But Why-y-y-y??

I’m writing this post in mid-October. It’s more suited to late January or early February, for reasons that will become plain. I may hold off and publish it then. More likely, I’ll write it and publish it immediately. That’s my usual MO: I get an idea, spit it out, and release it into the world. Actually, I’m not so sure any of us will be here come February, and I want to go on record with this moment of clarity over a question I’ve wrestled with a long time.

When my husband was still teaching (a career he yet hopes to return to some day), he would sometimes tell his teenage male students, “There are three dates you have to remember when you’re in a relationship: Your girlfriend’s birthday, your anniversary, and Valentine’s Day.” I’m going to leave aside, for the moment, the way this humorously-intentioned advice reinforces the stereotype of men as lovable bumblers incapable of remembering significant details and focus on the teenage males’ inevitable response:

“But why-y-y-y-y?? What makes Valentine’s day so important? It’s just a day!! Why do I have to do special things that day? I mean, she knows I care about her. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be with her!”

My husband has also asked me this question over the years. With us, it’s delved into the social and political implications of a manufactured holiday: Why do women expect men to make such a big deal out of it, even men they’ve been with for years? Don’t we know it’s a marketing ploy? If you want those things, aren’t you falling into the trap of perpetuating patriarchal gender norms? How can you be a feminist and want a romantic Valentine’s Day? And for years, I have been at a loss to answer. I’ve struggled with my wish to be acknowledged in what I believe to be a way that reinforces a lot of societal ills and stereotypes about gender. I’ve been deathly afraid that my desire to be shown special attention, my desire for a celebration of love, has marked me as a Bad Feminist.

Right now, though, all those questions boil down to the same adolescent protest: “But why-y-y-y-y?” And I have an answer:

Because you don’t get to think that the mere fact of your bodily presence is enough because you’re a man. Because women of all ages consistently and constantly go out of their way to make things nice for their partners, whether this looks like listening to them talk about subjects in which they have little interest, or debating about what dress they’re going to wear on a special occasion, or doing more than their share of the work of keeping the environment livable. Because women are required to do more than just show up, and suffer when they stop putting in the extra mile.

Lately–and I mean in the last year or so–I’ve seen more and more women talk about how they do nice things for themselves, not to benefit the male gaze. Usually this comes in conversations about catcalling and other unwanted male attention: Some dude bro says, “If you didn’t want to be noticed, you shouldn’t have worn that pretty dress,” and a woman responds with “I dress for myself, not for you.” My gods, you’d think the men had been robbed. They cannot stand it when women talk about doing things for themselves rather than the men in the world. It’s even worse if you reject cultural beauty standards altogether. How dare you make yourself unattractive? You simply can’t win.

But men still think all they have to do is show up. “She knows I love her. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

News flash, guys: You are not that special.

I get that the rituals of a different time are confusing and maybe seem irrelevant in a changing world. In my parents’ time, in my in-laws’ time, relationships between middle class cis het couples followed a (relatively) clear course: Courtship, which was mainly led by the man, I believe; proposal, marriage, a couple kids. The man as the breadwinner, the woman as the caregiver. Probably then the ritual of giving your wife a box of chocolates and a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day–or going out to dinner as a couple, or whatever–served as a mark of appreciation and a reaffirmation of the connubial bond. But the late 60s began the process of throwing off the chains of the 50s. My gods, women have careers now. They can ask men out! They have sex without being married and still demand respect as human beings! Geez, isn’t that enough? WHY DO YOU STILL WANT THAT OUTDATED BOX OF CHOCOLATES?

Despite the loud and persistent denial of certain male-identifying people, the women’s movement has never been about just women. Challenging patriarchal norms has benefited men, too. You don’t have to wear the stiff suits and ties all the time, just as we don’t have to wear skirts and heels. (Unfortunately gender-based dress codes have not yet accepted men in skirts.) You can grow long hair, get your ears pierced. You don’t have to be the sole support of a family. You can be a stay-at-home dad if that suits you and your partner. You don’t have to repress your emotions. You can not want to have sex all the time. You do not have to subscribe to the toxic models of masculinity that have made men’s lives so hard.

But, and there’s always a but, you do have to stop being so full of yourselves. You have to show up. You have to participate. You do not get to park your ass in the easy chair and say that’s enough. “Of course I love you, honey! I married you didn’t I?” doesn’t cut it. Don’t pass it off on being unable to articulate your feelings. Exhibit some learning behavior.

Women are fucking tired. And part of the reason we’re tired is that so many men have taken women’s progress and the changes we’ve initiated in society to mean they can be lazy. Yes, you can do something other than go “into business” and still be considered a contributing member of society rather than a deviant (provided you have enough of certain types of privilege, which I’m not even going into here). You do not have to strive toward the house in the suburbs and the 2.5 beautiful children. But there are consequences to whatever you choose, and one of the consequences of wanting to be in a relationship is doing the work. Part of the work is active participation in whatever rituals you and your partner find important. If a romantic Valentine’s day isn’t important to either of you, fine; rituals change. You need at least to discuss it, and it wouldn’t hurt if you were the one to broach the subject. Far too often, women are left with the responsibility of bringing up topics that men would rather ignore.

And please, don’t with the manly-man “emotions are beyond me” shit. I already told you, we’ve worked hard to begin to build a world where men don’t have to suffer such constraints, and we’re sick to death of the “Women Are from Venus/Men Are from Mars” crap. For too long women, and LGBTQ+ people, and People of Color, have borne the burden of speaking the language of (mostly) white, cis, het men and moving through a world geared towards white, cis, het men’s wishes. It’s about damn time white, cis, het men got in the game.

This post is probably making a few people reading it extremely uncomfortable. Good.

In the end, the answer to the question “But why-y-y-y?” is very simple: Because your partner wants it from you. That should be more than enough. We are not things for your amusement, like your X-Box or your flat screen TV. We are humans, and it is perfectly fine and normal for us to ask for what we want. And if you have a problem with that, it’s on you, not on us.

Mansplaining MMCCLIXXIVV: The Irony

So, the other night, I posted this Tumblr meme to my Facebook page:

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I both like and dislike it. I like it because it uses superheroes many, if not most, people are familiar with as examples of struggle and perseverance. This is something Geek-minded folks, who may not find more common inspirational memes accessible, can relate to. I dislike it because I dislike inspirational memes in general. At their best, they reduce significant struggles to simplistic terms. At their worst, they become “inspiration porn,” a nasty internet phenomenon that hurts all people with disabilities, whether physical or mental. Bearing this in mind, when I shared the meme, I said I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or whether it made me want to shove my fist through a wall. Soon after posting, I went to bed.

When I checked Facebook the next day, a couple of my friends (with one exception all women with a variety of chronic illnesses) had commented. Nothing major, but the general consensus was “Fist through wall.” Several mentioned that the characters were fictional (IMO, not a stumbling block to taking inspiration from them), or that at least two are fabulously wealthy–a reality which, if it doesn’t solve problems, does, in fact, make them infinitely easier to bear. One friend noted that the list doesn’t include any woman superheroes, which made her think that it was geared toward “TEH MENZ.”

Oh, my. Haven’t we learned by now the danger of pointing our sexism and misogyny in Geek culture? Apparently not. Not long after my friend posted this last comment, this happened:

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A male friend came onto the scene. I think it’s relevant to point out that he isn’t a close friend; he’s someone I picked up from one game or another and kept after I stopped playing because I genuinely like him. But I don’t know him beyond Facebook, and he doesn’t know me. On the other hand, I’ve been extremely close to the women involved for years.

So this male friend starts off with how he thinks people on the Internet just take things “way too seriously” sometimes, and the meme was meant to be a positive message against suicide, and that’s all. And then he goes on about every character mentioned, and how the creator probably picked ones that resonated with him, and how comic book characters have always been sources of inspiration and on and on AND ON FOR ALMOST 1000 WORDS.

One of the original woman commenters, who wrote her B.A. thesis on censorship in comic books, replied with a refutation of some of the things the man said and pointed out that the meme addresses movie versions of the characters rather than the comic book versions, which made his examples inapplicable. He replied by saying she was still “missing the point” in that we were “nitpicking whether these heroes were good enough to convey the message.” And on for another 1000 words or so, describing various iterations of the characters in Golden and Silver Age comics.

That’s where I stepped in and said enough. I told him IMO he was the one missing the point, which was that no one was trying to nitpick whether the heroes were “good enough” to convey a positive message, but that we dislike inspirational memes in general, that all of us have various chronic illnesses which are more than a matter of “just suck it up and keep fighting,” and that he took the entire conversation out of context. Plus, where the heck did he get that it’s an anti-suicide meme, because I don’t see that anywhere. I actually may not have stated things as clearly as that. Yesterday the whole incident had me so livid I could hardly bear to read the thread; today as I write this and look at it, it all seems way less loaded. In retrospect, I probably should have mentioned that I have an “Always Keep Fighting” sweatshirt which I love to death (Thank you, Jared Padelecki). Another woman friend got into the fray, mentioning that the meme almost offended her because how the Hell was her experience supposed to be comparable with a superhero’s?

Massive side-eye for this entire incident.
Massive side-eye for this entire incident.

Dude comes back with ANOTHER lengthy, point-by-point essay full of this, that, and the other, by the end of which he’d kind of admitted that he flew off the handle because he’s seen a lot of nastiness around this particular meme, and said he considered it anti-suicide because he got it from a suicide prevention page, and even managed to apologize in words. Kudos to him. But he still thought my one friend was missing the point.

Anyway, that really should have been the end of it, but later my feed barfs up a lengthy status update from him. This guy’s status updates are rarely shorter than 1000 words, and I mostly enjoy them, especially when he takes down inaccurate religious memes. He and my dad would have loved each other. Well, this one started with how he doesn’t generally agree with the Right about political correctness ruining everything, but you can be overly critical of innocuous stuff, and THERE’S THIS ANTI-SUICIDE MEME…. etc, and “more than one person who shared it even stated that they didn’t know if they loved it or hated it.” *clutches pearls*

Okay, enough. I restrained myself all night and most of today. Done now.

evil willow

Dude, first off, do you really not understand the concept of irony, or can you just not apply it to yourself? You come into a thread where people are having a relatively light-hearted discussion about their problems with a meme and proceed to lecture them AT LENGTH about “taking innocuous things too seriously,” to the point where it took me telling you to back the fuck off to get you to disengage, and then you complain about it to the public? Who’s taking things too seriously now?

In the second place, I have no idea if you’ve ever experienced suicidal ideation, but I doubt it, because if you had, you’d know it’s FAR from innocuous. It’s a fucking killer. People lose the fight every single day. I’ve attempted suicide more than once, which is why I have a fucking semicolon tattooed on my wrist–NOT because I love proper punctuation, although I do. So have several of my dear friends, and let me tell you, when you get to that point it takes more than a shitty meme about metahumans to motivate you to keep breathing. Fuck you for dismissing the pain of that. And fuck you twice for taking issue with people who have to find reasons to go on living every day pointing out that your “innocuous” meme is problematic. In case you hadn’t heard, you can like things and STILL critique problematic elements in them.

In your extended status of yesterday evening, you cite a problem in the LGBT+ community of safe spaces designed for that community (the gay male community in particular) being welcoming to others not of that community (straight women in particular), who then complained that the safe space wasn’t designed for them and, in effect, tore it down while while being unwelcoming to those who had sheltered them when they built their own safe spaces. Back to irony, you did the exact same thing on my post: You came into a space that was not yours and insisted it play by your rules. In addition, you took exception to people who have actually attempted suicide not loving your “positive message” against it. I thought you were better than that, honestly. If a marginalized group has issues with a piece of media purporting to address that group, then you need to shut up and listen instead of getting all butthurt when people in the group say “THIS DOESN’T WORK.”

But you know what? I think it boils down to sexism. I think you saw some women discussing something they found problematic, and I think you saw my friend’s reference to TEH MENZ, and you could not help but jump in to mansplain to us that we were the ones taking things too seriously and taking things out of context and whatever-the-hell else you felt we wimminz weren’t “getting” because you couldn’t STAND for us to have opinions that differed from yours. It would have been easy enough not to engage–as I chose not to engage beyond one comment (and okay; I’m lying, it wasn’t easy at all, but hey, KEEP FIGHTING THOSE IMPULSES LIKE BATMAN). It would have been easy enough to let it go, to say, well, these people have a different take, this meme doesn’t work for them. But you didn’t. You had to let us know just HOW WRONG you thought we were, and how much better you know about all things superhero than we do. Because misogyny.

I don’t know what you meant to achieve aside from parading your own knowledge, but I can tell you one thing you did achieve:  I trust you less than I did yesterday morning. As I said above, I enjoy your rants. I enjoy your takedowns of idiotic memes. But having been on the receiving side of one, I now have to wonder how many times, when you’ve complained about people just not understanding, you’ve painted an inaccurate picture putting yourself in a more positive, and them in a more negative, light than objectivity dictated. How many times have people on the Right with whom you’ve interacted been far more civil and more articulate than you let on? Because I’ve learned you’re loath to admit wrong, and you love having the last word.

I’m going to post this on Facebook. I’m going to post it to a restricted list you are no longer part of, because I don’t trust you anymore. Not because I can’t take criticism, but because you can’t. And in the event you stumble across this anyway, through a mutual acquaintance or just through the randomness of the Internet, I leave you with this reward:

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Congratulations.

Save

Male Privilege III: #NotAllMen Rides Again

This has not been the best of mornings. I woke up with a migraine from disturbing dreams of Merpeople and violent dismemberment, set against a dark background of Green Arrow. Turns out, in retrospect, that this was an indication of my clairvoyance working again, and my dream was prophetic in its symbolism. [Brief explanation: Green Arrow has always spoken up for social justice. Violent dismemberment indicated dissolution of what I though was a trustworthy friendship. Not sure about the Merpeople.]

As usual I started my day by grabbing some coffee and scrolling through my twitter feed. Not very far down, I found this:

jason 1

It bothered me, but I scrolled past. I didn’t immediately want to engage. I thought: “Jason’s a Good Guy. I don’t want to alienate him.”

Then I thought: “Wait a minute. If I really believe he’s a Good Guy, I’m doing him a disservice by assuming what I have to say will alienate him. And if he’ll be alienated by my response, he’s not as good a guy as I think. Plus, I need to challenge my own propensity not to engage with men on these matters because I’m afraid of the potential consequences.”

Yes, this is something I think about on a daily basis. I live a good portion of my life on the Internet. In case you missed it, the Internet is NOT a safe place. It’s especially not a safe place for women and People of Colour. So I police myself when interacting. I don’t call men out in public unless my history with them has taught me it will be safe. And even then, sometimes it doesn’t go well. Not so long ago, I called out a high school friend on making assumptions about my marriage–perfectly acceptable and innocent, right? He said something inaccurate about my personal life, and I corrected him. During the course of the correction, I did remind him that he’d only recently reconnected with me after not being part of my life for over twenty years, and so he really had no grounds for telling me what my marriage looks like. Friends should be able to say these things, right?

Well, no. He immediately unfriended and blocked me.

Anyway. I went through all these mental contortions, and then decided to get involved. I replied with this:

jason 2.1
Confession: I offered “brosplaining” as a sop in an attempt to stave off argument and insert humour.

 

To which he replied:

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Oh, brother. This was a teaching moment I didn’t want to deal with. See, at this point I already got pretty strongly that Jason had some personal investment here and he really wasn’t open to hearing any more. This turned out to be true. I wasn’t privy to this part of the conversation, but he told my husband that someone had asked him to “stop mansplaining!” Obviously he didn’t like it. Now, when someone with less privilege than I have calls me on my behavior and or assumptions, I don’t like it either. I purely hate seeing people in my Twitter feed talk about “White Feminists.” But my first impulse is NOT to complain that Not All White Feminists Are Like That So You Can’t Say That. My first impulse is to swallow, take a deep breath, and look at my attitudes and actions. And NOT SAY ANYTHING. My task when people are discussing their experience is to LISTEN. What they say might apply to me. It might not. Whether or not it does, I have no business policing their vocabulary because people with a certain kind of privilege have no business policing the vocabularies of those who don’t share that privilege.

Anyway, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. My husband–whom, incidentally, I trust implicitly–was sitting next to me on the couch. I asked him to please speak to Jason, because maybe he would actually listen to another man. Let me take a minute to wallow in the irony here, of disengaging in a discussion about Mansplaining and sexism because someone is Mansplaining sexism to me.

Yeah, that didn’t feel as good as I had hoped.

So, Michael got involved. And this happened.

Oh, look. "Not All Men" is rearing its head.
Oh, look. “Not All Men” is rearing its head.

And this:

Yep, it's "Mot All Men."
Yep, it’s “Not All Men.”

As Michael is relating this to me–I wasn’t following the conversation even though I was still getting tagged at this point–I’m wanting more and more to bang my head against the wall. How is the phenomenon of men at all levels of society assuming that women know less than they do about any subject under discussion, even if the woman is a recognized expert in the field, not limited to men? SURE, NOT ALL MEN do it (although I have to say I personally have never met a man who didn’t ever do it at one time or another. Even Michael has done it).

Jason and Michael go back and forth for a while. Michael is trying to explain that a man condescending to a woman because he’s a man and she’s a woman is sexist. Jason comes back with, “No, that guy’s just a jerk.” And he makes some false equivalence between the idea of Mansplaining and lumping all practitioners of Islam together with extremists.

The thing he’s not getting here, which I only just thought of, is that Mansplaining is a BEHAVIOUR, not an IDENTITY. It’s a term used to describe the behaviour of men assuming that women are less competent. Dude, if you don’t engage in that behaviour, great! If you do, you might need to look at that rather than object to terminology. I doubt it would have affected the outcome had I realised this at the time, though.

I couldn’t restrain myself. I jumped back in.

Convo JC 3

Yeah, I let myself in for that one. And so I tried to explain it, even though it was already clear by this time that he wasn’t going to give any consideration to my viewpoint, much less agree with me.

Convo JC 4.1

Here’s what I thought: “Any minute now, he’s going to cite the dictionary definition of racism.”

I said something that was perhaps unwise, but nonetheless true (I don’t have a screenshot of it because it has disappeared from my profile for reasons that will become clear. My husband provided all the screenshots I’ve been using.) I told Jason that in my opinion he was reacting to the word “Mansplaining” because, unlike the more general “sexism” or “racism,” it contains the word “MAN.” And that word requires him to examine his own behaviour as a man, instead of automatically being able to say, “Oh, that’s not about me, because I’m not sexist.” It’s pointed, and IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE. It’s uncomfortable, AND IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE.

And then I said this:

Convo JC 4.3

This was a really, really hard thing for me to do. I try whenever possible to avoid telling people they’re wrong. In fact, I don’t think I ever did it before.

Predictably, he came back with this:

Convo JC 4.2
Oh, look! Right on schedule!

Okay, fine. Rather than debate the problems with the dictionary definition, WHICH EVERYONE ON A CERTAIN SIDE OF THE ARGUMENT BRINGS UP AT SOME POINT, I decided to delegate the teachable moment to others who have written at length on the topic. I Googled “why is the dictionary definition of racism inadequate” and provided Jason with relevant links.

These relevant links. There are many more.
These relevant links. There are many more.

I went away, did some other stuff. Scrolled though Facebook, checked my email. I wanted out of this conversation. I wanted to tell Jason, “I get it. You’re not going to agree with me. But I need you to know I trust you less now than I did when I woke up this morning.” I wondered if saying that would be wise. I was afraid, so afraid I was shaking. Because I expected if I said that, if I admitted I no longer trusted this man, I would be subject to, “Geez, I was only having a discussion and now you’re judging me! How dare you judge me when I’m an ally! You’re really overreacting! Women are so emotional!” Etcetera as nauseam.

I did not expect what I found when I finally went back to Twitter, but in retrospect, I should have.

Speaks for itself.
Speaks for itself.

TL; DR: I had an argument with a guy on Twitter, whom I thought was a friend, and when I disagreed with him and cited sources to support my position, he blocked me.

I’m afraid to go back to Twitter now. At last glance, several people, both women and men, had supported me for standing my ground and said they were sorry this happened. Some others thought the discussion wasn’t a true indication of Jason’s character and that it got out of hand. I now have a gazillion notifications I’m afraid to look at. Maybe later.

My husband has this to say:

“You denied him the moral high ground, challenged his authority, and butchered his sacred cow.”

Meaning: I confronted him when he “called out” a form of “sexism” perpetuated by women on men instead of being silent or agreeing that he had a point; I told him he was wrong; and I refused to cave in when he referenced the dictionary (because, as we ALL know, the dictionary is a sacred text which NEVER CHANGES and is ALWAYS RIGHT).

Even though I’m an outspoken woman on the Internet, this is the first time I’ve had to deal with something like this. And I know it’s peanuts compared to what other women face on a daily basis (i.e., rape and death threats, in case you didn’t get that). I spent some time crying and shaking, and I’m still sick at my stomach. And the worst thing is, I am beating myself up for having the reaction I’m having. At the same time, I’m wondering about those gazillion notifications. What if Jason motivated the forces of NOTALLMEN against me, and now I will be facing rape and death threats? These are things that have happened to others. And since the morning’s exchange proved to me that this person is NOT the person I though he was, despite his amusing and apparently socially conscious tweets, I have no idea any more what he’s capable of.

This has not been a good morning.

I still don’t know what the Merpeople had to do with it.

Male Privilege II: What Men Don’t See

A Twitter friend of mine shared this Buzz Feed article yesterday: 19 Things Women Writers Are Sick of Hearing. For those of you who don’t want to click the link, it’s a series of photographs taken at the AWP Conference. Photos of women writers holding whiteboards of things women writers hear all too often. I shared this link on my personal Facebook page when it came out, back in March, and it occasioned an interesting conversation between me and a (white, male) friend of mine, who is a professor of writing (among other things) at a United States University.

DISCLAIMER: I searched all through my Facebook Timeline to try to find this actual conversation so I could quote directly from it, but since it took place so long ago (by Facebook standards), I couldn’t locate it. So this blog post is based on my recollections of the conversation, rather than on me looking at the actual words. I stand by my recollections, because the conversation I had with my (white, male) professor friend is one that I’ve seen other women refer to, but one I’ve never taken part in. And it threw me, because my professor friend is another Good Guy, thoughtful and insightful. But he still didn’t see some of the things I saw. If I ever do manage to find the thread, I will, of course, amend this post as necessary to provide direct quotations.

The conversation revolved around this image, which appeared fourth in the list.

 

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This is what my friend had to say. Again, it’s paraphrased because I can’t find the related thread from which to post:

I can see how many of these questions would be annoying. But the fourth one bothers me. If she’s consistently getting that kind of feedback, she needs to look at her own writing instead of complaining about the criticism. It’s more productive to work on the writing craft than to bitch about people not understanding you.

The response rather jerked my chain. Here are a number of women stating things they hear over and over again, things they find useless and annoying. And instead of believing that this particular woman had a right to be annoyed and was expressing frustration at the patronizing attitude many women writers get from readers–especially male readers–who have not made an effort to understand their work because the writers are female, my friend immediately leaped to the conclusion that there must be something lacking in her work. Now, I have no idea who this writer is. The subjects of the photographs were not named. I don’t know her, don’t know her work, don’t know the context of the comment. But neither does my male friend. He had no basis for his comment that this writer needs to work on her craft. He just felt that, as a (white, male) writing professor, he was privileged to make it. Without even acknowledging that he had no context for his remarks.

We went back and forth for a long time. Because my friend is a Good Guy, whom I’ve known since high school, I tried to explain the experience of the woman writer.  How we face this kind of thing at every public appearance, with every public statement. How male readers and male writers–especially in genre fiction–judge us at the drop of a hat. Accuse us of “ruining the genre. Declare that we don’t know what we’re talking about, or that our experience and professionalism should be questioned because what we wore on vacation was “too revealing.

My friend responded with several posts about how, as a professor of writing, he stresses to his students the need to be open to criticism rather than respond with knee-jerk defensiveness. In fact, he said, even in his own experience he has had things pointed out to him that he did not want to face (namely, accusations of unconscious racism in some of his published articles), but he forced himself to re-examine his writing and try to see the other person’s point of view.

He talked about the need for the writer to connect with the reader and seek ways to make the work accessible. I talked about how women’s experience and women’s bodies are pre-judged as inaccessible and outside the norm because in our society maleness is the standard. He talked about being able to sympathize with a well-written account of childbirth even though he doesn’t have the anatomy to experience it. I talked about how people discount women’s opinions because they come from women, not because they’re badly written.

Do you see the trap I fell into here? It took me several exchanges to see it for myself. Because my friend is a Good Guy, I tried to tell him about what life is like for women writers, believing he would listen to me because he knows me as a person. Which is not necessarily a bad thing to do. But for a long time, I failed to address the main problem with his original statement. I got derailed with explanations and justifications, with defending the picture instead of calling my friend on the thing that had upset me in the first place. It took me several exchanges over the course of the day before I realized we were speaking at cross purposes. He thought we were talking about effective writing. And I thought we were talking about women’s experience.

When I finally got it, I posted this comment:

Look, I love you. But your male professorial privilege is showing. Because you have made an assumption about the quality of this woman’s writing from nothing more than a picture of her holding a sign with a statement of something she finds annoying.

His response?

I didn’t make any assumptions. Why are you accusing me of making assumptions?

So, I spelled it out for him. I quoted back his original comment: “She needs to look at her own writing instead of complaining about the criticism.” I pointed out that he had no basis to make this statement, as he had never read the author and could have no idea whether or not the criticism was justified. I told him that, to me, it looked very much as if he had read her “complaint” and automatically decided that she had not sufficiently explained “what the body had to do with it,” WITHOUT having any clue of the context or whether she did or not. To me, this is strong evidence that he had made an assumption about the quality of her work without ever having read it. Because she publicly declared she was fed up, and because he’s a (white, male) professor of writing who knows these things.

Well, he came back with, “You’ve supported your position very well and given me a lot to think about,” which I found a bit condescending, but accepted as the best response I was likely to get. After all, he’d made a tacit agreement to think about things, which was about all I could hope for and better than I get from a lot of people. And that was essentially the end of the conversation.

The lesson here? I think there are a couple.  The first is, posts like that one on Buzz Feed may be validating for those who already “get it,” and as such are valuable. But they don’t convince people who don’t already “get it.” They don’t even necessarily engender coherent questions and conversations, because those who don’t “get it” can’t even see what the problem is. And the second is, when people can’t see what the problem is, it does no good to engage in long conversations trying to explain it. As long as the eyes are closed, they’re STILL not going to see. You have to go to the blind spot. You have to point out the unconscious assumptions that lie behind the automatic judgment. Like, “A woman holding a sign is wrong.” Like, “All feedback has value.” Like, “A white, male professor necessarily knows what he’s talking about.”

 

What’s a Good Guy to Do?

I have a lot of male friends. I always have. In fact, except for at rare points of my life, I’ve always had more male friends than women friends.

My male friends are a smart bunch, and they’re good guys. But even these smart, good guys are confused a lot in recent days. In days, that is, where the topic of the harassment women face in daily life, and especially on the internet, has been taking up a lot of space in my news feeds on various social media. See, because their experience is not women’s experience, these good guys do not know how to respond. Sometimes they’re at a loss because they honestly can’t conceive of a reality where the things women experience every day happen. Because they’re not the guys who do “those things,” and they don’t associate with the guys who do “those things.” So they give advice that often seems short-sighted and condescending to women. Advice like, “Just don’t pay it any attention,” or “Don’t stoop to their level,” or “It’s just some crazies spouting off; ignore it.” All of which are variations on “Don’t feed the trolls.”

 

Because if you starve them, maybe they'll go away.
Because if you starve them, maybe they’ll go away.

 

There is, of course, a problem with this kind of thinking. It’s the same kind of thinking that led my mom to advise me, when I was being bullied throughout elementary, middle, and high school, “Just to ignore it, because they’re trying to get your goat. When they don’t get a rise out of you, they’ll stop.” Which may sound like logical reasoning. But it doesn’t work. When you ignore people who are harassing you, they don’t go away. They escalate their behavior until they get a response. In the case of women being harassed on the internet, they escalate from personal remarks to rape and death threats. Sometimes particularly vicious perpetrators of this kind of abuse find out where you live, call you on your home phone, threaten you and your family. This hasn’t happened to me personally, but that doesn’t matter. It happens so much to prominent women who have done nothing but express an opinion while being female that many have learned to take in in stride, which is terrifying when you think of it. That being threatened with rape and/or death is so common that women shrug it off as just another thing. Just another thing that you have to put up with when you’re female. The same way the threat of being raped is, in our culture, just something you acknowledge and try not to think about too much, because if you think about it too much you become unable to function.

Because I care about my friends of all genders, I try my best to educate them about this reality. And it leaves these smart, good guys in a real quandary. They don’t know how to take it in, much less how to respond. One friend of mine recently posed this question in a comment thread on Facebook:

“As one of these guys, whom do I address? I deplore these actions, and this overall attitude, but I also am not aware of anyone I know being one of these miscreants. Should I rant in the relevant forums? How can I do something positive? I would like to help, but since I am not part of that mind set OR culture, I’m not sure how…”

I gave this friend three pieces of advice: Educate yourself about Male Privilege, Don’t dismiss women’s experiences, and Speak out. Since the second two hinge on being successful at the first, that’s what I want to address in this blog. Male Privilege.

The question itself gave me an idea that this friend doesn’t know much about the subject. Two things clued me in: The statement that he “isn’t aware of anyone he knows being one of these miscreants,” and “I am not part of that mindset.” I’m not suggesting that he’s knowingly being dishonest here. But the idea that the only people who harass women are miscreants–i.e., OTHER, not Good Guys–is a prevalent one that keeps Good Guys from examining the ways they do take advantage of their privilege, as is the claim that he “is not part of that mindset.” Because having privilege blinds a person, both to their own actions and those of others with whom they associate.

A lot of people don’t get the idea of privilege in a political sense. Simply put, privilege is all the things you get from things that are unearned and beyond your control, like the shape of your genitalia, that you take for granted as being the way the world works. For a man, it might look like being able to drink to excess without people blaming you if you get mugged later, or being able to walk down the street without strangers making lewd and insistent remarks about your body and what they’d like to do to it. Or being able to express an opinion without someone threatening you with rape.

But those might seem like extreme examples to a lot of men, examples so far outside the usual experience that they just can’t take it in. The fact is, privilege shows up in a lot of little, insidious ways, every day, ways folks of all assorted genders might never think to question. That’s the point, really. That’s the mindset that supports privilege and allows all the behaviors that hinge on it to continue: we don’t question it, because we’ve learned through various means that it’s just the way the world works, and questioning it makes us really, really uncomfortable. But in order to change anything, you have to get uncomfortable. You have to school yourself to see the things to which you’ve been blind.

Privilege shows up in small ways, all the time. And it’s these small things Good Guys need to begin to look at before they can be able to absorb the larger ones. With that in mind, here are a few of my experiences of the way male privilege has shown up  in my life, in little ways, in ways no one thinks to question.

When I was in my twenties, I lived in a house with a couple guys. We had another female housemate, too, but she was never around, so I’m leaving her out of the equation here. Somehow, I–the woman–was always the one doing the housework, washing the dishes, making sure the trash got taken out. We had numerous house meetings about equitable distribution of household chores, which always ended up with my desire to come up with some kind of schedule and task assignment being shouted down because, “These things should just happen organically.” Yeah, guess what? “Organically” meant “The woman does the housework.” Neither of the guys thought that’s what they were saying. I think they may honestly have believed that everything would shuffle out so that, in the end, we all were doing the same amount of work. But it never did, because the men’s tolerance for grime and dirty dishes and overflowing trash bins was far higher than mine. Because they were privileged not to see it.

At one point I got tired. I stopped doing the work. And it took a while, but finally one of the guys noticed that we were living in a cesspit and went on a purge. He spent a couple of days cleaning the entire house. And you know what happened then? He did not magically get a clue. He complained for a week about how “nobody ever picks up after themselves; they just ignored it until I had to do it! Why can’t people take care of their own shit?”

It was the same question I had been asking myself for several months. The difference was, because of his privilege, he believed he was the first person ever to experience this, and he took it for granted that his complaints about the situation would be heard. I’m fairly sure he never cleaned the house again.

Later, I moved in with a boyfriend. Now, this guy was definitely a Good Guy. He’d been raised by a strong mother who was an active feminist. He cooked and cleaned and did the dishes. When he lived at home or by himself, he would even go as far as to move out the stove and fridge to mop behind them on a regular basis (which is something I balk at doing to this day). When I moved in with him, I expected we’d split chores 50-50, because he was a good, responsible guy. Surprise! It didn’t happen that way. As soon as this Good Guy moved in with a woman, the woman became responsible for all the “women’s work.” And he didn’t see any problem with that. In fact, once when I suggested he do his part in washing the dishes because, after all, we both made them dirty, he said, “You’re the one that gets bothered by dirty dishes, so they should be your problem.”

Privilege. It means you still see certain tasks you’re perfectly capable of doing as being more appropriate to your partner of a different gender, and if you deign to partake of them you’re “just helping out,” not being a responsible human being who understands the need to participate in maintaining your environment. It means you’re allowed to ignore and overlook unpleasant things you don’t like doing, because you’re secure in the belief that they’re someone else’s problem. And that’s perfectly okay with you, and with a lot of society.

Still later, I got married. Now, my husband–not the aforementioned boyfriend, by the way–is really an astonishingly good guy and a wonderful man, a true feminist and forward-thinking person. And yet. He still acts on his privilege. When he has a question, he expects me to be available to answer. It doesn’t matter if I’m working on my latest novel or reading a book. He can just toss a question over his shoulder–“how do you spell discernible?”–with the expectation that I will A. hear him, because as his wife I am of course automatically attuned to his every need and B. drop what I am doing to answer. When he walks into a room, especially a roomful of women, he assumes he is immediately going to be the center of attention, and that it’s fine for him to interrupt whatever is going on. Probably the most egregious example of this happened several years ago. I was meeting with my therapist at my home, in the living room, because her office was undergoing renovation at the time. In the middle of my session, my husband arrived home from work. He walked in the front door, which opens directly onto the living room, and immediately started up a conversation with my therapist, ignoring the fact that I was having a session, that he had barged into my personal space and inserted himself into a place that did not concern him. Because, as a man, he is supposed to be the center of attention and he is allowed to ignore the reality of others around him if it suits him to do so.

And you know, even as I write this, I’m thinking, “Didn’t you expect he’d be home around that time? And wasn’t there another place in the house where you and your therapist could have met so you wouldn’t run the risk of being interrupted?” And the answers to those questions are, No, I didn’t, and No there isn’t. But I SHOULD NOT HAVE TO ASK THOSE QUESTIONS. I should be able to expect my space and my time to be inviolate, especially to those with whom I am in an intimate relationship. I should be able to have my occupations respected and not randomly interrupted. I should not have to keep track of all the details of everything in the world. I deserve these things because I am a living being. Hell, according to my personal belief system rocks deserve these things. And you know what? I have seen rocks get more respect than women often do.

The thing is, all these little ways even really Good Guys practice unthinking privilege contribute to the cultural assumption of women as property, as servants, as second-class citizens. They contribute to not being able to do the second thing I suggested to my friend: BELIEVE WHAT WOMEN TELL YOU IS TRUE.  Most women–and yeah, there are some crazies out there of the female variety; I’ve known more than my share–most women don’t have any reason to lie about what they experience or inflate it. So listen, really listen, and take it in. Don’t judge or assume. Try to imagine what it would feel like to go through what the women in your life go through. When you start to practice this, you’ll begin to be able to see it when it’s happening. And then you can practice my third piece of advice: SPEAK OUT. This is important because, like it or not, male privilege gives you an advantage when you address other men that women don’t have: Other men will listen to you. They may not accept it, and they may blow you off, and they may call you names. But you’ll have the satisfaction of being a true ally to the women in your life.

What’s a Good Guy to do? Look at yourself. Look at how you conduct yourself in your relationships with your girlfriends, your wives, your daughters, your woman friends. Examine the ways you accept that the shape of your genitals gives you an unconscious advantage. Adjust your behavior. And take it from there.

Because even Good Guys have room for improvement. Everyone does.

11 May 2014: Edited to Add

So that guy I quoted at the beginning of the article? The one who wanted to know how to do something positive because he’s “not one of those miscreants?” A week ago, he made an inappropriate comment on a Facebook status I had posted. I called him on it. He un-friended me.

Interesting.