Monday, February 28, 2005

Bad Words

There's an interesting conversation going on over at Grace's place about sexism, particularly about the everyday kinds, the little bits that poke and prod and nag and irritate--and, when push comes to shove, make me, at least, less likely to trust the man (or woman) who's saying those things. This conversation is always interesting to me, not least because there are so many intertwined dimensions to it.

One dimension is language. I should say upfront that I often swear like a longshoreperson or a sailor or some other group who (stereotypically) says lots of Bad Words. I try to modulate at work, or around children, but, even then words sometimes slip out. (Working with the junkies and alcoholics did not help in my modulatory efforts, I must say, but that was 6+ years ago.) For another thing, I am a fan of sexual innuendo (up to a point, at least), when it is the least bit clever. Smart double entendres are one of the more entertaining things, if you ask me. I say this to point out that I'm probably less sensitive than many people are with regard to impolite language, and that sexual language does not necessarily bother me.

At the same time, however, I am unbelievably tired of language that routinely insults women. There are two main types that I can think of offhand--one is using vulgar names of female body parts (usually "cunt" or "pussy") as an insult. (In an effort to be fair, I've also tried to stop using male body parts as an insult, and specifically tried to stop referring to men as dicks or pricks. It turns out that "asshole" works pretty well, in most cases, and, since we've all got one, I figure that it's a non-gendered insult.) A second form of this language is language that implicitly disparages femaleness. For example, any language that says that someone, usually a male, is acting "like a girl" makes me want to suspend my no-hitting rule and smack the speaker upside the head. Most (perhaps all) of the men whom I consider friends would not say this--they do not regard women as inherently weak or unstable. They DO think that some people are occasionally weak or unstable, but they do not regard the behavior as the province of females.

A second dimension involves language but isn't necessarily about the actual words. I'm thinking here of situations where people use sex or sexual language to demean, humiliate, or threaten someone. If your boss told you that s/he wanted to have sex with you, or that s/he was dreaming about having sex with you, or suggested that you could get a promotion--or keep your job--by performing sexual acts, well, it's not just about the language there, is it. In fact, it would be entirely possible for your boss to tell you that performing sex acts is the condition under which you get to keep your job without ever using any bad words. I have been relatively lucky in this regard, in that (a) I've never had someone try to impose that kind of explicit bargain and (b) my vicious sarcasm and comfort and familiarity with swearing help insulate me in many other situations. My ability and willingness to tell someone to go fuck himself is useful in this regard. However, not everyone--male or female--is comfortable in that way, and it should not be a requirement that ANYONE be comfortable in that way. I'm thinking now of someone w/ whom I used to work. Her boss (whom I knew) tried to get her to have sex with him, and, when she repeatedly said no, he turned mean and nasty. She would not tell anyone in authority, however--so, eventually, I did. Before I left that job, I went to my boss, who also supervised my friend's boss, and said, basically, you cannot act on this knowledge unless O comes to you and tells you herself, but you need to know that A is doing this. He'll do it again to someone else, and he's a liability to this organization, in addition to being a major asshole. I would say that Grace's second example, of the office mate who continues to talk about strip clubs and email pictures of obese women for laughs, falls into this category, too. The behavior isn't quite as egregious as demanding sex, but Grace finds it offensive and she shouldn't have to deal with it. Just because I wouldn't be particularly offended, perhaps--I'd be more likely to mock him, I suspect--doesn't mean Grace can't be offended. The stuff he's talking about and emailing is not work-related, and is therefore subject to the sensitivities of the people in his vicinity.

A third dimension of everyday sexism has to do with other expectations about behavior, specifically, who will do which tasks, or who's good at which tasks. At this point, anyone who posits that this or that behavior is "biologically" male or female isn't paying attention. The evidence that men or women are "hard-wired" to do specific tasks is just not existent--it's a product of fevered imagination and story-telling. Hey, I can make up just-so stories along with the next person, but that does not make them true. This is why the "women's [implicitly superior, intuitive, etc.] ways of knowing" category of thought makes me break out in hives as much as Larry Summers speculating that maybe women aren't as good at math or women don't like to work 80-hour weeks. (Yo, dude, ever watched a toddler or two while keeping a household running? There's an 80-hour week for you.)

Take the claims that PET scans or MRI scans "show" that women's brains do this and men's brains do that. You're talking about scanning the brains of people who have an adult life's worth of experience, and you must remember that the brain is actually a reasonably plastic organ: as we interact with the world, we are, in some sense, shaping our brains, too. So how can you then claim that the differences you claim you see (in a sample size of, oh, maybe 40, if you're lucky, and I've got a little experience with brain imaging, so I know that seeing anything definitive is an adventure) are "hard-wired," are "nature," are proof of male-female differences? And what explains the people whose brains don't obey those patterns? Are they deviants?

In any case, I'm sick and tired of people imposing behavioral expectations based on genitalia, especially when they then turn around and say that those expectations are "natural." I'm also tired of men who claim that, even though their wives are at home, the wives are "really" in charge. And I'm really tired of the people making these claims being unable to see how their claims are self-serving. It's much more convenient, really, to say that one's wife is really in charge, that she's better suited to the work, etc., than to think about what changing places with her would mean. Oh, you can make more than she can? Why is that? Is it because women are underpaid for performing the same jobs? Is it because women have a difficult time getting promoted? Is it because you're unwilling to put your socks in the laundry hamper, much less take on all the housework? Is it because she dropped out of college to support you with some shit job while you finished school?

Don't get me wrong--some men and women forge strong partnerships on more "traditional" divisions of labor. My parents are a perfect example. My mom was home with us until my brother started school; she then worked at least part-time (and she was bored and unhappy when she was between jobs). My mom also handles all the household money--my dad came home on Friday and handed his pay envelope to my mom, and he'd get a weekly allowance, and, years later, she still handles it all. They consult each other on any major decision. But this worked because my father never considered my mother to be less of a partner in their relationship than he is. They each regarded it as their job to provide for each other and for the family as a whole, and they put communal needs before their own wants. Really, the best evidence for the partnership they have and had is me: where do you think I got these ideas about partnership?

Okay, back to the fourth dimension of the main rant. This one, too, has to do with behavioral expectations, and it's in reference to the leg-shaving discussion. I'd categorize these as social expectations. How do we expect people to dress, act, look? Why? And this one is very mushy. I've recognized that giving people (men and women both) enough cues eases the way. In my case, I have long hair, I wear dresses to work regularly, and I usually wear cosmetics to work or to go out. This helps mediate the other things (cursing like a longshoreperson, pretty much never wearing heels, playing sports, not taking shit). One other thing I do, to my everlasting annoyance, is qualify some of the things I say in meetings or other group settings. Part of this is because I do see a lot of grey, rather than black & white, in most situations, part of it is because I often do not, in fact, know for a certainty, but part of it is because a lot of the men with whom I deal or have dealt don't always react well to definitive statements coming from a woman's mouth, and many of them don't have much backbone to begin with, so my personality is going to scare them to some extent. On one level, I think, tough shit for them, but, really, if you're trying to get something accomplished, and if you need the buy-in, or, especially, actual input from these people, you have to find a way to make them comfortable or you won't get it. I'm working on this one, though, because, as noted, I annoy myself this way.

But not all women are going to make the same choices I make. A lot of women don't like wearing dresses, or do like wearing heels, or hate cosmetics, or want short hair, or like having long fingernails, or whatever. Why should this be such a big deal? One answer, of course, is the money being made on it. There are whole magazines and whole industries devoted to telling women what to wear and what to do, and men's magazines are not in the same solar system when it comes to delivering this kind of advice. Magazines directed to women assume that women have many needs and problems, and that many of those needs and problems revolve around making themselves presentable to and desireable to a man. Magazines directed at men assume that men have many interests, one of which might be questions about what's stylish or proper in a given situation. The underlying assumption is the same as the underlying assumption of the culture: the primary job of women is to make themselves pleasing to men. Even those of us who don't buy into that find ourselves making some concessions to what the general culture regards as "pleasing," else we absent ourselves completely from the culture. (Another option, but harder to pull off if you're more sexually interested in men.)

I don't particularly mind the fashion dictates--I dress to please myself and ignore the "instructions." Truth be told, I also like having a wider range of choices than men typically have. But I agree completely with Grace with regard to others' commentaries on these choices. You know what? I'm not shaving my legs or under my arms. If you don't like it, that's your business--I may not like some aspect of your dress or hair either. But don't try to tell me that your preferences should somehow rule my choices, or that your preferences are anything more than that--even if you do have the weight of the culture behind you. Another variation of this theme is the notion that women who are dressed in any way that can be regarded as sexy or provocative are "asking for" sexual assault. I may regard plunging necklines as inappropriate for the office (unless your office is a strip club, say), the same way I would regard bicycle shorts as inappropriate for men to wear to the office. But I don't assume that inappropriate clothing choices give me the right to assault, attack, touch, or make comments about someone, either. Similarly, women who do not choose to dress a certain way--who prefer pants to dresses, for example--should not be subject to commentary.

Finally, the last dimension of this is something I touched on in a previous post, i.e., the assumption that the rules of the game are neutral, bias-free, and ungendered, and that, therefore, any request to change the rules is a sign that women need some kind of special accommodation. This particular dimension is much harder to fight, precisely because it's so nebulous. My brother provides an example here. He's a basic, decent, working-class guy. He supports his family financially. He spends significant time rearing his sons. Although he wanted my sister-in-law to stay home with my nephews when they were younger (and he was clear about that before they had kids), now that they're a little older, he has no problem whatsoever with her working for pay, and he's happy to be the primary caregiver when she works in the evening. He would have no problem whatsoever if a woman worked in his line of business (which is extremely male-dominated), so long as she was as competent as everyone else. He's a great guy in many ways. But to the point I'm making, he's white, and male, and he will never in a million years see how that privileges him in any way. (This is probably where class and race and sex get all mixed up together and make a different stew.) The stuff I can tell him, both from my personal experience and from my academic work, makes no sense at all in his lived life, in part because he does not regard women as inferior in any way. He also doesn't regard women as objects. He doesn't even regard them as an alien species, probably because he grew up with two older sisters (people with opposite-sex siblings definitely have an advantage). But not everyone is my brother.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huh. I agree with a lot of what you're saying, so it's somewhat unfortunate that my only comment goes to the one disagreement. But whatever.

Whatever conclusions you have about Larry Summers, he emphatically did not say "maybe women aren't as good at math or women don't like to work 80-hour weeks." He did speculate (without a whole lot of emphasis, in my opinion) as to greater variance in men taking a particular math test, which suggests both more high- and low-scoring men than women, and a lot more very-high- and very-low-scoring men, but that's not the same as saying men, on the whole, are better at math than women.

And the misunderstanding about his point about eighty-hour workweeks is maddening. His argument---and I'm astounded people can read it any other way---is that American society currently expects 1) high-profile positions to go to people who work very long hours, and 2) women to shoulder the lion's share of the child-rearing obligations; that both expectations are unfair; and that the combination of the two is going to result in fewer women with children being selected for jobs like Harvard professor. Hardly the anti-feminist screed being portrayed..

Anyway, first time here. Enjoyed it.

Tony the Pony

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Blogger Emma Goldman said...

Glad you came by--

I do think the notion that the shape of the Bell curves for men and women differ significantly is old (since the late 19th century) and not well-supported. It's been used to "explain" the lack of female genius for well more than a century (see Cynthia Russett's "Sexual Science" on this), but rarely takes into account, for example, the variability of measures of intelligence. It also does not take into account the subtle (and not so) biases that eventually drive some women to throw up their hands. See, for interesting discussion of this in the field of computers (also extremely male-dominated).

I think that his comments about 80-hour weeks could be interpreted in a number of ways, including yours, so I'm willing to let that one be. The larger point (made elsewhere, but I cannot remember by whom) was that he was idly speculating on this stuff when (a) there has been significant research on many aspects of it, (b) many of the people who conducted that research were in the room, but (c) he was acting as though we were still at the "hmm, gee, wonder what could be happening" stage. Coupled with the decline in tenured positions going to women at Harvard since his tenure began, I can understand how people would regard his statements of concern as bad faith.

In any case, I'm almost sorry I mentioned him--in retrospect, it took away from what I was trying to say. But, again, glad you came by!

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