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Thursday, August 27, 2009

I am a woman in a man's world. There is no denying that fact. Among other things, I love comics, literature, horror movies, comedy and, well, the company of men. Sometimes these things don't mix; I have often been treated to "jokes" about women that barely hide condescension, or worse, bitterness, taunted with sexist sayings just to watch my anger rise (as if nothing like that has ever affected my life or hurt me, as if my suffering is a laff riot), or, treated like a magic gift from Roddenberry for liking cool/nerdy stuff, but only until my serious interest raises serious conversation about sexism in our shared spheres.

When one of these discussions does get off the ground before being dismissed as unfun (god forbid!) it usually devolves into me arguing that sexism exists and is pervasive, somehow completely avoiding exploring the uncomfortable topic until I peter out, exhausted from asserting my reality to uninterested folks.

And all this from friends and peers. That doesn't seem right, now does it?

So, all you fine gentlemen, take a read of this great essay and before you react, really think on it. Then, next time you want to play devil's advocate with the facts of someone's life, hopefully you'll think better of it.

PS- Don't read the comments on the original article. They will make you want to burn out your eyes.

Edited to add:
Here is another response by Chesney at Ditty Meow.

10 comments:

Amanda said...

In my early 20s, after a lifetime of dating only men, I thought I might be queer and dove into the world of lesbians. It was awesome--ladies who talked about things that made sense to me, partners who got it, looking around a room and realising that even if the genders were mixed, the life experiences were such that people tended to appreciate the impactof sexism, homophobia, gender-based questioning and confusion, and the enforcement of positive and negative roles.

Hanging out with my longstanding straight guy friends became fraught. I'd say something about the men-only leather bar around the block and the debate about whether MTF transexuals should be admitted, and my friends would look at me like I was completely fucked. They'd joke about "why would anyone want to go out of their way to hang out in a place like that anyhow? It's like a favour to be barred!" and the divide between us yawned.

In time, I mellowed, their minds broadened, sexual politics shifted and communities mingled better...and...we all became a little less earnest about things.

But, now and then things pop up in conversations between me and people with whom I have loads in common, to remind me "oh yeah...sometimes, people just don't get it."

Even now, I am still surprised.

T(h)om said...

Very thought provoking. Her remarks about the dilemma she faces when she is confronted with casual misogyny (to laugh and therefore implicitly support/to not laugh and be accused of being uptight and hypersensitive) reminds me of how much I hate it when I am in a situation where other white men casually toss off offensive comments assuming that I agree with them, thereby putting me in the awkward position of deciding whether to start what is almost sure to be an impotent attempt to elevate their consciousness at the expense of my own desire to just get the hell away from the person/people who made the comment in the first place or to just say nothing and avoid the conflict but in the process lose another shred of self-respect for not fulfilling my moral obligation to confront the guys and at the very least let them know that it's not ok with ME. Luckily, this has rarely, if ever, happened with people that I consider "friends." Usually just tweakers hanging outside 7-11s. Which is not to say that I haven't heard some pretty lame comments directed toward men from women, but it certainly happens far, far less. And this is also not to say that I haven't made more than a few inadvertently upsetting comments in my lifetime. I think the important thing is to acknowledge that we probably all have varying degrees of work to do on this front and that most of it stems from a fear of vulnerability that, while perhaps understandable in a lot of cases, is worth thinking more about.

neil-brideau said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
neil-brideau said...

Thanks for directing us to that essay, Carrie. I really appreciated the penultimate line:

"Or you can be vigilant and make yourselves trustworthy. Every day."

Letting those who don't realize it, and reminding those of us who try to realize it how pervasive sexism and misogyny are. And that to truly be allies, men have got to be as "on guard" as much as women are forced to be.

Holy Prepuce! said...

An excellent article, one that gets to the core of the matter that it's often the subtle assumptions held by otherwise reasonable people near to us that are more hurtful than the over-the-top pronouncements of strangers that we can dismiss as being beyond the pale.

It's interesting, though, that you highlighted the one part of her article that troubled me: her complaint about men who "insist on playing devil's advocate." I wonder whether some of the men whom she accuses of pissing her off for the fun of it are in reality raising what they see as legitimate objections to some opinion she has expressed on topics in which they believe themselves to have real stakes.

As a fairly doctrinaire liberal myself, I'm nonetheless concerned at the tendency among some liberals to assume that our ideas are so self-evidently correct as to be beyond debate, that anyone who would challenge them can't possibly be raising a legitimate objection but rather must be engaged in some kind of self-aggrandizing or oppressive sophistry.

If these men are picking fights with her over abstract points of academic feminist theory, then she may be right that they're just playing devil's advocate to no purpose. (Although even there I might argue that no one has a monopoly on the right to discuss essential philosophical questions.)

But on more practical questions of how we structure our society, then I'm not sure that in a world of limited resources and laws to which all are subject that McEwan has the right to declare certain topics off limits to challenge, especially if she's using the sex of the challenger as a criterion.

Carrie said...

Hi hp!, thanks for stopping by.

But cut me a break with that "structure of society" stuff.

The section of the essay that you take issue with is roughly this (bold mine):
"Why do you have to take this stuff so personally? ask the intellectual, clever, and engaged men, who have never considered that the content of the abstract exercise that's so much fun for them is the stuff of my life.

There is the perplexity at my fury that my life experience is not considered more relevant than the opinionated pronouncements of men who make a pastime of informal observation, as if womanhood were an exotic locale which provides magnificent fodder for the amateur ethnographer. And there is the haughty dismissal of my assertion that being on the outside looking in doesn't make one more objective. It merely provides a different perspective."

Nowhere does McEwan "declare certain topics off limits to challenge," she is stating that it is annoying and painful to be continually put on the defensive about one's reality for someone else's fun, that a person one likes, who doesn't likely think differently, continues to pursue, to attack the perspective of someone who has actually been there--wherever there is--for fun and after she has been exhausted. The conversations that she describe are no longer debates, they are bullying.

This is not about free debate of philosophical issues. This is about lack of respect in personal relationships.

looka said...

Right now I think, I'm not to be the one to make a clear minded comment, as I'm pretty pissed and angry and possibly as attached as can be right now about sexist attacks - be they verbal or in person or any other form of mindlesness.

I'm a guy, I was raised in a mostly sexist surrounding, seen the woman address it to the idiots that built it and seen them laughed at for it. To explain further would make me even more pissed. What I can say, is that it has shut me down for quite some time in my youth and childhood. As a youth I was always asked to just stand by and let (sexist) things pass. My anger for those (male) persons I am supposed to look up to grew with each spec of respect I could earn back for the women around me from the intelectual wasteland I was living in. That's one of the worst parts about it, raising new kids to the foulness of the people around them and into their respectless understaniding of their own handling of things.

So for last and to be pretty fair on all those sexists assholes that demand me to punch them out of their shittin' not to get right and mellow heads, here is what I think they can start at to make a change:

Empathy for someone is a gender free thing, so please don't divide the world by your standards of MEN and WOMEN. Think about what your doing for more than a second and think about how it would be for you to be in that situation. Get on with it, you have a lot to do!

Carrie said...

Thanks everyone for responding with such thoughtful comments.

looka said...

Thanks for posting that one Carrie!

WW said...

It's funny, I thought almost exactly what HP thought. Most of the essay makes sense to me, but that "insist on playing devil's advocate" part jumped out at me as a sentiment both familiar and cringe-worthy. I've heard that sort of thing from friends and fellow travelers over the years--whether in college, in my more activisty days, or since then--and found it, in a lot of cases, to be kind of a cop-out, i.e., a way to avoid fully explaing something the person obviously cares a lot about but hasn't fully thought through. Let me explain why that's a problem.

I know, Ms. TH, that you read McEwan's comment to apply only to men who challenge her "as an abstract exercise" or "for fun," but I don't think that answers HP's point (and I know it doesn't resolve mine). The question is whether we can take her at her word that the men in her life are only challenging her for those reasons or whether, as I think HP is suggesting, they may more often be expressing their own valid opinions on matters that affect everyone, not just women.

Specifically, she cites two examples of areas where this issue comes up: feminist theory and reproductive rights. These are both topics that, broadly speaking, have enormous real-world political implications. Those implications, I would hope McEwan understands, affect men as well as women. I know they affect me as a man--I have sisters, I have a lady friend I'm quite fond of, I have female relatives and friends I care about, etc. And, at least as importantly, I have a sense of what is right and just in the world and I would like to see the world be more that way. If McEwan's male friends are anything like me in this respect--and I would guess at least some of them are--then it's hard for me to imagine them challenging her on these topics for "abstract" reasons or just for "fun." They may actually care about the policy/practical issues, maybe even a lot.

Now, there are certainly aspects of these issues that I will surely never personally fully understand--I'll never become pregnant, I'm much less likely than a woman to be sexually harassed or assaulted, etc. If McEwan is talking about men trying to debate her about her personal experiences with these sorts of things, I fully agree with her, that's pointless and offensive--there's nothing to debate there. But that doesn't sound like what she's talking about when she objects to men who "probe [her] argument" about reproductive rights or feminism. That sounds like a point about debating more policy-oriented/political issues, in which case I don't see why a man should be any less ready to challenge her opinions than a woman.