whore, a slut, a homewrecker.  I'm not going to defend the premise of getting involved with someone whom you know is in a serious relationship; that's not a very moral or kind thing to do.  But many women seem to ignore the fact that the real problem in this situation is with the man who made a commitment to them, not the woman he cheated with.  They can't do anything about her, but blaming her is easier than facing the fact that their trust has been broken and they're going to have to make some difficult decisions about their relationship.
  • Women call other women "bitches," "sluts," "whores," and other derogatory names.
  • Women are cruel to other women out of jealousy or fear that these other women might be prettier, more popular, more successful, etc. than they are.
  • Women are cruel to other women in ways that make them feel better about themselves, e.g., making fun of another woman's weight, her failures, her clothes, her looks, her mistakes.
  • Women willingly engage in the use of terms like "pussy" or "gay" to denigrate men (the insult here is that the man in question is supposedly feminine in some way, and that's bad because women are not human beings like men are, but something different and lowlier).
  • Women agree with men that it's nasty or gross for a woman not to shave her legs or adhere to other social expectations of femininity that are mainly geared toward keeping women attractive to men.
  • Women claim that they have no problem with their partners or other men using pornography which is denigrating to women, even though somewhere deep inside, it makes them feel bad to know that the person they love is getting off to unrealistic fantasy women being objectified and used.
I could list more examples, but you get the point.  Basically, this is what's going on almost any time a woman attempts to place herself in a position of power over another woman or to distance herself from damaging female stereotypes without attempting in any way to discredit them.

This is how we wind up with women like Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, Margaret Thatcher, and Phyllis Schlafly, to name a few.

A recent poll in the UK showed that more women than men believe a woman is at least partially responsible for her own rape if she was dressed in revealing clothing.  If you can believe that a woman somehow caused the act of violence that was committed against her, it makes you feel safer, because whatever she did to cause it, you won't do, and therefore it can't happen to you.  As emotionally compelling as this line of reasoning is, it's illogical and untrue.  Victim-blaming not only fails to make you any safer; it actually makes women as a whole less safe, because it perpetuates misogynistic ideals and is a large part of the reason why so many men who commit violence against women are able to walk away with no consequences.

But victim-blaming is only one form of behaving like a man's woman.  As Harriet Jacobs has pointed out, even something as simple as saying "I'd never put up with that" when referring to unwanted attention from men puts the speaker at odds with other women and actually aligns her against them, even if that's not at all what she intended.

It took me a long time to really understand why it is that being a man's woman is to fail utterly at being your own woman.  I think all of us have probably behaved like men's women at some point(s) in our lives.  A man's woman may reject certain gendered cultural ideals, and quite often, she may see herself as a feminist, but by mentally distinguishing herself from and aligning herself against those other women, she is actually doing all women (herself included) a great deal more harm than good.  She is perpetuating the status quo by playing directly into it, even despite herself.

Acting like a man's woman is an understandable survival tactic in a misogynistic society, but it's ultimately a step backward, all the more treacherous because it can sometimes be so well disguised as progress.  Let's instead be women's women; in other words, let's choose to identify as human beings, and not limit ourselves to the roles that men have historically carved out for us, not even the ones that at first seem empowering but which, on closer inspection, turn out to be little more than supporting roles in the great misogynistic drama.

Othello: tragic victim or abuser?

So after listening to a male professor defend the 17th-century status quo which supposedly made it somehow understandable that Shakespeare's Othello would strangle his wife to death, I felt the need for a post on why the real tragedy of Othello is that it's full of misogyny.

For anyone who doesn't know the story, here's a brief synopsis:

Othello is a moor (black dude) who meets this girl named Desdemona.  He tells her a bunch of stories about all his travels and adventures as a soldier, and she falls in love with him.  They elope.  Her dad is initially pissed, but then figures Othello is a dude with high enough status to overlook the fact that he's black and lets it go.  But there's this other dude, Iago, who is basically insane and wants to ruin everyone else's lives.

With me so far?

So Iago hatches this plot to convince Othello that Desdemona is sleeping with one of Othello's soldiers, Cassio.  He does all kinds of tricky crap to mess with Othello's head and make him believe this nonsense.  In the end, Othello strangles Desdemona to death in her own bed without even checking the facts, and as she dies, she spouts some crap about how she killed herself and it's not Othello's fault (even though she hasn't done a damn thing).  Then Othello finds out she was innocent and kills himself.  Some other people wind up dead, too (Iago also kills his wife and some other people), but that's not entirely central to my point, so we'll leave it at that.

The moral of the story seems to be that, one, black people are basically overemotional animals who can be convinced of anything, and two, it's totally okay to kill your wife for cheating, but it becomes a tragedy if it turns out that she perfectly fits the archetype of the Madonna (as opposed to the whore; in the world of Shakespeare and many others, these are the only two types of women).

Yeah, I realize it's a bit more complicated than that.  Yeah, I realize that Shakespeare is considered an Artistic Genius by many serious academic people.  Yeah, I study literature; I get that he's been extraordinarily influential, etc.  And I'll admit I've got a slightly higher tolerance for misogyny in important works of literature than I do in, say, Swiffer commercials.

But here's the thing.  Othello has all the hallmarks of an abuser.  He's fast-moving and intense in his relationship with Desdemona.  From the beginning, it's all about him; he talks about himself endlessly, and that's what lures her in.  He isolates her from her family by taking her far away to a place where he's important and she's dealing on his turf.  He's insanely jealous and suspicious, controlling and irrational.  And the corpus delicti: he kills her.  On purpose.  Brutally.

According to most people, the tragedy here is that he kills her for no reason.  I'm going to go ahead and be radical and posit that there is never an acceptable reason to kill your wife.  Nope, not even if she cheats on you, which Desdemona didn't.

So my professor was going on about what an exceptional woman Desdemona is.  And surely enough, she is a perfect example of the first type of woman: the Madonna.  She is pure, loyal, subservient, and self-sacrificing.  She takes the blame for everything even though she has no idea why her husband has just strangled her (as an aside, her last lines are actually delivered after she's been strangled, and then, oddly enough, she dies).  There's no point in my arguing in that class that there's nothing exceptional about a woman who merely fits a misogynistic archetype; I already tried that with Helena when we were discussing All's Well That Ends Well, and the professor wasn't having it, no sir, no way.  He actually claimed that the latter is a feminist play.  But I digress.

The professor did at least admit that Othello was full of shit when he tried to claim that he'd killed Desdemona simply because he loved her so much (gag).  But then he went into this discussion of how, well, men were misogynists in the 17th century (as if they're not anymore) and people viewed women as property (it was four hundred years ago, so I guess that makes it okay), as if this somehow makes Othello's murderous fit a natural reaction, and then I'm pretty sure he went back to praising Desdemona.

I seriously just about got up and walked out.  Why?  Because this is exactly the same attitude you can see today in the media, in courtrooms, and even in random conversations you overhear walking down the street.  Remember all the justifications people were making for Chris Brown after he beat up Rihanna?  Incidentally, Rihanna, being young and attractive and successful, can't qualify as a Madonna, so she was painted as the other type of woman: the whore.  Whores are outspoken, independent, confident, defiant, and totally out of control.  "She was jealous," people said.  "She must have provoked him."

Either way, the women are reduced to ridiculous stereotypes, rendering them basically as non-entities, while the actual focus remains on the three-dimensional people: the men.  The tragedy of Othello is ostensibly not the fact that a woman--well, two women--were killed by their controlling husbands, but that poor Othello was deceived and made a terrible mistake by killing an innocent woman.

What I'd like to know is how things would have turned out if Desdemona had actually been cheating.  I suspect strongly that her murder would then have been painted as a righteous act of morality, and--you guessed it--she'd represent the whore, rather than the Madonna.  Because it's not as if there's room in Shakespeare's imagination for a woman who's actually human, a complex, sovereign entity like--oh I don't know--Othello or Iago, for instance.

If any further proof were needed of the blatant misogyny in Shakespeare, one might read his sonnets.  All the sonnets filled with lavish praise for the object of his desires are actually about young men; the ones about women basically read like a Led Zeppelin song: Oh, baby, I was so in love with you until you turned out to be a lying, cheating, deceitful whore, waahh, waahh.  Lovely stuff.

It's not that I can't appreciate Shakepeare's use of language, his imagery, his elaborate applications of metaphor.  I can.  I do.  But let's just call a spade a spade, shall we? and admit that his female characters are all two-dimensional stereotypes and that Othello was not the real victim in Othello.

Just a note: I didn't expound on factors of racism in the play, though they're certainly there.  That would be a whole other post.

And there's my rant for the day.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Unbearable Weight of Feminism

Yeah, I ripped off Milan Kundera with my title.  It was intentional, because he's a good example of what I'm talking about.  Once upon a time, I considered him my favorite writer.  I read a whole bunch of his books.  I spent a lot of time contemplating his postmodernist style, his integration of so many different elements, his unique voice.  Then one day I happened to mention all of this to a male professor of mine, who said, "But he's a terrible misogynist.  Haven't you noticed?"

I shrugged uncomfortably.  I guess I had noticed a little.  I'd just been...overlooking it.

My professor then lent me a book of essays by Joan Smith, called "Misogynies."  (It's out of print, but if you can find a copy, I highly recommend it.)  It includes an essay specifically about the misogyny of Milan Kundera titled "Czech Mate."  My professor assured me it would ruin Kundera for me, and to my horror, it did.  Once someone had pointed out how he denigrates women, how he reduces them to unflattering physical descriptions and the various ways in which they can be used by men, it was impossible to read him the same way.  How could I not have seen the violence, the bitter vitriol, the fear and even hatred he directs at his female characters?

And thus was something I'd treasured destroyed for me.  It was the beginning of a process of which I'm still in the early stages: digging through everything that's ever given my life meaning and weeding out the things I realize I can no longer live with.  Books, music, movies...so many things I've somehow missed all my life and now I suddenly see.  Ilsa in Casablanca: how could I have failed to notice her absolute lack of sovereign purpose?  She exists first as a plaything for Rick, who is himself terribly misogynistic, and who ultimately altruistically gives her up, as Victor needs her more.  Where is Ilsa in all of this?  And why did I never think to ask this question before?

Worst of all, does this mean I can't like Casablanca anymore?

It's as if Pandora has opened her box, only instead of evil coming out, as the Greeks claimed, it's awareness of evil, of all the harm and injustice committed by one half of humankind against the other since at least as far back as the beginning of recorded history.

It's overwhelming, to say the least.

I always thought I was a feminist.  I grew up with a mother who not only worked, she worked in a male-dominated industry with almost exclusively male colleagues.  She brought me to pro-choice marches when I was just a kid.  She taught me never to believe that my gender should hold me back from anything I wanted to do.  And yeah, I knew that women are still paid less than men for the same jobs.  I'd observed that violence between the sexes is disproportionately committed against women.  I heard the names whispered about girls at my high school (bitch, slut, whore) and noticed that there didn't seem to be equivalents for boys.  But I'd just pop in my Ani DiFranco CD's and think, it can't really be all that bad, can it?

It's only now, in my late 20's, that I've begun to understand the scope of what I'm dealing with, and at times I feel paralyzed by the sheer magnitude of this thing.  It's everywhere: in TV commercials, on the magazines I see in the check-out line declaring brightly that they've got the secret to snaring a man.  It's in the lyrics of songs that practically jump-started my adolescence and taught me to love rock and roll ("Soul of a woman was created below"... really, Robert Plant?)  It's in the crappy selection of uncomfortable, impractical shoes I find when I go looking for a new pair of flip-flops.  It's in jokes told in movies or at a bar, the ones whose punchlines are women, or violence against women, or the stupidity of women.  It's the names men use to put one another down (pussy, pansy, gay, bitch).  It's in offices and courtrooms and news articles.

In short, it's everywhere.

And what's even worse than that startling realization is how, once you start talking about it, men and women both rally to shoot you down, to tell you you're irrational, melodramatic, vindictive, crazy, all of the epithets that have been used since Eve to keep us silent and complacent.

Some days, that's just more than I want to deal with.  The thing I've been wondering lately is how to strike a balance between being the feminist I've started to become and living my life.  The two shouldn't be mutually exclusive, but if I spoke up or acted every time I saw or heard something misogynist, if I considered every possible effect on women everywhere of every action I take on a daily basis, I wouldn't have time to do anything else at all.

And what about when I get backed into a corner?  Do I write my mid-term paper on misogyny in Shakespeare like I want to, even after my professor has completely shot down my ideas and it's pretty clear that I'll get a bad grade if do, and knowing that I need an A so I don't injure my chances of acceptance into grad school?

When is it time to act and when is it okay to let things slide?  When is it time to speak up and risk ruining everyone's good time, including mine, and when should I grit my teeth against the bitter taste in my mouth and keep quiet?  How much of who I've been and what I've loved do I have to let go of now that my eyes are opened and I can no longer gloss over the glaring sexism in blissful ignorance?

I'm still shifting these questions through the corridors of my mind, looking for answers that sometimes seem impossible.  There are so many factors working against women who might otherwise embrace feminism, and I'm beginning to realize that the plain heavy weight of it all is one of them.

Still, I wouldn't go back for anything.  I would rather be sitting here asking myself impossible questions than go back to that uncomfortable, shitty feeling I used to get every time some guy made a rape joke and everyone else laughed and I was left wondering why I was the only who didn't really see the humor, not even sure why I had a vague feeling that somehow they were all laughing at my expense.  No, the only way I can ever hope for change is first to know what's wrong.

It's a start.