Last March, after a very fraught period during the run-up to the presidential election we got to listen to Barack Obama make a personal and moving speech about race – not only its role in his life but that of America as a nation. After we breathed a sigh of relief that the Reverend Wright nonsense would disappear from the headlines for a while and basked in the brief warm fuzzies some of us mused about whether Hillary Clinton would make ever deliver a similar address about gender. Some speculated that it could be a step in the right direction toward having a candid discussion about the sexism which played a heavy part in criticisms of Clinton during her campaign, not to mention the overall patriarchy that contributes to pervasive gender inequality and misogyny even in our daily lives.
But we women knew that speech wouldn’t happen.
It didn’t happen for the same reasons that this post very nearly didn’t happen.
This post is the product of many months of jumbled thoughts, complicated conversations (and arguments) with various people in my life, reading and hearing infuriating things and being utterly convinced that I had to say something then alternately being convinced I should just keep my mouth shut. This is the common quandary, the mental cost-benefit calculation that takes place whenever I want to speak up about something that is the big bad “F-word” – feminist. I have to decide whether I really want to risk someone (usually male) saying something reductive/apologist/justifying to me, whether I want to possibly get into an argument, whether I want to risk losing my temper, whether it’s worth possibly getting emotional and then being told that my emotionality somehow weakens my point (!) because I’m not being objective (!!) and I am biased (!!!).
Lately there seems be an endless piling on – every other story I see on the news or encounter in my Google Reader seems tailored to get my hackles up. The media reaction to Hillary Clinton’s pointed answer in response to being asked for her husband’s views in Congo was the last straw. Among the many bloggers whose opinions I read about the matter was my own blogmate, Blackink. While I respect him, and his argument I think his response skirts the issue about why “keeping a cool head” may be easier for a black person responding to someone saying something crazy about race than a woman responding to a sexist comment and why so many of my attempts to engage men in feminist discourse generally lead to this.
G.D. has had the misfortune of helping me try to unravel why conversations about gender, sexism and misogyny go so badly between men and women. Admiring his willingness to be frank and open about these topics I asked him how, as a man, one goes about becoming less sexist. He answered that he didn’t think that he wasn’t sexist, and thought that was part of it.”Unlearning privilege is sort of like being a Christian – you have to admit you’re a sinner…then keep fighting against the sin.” That’s where the impasse lies. If you presume that you are a “nice guy”, that you “don’t mean anything by it”, that your way of seeing things is more or less balanced, then you’re bound to overlook the entitled position you’re speaking from.
For those of you who share our obsession with Mad Men think: Pete Campbell.
G.D. identified Pete as the quintessential example of this phenomenon. He thinks that he’s a “nice guy”. He’s baffled by Peggy’s eventual refusal of him, and feels emasculated by her advancement in the company. He acknowledges that Peggy exists and that she is a person, but to see her as an equal, with thoughts and desires that differ from his own is simply too much for him. He is convinced of the essential “rightness” of his perspective so he cannot conceive of a worldview that differs from his. As G.D. so aptly put it, this is what informs the “nice guy” narrative – men who think that because they are breathing, employed and not criminals that women should automatically respect them, and that they can’t be sexist or misogynist. So you think women are people – whaddaya want, a cookie?
In his commentary on George Sodini, the always insightful Jamelle points out that “we are fairly sensitive to instances of racism, kind of sensitive to classism, and absolutely tone-deaf when it comes to misogyny” and that the acceptable disdain of women permeates our culture. This is why it is easier for Obama to keep a cool head in the face of Joe the Plumber or during the Reverent Wright debacle. There is considerable social censure related to racist remarks that does not occur when someone says something sexist or misogynist. As G.D. notes, we’ve bought into the idea that racism is “ big E” evil while sexism, although problematic, is mundane. The comfortable offhandedness with which sexism is employed and its ubiquity means Hillary’s life – our lives as women – differ deeply from Obama’s experience. Constantly dealing with gendered comments, sexist insults and misogyny frays you at the seams. Overt instances of all these things hurt but sometimes, I feel like the ambiguous instances, the times when you think you’re talking to an ally only to have them casually say something that totally blows you away, are what lead to the mistrust and defensiveness so eloquently described by here by Melissa McEwan:
There is the unwillingness to listen, a ferociously stubborn not getting it on so many things, so many important things. And the obdurate refusal to believe, to internalize, that my outrage is not manufactured and my injure not make-believe—an inflexible rejection of the possibility that my pain is authentic, in favor of the consolatory belief that I am angry because I’m a feminist (rather than the truth: that I’m a feminist because I’m angry).
And there is the denial about engaging in misogyny, even when it’s evident, even when it’s pointed out gently, softly, indulgently, carefully, with goodwill and the presumption that it was not intentional. There is the firm, fixed, unyielding denial—because it is better and easier to imply that I’m stupid or crazy, that I have imagined being insulted by someone about whom I care (just for the fun of it!), than it is to just admit a bloody mistake. Rather I am implied to be a hysteric than to say, simply, I’m sorry.
Not every man does all of these things, or even most of them, and certainly not all the time. But it only takes one, randomly and occasionally, exploding in a shower of cartoon stars like an unexpected punch in the nose, to send me staggering sideways, wondering what just happened.
Well. I certainly didn’t see that coming…
These things, they are not the habits of deliberately, connivingly cruel men. They are, in fact, the habits of the men in this world I love quite a lot. All of whom have given me reason to mistrust them, to use my distrust as a self-protection mechanism, as an essential tool to get through every day, because I never know when I might next get knocked off-kilter with something that puts me in the position, once again, of choosing between my dignity and the serenity of our relationship.
Swallow shit, or ruin the entire afternoon?
It’s harder to “stay cool” than one might think because of the hypervigilance that attends being female. “Women’s issues” are not abstractions for us – we cannot detach. I think if more men understood that, we could actually begin the conversation. If they tried to imagine living in my skin. What if every time you were passionate about something someone called you “hysterical”? What if you could not be justifiably angry but were written off as “bitchy”? What if you had to fight tooth and nail for the legitimacy of your opinions because of the popular belief that people of your gender “lack logic”? If I am dealing with that, every day, my whole life, and I work my ass off to get where I have gotten and you ask me about my husband? Really?! Are you still shocked at the response?
What M.LeBlanc of Bitch Ph.D talks about, is what we need. Empathy. Until you can find it, we can’t talk. I am tired of trying to talk to men I know, admire and respect and have them misunderstand that which is fundamentally me. I am a woman. I am feminist. But that doesn’t mean I hate you. I just think you don’t see me. I wish you would.