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another note on nonsense

23 May

In response to my original post on cat-calling and my responses to it, I got an interesting question that I wanted to bring up here. I cross-posted this to Feministing, and here’s what I was asked:

Why is their “responsibility to actively work to change those systems”? What’s in it for them?

Not trying to be a jerk but asking a legitimate question.

I suspect alot of men actually want you to talk back and that their silence has more to do with them being embarrassed by the scene you are making then the behaviour of the guy. It’s a tough situation to be in b/c doing what you do only makes you look like the crazy one, yet doing nothing makes some women feel powerless. I feel for you.

Super valid question! So valid, in fact, that it made me articulate myself a little more clearly, so I wanted to post my response here as well:

I don’t think this is jerk-ish at all; you raise a valid question. Here’s my thoughts on why men, too, share responsibility for calling out and attempting to countermand misogyny:

1. When you’re in a privileged subject position — male privilege, white privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege, able-bodied privilege, etc — you are always already reaping the benefits of that privilege. This is true whether you like it or not, whether you know it or not, whether you want to be or not. So you can either actively work towards equality, which means admitting that your privilege is not earned but is instead received at the expense of another, or you can be a signatory to those unequal systems of power that privilege you and disenfranchise others. Being a signatory happens in two ways: passive or active. The cat-caller in question is an active participant in his privilege, but by not speaking against him, his friends and all the other onlookers (male, female, whomever) are being passive participants, passive signatories. So it’s the responsibility of those who witness to speak up and out against these systems of power when and how they can in order to work against them. There’s no neutral position.

2. It’s their responsibility because, as I said, I’ll leave, and they’ll all be standing there in the wake of out interaction, and if those onlookers want to actually be agents of equality, they have to — have to! — not allow the conversation to end with me. They need to use their privilege and their access and their power to continue engaging and challenging misogyny, even if it is uncomfortable.

3. It’s their responsibility because if onlookers would agree with people like me and refuse to associate with bigots and misogynists like the cat-caller, then Mr. Cat-Caller would have no safe social space in which to be a misogynist. This is about creating communities that will not abide that kind of behavior and as an outsider, there’s little I can do to affect that community. So it’s up to the insiders.

I hope this makes my position a little clearer. You’re absolutely right that these situations are uncomfortable and that those scenes embarrass us all, but I think we need to be willing to experience the kind of discomfort that this elicits in order to change these systems. I appreciate your sympathy and willingness to engage with these issues.

further nonsense

21 May

A perfect opportunity to follow up on my last post showed up in the comment stream today, so I thought I’d share it with you all and respond to it publicly.

What you’ve got there is a fearsome internet warrior, one Bradeep Ncube, challenging me about whether or not I was telling the truth about talking back to cat-callers (click on the image to see the comment in its unchanged condition on my original post). What Mr. Ncube doesn’t know is that he owes me a crisp fifty dollar bill now, because not only would I do any and all of what I wrote about last week, but I have done that and will do it again, whenever I have the safety to do so, and am doing it now by talking back to him.

But let’s recap, okay? What I wrote about last week was an instance of street harassment and my response to it. I had been called out at on the street, just down the road from my house, while biking home one recent evening. A young-looking fellow had yelled something to me like “hey baby, why not roll on up here blahblahbullshitblah” and I responded with a very similar diatribe to the one I posted on Friday. The abridged version, for those of you who don’t want to (re)visit my vitriol, is as follows: you don’t have the right to speak to me that way and if you do, I’m going to get in your face and call you on it. No one has the right to put my body on display and attempt to belittle me for my female subjectivity, so the kind of pathetic adolescents who enjoy cat-calling should be prepared to get a loud, humiliating, public earful if they make the grave mistake of calling out this bitch. End quote.

So anyhow, as you can well guess, Mr. Ncube thinks that I’m full of a lot of hot air, but unfortunately for him, I’m mostly full of piss and vinegar and I take his kind of bullshit just as seriously as I take the things that get yelled at me on the street.

Mr. Ncube, you may be unaware, but your behavior here is the part and parcel of the privileged, patriarchal, misogynistic behavior of every man who hollers at women on the street; you are challenging my personhood and my humanity by calling into question my voice. You are attempting to reduce the power of my response by co-opting it, by passing judgement upon it, by re-framing it as, what? A whole lot of feminist bluster without any force behind it? I can’t speak for you, but there’s my assumption. In essence, I assume, based on your comment, that you think I am actually the weak female stereotype who talks a big game but is easily cowed by the presence of male privilege.

Mr. Ncube, you are so very wrong. You see, my mother and all my Feminist Godmothers raised me to believe that I have a voice and that I can use that voice and that it is my primal responsibility to use that voice to protect myself. So if you think I won’t call out the men who cat-called me, then you must think I won’t call out you, either. But I will and I am and I will continue to speak back at those who speak against me and I will not let you silence me. Surprise!

Here’s the part where you speak a grain of truth, Mr. Ncube: I do not always talk back. Because the sad goddamn truth is that I don’t have the privileged subject position to always speak back; sometimes it’s late at night, or it’s dark, or I’m vastly outnumbered, or I’m alone, or I feel unsafe, or I’m in any number of other circumstances that mean it is safer for me to remain silent and accept verbal abuse than to open my mouth and risk physical abuse. Did you know, Mr. Ncube, that someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes in the US? That nearly one fifth of women report being sexually assaulted and that since 54% of sexual assaults are never reported to the police, chances are that 1/5 is a low estimate? I’m attempting to beat the statistical likelihood of being assaulted, because I live within the dangerous bodily experience of being a woman, so yes, sometimes I choose safety over speaking out. Sometime, the kind of privilege you’re attempting to wield here does succeed in silencing me. But you know what else? You scare me precisely not one bit, so this? This is one of those times when I will speak out.

Look, I doubt Bradeep Ncube is reading this. He likely sidled by my digital soapbox, left his mark like a dog pissing in the street, and moved along, because he likely doesn’t have the courage or moral fortitude to actually face me. I mean, how brave is it to leave a virtually anonymous comment on some random blog you don’t (to the best of my knowledge) follow? At the same time, how goddamn brave is it for me to use this digital platform to broadcast my voice? Not that much braver, in actuality, which is why I practice what I preach and type and teach, and did in fact speak back to the boys who cat-called me and am speaking back to Bradeep Ncube, whether or not he’ll hear me. I tell the truth here, friends, and that’s what’s brave. So Ncube isn’t likely reading this and thus I’m unlikely to change his mind or actually have the chance to engage in real discourse with him. Oh well. No big loss.

Therefore, what I mean to do in this post isn’t (just) to give the lie to his assumption of me, but is part of the same talking-back project I outlined in my last post. When people speak against me, I speak back, whether those people are cowards on a street corner or cowards lurking in the corners of the web. There have been many things written by smarter and better informed people than me about the incidences of digital harassment of female bloggers. I recommend reading those things, because they are profound and insightful and offer useful and nuanced approaches to dealing with this new realm of harassment. This, however, is my approach: talking back.

In sum: Bradeep Ncube, you owe me $50 and an apology. I doubt I’ll get either, but that won’t — now or ever — stop me from saying it.

in which I will brook none of that nonsense

18 May

Fair warning to all sad, sorry young men trolling the streets of my city: if you cat-call me (as one unfortunate boy discovered the other day), I will not take it.

I will instead stop my bike, ask you to please explain precisely why you think it’s acceptable to speak to me that way, and spend the next five to seven minutes schooling you on just exactly how sad and sorry you are; the bigger the audience, the better, because if you think that you can shame me for being a woman, then I’d very much like you to be as shamed as possible in as public an arena as possible. If you shout at me on the street, I will shout back because you are putting my body on display and expecting my silent acquiescence. If you think that my female subjectivity makes my body forfeit, then you are, in this case, sadly goddamn mistaken. I’m not interested in that game, so I’m going to shout and lecture and belittle you — I am going to get in your face — I am going to make you look at my eyes and not at my tits — I’m going to make a big goddamn scene — I’m going to crush you with my intellect and my voice and my power so that what is now on display is your pathetic misogyny, not my body.

I am decidedly not your “baby girl.” You seem to be unclear about why that’s an insulting thing to call me, a grown-ass woman, so let me explain; by calling me “baby girl,” you are attempting to reduce my subjectivity to the kind of small, manageable size that allows you to overpower me, to disregard my personhood, and to ignore my humanity. By calling me “baby girl,” you elide me. That’s not to say that the term baby girl never be one of endearment or kindness, but if you’ll recall, I don’t know and therefore cannot endear you. If I gave you permission to speak to me in that way, it would be a different matter but, hey! I didn’t, so shut your mouth. I am no one’s baby, I am not a girl, and, more importantly, I am not the kind of woman who allows herself to be spoken to in that manner. Should I repeat myself? I’ll repeat myself: if you call me out on the street, expect that I will speak back. You want a monologue, but you’ve damn well walked into a dialogue, and now we’re going to have a conversation. It’s not as much fun when your victim talks back, is it?

I apologize for the fact that we live in a culture that trains you to think that you can somehow enhance your masculinity through that kind of behavior, but my sadness will not diminish the righteous fury of my talking back. I am sorry that you’ve been led to believe that you will be bigger, better, and more manly if you belittle women. I’m sorry that your own male subjectivity means you’ve been locked into unequal, unjust networks of power. Your personhood is just as restricted as mine by these systems and that means that misogyny is a goddamn tragedy for the both of us. But you still have more privilege than I do, straight white man, and thus it is your responsibility to actively work to change those systems. You are a beneficiary of your privilege, but you don’t have to be a signatory to my oppression. If you want to actually prove yourself to be a person of worth, then you will join in the fight against this kind of bullshit instead of actively engaging in it.

And to the other men, standing around embarrassed and silent while I yelled at your friend? You are tacitly approving of his behavior by not taking a stance against it. Call him out, don’t let him save face, don’t put up with that bullshit. Because I’m about to bike away and then it will be up to you to take the next step. Do you want to be men of quality, or do you want to be passive supporters of inequality?

In sum, young sir, you picked the wrong bitch to mess with.

Follow-up #1
Follow-up #2

wordy: some thoughts from my classroom on bodies, perceptions, and teachable moments

6 Aug

Camp is over now. My tenure in the classroom, with these wonderful and invigorating and frustrating kids, is over for this summer. And as much as I hope I taught them a thing or two, I’m mostly still thinking about the things they taught me. Wednesday, I had an interesting moment with some of my students and I’ve been thinking about it since. And since this space is supposed to be where I reflect on teaching and self-representation, I think it’s a pretty fitting time to bring it up.

Some background: one of the courses I’m teaching this summer is an introduction to media literacy course that I’ve titled “Reading the World Well.” The overall goal is to help students learn how to read media images more critically and become more analytical, skeptical, and conscious consumers. Our first week focused on advertising images and my students proved to be amazingly adept at discerning the hidden messages that advertising sends us about our bodies, our selves, and our society. In this second week, we look at how we represent and “sell” ourselves, focusing on how  internet platforms like facebook, twitter, and personal blogs change the way we present ourselves and interact with others.

(click for link to the source)

This image — from a recent Ralph Lauren campaign — is one that we discuss at length. One of the things I try to get my students to realize is that we see images like this and we find them disgusting, horrible, and repellent. We see this and we protest the unreasonable, unattainable, inhuman images pitched to us by advertising firms that are banking on our self-loathing spurring us to spend money on their product. But we only challenge what we notice and we only notice stuff like this image, where the model has been so drastically photoshopped that she looks like a praying mantis. What we don’t notice is the subtle alterations that blanket our media landscape and that may be the biggest problem.

(click for link to the source)

We spend more time on this image and the subtle, skilled photoshoping that’s been done to make Katy Perry “acceptable” for the cover of Rolling Stone. We discuss how much time, energy, makeup, lighting, etc., went into making Perry look how she does in the before, how demonstrably beautiful she is, how unattainable her body is for many women. And then how even despite all this supposed perfection, the physical Perry isn’t good enough and she must still be digitally altered and transformed into the impossible image we see on the cover. Is this not as troubling as the Ralph Lauren ad?

So in this class we try to make the connection between the images of bodies (and female bodies in particular) and how we feel about our own bodies, how we imagine our selves: on Wednesday, we spent time talking about how we want to be seen and what we do to make that happen. Do we de-tag pictures of ourselves that we think make us look unattractive, that make us look boring, that make us look fat? Do we edit ourselves to make our image acceptable, to others and to ourselves, to fit into that impossible beauty ideal? For example, I told them all that it’s important to me that I am seen as smart, so I try to use proper grammar, a large vocabulary, and I make reference to myself engaging in “smart” activities (like reading the New York Times, being a Ph.D. student, or enjoying poetry). I think my candor helped them open up about how they, too, are doing this and we got a very interesting discussion going.

It was during this discussion that a student said something I was, am, and (I expect) will continue to be floored by:

“I want to be seen as confident in my body,” she said, “but I’m not skinny or fat enough.”
I paused, completely unsure of how to respond. “I’m sorry, can you explain that to me?” I asked.
“Well,” she elaborated, “it’s like, if I was really skinny and pretty, I could be confident in my body, because I’d be pretty enough, you know? Or, since we all, like, know we’re not supposed to feel bad about our bodies, I could be confident if I was bigger. But I’m, like, just a normal size, so I feel like it looks weird if I am all, like, confident and strutting my stuff and whatever.”

I didn’t know how to handle that statement. I just stood there, mouth agape, looking at this young girl. She’s 13 years old. By my eye, she’s beautiful, with the kind of coltish enthusiasm and awkward grace that I can already see growing into the real beauty of womanhood. Moreover, she’s someone who I would call thin. She looks healthy, well taken care of, comfortably growing and changing and turning into an adult. And yet. And yet she feels unsure of how to treat her body because she’s just, well, just healthy. Because the images of beauty and of ideal femininity that she sees most often do not look like her, do not resemble her body. And yet she feels like she cannot be confident because her body — healthy, average, etc. — is not something she sees regularly.

I think I missed a real teachable moment here, because I couldn’t articulate just how sad, astute, and important her statement was. Because I couldn’t imagine how to stand in front of my classroom and say that yes, I, too, wonder where the women who look like me are. That I, too, wonder what exactly a “healthy” body is supposed to look like, what an “able” body is, what it means to feel “pretty”. That I, too, sometimes look in the mirror and hate my body — a body that treats me well, that works the way I want it to, that exists in a comfortable equilibrium with itself — and then, on the same day, look at pictures of myself on this blog and love what I see. That I, too, am uncertain of the standards I’m holding myself to.

I talk to my students regularly about what a “good” body is. I repeat, over and over, that a good body is the body that we’re in. That a good body is a body wherein the cells continue to split via that miracle of mitosis, wherein the blood still delivers the lungs’ oxygen to our muscles and our fingertips and our brain. And yet. And yet this idea of what a good body and a good woman and a good image might be is not so simple as just rejoicing in the efficacy of our physical selves because it’s absolutely bound up in how those selves are sold to us.

I think back on the girl I was at her age and think, yes. Yes I hated myself, then, for being neither so thin that I was acceptable nor so strong that I could not care. And I’ve regularly looked back at pictures of myself in embarrassment, unsure of how to love myself in retrospection when I still feel the sting of the shame and self-loathing I foisted upon myself then.

We moved on. I lost the moment. I didn’t say anything to this girl. But her statement stuck with me such that I sat there that day, typing that explanation, that question, while students in my next class were writing their short stories. While the class was imagining something new, crafting fictive worlds of their own creation, I was thinking back on that one girl in that one class and wondering what the world will look like for her, for them, as they all grow up. And now here I am, reading over these words, days later, and wondering what I could have said then, to her and to them and to myself at that age, about how we know ourselves, how we see ourselves, how we relate to ourselves and why, sweet goodness, why we are being taught to so very much loathe ourselves.