Monday, August 11, 2014

In defense of women (and men) and feminism

Okay, let me make one thing perfectly clear here:  I am not trying to troll with this post.  I am fresh out of riddles and I actually don't mind if you go clip clopping over my bridge.  But seriously, I don't wish to pick a fight with you.  I am merely writing this because I feel frustrated by what I have read on what seems to be the hot cultural topic of the moment. Or, at the very least, hot fodder for the internet/my facebook news feed.

Oftentimes, to understand where someone is coming from, you actually need to know a little bit more about where they came from and I come from a family of strong women.  My Polish grandmother survived the holocaust and worked several jobs in America to support her family.  My Irish grandmother raised six children, helped run a farm, and is famous for being a fiery and speaking her mind.  My mother also raised six children while working part of the time and studying for her graduate degree; she's a pillar of emotional strength for everyone in her family (not just her children) and has been a long time advocate for women's rights.  But this alone has not shaped who I am and what I feel and think, particularly about this issue: I also come from a family of strong men.  My Polish grandfather survived the holocaust as well and with my grandmother, worked several jobs to support his family.  My Irish grandfather worked long hours to run his farm and provide for his six children. My dad has faced struggles all his life: he was an immigrant, he grew up poor, he was often at odds with his parents, but he overcame every challenge he ever faced and he taught his children to do the same.  These men, in particular my father, demonstrated what good men should be and do.  As a result, I have virtually no hang-ups about men; they don't mystify me and they don't intimidate me. At all.

For these reasons, I feel slightly indignant when reading the rash of recent articles on the internet that seemingly detail how weak and hysterical women are: women are scared to go out in public because men use public places to assert their power over women through sexual harassment (like cat-calls) and even assault.  This, these articles claim, is symptomatic of a larger cultural trend: a pervasive patriarchy that primes young men to believe that women are lesser and can and should be dominated and subjugated.  Sometimes men act on this consciously by groping women on the subway and sometimes men act on this unconsciously through body language or through their denial that such a problem actually exists.

What I find so problematic about all these articles is that they are often written by or posted by men, masquerading as feminists; these articles have become a vehicle for men to demonstrate just how sensitive they are to women's issues.  But the underlying implication of these articles is that women are delicate, feeble, and fearful creatures.  When a man calls out to a women from across the street: "I want a piece of that hot ass," these women are rendered powerless, they are victimized, and in some cases, they are petrified that the man making this comment will attempt to physically overtake them in the form of rape.

 I find it equally problematic when I see women writing and positing similar articles and participating in similar dialogue, that makes similar insinuations.

The thing is that a guy who shouts something like that at a girl is just a jerk.  He's probably a dick to his guy friends too.  He probably starts fights in bars and he's probably deeply insecure about his masculinity for reasons that we can only speculate about.  Insecurity almost always breeds aggression, the same way that bullies are often themselves rather cowardly.

In other words, ladies: you can't let what a jag like that says to you bother you.  When you let it bother you, you are giving him power over you. You are choosing victimization.  There are some cases in which you can't choose being the victim (such as in assault cases) but there are some cases in which you can.  Should this guy be allowed to talk to you that way?  Absolutely not!  But it's not the cultural climate that validates this behavior, it's his own self-doubt. And sure, his equally douchey bros might high-five him or slap him on the back after saying something offensive to you, but ask 99% of other men and they would tell you that it's not okay to behave that way and that they would never do so themselves.

Reasonable men don't think this is the right way to act, which is why not every single man you encounter treats women in this manner.

Now, I'm no Miranda Kerr but I am okayish looking (#notamutant) and I've experienced my fair share of on the street "harassment" but I never feel threatened by it.  Most of the time, it's really innocuous, like some guy coming up to me and telling me that I am beautiful.  Whatever, that's nice. He is probably attracted to me and thinks this sort of bluntness will charm me (it won't).  It's rare that I get anything really offensive hurled my way by someone other than a crazy homeless person.  It's probably only really happened once or twice in the past twenty-nine years of my life and in those cases, I gave it right back to the guy: I made fun of his manhood (or speculated lack thereof).  Vulgar?  Yeah probably but sometimes you need to stick up for yourself to show that person that they can't talk to you like that, rather than wait for this person to realize it on their own (spoiler alert, they won't because they are obviously not a rational person). Maybe they will be more hesitant to say something to someone in the future, maybe they won't.  But in my experience, embarrassing the person attempting to shame and embarrass you is the best way to assert your dominance over him.

I don't pretend that my experiences are the embodiment of every woman's in America and I certainly don't fault any woman who felt weirded out by some creeper.  Sometimes it's hard not to be.  I just don't think that you should give him the satisfaction of upsetting to you. Pardon my language, but I certainly don't intend to take shit. From anyone. In any form.

The thing that bothers me most about the expressed outrage in these articles, is that it feels misplaced.  It's vilifying all men, for the actions of a few.  Not all men speak to women this way, not all men beat their partners, and not all men are rapists.  This is a sheer statistical fact.

You should be angry that rape happens.  You should be angry that there is human trafficking, molestation, kidnap, murder, and other violations of human rights but, no reasonable person would argue with that. Sometimes, when I read these posts I think: "why are you yelling? There is literally no one on the other side of this argument."  The mere fact that reports of rape are increasing is a good sign;  it's not further evidence of rape-culture, it doesn't mean that more women are getting raped, it suggests a cultural climate less tolerant of rape since more women feel compelled or comfortable to actually report it.  It means that they believe they will be heard and taken seriously and that is a great thing.

I am not saying that sexism doesn't exist.  It does.  Some people are still sexist or racist or homophobic or just generally hateful but the difference between now as opposed to ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, is that it's not okay to be that way openly.  That doesn't mean that people don't act that way openly, it just means that when they do they are met with enough cultural opposition as to force a public apology or to ruin their reputation for good.  I am thinking in particular of the Chris Brown and Rihana scandal or Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Fluke.  What they did and said was not acceptable and the backlash they faced demonstrates that most people are in agreement about that.

Sure, I think there are still injustices towards women.  I take issue with the fact that drug dealers typically get longer sentences than rapists and I think the recent supreme court ruling regarding small companies and birth control sets a dangerous precedent and we maybe disagree about those things but at least we all concur that violence against women=bad. That wasn't always the case and in fact, is not the case in many countries.  To act like calling some girl "babe" is evidence of rape-culture in the US not only trivializes actual cases of rape in this country but also belittles the experiences of women raped in other countries, who have less social and legal resources.

I love women and I want them to feel empowered.  It breaks my heart that any female feels threatened by a man after hearing a lewd comment or seeing a man walking towards her on a darkened street. I want these women to know how defend themselves and I want them to know that if, heaven forbid, something were to happen to them, that they could report it without judgement, that they would be supported, and that their assaulter would suffer serious consequences for their actions.

But I don't think that all men need to apologize for the fact that some men are rapists.  Just like how I don't expect all humans to apologize for the existence of serial killers. That's insanity.  And I don't think men need to prove how much of a feminist/non-rapist they are by isolating "trigger words," which suggests that the mere mention of the word "rape" would send a fragile creature like me into a hysterical fit of temporary blindness. Prove how much of a feminist you are by not acting like an asshole to women, by supporting your female partners or friends, by teaching your daughter to respect herself, and by slut shaming as little as possible (even though it's hard sometimes because we are all naturally inclined to be judgey).  And the same goes for women too.

The term feminism has become a very contentious one as of late, as evidenced by the "We don't need feminism" tumblr, featuring photographs of young women holding signs explaining why they don't need feminism. Initially I found this appalling because when I think of feminism I think of it from a historical standpoint. Much of my research in graduate school pivoted upon how female authors critiqued, challenged, and transgressed unfair and unequal gender norms during nineteenth century America.  So for me to say "I don't need feminism" is denying the important role that feminism played in slowly building gender equality in this country. But then I read what these girls had to say and I found myself agreeing with a lot (but not all) of them.  It made me think a little bit more about what that term means now.  In some respects, feminism is relative: it is only really meaningful when it has some opposition pressing against it (like sexism) and when most reasonable people believe women and men are equal, then what becomes of feminism?

I know it seems like I've using that term willy-nilly in this post and I mean it mostly in the classical sense: in support of women and women's rights but I've been thinking a lot about that question--what becomes of feminism?--recently and I'm not sure I know the answer.  I think we still need feminism and I think we need to redefine but I don't think that reviling men and playing the victim is the way to go about doing it. The sooner we stop crying rape-culture and being divisive and making hasty generalizations, the sooner we can actually be productive and collectively progress as a society.  And not to get all Barney on you or anything, but it seems to me that the more we create divisions between the genders, the more the opposition pressing against feminism become opposition against feminism itself, giving those remaining sexist people (or even some normal folks) out there reason to discredit the good things that supporting women and women's rights has accomplished.  So let's not do that, shall we?  Good?  Good.

And that's all she wrote.

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