Women like me: middle-aged women who spent much of their youth around men and boys; who viewed ourselves as strong, feminist, independent; who were tomboys; who could “take a joke”; who could tell harassing strangers to fuck off, but took shitty comments from our male friends as good-natured verbal roughhousing; women who rolled our eyes at women who were offended by those friends, who rolled our eyes at women who complained at all; who looked down on girls who dressed “like sluts” and got drunk alone at parties – of course they weren’t asking to be assaulted, but they weren’t doing themselves any favors; women who saw it as our duty and privilege to put up with men’s shit, to not let it bother us, to be strong and impermeable and masculine … we were not only terrible bitches ourselves. We were fucked over more than anyone could have convinced me at the time.
How does an educated, leftist, feminist artist from an activist family learn to hate women? Pervasive, systemic, toxic male supremacy, baby!
I had many fascinating discussions with friends who fit the description above after the #metoo movement took hold. Stumbling in the light after the obscuring veil was ripped off our heads, having to cope not only with our own experiences of harassment and assault, but our own practices of misogyny and complicity with abuse is an ongoing struggle. I talked about this a bit in a previous post, but this time I’m indulging my curiosity about the foundations of that misogyny. And I’ll have to start with my poor, blog-abused father (who is still not ready to face the realities of history that I highlight in this blog, though he has come a long way. I’m thanking age-induced diminishing testosterone.)
My dad wanted a son. That was clear to my mother, and clear to me once I was old enough to get it. But he didn’t complain when a second young girl entered his life; he made the best of it. And making the best of it meant believing in my ability to do anything. That is, to be as good as a boy. Being a superior woman in my own right wasn’t an option – women could only be exceptional by being like men, or my being exceptionally beautiful and regal, which wasn’t really an option for me. Did you all see this Super Bowl ad in 2006? B & I were half-watching the game for the commercials with another cis, hetero couple, all sex-positive and socially conscious people, but none of us particularly focused on feminism or sexism at the time. And every one of us cried when this aired.
Why? What did this tell us that hit so hard? I think for me, at least, it was the de-normalizing of something I had simply accepted my whole life. My dad was continually coaching me not to throw or catch or run like a girl, and it didn’t take any explaining for me to understand what that meant – doing anything like a girl was the shitty way to do it; thus behaving like a girl or, later, a woman, was to be avoided at all costs.
When the Wonder Woman movie came out, the first big female Super Hero movie, less than a decade ago (where I again was again crying, crying over the glorification of, respect for, and deference to, female strength, skill, determination, and reason), there was plenty of backlash over her depiction as a person with feelings, as a person who loved nature, as a compassionate human being. This made her inferior to male superheroes. Those who wanted her to compete with them were let down by her feminine qualities. They wanted her to be a female superhero who was the same as the male superheroes, but still female. What makes her female, then? Her tits? Her outfit? If there is no difference between male and female superheroes, why do we even give a shit if she’s a woman or not?
This, in a nutshell, was my dilemma. I wanted to fight for women’s rights. I wanted to be a great woman. But I didn’t want women to be any different than men. Except – physically? You can understand why I was so thrown by the idea of transgender folks when I was young. But… but… if men and women are the same except in the stereotypes imposed by society, why would anyone need to change genders? I’ve been fascinated with body dysmorphia since I first heard about it, in large part because I thought it might help me – help us- understand the TRUE differences between men & women. (In some ways, it has.)
It’s just like Whiteness. If there is only one standard by which behavior is measured, then anything non-White (collaboration, expressiveness, oral tradition, integration with nature) is inferior, laughable, or aberrant. If Masculinity is all there is, then both femininity and any mashup of the two, or other gender performance, is necessarily inferior. So why would I want to be Feminine? Ever? I allowed myself to exhibit some feminine qualities considered acceptable if inevitable, some things that women contributed to society to soften the male edges. But even those never seemed right because they were fucking FEMALE. Though I never questioned the gender I was assigned or the body I was in, I rejected everything female except those characteristics most prized by society – beauty and sexual attractiveness. (Not even sexuality, necessarily. I definitely got enough slut-shaming media to fear my own needs & desires.) Why did I still care how I looked, while rejecting so much of the rest? Because I needed to be validated by men, and that was the easiest way for me to do it. If men are superior, the approval of women hardly matters. Do you see how confusing this was for me?
And then there’s the more obviously destructive distinctions. Women are more physically vulnerable than men. We like to pretend that this is because they are naturally both weak and seductive and men more naturally aggressive and aroused, but it is at least as much because we are fed those very “facts” and ingest that bullshit as a society. I was regularly harassed on the street from the time I was 7 years old, and thought that looking, acting, being tough would help protect me. It seems laughable now. My body and strength were indistinguishable from a boy’s when I was seven, and that didn’t keep me protected then. How would anything short of drag or steroids, if even that, help me as a developed woman?
Men don’t have it easy either. The Masculine standard fucking sucks for everyone. But at least they don’t identify with the category they are trained to loathe. They may come out of the programming broken, miserable, depressed, and filled with unquenchable rage, but they’re not typically going after other guys for being what they are supposed to be. Not so for women! We’re taught that we need to compete with each other for the attention of men, and that we are petty and materialistic, so the choices are either to join that group or reject them. I did the latter, preferring groups of boys to groups of girls, though my closest friends have almost always been female. In practice, I loved women. In theory I didn’t. Just like the White guy with the Black best friend who still thinks African-Americans are more naturally inclined towards crime and laziness than Whites are.
It’s so clever, though, isn’t it? I didn’t even realize that I hated women because the characteristics assigned to them were both legitimate and contrived. I thought I was rejecting the bullshit, but I didn’t know what was bullshit and what was real. To be honest, I still don’t. I think it’s healthier to discuss Feminine and Masculine traits as a yin/yang separation, rather than features exclusively found in the biological/hormonal/psychological gender. No one is all Feminine or all Masculine, but we generally associate these characteristics with Girls & Women. Best guess, here are some legit ones:
And here’s some bullshit imposed by society:
I threw out the baby (and having babies) with the bathwater. (No regrets on the childless part, BTW.) If women were materialistic, submissive, and stupid, then I didn’t want to be collaborative, gentle, or patient either. Hell, I also threw intuition, emotion, body consciousness, and self-respect on the fire. It’s not easy to pick the desirable charred remains out of the ashes.
I was a scarf knit together from a dozen different gauges of yarn. The color and overall shape might look alright from a distance, but if you examine it up close, there was no consistency. Or not to anyone but me. I felt fairly comfortable with my vaguely defined gender theory until I was forced to examine it not only in the face of #metoo and discussions of gender identity, but perhaps even more through my anti-racist education and Buddhish spirituality.
More on that next time.
*image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/christopherdombres/15106273965