I failed to Do Feminism Right, and I failed to represent the kind of solidarity I so long for. Here's what happened.
I posted this article, called "Plight of the Funny Female," in which research showed that, once again, many men don't like funny women, possibly because being funny is connected to being smart and many men find smart women intimidating. A friend from another life, an older white male musician, posted under this article, "I SO love smart women!" Which I let go because my interpretation was, "He's trying to be supportive. Good enough."
But my friend, let's call her Courtney, did NOT agree. Under his comment she posted, "Thank goodness for this guy; he fixed sexism for all of us. Also this was totally about him—glad he caught that."
I was kind of shocked that she would go after him like that. Why is she being so mean? I thought. So I chastised her on my page for insulting my friend. I have a lot of friends with a lot of different opinions, and see it as my responsibility to make sure everyone plays nice under "my roof" (my FB page).
She immediately PMed me, saying she was uncomfortable that I had "thrown her under the bus" instead of removing her comment and PMing her to explain. She said that I was asking that she soften her tone and explain things to him, instead of sitting with my own discomfort with there being conflict on my page. She said this wasn't fair.
At first, I thought she was overreacting. But as the discussion went on on my page, after she had said literally one thing to him and then moved on, he began insulting her and demanding apologies from both of us, even after I told him to stop. He just wouldn't quit. One of his last comments was, "I'm done here. Sorry, but your response wasn't good enough." Then he unfriended me.
My response wasn't good enough? I'm sorry, do I hear an undertone of entitlement? Who is this guy to demand anything from me, especially after I tried to tone down the discussion for him?
Fortunately for me, Courtney and I are still hashing the discussion out, the upshot being, we were both upset and we're dealing with it. Like grownups who don't make one comment, get upset because they're insulted, throw a tantrum when they don't get their way, and then torpedo the relationship.
The thing is, it happened so fast that I didn't understand at first: Courtney was right. The guy was trying to deny, albeit out of ignorance and without any malicious intent, that men not finding funny women attractive is indeed a problem. Good for him for liking funny women, but like she said, this discussion isn't about him. It's about the way that men are trained to want women who complement them by laughing at their jokes, someone who makes their ego bigger; women are trained to do just that, not hone their own senses of humor.
But this exchange was shameful for me because I responded in a way that upheld the status quo, the very status quo I'm working to dismantle. How did that happen? It happened because, like all of us, when I was growing up, the world assigned me my own personal Prison Guard.
My Guard looks a lot like everyone else's. He's bigger than me, and shadowy, and I'm never quite sure where he is, although he's always there. But he has a very clear job, and that's to make sure I know my place in the world. He works by threatening me, and he's successful because I'll usually do anything to make him go away.
He's the one who yanked my hands behind my back when my first boss kept pinching my waist and pinning my wrists to the desk. "Don't say a word," the Guard snarled in my ear. "He'll fire you." The Guard digs his fingers into my ribs at the grocery store to keep me from saying to the man who won't stop standing just a little too close to me, "Back off, asshole!" The Guard makes me smile when men creep me out, laugh when they say things that frighten me, and pretend not to be angry when I have to sit through yet another movie where the women are sexualized decorations, and the men get to use them however they like because, yanno, they're guys and that's their right.
The Guard was smaller when I was smaller, but once I hit puberty and I got that sign that women seem to hold which says, "I'm female! Feel free to tell me what to do and how to live," my Guard got bigger. The Guard, taking his cues from what others tell me and show me, reminds me that women aren't good at math, women aren't good leaders, women "really" just want a home and a family and don't belong in fields that require ambition, competition, self-reliance. When I try to step out of line, my Guard snaps my chains and holds me in place.
The Guard isn't always violent. He doesn't have to be. He scares me so much that he doesn't have to hurt me. "Just be nice to him," the Guard will warn me when someone online is being a dick. "If you're nice, he'll listen better." The Guard made me blow an opportunity to point out that my friend was right: this man was trying to make the discussion about him and simultaneously discredit the reality of sexism. This was a perfect chance to have That Discussion, and my Guard stopped me. (Well, at least he's damn good at his job...)
I feel terrible that I failed my friend by telling her to tone it down, and waiting until things really got out of control to check him. I feel like I failed as a feminist, too; I did exactly the opposite of what I should have done. But I bet I'm not the first person in history to shoot for the stars and face-plant in the mud, especially when it comes to changing the discussion around hard topics like gender and race. Learning to spot when someone is using any of the million tactics to hijack a conversation like this takes practice.
It also takes practice to recognize when your panic isn't because your friend has been insulted, it's because your Guard is hissing, "She's making a man look bad on your page. Stop her. Now," while pressing his boot into your neck. That discomfort is so powerful that it can be difficult to do anything other than make it stop in the moment. It helps to remember that your Guard does not have anyone's best interests at heart. He doesn't serve people, he serves a thing, and that thing is a hierarchy that privileges both maleness and whiteness. (He does side gigs making us believe our political system is fair and that America is a meritocracy. He's a man of many talents.) His job is to keep things as they are, even when "as they are" is heinous.
But this is part of learning to have these discussions. Before I wrote this piece I didn't even consciously know I had a Guard. I knew it was hard for me to stand up to people, and that heated discussions make me upset. But now that I kind of conceptualized what it is and what it does, I can recognize when my discomfort is my own (someone is being genuinely unfair), and when it's my Guard's (someone is pointing out injustice).
I'll probably be involved in many more of these discussions, and I'll probably fail some more. Hopefully I'll fail a little less every time.
Update: I just found this article that talks about The Guard, and just how busy he is: