The last few months of open conversation around sex and power have been both enraging and illuminating. It has been like flipping on a light switch to see horrors that were only barely camouflaged by darkness, that we all knew were there. It is the way we have now shone lights on the society we have built, the way we have encouraged male and female roles to the point where men are expected and encouraged to prey on women who feel trapped.
This is a many faceted discussion, and it will be a long one. It will take years to identify all the points at which behavior is conditioned towards inequality, and begin to change it. But for right now, I’d like to just look at three minutes of the conversation, in which Aidy Bryant sums up how she constrains her behavior in order to make her statements palatable to men:
“I, like most girls, have been taught to be accommodating and nice.”
“I’m trying to keep it cool and chill so I don’t come off like a shrew!”
“That’s a straight up sports reference for the boys!”
Yes. That, right there. That is the behavior that women are expected to adhere to. We put, “I think,” or “I feel” in front of our statements to appear non-threatening. We do not negotiate hard enough or push for what we want, because we don’t want to be seen as threatening. We try to take up as little space as possible.
What angers me about this is that this is the behavior I learned and taught myself. It doesn’t come naturally to me, to shrink back, to be quiet. It comes naturally to me to be loud and vocal. I don’t “feel” something is right, I usually know I’m right, and I’m ready to argue it. And yet, over the years, I’ve considered it a positive to have learned how to polish my behavior to be nicer and more accommodating, less aggressive, more passive. I have tried to be quieter. I have tried to take up less mental and physical space in an attempt to be more likable, less threatening.
Perhaps I was better off unpolished after all. Perhaps I placed too much value on the idea of what acceptable adult female behavior looked like, a series of gender constraints and tropes that are just incongruous with who I am. Now, I’m just furious that women are expected to function within these lines and boundaries, and, worse, that so many of us still think we have to adhere to these unwritten guidelines of being nice, being accommodating, and never speaking up to make anyone else remotely uncomfortable.
I don’t like this. I believe in making people uncomfortable when they deserve to face some sort of social consequence. As an example, last week at a bar, my friends and I were discussing a play we had just seen. A drunken boor kept coming over to hang over one of my friends at the table. She was charmingly polite to him, hoping he would go away. I ignored him entirely and continued talking because I didn’t think we needed to be polite to him – he was in our space, uninvited, and distracting from the conversation. His response to this was to announce that I was “the Professor”, a lecturer, and yell that I was lecturing about something boring. (I was comparing the play we had seen, Mankind, to LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness). I wouldn’t participate in the female accommodation of a rude man, so I was labeled with something sexless. Then he came back to the table and grabbed my friend’s ass because she was nice to him, and he thought he could get away with it, even though he was a drunk slob and she’s about a zillion levels above him on the social attractiveness scale.
This wouldn’t be a big deal (other than the entertainment factor when we had him kicked out) except as a metaphor for male response to female behavior: if you are nice, you are inviting sexual behavior. If you are kind, you are open for grabbing. If you are neither nice nor kind, you are neuter, devoid of the femininity that is the only coin of value in these social transactions. I am certain that the “neuter” response a lot of men respond to me with has just as much to do with my size as my behavior – I’m literally the size of most guys at five-ten – but this has happened to me my entire life. If I challenge someone, if I am not nice and accommodating, I am no longer feminine. I can be dismissed, because femininity is of the utmost value in these kind of low-meaning, public interactions.
I spent ten minutes at my next workout getting this out of my system, beating a punching bag at the gym while muttering, “take THIS patriarchy!” All the years I’ve tried to behave in a more female manner so I would receive a positive response from the world. All the times I’ve been dismissed for not being female enough. All of it from men who have no right to assign or deny any woman her value, and yet who feel they have the right to judge us. I thought about that and it gave my jabs and hooks even more power – enough that I think Paul looked slightly worried when I came out and headed over to the leg press.
This is a minor offshoot of the greater conversation we’re all having right now, about the way our society has formed to give men this ultimate social power over women, and how women are punished if they try to step outside subservient behavior. We’re all engaged in this question of how we re-write our everyday social transactions to be on equal ground, because right now it feels like every encounter between the sexes is one where men have the advantage, and choose to take it. My quibble with gender roles is minor in the scope of what many women have experienced, and what they are now brave enough to voice and share, one by one.
And yet, my quibble is part of the foundation that leads women to be taken advantage of, over and over, without recourse. It’s the invisible barriers. It’s the rules that say we must shrink back, or be punished with labels, insults, social consequence. It is a small piece in the scaffolding that is holding up our society in this inequal structure. Perhaps if we change the way women feel comfortable behaving, and reward those women who choose not to be nice, choose not to be accommodating, we will be one step closer to the balance we need.