I’m Still Not the Feminist I Want to Be

A few months ago, I surprised myself with my latent attachment to some patriarchal bullshit. I have a lot of flaws – I’m quick to anger and am perpetually late, for starters – but I’m rarely superficial when it comes to women’s appearances. After all, I’m positive body image girl! Love yourself! Kiss and hug yourself! Rejoice in your beautiful body and all the amazing things it lets you do! And I mean it.

Until the second you piss me off, that is. Then, apparently you should feel bad about any and all physical flaws, as perceived by me, unrelated as they may be to the situation at hand. Oh, shit.

Here’s the deal: several months ago, someone crossed me on the wrong day. I’d had a horrible time at work, was on my way home, and just needed to stop by Target. What I didn’t expect was the live music event at the mall, which had left every parking spot in the complex full. I circled and circled; I headed out to hunt in the furthest lots… but no go. Finally, I resorted to stalking people who were walking back to their cars. But – isn’t this always the way? – all of them were just grabbing forgotten cell phones or blankets and heading right back in. After over 20 minutes of eying pedestrians like a vulture, with my frustration nearing nuclear levels, I found a man who was actually leaving in his vehicle. He waved at me and even jingled his keys in the air so I would be clued in. This man was my salvation.

He was parked right across a four-way intersection from where I was waiting. I pulled up as close as I could without blocking the road and triumphantly set my blinker to blipping. But, as he reversed, a red sports car full of teenage girls sped in from the right and then screeched to a halt. Their blinker went on, too.

I stared them down, even lowered my window and gestured at the spot and back to myself, but the driver did a perfect blind-and-deaf impression, intently looking everywhere but at me. The second the man was out of his spot – knowing I couldn’t just zip across the intersection – the teen queen bebopped into the space. I drove up behind her, ready to say something, but the cars behind me started honking and I had to move on. As I drove away, desperately unsatisfied, she shot me a half-sheepish, half-defiant look, pursed her lips, and then went back to laughing with her friends. I found a spot about 10 minutes later, and immediately set to drafting a word bomb to leave on her windshield.

And here’s the thing. She knew what she’d done was shitty, but I wanted to reinforce it with a little more shame, because being a decent member of society involves not being an asshole driver. I wanted to make that message stick. (At 17, I was once followed into a restaurant by a man who reprimanded me for cutting him off in traffic, and I needed to be told. I felt the same way about this girl.) But, I was also at the end of my rope for other reasons, and along with the desire to not let her rudeness go unchastised was a deep, sharp urge to hurt her and tear her down. (“Disrespect me, will you?!”) And the second my anger made it personal, the first thing I jumped to was insulting her appearance.

She was young, and that made it so easy. She was playing a game I’ve played many times, especially at her age: dressed to the nines, heavily made up, and ready to party – all in the slightly over-the-top, not really pulled together way that happens when you’re in high school and trying so hard. And normally, I’d say: good for her. Yes, yes, the male gaze, etc… but mostly she was enjoying presenting herself, and that’s awesome.

But that night, all I wanted to do was tell her every horrible thing I knew from personal experience would attack her deepest insecurities: “Y’know, that thick, jagged eyeliner really makes you look trashy – maybe learn how to apply it properly sometime, right after you learn to be less of a selfish bitch. And all the concealer in the world isn’t going to fix that skin, honey – maybe someday it’ll clear up, around the time you mature enough to understand that life isn’t all about you.” And so on, and so on… It was awful.

Of course I didn’t leave her that note in the end. I didn’t even write that note on paper. But I thought it. I thought those hateful comments instantly – proving to me that, contrary to my dearly held beliefs, the deep recesses of my brain are still wired to think the most effective way to “put a woman in her place”  is to make her feel ugly. Fuckity fuck fuck.

I was so discombobulated by this that I sat sweating in my car, holding pen and paper and shaking my head. After a while, I did write and leave a note that called her out. But it didn’t say a word about her appearance, or use the word “bitch,” because I remembered just in time that I’m a decent human being myself, and supposedly a feminist who supports young women instead of tearing them down.

As Caitlin Moran said, feminism doesn’t mean never disliking another woman, or refraining from any joke at the expense of how a woman has styled herself. But I do think it means not bringing appearance up as a trump card to embarrass a woman when her looks are utterly unrelated to the reason you’re mad.

Now that I’ve had weeks upon weeks to simmer down, what I really wish for that teenage driver is that the concert was more than worth the stern note she had to read at the end of it. That she felt gorgeous and comfortable in her dress, that she found someone she wanted to dance with, and that, when she did read my note, she was confident and poised enough to accept the criticism, tuck it away, and move right on with her own young, marvelous life.

Thank you to Hold The Condiments for her post on fight versus flight, which inspired me to share this story.

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30 responses to “I’m Still Not the Feminist I Want to Be

  1. You should have left the note. My wife has the excellent habit of picking up paper pedestrians throw to the ground. She returns it to them with a smile on her face like some possessed good Samaritan doing a good deed: “Here, you dropped this.”

    • Oh, I did leave a note. It was just one that addressed the thing she actually did wrong, instead of what her eyeliner looked like.

      Your wife sounds amazing and I can only aspire to that level of cool self-possession in the face of people’s idiocy.

  2. I’ve done really stupid things like leaving nasty notes as well. It never makes you feel better because you never will know their reaction to it. It’s just not worth it.

    I keep telling myself that after every single time I do it.

    • Ha! Your last line made me laugh – because we keep doing it. 🙂

      It’s so funny – the emotion that outrages me more than anything else is a sense of injustice; either toward myself or others. Even, apparently, when the injustice is miniscule in the scheme of the world. Perhaps I should save that righteous anger up to lobby for something more worthwhile.

  3. It’s amazing how deeply ingrained that cultural notion is, isn’t it? It’s like defining someone by the colour of her skin, instead of just as a person. In spite of your anger, you handled it the right way, though – good for you! 🙂 Many would not have and would have continued to reinforce the use of appearance as a way to make a woman feel bad about herself.

    • Lynette, thanks for your kind words. I was absolutely shocked – I so rarely get angry (at anyone but politicians) – it had been years since I’d been that mad at another woman. And you’re right – it reminded me that the ways we learn to hate stick with us subconsciously, even when intellectually we have moved past them. It’s disappointing and eye-opening at the same time.

  4. OMG, you think that is raging? My grandmother will park her car BEHIND the person that cut her off and go for a walk until they come back and find they are locked in. NEVER mess with a maltese grandmother.

  5. Try not to beat yourself up too much, darling. We are (like it or not) products of our environment — not to oversimplify and make excuses, but we are always going to be stained by our surroundings, even by things that we loathe. A person can spend their entire lives trying to rid themselves of small-minded upbringing and consider themselves cultured and open-minded and modern and civilized, only to find themselves reacting in some small bitter way — in my experience, these are the moments we humble ourselves and perhaps forgive those who patterned that behaviour (with a U). Forgive, you say? Helena, are you insane?
    Perhaps — but I figure I’d be a giant fucking hypocrite if I succumbed to an attitude or a behaviour that I somehow thought myself above — and not at least open myself up to the possibility that the person who modeled it to me had it modeled to them in the first place. Both nature AND nurture are tough things to overcome. I’m not saying that you can’t be angry — just — perhaps — a little understanding.

    I rambled, and I’m not entirely sure I didn’t lose the plot. I’m so tired, darling.

    • Your plot is spot-on. I think I’m more upset about this than any other unwelcome, cave-person-esque thoughts in my head because I can’t pin this one on a parent or teacher – this one came from everywhere. Damn the man (says the woman). But yes, as with so many ugly things, it’ll be less of an issue for the next generation – if only because so many people are talking about it, as opposed to just accepting it. Huzzah!

      I wish I could buy you an Irish coffee. I feel like you need it.

  6. I can completely relate! Glad you refrained from leaving the original note (and used it as an opportunity to reflect). I’m still thinking about the guy who followed you into the restaurant! I bet the teenager will think twice before she tries to steal a parking spot from now on!

    • I have to hope I’m haunting her brain, like a parking-obsessed ghost of Christmas Past.

      I’m still thankful for that guy being so intense in the restaurant, even though at the time it gave me cold chills down my spine. I HATE public confrontation. (I’d rather be dragged through a body of water in a sinking boat…) 😉

  7. Look don’t be hard on yourself on this; I as a senior guy has come close to chewing out rude folks so many times and done so once in awhile – mostly rude, arrogant men I met in my years in DC. Out in the NW it is not the rude folks on the road or in line that get to me, but discourteous and reckless users of parks and trails. I only talk to them if they endanger my life or others or nearly destroy my camera gear. I take a few deep breaths and try to read them the riot act calmly, so they might listen. Sadly they react rather badly.

    I certainly don’t think I am being disloyal to men by criticizing them for their rudeness and recklessness (though with men I do it only when I know they won’t get violent). I feel as a man it is my right to call them on their bad behavior. But I have made mistakes as well and been called on it in public, and it hurts, but like you did, I also am am willing to admit I was wrong and apologize.

    • Hello again! I certainly agree that you’re not being disloyal to men by calling them on recklessness, nor would I have been upset with myself for calling this woman out on her rudeness. The problem is that I wanted to punish her bad behavior with personal insults about her appearance. Have you ever felt motivated to tell a man who was being dangerous on park land that he was ugly and badly dressed?

      • No, that would never occur to me. But I have want to tell them that they represent all the evil in men that I despise – that they are a disgrace to their gender. In other wards, I probably have a huge chip my shoulder from being tormented and beaten in Junior High as a nerd. Of course observing some single men in action in the dating world, also left me want to chew some of these jerks out as well. Believe or not I like being a man and I think most of us are decent. But I have wanted some of these guy’s mothers to show up and whack them up side the head like a dumb mule and remind them they were not raised that way.

  8. “But, I was also at the end of my rope for other reasons, and along with the desire to not let her rudeness go unchastised was a deep, sharp urge to hurt her and tear her down.” Motivation is everything. If a parent disciplines a child because the child needs to learn, that’s appropriate (some would even argue that it’s necessary and the most responsible act a parent can do). If a parent disciplines the same child for the same action, but does so out of the parent’s own anger, that’s inappropriate, and harmful to both child *and* parent. When we hurt others, we hurt ourselves first – and your post so clearly illustrates.

    All that being said, we are all humans, and therefore are all imperfect. You had the wisdom to 1) recognize where your real desire to “educate” was coming from, 2) acknowledge that not-so-nice part of yourself (instead of deny/ignore/justify it, as people frequently do), and 3) change your behavior so that in the end, you educated instead of punished. HUGE kudos to you, Miss Jennie. Talk about *real* maturity.

    • Thanks. That was one of those totally unexpected struggles – I am glad those words never made it to paper. I think I learned more from the process of writing the note than that woman possibly could have just from reading it – and maybe that’s the real lesson… the biggest learning experiences are those we generate for ourselves, rather than those that are foisted on us.

      THANK YOU for your feedback. My goal is to be mature in the ways that matter (doesn’t always happen), and very, very young at heart when that’s allowable (this one I usually get right)!

      • “The biggest learning experiences are those we generate for ourselves, rather than those that are foisted on us.” Abso-freakin’-lutely! 🙂

  9. Disclaimer: I do not advocate patriarchy nor any other hierarchical paradigm.

    Nonetheless, I am still a son of patriarchy, the residue will never fully wash away. But I am also it’s greatest threat. I know it all too well.

    And recent events in my social circle have called me to examine the intersection of patriarchy, race, class, and age. I have chosen to refrain from posting my position on the matter because some “so-called” men will indeed interpret and appropriate what I say as some advocacy for men’s rights (that whole “movement” disgusts me).

    Nevertheless, I want to discuss the difficulties in simply dismissing patriarchy for different social groups.

      • I hear you. You can’t stop being a son of the patriarchy any more than I can stop having white privilege. But you’re so right – change that comes from within an establishment can be so powerful – that’s why I get so excited every time a smart man declares his feminism!

        Now, of course, I’m extremely curious as to what you do have to say. I agree that complex arguments (which are generally the only kind that can encompass all the varied aspects of a social justice issue) are easily confiscated and twisted by people who wouldn’t know a subtlety if they ate in on their breakfast toast. But what social groups are you talking about? I have a hard time imagining one that wouldn’t benefit, long term, from an egalitarian system.

  10. Jennie, I am sorry for this long response. It is probably unnecessary, but I do have a tendency of going around my @$$hole to get to my elbow.

    hmmm…Where to begin? Family or public life (school, neighborhood, etc…)? Let’s start in the work place. My co-workers: a bunch of guys, young and privileged, oblivious to the modus vivendi of the world beyond campus. Unaware of their prejudices. And here I am with a wealth of experience to which they will never be exposed (I’m much older than I look).

    One way I employ patriarchy is to establish dominance when it comes to sexism, racism, and discrimination. I know it sounds like wtf?, but when a coworker uses the word “bitch” my immediate response is, “We don’t use oppressive language around here.” But it’s not just in the words; the entire presentation is to intimidate guys who only understand “might makes right.” I deal with this type of ignorance almost every day.

    Especially, with “men” in groups. They tend to get “cocky.” Any display of sensitivity or timidity on my part and men see it as license to steer the discourse in any manner they like. That doesn’t happen around me and it won’t. This isn’t about fear, it is about respect and understanding that in my presence I will not tolerate “the bullshit.”

    You might think that what I’m saying is a load of crap, but in my neighborhood, carrying yourself with a hegemonic posture is rather essential to one’s safety. I was trying to explain it to a friend of mine: young White woman who lives on the margins of our neighborhood. It’s not friendly out here. It’s segregated racially, mostly Hispanic and Black. Our languages, interests, and modes of survival further drive a wedge between any semblance of community. She witnessed exactly what I meant when we stopped at a gas station. She said: “now I understand what you mean.”

    I have to navigate streets where people are murdered, drugs are sold, police are rampant. And it doesn’t even look the part. Looks like a regular neighborhood. (Outsiders might never know that it made the TV show “Gang Lands)”How I navigate makes all the difference in my capacity to go where I want when I want.

    Would everyone benefit from an egalitarian culture and spaces?

    I’d like to think so, but try explaining that to a “man” who teaches his son that sagging in his pants makes him a “man.” Try resisting family members who have no problem telling you, “I’m the HNIC (head nigga in charge). And my family respects this, expects this, but they can’t stand the fact that I refuse to capitulate, but the only way to neutralize the aggression is to respond in kind to where they understand that I will fuck you up. True story.

    Young “men” (hereafter referred to as boys. I’m tired of the quotations) come to me and express their distresses in their relationships more often than I can manage sometimes. I offer myself constantly in hopes that their reasoning (which is always the girl’s fault) can be turned inward. My recent experience with this matter is that those same boys (two in particular) who came to me got too comfortable with me, too comfortable around me and took my congeniality as license to impose their agenda in the same space that I made available to them.

    Again, that might seem easily resolved. I beg to differ. Now I’m in a position where I have to reestablish dominance. i sure as hell ain’t going anywhere. I restore order. Might sound arrogant, but I impose a hierarchy. They have not been through the fire, neither with me or on their own. I let them know that they will not exploit my invitation of friendship.

    I will go as far as to make them very uncomfortable whenever they see me. Is this a load of crap? Well, I didn’t grow up how I did and go through what I have for some boys to come along and violate my trust: and over a woman no doubt whom I was very much in love with, but they saw fit to lie about me to her (crazy thing is they think I don’t know). I’m not sure how other social groups distant from mine handle situations like this, but for me it calls for a healthy [sic] dose of good ‘ole fashioned patriarchy.

    On the flip side, I am very, very, very different with women and every other social group you can think of: disabled, queer, trans, et al). I maintain patriarchy for the boys who believe they are men by conforming and performing sexism and any other oppressive -ism.

    The boy who draws and hour glass on the chalk board before our meeting then proceeds to place “breasts” on the hour glass. If I say nothing I am complicit–in fact, I am de facto supporting it. But getting that shit erased from the chalk board takes more than words–patriarchy demands displays of power. He never drew anything like that again, at least not in my presence and neither will anyone else who witnessed the brief exchange.

    When those who know me use the word “bitch” then realize I am present the first thing they do is apologize without a word from me. Sometimes without me having to look in their direction. I’ve got them conscious. I’ve got them thinking about it.

    Does every conflict require demonstrations of power? No. Do I go about things in different ways? Oh yeah. I know and understand those situations when all we need do is talk. I can calm a fire before it ever starts. And I do. I love to make people laugh. It’s disarming. It’s something I do very well. I can and do have conversations with all types of people. But sometimes I find myself engaged in intellectual “dick” fights and so I bow out. There is no need for any type of aggression. I can be humble (that sounded real arrogant. sorry. damn patriarchy). There isn’t always a need to be right.

    I am deliberately neglecting to mention men that patriarchy does not necessarily regard as masculine. Those men who are not concerned with whether or not, and probably have never even tried to be what is considered masculine. I have no qualms there.

    Even in class, I don’t let men dominate discussions. I have no problem saying I want to hear from women, I want to learn something. I know these boys all too well.

    Of course there are many downsides to the whole thing. I have to remind myself that I am no woman’s hero. Women stand alone without me. I’m learning to ask versus insist that I walk her back to her dorm. “May we walk together?” And after a good conversation, “Can I share a hug with you?”

    Yes, I fail over and over again. I don’t care for patriarchy, but it is so entrenched into the ebb and flow of the day to day. I sent my daughter a book. The Girl God. It took her more than a year to pick it up and read and that was after bugging the heck out of her about it. But when I asked her what did she think about it? She said she didn’t understand. She’s ten. That hurts.

      • It does make sense, and I support you in rejecting oppressive language and actions, but I don’t agree that “patriarchy” is the correct word for it. It doesn’t sound like you’re supporting a social system dominated by men via the suppression of women. It sounds like you are using the combination of your physical, mental, and personality traits to make change in society. I wish I had a one-word definition for this, a simple substitution for “patriarchy” – I suppose the best I can do is call what you’re doing “strength-based activism.” You are using your knowledge of your own culture, combined with your personal strengths (not just physical), to facilitate change within it.

        I balk at your use of the word “patriarchy” to describe this, because it implies that women cannot do what you are doing. However, they can – simply in different ways. I hear you: most women cannot physically intimidate the men you described, and it sounds like those men/boys wouldn’t respond to much of anything outside typical gender roles. However, even within all those limitations, women can affect change by setting an example. They can raise their children to believe differently. They can lives their own lives in a way that proves what they are capable of, creating powerful signals of equality that can be pointed to. I think this is the same as what you do – they can use their position in society as it stands to change minds; focusing on the strengths they have to show people other options.

        You may respond and tell me that I don’t understand, but I think I do. My sister dates a hulking ex-Marine, and certainly him telling a rude, sexist young man to stop calling women “bitches” would have a different effect than me doing so. (This is why change is often so powerful when it comes from those who could easily sit back and be the aggressors – it really makes people stop and think). But that isn’t him using the patriarchy for his own purposes; it’s him using his strengths to change someone’s mind and, in fact, weakening the patriarchy.

        We may just be arguing semantics, but I think it matters.

        • No Jennie…no semantics at all ❤

          What you say is true. Very true.

          I never thought of things the way you just put it. Maybe I haven't considered the possibility that I've *matured* (not sure what word fits best here) in my *thoughts and actions* (new lexicon needed…lol).

          Kinda speechless right now. Humbled. Comforted. Grateful. Thank you.

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