Monday, June 25, 2007

I Love Grumpy Women.

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.


Luke said...

I ejoyed your observation. You put some of my own thoughts into eloquent words. I said THAT'S IT when I read, "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." That is exactly the issue at stake. The mere notion that feminists should not be grumpy but rather pleasant is one that holds to a basic preassumption that we need to shake off; that is, that "women" belong to some amorphous, universal set of characterizations that deliniates them from "men" and their amorphous, universal set of characterizations.

I would not find any harm in someone saying, "People should not be grumpy." But the meaning behind this is for the moment unprejudiced. Now add: "Black people should not be grumpy." This statement becomes founded not on a universal concept of human nature but on the assumptions underlying this racist creation of a stereotyped "group" of like-minded people that supposedly share an identity with each other. That is why I enjoyed your observation. We need to practice the golden rule. If I, as a male individual, think it is unfair to restrict the general acceptance of my actions to a zero sum framework of behavior, then why would I expect women to be restricted to a zero sum framework of behavior?

It's not just that "grumpiness" should be acceptable in social situations. It's what is underlying the whole tension. Shouldn't a woman, or an African-American, who acts grumpily be condemned (or received) by the same standard that everyone else is?

I understand why you say that you like grumpy women. There is a value in their attitudes against men. I, however, would feel uncomfortable if any person was grumpy with me. And furthermore, I sympathize with your concerns and want to do what I can to help; so, for a feminist to approach me and be grumpy with me, based on her false preassumption that I am some "typical," unanimous member of an amorphous blob of unenlightened "men," would be ashame. Not only would she be hurting me unrightfully, but she would be hurting herself and her cause by presribing zero sum characterizations on me.

Timmi Duchamp said...

I think what I love about being around women like "Joanne" is that they offer a glimpse of a possible future for women--- a social reality in which it's not just women having to "watch themselves" around men (which we always must do, with few exceptions), but when, also, it's men routinely making that same effort without being aware that it's an unusual social demand to encounter. Or--- more idealistically--- with neither men nor women having to routinely make that effort. (The former, however, is likely to precede the latter, for obvious reasons.)

A more general comment: I bet most women wouldn't have judged Joanne as "grumpy" in the least. I imagine that those who would characterize her as "grumpy" simply take women's "watching themselves" around men for granted.

Susanna J. Sturgis said...

"I value black people who make me uncomfortable for the same reason. My discomfort is important. It is part of shaking the system."

You are so right -- your discomfort is important, and what really shakes the system is that you're taking responsibility for it, not expecting (for instance) a black person to make you feel comfortable. What Toby seemed to be doing in your story is evading his own discomfort by changing the focus to men's pain. "To everything there is a season" for sure, but the season for women to talk about women keeps getting put off.

Which is, in a nutshell, why separatism is so important, and why the whole idea makes a lot of men and not a few women, well, uncomfortable. From time to time women, and feminists, need to be liberated from the burden of making men and non-feminists comfortable. Think about the difference between WisCon and the standard "Women and SF" panel that used to be common at cons (and maybe still is?). How much can you cover in 55 minutes or an hour and a half, especially if someone keeps arguing that "women can't write hard SF"? You go to WisCon, listen and talk yourself blue in the face for 3 1/2 days, and when you go home you know you haven't even scratched the surface.

Rachel Swirsky said...

Hi Luke,

Thanks for taking the time to read and engage. I appreciate your comments.

This caught my attention:

"for a feminist to approach me and be grumpy with me, based on her false preassumption that I am some "typical," unanimous member of an amorphous blob of unenlightened "men," would be ashame. Not only would she be hurting me unrightfully, but she would be hurting herself and her cause by presribing zero sum characterizations on me."

When does this happen out of the blue?

Setting the unlikeliness aside, my argument was that even if it did happen, I might disagree with her and it might suck, but there's still some value in it on the level of defying social expectations. It's kind of like "Hey, I have the flu, but at least I get to drink lots of tea."

Rachel Swirsky said...

Timmi writes:

"A more general comment: I bet most women wouldn't have judged Joanne as "grumpy" in the least. I imagine that those who would characterize her as "grumpy" simply take women's "watching themselves" around men for granted."

I cross-posted this on Alas, a Blog, and the analysis of her behavior has been really interesting. Several people have said "what are you talking about, grumpy? She didn't do anything wrong at all." A few others (both men, I think) wanted to lecture Joanne and I on what we should have done, because to them, both of us acted beyond the pale.

I didn't personally see her as acting grumpy. It's been interesting to see the diverse reactions.

Susanna writes:

"You go to WisCon, listen and talk yourself blue in the face for 3 1/2 days, and when you go home you know you haven't even scratched the surface."

Absolutely, Susanna. It's part of what makes it so frustrating to go to Wiscon and then come home to the internets -- both this year and last year, there were some nasty anti-feminist shocks waiting for us.

Luke said...


Agreed. It doesn't just happen out of the blue. I also like your analogy of having the flu but drinking lots of tea.

My first thought is that it is the nature of the beast - our society - that makes some of our social barrier-climbing ugly. I think I understand and agree with your point that defying social expectations is part of (perhaps a necessary part of) defeating the current system. Every woman must empower herself in her own way, a way consistent with her personality, motivations, and desires. Some have more patience, while others do not, and it's not as if one way is better than the other.

I suppose that it would be unlikely for a woman feminist to accuse me of those things she is adamant against if I did not give her any grounds for such an accusation. I suppose I'm slightly uncomfortable with some of the feminist "generalizations" I've witnessed. Can you see how I could be if I hear comments that lump me into a general category of "men?" Yes, I am a man, but I do not think I fit the descriptions that sometimes follow (though sometimes I do, and I force myself to readjust). (aside: do you hear these generalizations? Am it just missing the point?) See, I get that we are dealing with ideas, mentalities, worldviews, perspectives, philosophies, social imperatives, etc. and I think it would be a shame if we viewed these ideas as interchangeable with "men" in general.

I understand "generalizations" about "men" are accurate and reveal a lot about our societal problems, but I can never forget one conversation I had with one of my girlfriends: I found myself arguing with her that she is equal with me and should act accordingly, while she told me I was to be the "head of the household," some superior decisive manly man. She called on her tendencies towards emotion, her weaknesses, her "inability" to understand academia. I thought to myself, how weird is it that I have to exert tremendous effort to convince her that she is socially equal with me, to empower her, to give her the confidence necessary to overcome?! Why does she balk to accept my prodding when it is for her empowerment and not mine?

This problem we speak of transcends categories of people in our society. It is part of our general identity, our nationalism, our collective consciousness.

Rachel Swirsky said...


Again, thanks for engaging. (It's a conversation in slow-mo! :) )

I don't agree that these problems transcends barriers qua barriers. Many people may have to deal with manifestations of them, but those manifestations are expressed in particularly gendered, classed, and racialized ways. (And they have to be addressed as such if they're going to be solved.)

Here's a cool link talking about generalizations:

As to

Luke said...


Thanks for the Link. Ilyka Damen writes well and brings up some valuable points. It is interesting to see how she converses with her boyfriend. It is a conversation I've probably been through 30 times, but never has anyone made it as clear as she did.

I hate to say that I'm a beginner or an amateur reader of feminist literature, but it's probably true. I'm learning.

What is truly interesting about reading her blog was how it incredibly resembled an argument I made 2 years ago about the acceptance of African-American protests and/or negative attitudes against whites. Why I didn't make the same connection between my old argument for African-Americans and women I don't know. Maybe I'm being too hard on myself, but it's probably likely that I didn't make the same connection because I wanted me and my self-automatic identity with men to stay at the center of focus. God forbid I adopt the notion that men are not the Sun and women not the Earth!

I associate with her boyfriend, who asked "do you now how you sound?" Sometimes, I'm tempted to ask that same question to feminists in general. But I think it would be better to repeat over and over in my mind "It's not about me." Why do I have to identify with men anyway?! Sure, I stand when I pee, but beyond that, so what?

Thank you. I get it a little bit more each day.