Guest post by Sid
I watched a fair amount of TV growing up—much more than I do even now (I also played outside more than I do now and read more than I do now, so I assume there were simply more hours in the day back then). When I was old enough to stay home alone—during the summer in particular—I would watch whatever I could find on TV while I baked or ate lunch or figured out which book I would read that afternoon. It was at this time that I discovered the channels with stand-up comedians on the air, back-to-back, all day long. And I watched them. I watched them all. Well-known or not, dozens of them came across the screen, often in sets of three on something like Premium Blend.
Often, the shows would repeat, so I’d see them a couple times, and over time I came to notice that several of the male comedians had a common theme—they complained about women. A lot. Women did this, and women did that, and doncha hate it when a woman does this? “Oh,” I thought to myself at the time. “This is like…a guide. This is stuff I shouldn’t do.” And that was the first time—but not the last—that I would think to myself, “Well, I don’t want to be one of those girls.”
One of those girls. At—charitably—twelve, I didn’t want to be like the loser wimpy girls who love shoes and shopping and pink and ribbons…because those girls were annoying. Those girls were troublesome. To men. They were annoying to men. And at twelve, I didn’t really have the capacity to understand that these people on stage were not representatives for all men everywhere. My house consisted of my mom, my dad, and me—I didn’t have brothers and I didn’t have a reliable way to gauge what these comedians were saying against the real world, so as far as I knew, these were important tips that I needed to remember for when I was old enough for them to matter.
I ended up internalizing a lot of it, and at this point I don’t like shopping because…I really don’t like shopping. I can’t stand the crowds, trying a bunch of stuff on is exhausting…plenty of reasons that have nothing to do with some random jackass comedian I saw when I was twelve. But that’s still where a lot of it started. Once I started dating, I had this list of things in my mind that I couldn’t be or shouldn’t be. And like I said, now I simply am who I am, all preconceptions be damned, but I still think it’s interesting to examine how I got here. I didn’t want to be one of those girls. (To be completely honest, I still hate pink, but for no really identifiable reason. This one might be a remnant from the time I’m talking about because nothing about the color is inherently offensive to me, but my avoidance of it borders on compulsion.)
I have a friend who is vehemently against people who say they aren’t one of those feminists. Pushing yourself away from the word and the cause behind it, she posits, only serves to weaken the base of feminism and what it represents rather than strengthen that base. I think she has a very good point, but I have been guilty on more than one occasion of hesitating to use the word “feminist” to describe myself. The word holds such a stigma—and while I agree that “fuck stigma, feminism is not a bad word,” I know that more than once I’ve tried to set up a barrier between myself and the word “feminism” specifically because I wanted my audience to take my point at face value, not filter it through an “oh, she’s just talking about girl stuff” lens.
Is that wrong? Or is it just tactical? I’m honestly not sure, and if it leaves me open to criticism then I’ll take it. Either way, though, the fact that I feel like I have to frame my words for anyone to hear them is part of the problem—if not the crux.
My roommate has a theory that the problem with the words “feminist” and “feminism” are the “–ist” and “–ism” suffixes. In our vernacular, he suggests, that suffix is almost exclusively associated with negative things or forms of supremacy. “Racist” and “supremacist,” specifically. In this way, the word itself is actually damaging to the cause, because the word itself provokes defensiveness. This is a fascinating approach, and while I don’t exactly agree with it (especially after a quick Google search that immediately disproves the “most –ist words are negative” part of the theory), at the very least, it’s an interesting thought experiment—would we have a better reaction if we called feminism something else? Would it be easier to talk with people and explain simple ideas? Would we be less likely to have our points dismissed as “girl stuff” or “angry stuff”?
One way or another, though, separating ourselves from other women for the sake of looking better to men only hurts us. It shows the kind of men who would try to bully us out of our autonomy and into fantasy roles that this is an excellent plan. That if they continue, they will get the results they are after, because look, this girl totally agrees with us.
When I was in my early twenties back in my hometown, I was talking with a high school friend of mine. He was getting into venture capital and telling me, along with two other guys, that their firm had one really hard and fast rule—they would not deal with female business owners. “Women are crazy,” he explained in the same tone of voice you might use to explain that grass is green and fire is hot. Naturally, I had an immediate and loud reaction to this.
“Yeah, they are! I know exactly what you mean.”
Because I wasn’t one of those girls, remember? I was cooler than that. I got him because I was awesome. Or because my self-esteem was in a shape at the time that I couldn’t really argue, because then I wouldn’t be as cool (and he might think I was one of those girls after all).
This conversation stands out in my mind not even because it was the first time I’d said something like this, but because I remember feeling a strong, “Are you serious?” reaction underneath my verbal reaction, and that was new. Even while I was agreeing with him, I was suddenly very certain that I did not want to be around him. This may have been the last time I saw him.
I don’t think my high school friend was trying to bully me or anyone out of autonomy—truth be told, I’d bet a small fortune that he was only parroting what someone at his job had espoused—but he was, intentionally or not, supporting the kind of attitude that breeds this bully behavior by placing the central tenet on a pedestal: women are less. From there, it’s a simple jump to assuming they should behave as you wish. Because they are less than you.
By separating yourself (as not one of those girls), what you’re really saying is, “But I’m not less,” when what you perhaps ought to be saying is that none of us are less.
One of those girls, one of those feminists, one of those anything—no one identifies themselves that way. So whoever you are and whatever you represent, remember that separating yourself from a group may be a quick method of self-defense, but focusing on the group as a whole—and pointing out that no one is less—is the only way to make any lasting progress.
Guest post by Amanda Rose Smith
“I’m not going to Smith College.”
That’s the first thing I said to my college counselor, when at 16 years old and a junior in highschool, I came shuffling into her office in my leather jacket and walmart-bought steel-toed boots. It’s safe to say that just about nobody would have ever called me a paragon of femininity or a “girly-girl,” but even so, the word “feminist” had always seemed a little bit like a dirty word to me. I felt that it implied victimhood, a need of special treatment, and was determined to prove to anyone who would pay attention that I didn’t need that. As such, I found the idea of an all female college completely repugnant. Still, despite my statement and the finality of decision-making that it implied, I did, in fact, end up going to Smith College. It was mostly a matter of financial aid, school reputation, and proximity to home. Also, they had a *great* program in what I wanted to do. It was a bit perplexing to me, but everyone kept saying how perfect it would be for me, and how much they knew I would love it. Despite the fact that I still had some misgivings, I went. Aside from that whole “no guys thing” as I called it, it made sense.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the school (although I sort of suspect anyone reading this kind of blog probably is) it is one of the few originally all female schools left that still only admits women. It is one of the top 20 liberal arts colleges in the entire country, male, female, or co-ed. It has graduated tons of famous women, including Julia Child, Gloria Steinem, Sylvia Plath, Betty Friedan, Tammy Baldwin…it is also the Mecca of feminism. Smith was where I learned about the different ways of spelling woman (womyn, for example) I learned the pronouns that you use for transgendered people and aaalll about “The Patriarchy.” While other girls were going to frat parties and joining sororities, I was eating vegan cutlet and discussing affirmative action. That’s not to say I was immediately converted. During freshman (sorry- I meant to say, “first year”) orientation, all the new girls in my dorm sat in a circle, taking turns telling the group what they hoped to accomplish at Smith. When they got to me, I smirked and said, “I’m just here to find a nice man.”
That’s pretty much how it went the entire time. As I had when I was younger, I struggled against the idea that I was somehow disabled because I happened to have been born with a vagina. In fact, in a bizarre kind of way, I sort of liked the idea of things being a little harder for me than they were for other people. I liked the challenge. I liked the idea of doing more with less, and so, whenever I heard other girls complaining about it being harder to “make it” in their areas of study, I would roll my eyes and think, “If they just worked a little harder, and shut up, everything would be fine.” I mean, if they really did do as good a job as their male counterparts, they’d HAVE to accept them, right? RIGHT?
I don’t mean to give the impression that I didn’t love being at Smith. I did. I really did. It was an amazing environment for learning and I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life there. The women I spent 4 years brushing my teeth next to in the morning are now lawyers, doctors, engineers, publishers, and then there’s me, the hybrid technologist/artist. We’re a pretty awesome bunch, if I do say so myself, especially having reached all that before the age of 30. ANYWAY.
So then I graduated, and moved to NYC to start my freelance career and to go to grad school. My degree at Smith had been in classical composition and now I was going for a masters in Music Technology. It was my entrance into this kind of work that introduced me to the fabled misogynist.
The first few times that it happened, I didn’t really think much of it…being passed over for internships which went to guys who were a lot less intelligent and experienced than myself, being talked down to by employers in a way that didn’t seem to happen to my male counterparts. There were times that I suspected what was going on, but after being so inundated at Smith by people talking about discrimination, and seemingly blaming EVERYTHING that went wrong in their lives on that dreaded Patriarchy, I REFUSED to be THAT girl. I would keep quiet. I would work harder.
The thing is, it only got worse. During my third internship as a sound designer at a post studio, I was leaving the studio late one night with one of the senior engineers. There were 11 interns, 10 young men and me. During the ride down in the elevator, the engineer was complaining about how us interns hadn’t done well enough in our duty of cleaning the studio every day. I shrugged. He continued, “Hey, you’re a girl. Why don’t you teach the rest of them?”
Now, I’ve always been loathe to let anyone accuse me of not being able to take a joke, even when it comes to things that a lot of other people wouldn’t find funny. So, I dutifully waited for him to crack a smile or say “Just kidding!” or something to that effect. Nothing. I stood there in shocked silence for a minute before saying, “Yeah…and then maybe I can make you a sandwich. How would that be?” If what he said had been a joke I didn’t get, he didn’t get mine either. After another moment of silence, the doors parted and I went off on my way.
After a few more incidents like this, I began to get angry. As a house engineer at a nightclub I had to watch bands give their mix directions to my male intern rather than to me, and have drink orders yelled at me by rowdy patrons assuming my having tits made me a waitress. Visiting male engineers wouldn’t let me lift gear because they assumed I would break like a delicate flower the first time I tried to lift with my legs. Male co-workers would stop talking when I came around the corner during their re-tellings of a previous night’s hot and heavy date. I found that attempting to create a comfortable space by telling MY stories of sexual conquest was mostly met with awkward foot shuffling. So much for being one of the guys.
I felt betrayed because being “one of the guys” was exactly what I wanted, and what I’d always figured I could have. Every time I sat at Smith and listened to these stories of sexism, there was a part of me, steeped in that environment of female power, that didn’t believe them. Somehow I had internalized this feeling that those women who told those stories, unless they were talking about “the olden days,” well, they were just being oversensitive. I didn’t believe that sexism was still real. I thought that feminism was all about special treatment, not about equality, because I had been under the impression that I already HAD equality.
So here I was, considering the things I had learned at Smith, years after graduating. I felt trapped. I didn’t know how to approach this problem. I didn’t want to be viewed as “THAT girl,” as I’d always thought of that stereotype, but now that I’d had some first-hand experience, I also felt that I couldn’t let certain things pass anymore. Whenever I hear people say that certain jokes are out of bounds, or talk about being “offended,” I usually want to retch. So. how do you talk frankly about something, and how do you address the fact that jokes sometimes ARE telling of a person’s actual prejudices without being that stick in the mud, lame “womyn” that no one wants to hang out with? I couldn’t stay in the Smith College world forever. I HATE vegan cutlet.
Navigating sexism today is hard, and I meet a lot of other women and girls who like I used to, react to it by way of refusing to admit that it exists. At first glance it appears to be a place of power, but in large part they are actually doing themselves a disservice. Ignoring something doesn’t make it go away, and can in some cases actually be interpreted as acceptance. Of course the new-wave pseudo-feminist technique of dwelling on it doesn’t really help either. Problems need to be acknowledged, and they need to be overcome, but there is a difference between working to change something and using it as an excuse. The two get mixed up a lot, and when the problem is as subtle as it often is these days, its easy for someone who doesn’t have to deal with it, like your male friends or coworkers, to assume that you’re making something out of nothing. The real challenge is trying to communicate, in an effective way, why these things aren’t, in fact, “nothing.”
I don’t yell at every person I hear make a joke that could be interpreted as sexist, I don’t automatically assume that I didn’t get a job because I’m a woman, and I don’t, ever, if I can avoid it at any cost, use the word, “Patriarchy.” Here’s what I do: I pick my battles. If you’re on someone about every little thing that they say, they’re never going to stop to consider anything that YOU say. Instead, try to just respond to something here and there, as innocuously as you can. Sometimes making a joke works too:
“Hey Amanda! What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing! haha! You already told her twice!… OW! WHY DID YOU KICK ME?”
“That was me telling YOU once. Don’t tell that joke. If you still want to be able to walk home, don’t make me tell you twice!”
Thats how I’d like to deal with it, and would have (ahem…actually did…once) but this is probably a better way:
“Hey dude…that’s kind of a shitty joke. I know lots of girls who’ve been abused.”
“…I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just a joke”
“I know. And I get that, but I mean, what if someone here has been knocked around and you’re bringing that all up again? I’m just saying, its not a good idea.”
“Ok. I guess you’re right. Sorry.”
We’re all allowed to grow, right? There is of course a chance that he won’t react as favorably as all that, but if he does, rather than alienating someone by yelling at them, you may have actually caused them to think about what they’re saying, and that’s a great thing.
So, post Smith College, here’s basically what I think about trying to be a “feminist” out in the normal world: I’ve learned that denying that sexism exists isn’t the way to get over it, and distancing yourself from feminism as a way of being accepted by the people perpetrating it won’t help you in the long run. Just be tactful and honest, funny when possible, and give people the benefit of the doubt.
Amanda Rose Smith is a film composer and audio engineer. She lives in Brooklyn with a nifty man and two cats. Visit her at www.amandarosesmith.com.