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.
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