The other day, I was at a theater event for the amazing San Jose Repertory Theater. If you live close enough, and have enough money to get tickets, I strongly suggest that you support them. They present consistently good work that borders on genius at least a couple times a season. Their new work, particularly, is often striking; for instance, they produced the world premiere of my favorite play, Las Meninas, which was a historical speculation on a possible love affair between the wife of France's Louis XIV and an enslaved African dwarf who was brought to her at court. I don't see evidence of it having been produced since, which is, in my opinion, a travesty. The Rep has really good deals on ticket prices for students and teachers, too, by the way, so check it out.
I arrived early for the show. My fiance and I went to the bar to have drinks with some acquaintances of his from his hometown, who I'd met before, but only briefly. We were also joined by a woman who owns a vineyard in Northern California, which she works herself. I knew her a little bit through the memoir poetry she publishes occasionally online under a psuedonym, and we'd exchanged emails, but I'd never met her before.
She -- let's call her Joanne -- was glorious. She was six feet two inches tall, tan and broad-shouldered. She wore a hand-made coat, pieced together from scraps of bright fabric, over black slacks. She held her head down at a forty-five degree angle, which made it easier for me to look her in the eye. My fiance said that it made her look a bit dismissive. Her mouth had a natural downturn. When she greeted us, she skipped the conversational niceties about the weather and the play we were about to see, and started talking immediately about the sexual subtext in a book of poetry written by a mutual acquaintance.
I liked her immediately.
Now, my fiance's friends are good folk, and I've enjoyed talking to them the few times that I've seen them, but when the conversation turned to feminism, I wasn't surprised to see the male half of the couple start to stir in his seat. He crossed and uncrossed his arms, and spent a lot of time clearing his throat. Joanne spoke very bluntly about something that had been running through the feminist blogs -- I think it was the video of the honor killings that was featured on I Blame the Patriarchy, and which I linked to the other day.
Toby set down his drink with a loud clatter and said, "You know what really bothers me is we never talk about how men are affected in third world countries. Men are circumcized too, you know."
My fingers froze around my glass. Likewise, my smile froze.
It's not that I'm non-confrontational in person, but well... it's never fun. I have a whole set of submissive behaviors which I learned to emulate in college, because I found it made people more likely to listen to me, and less likely to get angry at a woman with opinions. I smile and I say "umm..." a lot, and I generally act like a ditz while I ramble through a complicated political thought, as if to suggest -- hey! I just thought of this, and if it's coherent, then it's probably a fluke. I do this with most strangers I meet. It's like the heavy makeup and frilly dresses I wear, partially in apology for my large body. There are a lot of ways in which I don't conform to femininity's norms, being fat and opinionated and - frankly - smart. I have survival strategies to compensate for that.
My smile frozen, I cut my glance over to Joanne. She met my eye and laughed. She threw up her hands. "I can't handle this," she said to Toby, with a tone that suggested 'this' translated to 'your assininity.' "I'm going to stretch my legs."
I smiled and ducked my head and started in with my, "Well... you know, it's just that if you really look at the surgeries of female circumcision and male circumcision... umm... it's kind of misleading to call it circumcision at all, you know? Some anthropologists call it female genital surgeries, because it's pretty different. The thing is..."
And the shy thing, the break-it-down simply thing, the I'm not threatening see-my-head-tilt thing -- seemed to make the information non-intimidating enough that Toby accepted it. I even heard him repeat the argument to someone else later, which is usually a good sign. So, score one for that.
But me, I was developing a healthy admiration for Joanne.
"I really like her," I said to my fiance as we drove home.
"Hm," said my fiance. "She's kind of... grumpy."
"Really?" I said. "She didn't strike me as grumpy."
"Maybe she's kind of grumpy with men."
I thought about it. "I think she's just grumpy with 'what about the men?!'"
"Not just then. I felt like I had to watch myself with her."
"Huh," I said.
We got home. We went about dinner and television and work and whatever else. I kept chewing on the afternoon's events. Later, I phoned an activist friend of mine who lives in NYC. As I repeated the incident, I figured out why I'd been thinking about it so much.
"I really love grumpy women," I said. "I love it that she can just throw up her hands and walk away. I love that she doesn't NEED his approval. I love it when feminists can say 'screw you, we're working for ourselves.'"
"Repeating yourself is part of being an activist," said my friend.
"Oh, I know," I said. "But... I just really respect women who are sick of it."
"Why? Is it because it suggests she's already done it a lot?"
"No... I'm not sure..." I considered. "It's because..." I trailed off, thinking.
This is what I wanted to say to my friend on the phone, if I could have found the words in time:
It's because we're women. We're supposed to be tolerant, and submissive, and kind, and to be willing to reanalyze every goddamned thing because a man has questioned it. It takes real strength to be able to just say 'fuck it.' It takes a willingness to throw out every piece of training you have, to risk disapproval and dismissal and marginalization.
And isn't that every bit as important as making a point about female circumcision to a man who has probably heard the arguments before, and who has no power in and of himself to stop female circumcision? Sure, it's important for someone to tell Toby that he's making an ass of himself when he compares two non-analogous procedures in an attempt to undermine feminism and recenter himself on the stage of conversation. But it's also important to show him that women are not what he thinks we are.
It's important for women to be strong, and grumpy, and important, and conceited, and walking out, and fed up, and confident in themselves. Women are what we are. Toby needs to see that.
And more -- we women need to see that. Feminism isn't just about showing non-feminists what sexism is, it's also -- to borrow a phrase from a man I saw speak at Wiscon -- about decolonizing our minds. He was talking about decolonizing black minds, but it's important to decolonize women's minds, too. The feminist conversation isn't just about external change, but also internal possibilities. When I see Joanne walk out with her hands thrown up, I thrive.
I thrive on reading Ginmar and Twisty and Amanda Marcotte, all women who brook no crap from the anti-feminists who are enraged by the presence of strong women. Amanda Marcotte laughs at them. Ginmar rages at them. Twisty brushes them aside with sly dismissal.
Don't get me wrong. I have great respect for feminists like -- say -- The Happy Feminist (may she someday return to us) who argue quietly and calmly with each incoming interlocutor, assuming that they argue in good faith. I respect that, and I support that, and I think the Happy Feminist was an inspiration.
But let us never turn this into some kind of zero sum game, where there's a right answer to how feminists should act. We should act in many different ways, and there will be both value to and problems in all of our different actions. I am a woman who frequently, in real life, uses femininity as a way to make myself heard and tolerated. And I am a woman who is strongly inclined toward certain aspects of femininity, such as community-building, and yes, even skirt-wearing since I hate the physical sensation of wearing pants. And of course, I'm masculine in other ways, even if I would probably not feel comfortable enough to throw up my hands at a valued acquaintance and walk out of the room. There's room for me, and also room for acknowledging the awesomeness of women who are more comfortable either in more masculine or more feminine roles. Acknowledging them should never threaten my sense of my own value, because there is room for all of us in our own diversity. That's what it means for women to be full people; there will be myriad ways to be a 'right' woman.
I admire grumpy women. I admire grumpy women even when they make men uncomfortable, or perhaps especially when they make men uncomfortable. In a way, I even value the men's discomfort, because of what it means -- it means that here is a woman who does not prioritize men's comfort. How transgressive is that? How wonderful is that?
This is true when the men have done something unintentionally assinine, as Toby did. It's also true when the men haven't done anything particularly assinine. If it makes a man uncomfortable to hear a woman say "I hate men," then fair enough. There is still value in the transgressive act of a woman who has chosen not to make male comfort her priority.
Again, this is part of life not being a zero sum game. The woman may have done wrong. I may disagree with what she did. I may think it was a big problem that she pissed this particular man off, in this particular way. And at the same time, there will still be a value -- whether outweighed, or not -- in her simply existing for a moment outside the frame of her gender role.
I value black people who make me uncomfortable for the same reason. My discomfort is important. It is part of shaking the system. As a white woman, I am often discomfitted by men; why should they never be discomfitted by me? As a white woman, I am sure I often discomfit black people. Why should I be sheltered?
Grumpy women are transgressive. And important.
And I love them.