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.
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