I picked the first woman I’d ever hear use the term “micro-aggression” to ask. This is not her name. Belinda. Belinda is an academic, a professor in a male-dominated study. She is young, and she is pretty. She is often mistaken for a student on campus.
I asked Belinda what she thought of my previous post. I wanted to see it through the eyes of people who would have been deeply disturbed by it. I know she is highly sensitive to institutionalized and casual bigotry, particularly sexism.
She hashed it out patiently with me. I asked questions and she tried to put it in terms I could understand, even using a fashion analogy from “The Devil Wears Prada” to show that the big guys on top make decisions that trickle down and affect us all. She was trying to help me understand that just because I personally hadn’t encountered many problems with oppression in my adult life didn’t mean I wasn’t affected by it.
She had said her sensitivity to the small insidious nature of male dominance formed from studying to be a professor in a male-dominated field. That it was a death of a thousand paper cuts situation.
As for my previous post about Steve the screamy hugger, she was conflicted. She said my conclusion that I was not hurt by the experience “bugged her.”
She said, “I like that you are taking ownership there – but somehow it sounds a bit victim-shamey.”
The more she explained, the more reflexively found myself shaking my head at the screen.
Unfocused, unreasoned anger creeping down my chest. Then another dear friend explained how she’d felt when a male friend had tried to comfort her after he witnessed her in an altercation by telling her she had been “brave.” Something he’d never had said to another man. Then, the world being particularly transparent and putrid when it comes to men and sex lately, just a glance at all my friends and acquaintances on social media showed a tidal wave of offended women.
And I was getting angry…at the women. Angrier. Indignant, even.
I found more pictures of women holding signs saying what awful things had been done to them. And I know when it was that I snapped, found a visual representation of why I was getting mad at these women. These (complaining) women. These (entitled and whiny) women. These (emasculating, politically correct, special snowflake WEAK) women.
It was when I found two images too close together. One, a woman holding a sign that said, “I won’t smile to be prettier for you.” and a different women holding a sign saying “I was wearing a long sleeve sweatshirt and jeans when he raped me. I was seven.”
How the FUCK, I thought, does that first woman dare think she shares territory with the second? How dare she feel “oppressed” by something the man probably didn’t even know was wrong and the only action she takes to stop it is tattling to social media? How dare women start looking at every time a man said something stupid or smug to them put it not in the “person said something stupid” column but the “Sexual Abuse” column.
I was livid.
I’ve had a LOT of therapy, however.
First Rule of Anger: Therapist says if something…some one or some trend is pissing you off hard, it’s because of YOU. Not “them.” Don’t blame “them.” Some ugly spot on you, Therese, is being exposed by these women’s experiences and opinions. The only way to stop it is to find out what you’re really angry about. What that person is mirroring to you that you find so ugly.
I began writing back to Belinda but stopped. I was NOT actually writing to the flesh and blood woman who’d laughed with me over dinner and let me hug her without warning when I recognized her at the elementary drop-off. I was arguing with an idea.
And by the end, I think I found the ugliness these women were exposing in me.
Jealous that you ever got the leisure to notice … improprieties and small gestures. That you never had to go where I went.
I’ve cribbed some of that letter I was writing to not-Belinda. Here’s some of it. I’m not revealing any secrets except those which are mine to reveal.
I need to tell you some stuff. Look, If I ever said I didn’t believe myself a part of sexism, I misspoke.
For most of my life it was ALL I KNEW, Belinda. I’ve been at the absolute mercy of men. My father…I loved him, love him still. But he was the largest inhabitant of a world solely populated by men and boys who terrified me, clear into my mid-twenties.
Parts of my childhood are straight from Lifetime movies of the 80s and 90s. Pardon the melodrama. Trip on my shoes? I’m thrown into a wall. Left the wet towel on the new table when I’d tried to mop up some 7-up I spilled? I wake from a dead sleep to being called a numb little cunt, dragged out of bed by my arm. After I came out of my first stint in a mental ward…still wearing the wristband from the hospital, I sat on the floor and he SCREAMED I was a selfish little bitch and no one could even wipe their ass without first checking to see if poor little Therese was ok with it. I was costing him hundreds of dollars a day because instead of enjoying his expensive motor-home it was sitting in the driveway and they had to come home from summer vacation and take care of FUCKING FUCKING YOU YOU LITTLE SHIT. OH JESUS YOU GONNA CRY NOW? His face would contort when he got like that, spit and blood-flushed. I was 18 then, I guess I could have severed ties. But I had no money, no idea that a girl could take care of herself. In fact I was POSITIVE I couldn’t. So I do know what it’s like to not realize you have a choice.
But it wasn’t just that. Everywhere and without end. I went to a two room K-6 school house where both teachers were terrifying, answered to no one, and disliked women. Home and that school, my entire world. The biggest misogynist I’ve ever met was my teacher, and she WAS a woman. She went by a genderless name, had a man’s haircut and dressed like a man. She punished girls for acting girlish…took away recess if they spent it talking too each other about girl stuff. Because they “obviously had no intention of actually playing so they didn’t need it.” She would never let girls do any of the fun or adventurous jobs because “she needed someone strong for this”. We ached to prove to her we were strong enough! It was a real honor to be allowed to attempt a “boy’s job” like arranging tables or getting something out of storage from the bus barn
I hated being a girl. Girls existed to clean house and wait hand and foot on men and children and be mental and physical punching bags. They were boring, useless and helpless. I hated them.
In middle-school something about me screamed VICTIM. Maybe how desperate I was to be liked. If I wasn’t invisible I was “outta my way lardass” “what’s so funny you fat bitch?” “look I got a whole fist full of fat off this fatass” (That was the time my bullies crossed the line…Derek and Lila (Lee-la…but most certainly a 14 yr old boy) were their real names…and grabbed my gut just passing me in the hall). I didn’t tell anyone, it was too embarrassing. To admit you’re so unpopular and so weak that boys know they can lay hands on your and hurt you and you’ll take it. So I know what it’s like to be too scared to tell.
Then religious boarding school, where sexism WAS literally institutionalized. Different rules for boys and girls in all things. Biblical proof for why women weren’t meant to lead or cause anymore trouble than causing the entire downfall of the human race by eating an apple had caused. But damned if there wasn’t
a certain amount of cherishing in their sexism, at least compared to what I was used too. Therese, your dress needs to be below the knee because you’re pure and good, and we don’t tempt our brother’s in Christ to sin. (Like my ugly ass could tempt anyone, I thought.) But that was heaps nicer than I’d ever been treated. No one called me names or hit me. I felt safe there. So I know what it’s like to meekly except institutionalized wrongs as okay.
Then to large state college, where for the first year or so I went back to either invisible or fatass bitch.
I don’t know when that part of my mind…jumped tracks. Gus was part of it, so strong and kind and strange and he loved ME…fat weird useless ME. A new college, where the classes were full of people who appreciated quick wit…which it turned out I had somehow cultivated through years of television, reading, and constant formulating unspoken “You give yer boyfriend rimjobs with that mouth, buddy?” retorts when someone insulted me.
And dad died. I held him for hours the night before, he was hurting so much. His shakes, death throes really, would slow and ease if I held his hand over my heart or stroked his bare forehead. I loved him. I still love him. So I know what it’s like to love and forgive your abuser.
Then I became a mother, which I regarded as a powerful mantle, and the confidence showed.
At any rate…at some point in the last 15 years I began to own that I was not nice and pretty and good. Never meant to be, in fact. I decided I was weird, damaged, and a fucking Valkyrie. And when I decided that, the world agreed. Holy shit, they agreed! When I was talked down to, I couldn’t believe how easy it was to walk closer and ask the person to repeat what they’d said…and how just that was enough to deflate them. How a biting comment meant to be funny could wilt under a quick enough smartass retort. Holy shit. Power. I’d been growing stronger all this time. So I know what it’s like to buck The Patriarchy, in as so much as it needs bucking.
And to now. To my anger. Where is it coming from?
Why it is, that when I hear women saying that the cards are stacked against them because of the Patriarchy I think, “Yeah no shit. Welcome to the world, Princess. Stop stomping your dainty little foot sniffling “not fair!” Grab the fucking deck and reshuffle.
But now just having listed off my own background…I see how unique it is. And…kinda bad in places. How thirty rough YEARS went into making me able to snap a comeback off the cuff or turn and walk face to face with a man because I’m confident he’s not going to hit me, and frankly partly prepared if he does. That’s what it took to make me oblivious to micro-aggression. Do I really expect the majority of women, in this time and place, to have gone through what I did?
Women aren’t over-reacting. In THEIR 21st century world, one mostly inhabited by socially aware, educated non-violent people, men being patronizing is outdated and should be phased out.
Women are doing precisely that, reshuffling the deck, but their polite 21st century safe way. They aren’t going to say, “Yeah, hey, fuck you buddy” like my wonderful white trash self might. They’re gonna do social awareness campaigns about privilege and aggression. That’s how stuff is done in their world. And I can respect that.
That’s what I wrote. Now.
I’ve come up with my own analogy. This is the heart of my jealousy, my resentment. I’m gonna retell this story with different characters, maybe it’ll sink deeper that way.
I feel like a Vietnam vet shuffling off the plane, coming home damaged as fuck and knowing I’m STILL one of the lucky ones. Some of the guys in my platoon will never, ever be ok, never come home to safety.
And standing before me on the tarmac are angry lank men with long hair and megaphones, protesting, burning their draft cards and yelling at me that the War is wrong! Didn’t I know it was WRONG? Was I going to be complacent, or SPEAK UP, like them??
They’re right. The war is wrong. I sure as hell hated it. Maybe the only difference between me and them is that I was drafted so early, before the protests started. I’d be standing with them if just a few things had been different.
Weirdly, War made me grateful for small things. I’ve gone without water for days in prison camp in the Vietnamese jungle, so I’m not even phased that my building isn’t up to code, I don’t demand Housing Authority inspections…it’s quicker to fix the broken faucet myself.
I don’t think anyone is to blame when the city bus breaks down…shit happens. We put up sturdy barricades around out camp, did our best to protect ourselves, but the enemy still got it.
I don’t care when the delinquents on the streetcorner try to act tough when I walk by. They’re annoying, not dangerous. I’ve seen dangerous.
I carry a gun, and practice my combat training, too. If someone draws a gun on me in the dark alley outside that apartment, then I believe it’s my own responsibility to draw faster and shoot with no hesitation, like I was taught in the war. I could write letters asking for more police patrols or make a fuss trying to get some street lights put in that alley, but I think I’ll be far more successful if I just prepare myself for bad things to happen. And…if someone gets the drop on me, their gun is better or they’re stonger, well…I’m fucked. Life is brutally unfair.
And do I get mad when some smooth-skinned college-boy on TV, some lucky bastard whose experience with blood and pain ended on the grade-school playground, denouncing the war, the crime in the city, and shaming everyone who doesn’t think and behave like he and his followers? Yes, even though technically, we’re on the same side wanting the same stuff.
I have other friends who came home from the War and began organizing protest marches themselves, Vets Against Vietnam, yelling louder and angrier because they truly know how bad it is an that’s how they want it to stop on a large scale. They’re braver than me in the long term. (That refers to my friends who would be holding the “I was raped when I was seven” signs, the ones who’ve survived inhuman treatment and are loud-spoken politically involved Feminists,) agitating for governmental change, society to change. How freaking bold, really. How amazing. You might think less of me for not joining them…but it’s not how I fight.
I just don’t want that college boy to tell me my way is ignorant or oblivious. I’m gonna try and respect his journey, because my children will reap the benefits of both our labors (You work with the eggheads to change rules up top, and I’ll teach them to use a gun in case that doesn’t work.)
It’s not that sexism doesn’t affect me. It’s affected me so much I can’t believe how lucky I am now, to be safe. I get shocked by how easily other people are threatened. I remember one friend confessing his father had a substance abuse problem. I felt hard and fast empathy. But she went on to say that when he was drunk the worst thing was that he became ill tempered and withdraws. I was…puzzled. And I said, unsuredly, timidly from the back seat, “So he never…hit you or hurt you? Then…wh…why are you mad at him?”
The answer: Because I’M KINDA FUCKED UP. She had every right to her feelings. It was her dad.
War raised, not lowered, my pain threshold, and gave me ugly but effective combat skills. It made me ready to draw blood – not from the safety of air support – but with the thrust of my own bayonet. Who in their right mind chooses hand to hand combat over safe cover??? Or, in feminist terms, It made me pissy and defiant to the man directly in front of me treating me disrespectfully, ready for awkward confrontation as long as I’m the one making it awkward.
And the newsflash here… I am not all women, and they shouldn’t be like me. God FORBID they should be society would crumble into a mass of cranky lazy smart-asses desperate for approval in weeks.
They have to go about getting the power back in their own way. And as for the women who’s mistreatment was mild by comparison but still agitate and hold signs and clam victim-hood…well by their pain thresholds, it wasn’t mild. It legitimately hurts them, over and over, like paper cuts. Paper cuts fucking sting, and they heal slow.
I don’t have all the answers. No one does. But sometimes I think more important than dismantling the Patriarchy, we need to understand where it came from, why smart women indulge it, why kind men thoughtlessly use it, differentiate it from qualified men in positions of deserved authority, and teach ourselves why every single person has a different, VALID reaction to it. And then, have some patience and empathy. No one is plain wrong when they act and think different than me.
Princesses, broken soldiers, lard-asses, marginalized professional women, women dismissed for being too pretty and young, women who haven’t been taught to fight back, and men who are allies and are trying to find their footing in a society that isn’t the same one they were raised in…we’re all on the same side of the battle line. We just need to respect that we’ve been placed in different positions behind that line. We flank, draw back, we charge, we’re front line or sewing stitches in the med tent, and we’re in the offices back home, studying maps and strategy. But we all desperately want to win this war. We all want to feel safe.