Friday, August 21, 2009

"The Terrible Bargain"

A few days ago I read Melissa McEwan's piece "The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck" over at Shakesville. Like many other readers, this piece struck a chord with me. As I read, I thought about all of the relationships I have had with the men in my life and the ways in which I let things slide or bite my tongue to keep the peace. Those who know me will probably find it unbelievable that I ever bite my tongue, but believe me, if I said it all, I doubt I'd have ever kept a job for more than a week.

At any rate, I recalled an incident about nine months ago with a former co-worker. Lets call co-worker "Tom." Tom seemed nice enough when we first met and we immediately had a flirty little banter going. After a few shifts together, Tom and I got to talking about ourselves and I shared with him that I am a Women's Studies graduate student and an active feminist advocate. This was when our friendly banter turned sour. Tom constantly made terrible, offensive sexist jokes, thinking that I'd find them adorable. He turned everything into some sort of sexist comment just to see what I'd do. When I confronted him, saying it wasn't funny and that it was really offensive, he did the old "you have no sense of humor" schtick.

Alas, working with him became a tiresome chore for me and some of his jokes made me angry for days. I eventually transferred to another location in part to get away from him. After that he texted me a several times to tell me another of his hilarious jokes. I am hoping that my non-responsiveness will give him a hint, since being blunt did not.

As I think about that exchange I think about the endless instances of sexism that we all swallow every day because we want to keep the peace and we want a reprieve. Of course, this is not peace, this is a silent and subtle war to remind women of our place as second class citizens.

Then I get to thinking of my male relatives, including my father, who say some of the most ignorant things I have ever heard and, again, I bite my tongue because when I don't the consequences are devastating.

Men are allowed the easy comfort of their unexamined privilege, but my regard will always be shot through with a steely, anxious bolt of caution.

Then I think about whenever a man at work is really friendly and I thoroughly enjoy our conversation and then he ends it by calling me "little girl." Every time a situation like this arises, I am reminded, like Melissa, of the male privilege that we are all constantly swimming in.

In one of my undergraduate Africology courses, I had developed a wonderful relationship with my professor who was one of the smartest and most compassionate men I had ever met. I shared my undergrad thesis with this man and graciously accepted his comments and criticisms of my writing. And then one day in class he said that in 1865 following the passage of the 15th amendment, "African Americans were granted the right to vote." It felt like I had been slapped in the face, so stunned was I to hear this man whom I had trusted and respected erase the history of black women in America in one sentence.

I hope those men will hear me when I say, again, I do not hate you. I mistrust you. You can tell yourselves that's a problem with me, some inherent flaw, some evidence that I am fucked up and broken and weird; you can choose to believe that the women in your lives are nothing like me.
Or you can be vigilant, can make yourselves trustworthy. Every day.

Like Melissa, it pains me when men call me a feminazi or say that I clearly hate men. I don't hate men. I just don't trust them. Or rather, it takes a lot longer for me to trust them and even then, instances like these put me on the defensive. When I was younger I would say that I hate men after reading Andrea Dworkin's texts or listening to groups of friends tell of their sexual assaults or watching Law and Order SVU. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn't all men and that men swim in the same water of patriarchy and male privilege as the rest of us.

But I hope that they will heed our call to make themselves trustworthy, to examine their privilege and to listen when we say "that is offensive" or "that is painful" or "that is sexist!"


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing those stories. I was thinking of similar stuff the other day when my roommate and I started talking about how uncomfortable we would be asking a boyfriend to get an STI test, even though we were fine getting them ourselves. Even though I have a BA in Women's Studies I was nervous about the thought of asking a guy not to get me sick!

And that wasn't even with a guy arguing about it! Even though I'm a feminist I find the conditioning so strong to try not to be rude to guys you don't like or you don't agree with.

You're right, it is a silent and subtle war and oftentimes it's hard for us to stand our ground. Thanks for posting and reminding us to stand up for ourselves and against patriarchy.

notemily said...

Ha, it's funny to me that you mention SVU, because one of my biggest complaints about the later seasons of the show (the early seasons kick ass) is that they always have to turn it around so the alleged victim is actually the criminal, just to make it all plot-twisty. If a woman seems like an innocent victim at the start of an episode, she's likely to be a conniving temptress/murderess/whatever by the end of it.

Anyway, good post. I loved that Shakesville article, thanks for linking to it on your facebook.

Sara said...

I recently watched an interview with Christina Hoff Sommers (author of The War Against Boys) and I was curious as to what you think regarding her harsh criticism of Women's Studies departments across the United States. In this particular interview (with Bill Maher - I am not even going to attempt to explain how his misogynistic comments made my blood boil), Sommers states that Women and Gender Studies students are being fed fallacious notions regarding the social construction of gender. From what I understand, she seems to claim that modern day feminists are attempting to attack, what Sommers believes to be, the biological predisposition of children to acquire either a masculine or feminine gender identity. She goes into how being a boy is viewed as a "pathology" nowadays (this is news to me as I am sure having a male child is still significantly more favored, especially within the large immigrant community in the US) and brings up the apparent climate of intolerance we are currently facing towards boys' "high spiritedness." Sommers seems to blame all this largely on skewed teachings and research associated with feminist scholarship and gender studies.
I have only taken two classes that directly relate to women's studies (I was a Psychology/Biology major in college), however, those two courses and their instructors had such a profound impact on me that I am looking to go into Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies for graduate school. I was just wondering what young feminist scholars, like yourself, have to say regarding some of the views that feminists such as Sommers bring to the table.
Here is a link to Part 2 of the interview:
Thanks and your writings are very insightful. Great work!