Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The monster inside

I recently stumbled across this post from Melissa McEwan at Shakesville, and it got me thinking. A lot.

Sometimes it's hard to be honest with ourselves. Sometimes it's really hard. For example, I know that I am not a racist. I actively strive not to be. I try to speak up when I hear something I know is wrong. I try to challenge false assumptions and stereotypes when I encounter them. But if I am absolutely honest with myself, I have to admit that sometimes the false assumptions or stereotypes are my own. They will occasionally pop into my head unbidden, and I find myself regarding my own subconscious library of internalized (or at least retained) ideas with a feeling that lies somewhere on the spectrum between shock and disgust. Despite my open-minded upbringing, despite my own continuous attempts at examining my world and the ideas therein for validity and morality, these little seeds of racism have crept in and eased between the cracks, attempting to take root and destroy what I've created.

I was walking down the street today, thinking these thoughts, when something deeply unnerving suddenly occurred to me. If I have these unwanted thoughts (or absorbed memories of others' thoughts) about other groups of people, then it's only logical to assume that the men in my life have them about women, too. I'm not talking about the obvious misogynist assholes, the abusers, the rapists, the casual sexual harrassers...I mean the men I know and care about and in whom I have at least some amount of emotional investment. The ones I trust.

Of course when these renegade thoughts about other groups appear on my mental horizon, I stop in my tracks and challenge them, examine them, refute them, and spit them right back out. And I can hope that the men I care about do the same when they have such thoughts about women. But even if I could believe for certain that they do, it doesn't temper the sting I feel imagining those thoughts flickering, however briefly, through their minds.

It's a realization that nearly stopped me dead in the middle of the sidewalk. Of course I know society does this. Of course I know popular culture does it. Of course I know that some of my professors, my peers, my acquaintances do it. But for whatever reason, I just hadn't really thought about the fact that men that I trust, that I love, must do it, too.

And I thought back to Melissa's post, how she talks about working every day to be a trustworthy person, and I wondered what harm I've inflicted over the years with my own assumptions, my own failures to stand up when someone needed to and no one was, my own casual complacency or lack of action in the face of rhetoric that causes someone, somewhere, to feel the same acrid paralysis that I feel when I imagine men who matter to me thinking, if only momentarily, that maybe there is some truth to the idea that women are too emotional to be rational (as if the two were mutually exclusive), or that some women just deserve to be hit.

The truth is that none of us are immune to the cumulative effects of harmful cultural messages. All of us have to work continuously and vigorously to overcome the saplings of fear, prejudice, and hatred nurtured in us is spite of ourselves from birth. It's a never-ending process for me and for everyone else who cares, and I guess in the end, that's what it comes down to: whether or not you are really doing your best, every day, to move forward, to learn, to grow, to become a little closer to the person you'd like to be.

The men whom I will at least try to trust won't be perfect, but if they're actively engaged in this process, it's all I can really ask. And it's the same thing I need to be asking of myself.

Monday, September 28, 2009

But it's just a (fill in the blank)!

I get so very tired of hearing this comment. People make it in reference to movies, song lyrics, jokes, books, TV shows, you name it. Most recently, I heard it in reference to this horrendous song by the "band" 3OH!3 (I use quotes because the word "band" implies music, and music implies art, and to associate this particular monstrosity of pop culture with art would be like shelving Danielle Steele "novels" among tomes of feminist literature at the public library). Among other sparkling gems, "Don't Trust Me" includes the lyrics: "Shush, girl. Shut your lips. Do the Helen Keller and talk with your hips."

I don't even know where to start with this. It reduces women to walking vaginas who threaten to shatter the fantasy if they open their mouths for any reason other than to offer a blow job. I won't even get into the Helen Keller reference, lest I lose my cool entirely and send my laptop sprawling.

The thing is, when I try to point any of this out, I am almost invariably greeted with the protest, "Geez, lighten up! It's just a song!"

I will interject here that another of 3OH!3's "just" songs includes the lyrics: "I think I should know how to make love to something innocent without leaving my fingerprints." Yes, you read that right. And there are videos on YouTube of young girls dancing and lip syncing to those very lyrics. Am I alone when I see things like this and feel absolute horror?

But yeah, it's just a song.

Well, everything is just something. But all those little somethings begin to add up to a frighteningly powerful and oppressive force in a culture where young women see nothing at all wrong with getting down to song lyrics that outright glorify rape, to say nothing of the less obviously horrifying messages which degrade and deny the inherent humanity of women, period. We live in a world which is full of "just" movies and television shows that portray women as naive, two-dimensional sets of tantalizing orifices, here to parade around in uncomfortable and impractical clothing so that we might fulfill our ultimate goal of inducing hard-ons in any man who happens to be nearby, making occasional self-depricating witty asides so that it's clear to all observers that we enjoy being contextualized in this way. Hell, it was our idea in the first place. Right?

But what disturbs me more than anything is how many of these comments come from other women. The minute I open my mouth in defense of my own sentient and inherently worthwhile existence, outside the realm of serving the status quo, I begin to hear it: "Relax! Why are you so angry? It must be that some guy hurt you once upon a time, and now, in true feminine form, you are hell-bent on some kind of melodramatic quest for vengeance that somehow involves the subjugation and dehumanization of all men!"

Yeah, because that's what feminism is about. And it continues...

"Why don't you go burn some bras or something, you man-hating feminazi?"

Somehow, speaking up for my right to be viewed as more than a not-quite-human, second-class afterthought in the garden of Eden has become aligned in the minds of what seems to be the majority with a breed of so-called radical feminism that has little to nothing to do with anything that feminism is actually about. And it makes about as much sense as, say, denigrating all Christians because that David Koresh character was a freaking nutjob.

But I digress.

My point is that people need to wake up to the reality that the sum of many misogynistic parts can and does add up to a seriously disturbing pattern. When a popular band can sing about rape in a way that makes it seem sexy and alluring without giving radio deejays even a moment's pause as they click "play," there is something very deeply wrong, and it's not with the chorus of female voices who protest that this is not okay. The band, the song lyrics, the accompanying video...these are not anomalies but symptoms of prevailing cultural attitudes and perceived norms, and it's time that people, especially women, rise up and stop minimizing and justifying each "isolated" occurrence of the perpetuation of these twisted values in one medium or another.

When a song diminishes and contextualizes women within a system which diminishes and contextualizes women, it is no longer just a song.