My Own Personal Prison Guard

Last week, I did something I'm having a lot of trouble forgiving myself for. The time came to stand up for a female friend online, in a classic case of "guy makes discussion about feminism all about him and then gets butthurt when called on it," and...

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:


An Experiment for the Dudes

I wish I were a woman in Ireland 200 years ago. I would rather die of typhoid fever or in childbirth than have to figure out how to stream video, or come up with the perfect f*cking Tweet, or try to stay informed about the world without wishing, after an hour of reading the news, that my couch would just swallow me up. 

I'm joking. (Mostly.) Life was hard, especially for women, back then. Life was really, really hard for women. 

Comparatively speaking, now we have All the Rights. We can vote. We can earn our own money. If we were born under the right stars and can get jobs we have access to healthcare which lets us choose whether we want children. We don't have to farm or watch half our brood die before they're 5. It's no longer considered "a husband's right" to beat his wife if she disobeys him. Which is cool.

But in some ways, I wonder if it was easier to be a "feminist" back then, even though there was no such word. The battle now is more subtle and harder to understand. It's cultural and relational, and the internet has actually made it much harder to stand up for ourselves because it's just so damn easy to hate on strangers.

So here's an experiment for my guy readers. It's super easy. Women can do it too, of course-- in fact, it's fun, especially for us.

Every time you see someone sexy in the media, switch the gender. When you're driving to work and you see a billboard with a hot 20-year-old in a bikini selling beer, make it Channing Tatum in a thong. (Make sure the level of sexualization is the same.) When Sofia Vergara's wearing a plunging neckline on "Modern Family," make Ed O'Neill into Tom Hiddleston in supertight pants, and give Sophia a sweatshirt. When you're watching the latest blockbuster, put Scarlett Johansson in a comfy t-shirt and loose jeans while Chris Evans wears nothing but spandex. Notice camera angles, and every time a woman on TV is shot is such a way that your eye is drawn to her butt, make it a dude butt. When you see one of those Carl's Jr. ads where some woman, again in a bikini, is dribbling BBQ sauce down her chest or that blonde lady is walking naked through the outdoor market, just switch the gender. The person eating and walking is now Joe Manganiello. Looking seductively at you. Mostly naked. Probably sort of shiny.


Make sure you do this every time you see flesh. 

At first the men may laugh, thinking, "Oh my god, they all look so... gay!" And I don't mean "bad," I mean homosexual. But what you're assuming there is that the ads are for men, like you. That the viewer is always a guy. 

But what about the other possibility-- that the person who is assumed to be the consumer is a woman? What if 8 out of every 10 movies was Magic Mike, just like how 8 out of every 10 major motion pictures are the Furious franchise or yet another Spiderman reboot? The objective of these latter movies is not to turn men on like it is (for straight women) with Magic Mike, but there is always woman-candy somewhere in the film. What if, instead of seeing woman-candy as a matter of course, you saw a bunch of man-candy, and that was the norm, so normal that no one even talked about it?

See, feminism isn't about hating men, or making them live in this gender-flopped world, because women know how much it sucks. I haven't even talked about the more serious ways in which women are silenced, like partner violence (did you know that if a pregnant woman dies, it's most likely to be at the hands of her partner?). It's about acknowledging that this is part of how a man's world, stays a man's world. Not only are all the men you see superhot (when was the last time you hit the gym, buddy?), they're dressed and posed in such a way as to suggest that they're not being viewed by you, but by your wife. 

Just see how it feels. Notice just how pervasive it really is, and how it makes you feel like this isn't really your world. Imagine there was no way to escape it, and imagine that you too were expected to look like Channing and Tom, wear those tiny pants, and make women stare at you. Don't even replace all those hot women with celebrities: just imagine that the hot girl was a hot guy, and count how many of them you're forced to see. Imagine you and your sons and your grandsons were expected to live in this world and not point out that half the human race was being treated unfairly (I mean, you could speak up, but you'd be made fun of, called names, and maybe threatened with sexual violence. Fun!).

Then fantasize about living in Ireland 200 years ago. Wonder if beet farming is easier than Crossfit. Wish Twitter had never been invented. 

Go take a nap.


A Feminist in Victoria's Secret: A Portrait of Crippling Guilt for No Good Reason

Today my husband and I had a fabulous "date day." We went to Davenport Beach and I made ill-advised explorations over slippery rocks, just so I could maybe touch some anemones (I got my wish). We shopped at a militantly organic little store in a trailer off the beach where the lady WOULD NOT STOP TALKING about where everything came from and just how local it was. We drove around in the mountains to gawk at a piece of property that Zillow said was on the market for $25 million for some reason. It was perfect.

And then my husband did something deeply disquieting.

He took me to Victoria's Secret.

This was not a sneak attack. The purposes of our outing today were 1) go to the beach, and 2) go to Victoria's Secret. I knew it was coming. Still, I've been there only once in the past two years, and that time I desperately needed new panties. So I ran in like my hair was on fire, swiped a couple of cute pairs, and got the hell out.

My new status as A Person Some People Know As a Feminist makes bra shopping an interior battle of mythic proportions. Before the Salon article came out and I embarked on trying to parlay this project into a book, I liked Vicki's. I like to shop, and I like their stuff, and there was a time when I had no problem wearing sexy lingerie with a partner because it made sex more fun. I enjoyed it. It was empowering, and nary a thought for The Male Gaze entered my head.

But with my new eyes, the message that was screamed at me amid the thumping music and powdery scents was, "YOUR BOOBS NEED TO LOOK BIGGER. AND PERKIER. YOU SHOULD WANT MEN TO LOOK AT YOUR CHEST, LIKE, CONSTANTLY. YOUR UNDERWEAR ISN'T ACTUALLY FOR YOU-- IT'S FOR THE DUDE WHO'S LOOKING AT YOU, EVEN IF HE'S A STRANGER." Every single bra was lined, padded, push-up, liftseparatesparklemagnify stuff. I could not find regular, unpadded, comfy ones-- there were a couple of lace bras near the front that weren't padded, but they didn't come in my size. It was like they were saying, "Only women with huge breasts have no need for padding. You B cups... we can help!!"

Adding to my confusion is the fact that I don't really know what bras are for-- not for me, anyway. The straps always fall down and my boobs are small enough that I don't need the support. I do know that for some women, not having the support of a bra makes their backs hurt; I know some wear them because they like the way bras change the shape of your body. As far as I can tell, in my case, bras are for preventing men from staring at my breasts: some men seem to think that bralessness is an invitation. Also there's the nipple thing-- which doesn't bother me personally (WE LITERALLY ALL HAVE THEM, SOME MORE THAN TWO) but it does seem to be distracting to some guys. Then again, is that really my problem? Whose comfort am I protecting with two puffy cups strapped to my chest?

Eventually, the braless questions became too much for me, so I started wearing one of those elastic ones from Target just to be safe. But recently I've been onstage a lot, and when I reach my arms up the bra rides up and voila, I have four boobs. And I can't fix it readily because I'm in front of people. Also, it's not super-sexy, and although my man loves me for my mind, no one likes to take their spouse's clothes off to find thoroughly unsexy undergarments every single night. That's no fun.

So yeah. I needed a new bra, one that stayed put. I selected four that were cute and, I thought, minimally HEY CHECK OUT MY RACK-y. Two were comfy. Ish.

I walked out with a bunch of new underwear, bought by my husband. I let my husband buy me a bunch of lingerie. Oh, the guilt.

Buying underwear really shouldn't be this hard.

But the thing is, in our hyperconnected world where even the best intentions are always objected to by someone, every single thing we do feels like a political action.  I let my husband buy me sexy things: am I a kept woman? Or am I accepting gifts from someone who loves me? I'll be wearing a sexier bra from now on. Am I protecting myself from discomfort because I hate it when men stare at my braless chest, or is it their responsibility to keep their eyes on my eyes so I don't have to have underwire cutting into my ribs? I like wearing pretty things. Am I a manipulated consumer, or do I have high self-esteem?

I'm all for dialogue. But after two years of trying to have sane, reasoned discussions about feminism online, I found myself frozen in the Temple of What Female Sexuality Is Supposed to Look Like, overwhelmed, guilty, and totally unable to enjoy something that I used to love.

Makes me wonder where the merit of "healthy debate" is in an age where your detractors are never in the same room as you, and millions of people can weigh in on whatever millions of other people are doing. I think it makes many of us suffer more than it helps.


The Nightly Show on Gender: Yay?

Like most of the Western world, I too cried into my blankie when Stephen Colbert left late night. Like some of the Western world, I was happy to see that the show that moved into his slot, The Nightly Show, was hosted by a black man, The Daily Show's "Senior Black Correspondent" Larry Wilmore. Still no women in late night, I thought, but at least there'll be a greater chance of fairer discussions around systemic inequality. 

And there has been. Wilmore calls out the ubiquitous nature of racism in this country in almost every single show. His very first show's first three remarks were about race in America ("Tonight-ly, the Oscar nominations are out, and they're so white, a grand jury has decided not to indict them... Oprah marched on Selma this weekend. She has a dream that 'Selma' shall overcome 'The Wedding Ringer' at the box office... Yeah, we talk 'Selma,' Ferguson and Eric Garner. It's Comedy Central's worst nightmare - brother finally gets a show on late-night TV."). Not sure Comedy Central is the network who wakes up in a cold sweat thinking about black male comedians gracing their airwaves, but OK.

Wilmore even did a show devoted entirely to black women, which is remarkable because it addresses intersectionality, which is a fancy word for the ways in which gender and racial inequality intersect to deal Women of Color a particularly nasty blow. This show-- The Nightly Show but particularly the episode devoted exclusively to black women-- is a step in the right direction because it means that someone who has a not-a-white-guy perspective is leading public discourse, and he's encouraging not-white-guy perspectives. (Yes, I realize that it's a weird claim to make, that a comedy show is expected to be at the helm of important issues. But this is a discussion which has already been had, long ago.)

So I was excited on Monday, when Wilmore announced that his next show would be asking, "Why is it taking so long for America to level the playing field for women?" YES!, I thought. Why is it taking so long? Maybe someone would even call themselves a feminist. Ooooooo. I was going to tweet to #Keepit100, the hashtag Wilmore uses to let his audience ask him questions directly, "You're a black guy on late night, but you're still a guy. Better?" But I couldn't get the wording right, and I figured some other, more articulate woman would say something. If Wilmore handled gender inequality the way he'd lifted up black women's voices, maybe finally, finally, there would be a meatier conversation about it.

Here's what actually happened.

1) More about racism-- this time, those assholic frat guys in Oklahoma and the old white lady who had the stupidity to film herself doing the racist chant, and then acted like a victim when she got caught. When Rolling Stone covered last night's episode today, they spent 2/3 of the article talking, in the appropriately disgusted terms of white people who definitely have black friends, about what jerks racists are.

2) A round table discussion with no white women-- not one, but there was a white dude-- which began with the question, "Who puts more hater-ade on the women? Is it women themselves, or the men?"

3) No #Keepit100 question. This is either because women didn't ask, or there weren't any questions worth answering.

Dude. Disappointing. Very disappointing.

Coming from a guy who's handled racial issues, which are always divisive and especially in the wake of the DOJ report of Ferguson, so well, I was expecting an honest look at gender discrimination. And I'm not saying that racism and sexism are exactly comparable: if a white woman steps out of line, she's shamed, bullied and possibly sexually assaulted; if a black man steps out of line, he goes to jail or gets shot. Different consequences, and a different history of discrimination in each case. But still-- I had higher hopes for Wilmore.

First, "Who throws more hater-ade." Really? One of the ways to shut down discussions about gender bias is to, essentially, blame the victim. This is everyone's favorite defense when women say we face discrimination, and it's just a way to avoid the discussion. You know the line: "Women are naturally catty and backstabbing. They're discriminating against themselves, so there is no such thing as systemic sexism anymore." No. No, no, no. Women do not all like each other, but that doesn't mean gender discrimination isn't a Thing. Unfortunately, panelist Egypt Sherrod's answer was that women cut one another down far more often than men do-- which is just the answer everyone wants to hear, rather than, "That question is a dodge." Good, we tell ourselves. Just what we thought: sexism is self-inflicted.

The second panelist, comedian Chloe A. Hilliard, explains this phenomenon awesomely: "A lot of women don't want to support a woman outright because they still want to be respected by men. They want to play on both teams. 'See, I may have ovaries, but I can still sling a dick.'" Interestingly, this proves that sexism is still an active force in the lives of women: Why would we need to try so hard to make men like us if they didn't still hold most of the power? We have to disrespect other women in order to get men to respect us?

The Latina panelist, Alicia Menendez, stepped in and explained that it's due in part to the way we ask women in power to be strong enough to get things done, but nice enough that "I like you." This got a round of applause: women in leadership are expected to walk an impossible line of likeability and laser-focus on results. This is basically impossible, and it represents another way in which women are kept out of positions of power. It relates to being called "bossy," which has been discussed at length by greater minds than mine. So this represented a tiny victory on the show-- so yay there.

Second, there's a white guy on the panel. If there's one voice who's heard loud and clear, whether we want it or not, especially in discussions of systemic imbalance, it's white males. You need a comedian on the panel, I get it. But you already have one in Chloe. I get it: men have to deal with harmfully restrictive gender expectations too. But that's not what this guest was there to talk about-- he was there to make sure that, as usual, a representative for Your Average Middle-Aged White Guy got to weigh in on women's issues. There were no white women who could come and talk about their experience? None? No women over 50? No covered women? But a white guy got to sit at the table, again?

Finally, No #Keepit100? That's on us. Me included. I wish now I'd taken another few minutes to formulate a better tweet. But now that I've seen the show, here's what I wish I'd said:

Larry, you're a black man with firsthand knowledge of bullshit conversations about injustice. Re: gender... Can you do better? #Keepit100 

I hope you can, man. Because that was some weak-ass tea.


This is what it sounds like to me...

... when people cite "preventing our brothers from stumbling" as a reason to dress modestly.

Suits: A Serious Stumbling Block



I've spent a lot of time and energy since the Salon article came out attempting not to appear to be "angry" (and often failing miserably, as many of you have seen). This is because the quickest way to avoid discussing someone's point is to attack their motivations by calling them "just angry." There's the "angry woman" (Feminazi), the "angry black man" (Thug, Gangster or Hood), the "angry lesbian" (Manhater, Ballbuster, Dyke... wait, these are things I've been called too), "angry Muslim" (Terrorist) and any number of other epithets used to devalue a person and their opinion. Also, if you're a woman, anger is decidedly unfeminine: women supposedly don't GET mad, unless it's a catfight over a man. In which case it's both perfectly fine and hot.

But the thing is, anger is a legitimate response to being told, directly or indirectly, that because of who you are, you do not deserve to be treated with basic human dignity. Whether that be for your gender, race, class, political beliefs, age or any other number of things, when one is told "Sorry, I'm not listening/ don't respect your opinion/ am deaf to your needs because of who you are or what you believe," it's perfectly legitimate to get angry about that. I am guilty of having done that to others, and they have gotten understandably angry with me.

Furthermore, being angry does not necessarily translate to a desire for revenge or punishment. Just because I'm angry at a culture which tells me that I am inferior because of my gender does not mean that I hate those who benefit from that system. After all, I'm part of at least one class which benefits from systemic oppression. But when my culture tells me I'm a "thing," or that others have a right to tell me what to think, believe or do, I get mad, because I am not a thing. No one is.

Furthermore, I get REALLY angry when those who are reaping the rewards of this unjust and egregiously imbalanced system have the audacity to say that there IS no system-- that I'm "just an angry feminist." Things like this and the backlash against the #yesallwomen hashtag war in the wake of the Elliot Rodgers tragedy demonstrate how comfortable those who are "winning" in terms of the culture wars are, in telling those who are "losing" that they just don't know what they're talking about.

So I think people can sling that "you're just angry" insult (if that's what it is, and not an attempt to protect their positions) at me as much as they want because they're right: I AM angry. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong, and it doesn't mean I want to hurt anyone, or take anything from them. It doesn't mean I'm incapable of compassion towards those who are interested in preserving the status quo. I can be angry, and still be kind.

Most of all, I can be angry, but I can still treat you like the human being you are. I can be forgiving of the past while simultaneously not wanting the future to look the same way. I can be an angry woman, and still have a really, really good point.


The Modesty Police, and how some of them actually insult men

How the modesty police are hurting my son.

I do love it when someone else says perfectly what I can't quite articulate. :)