Why Anti-Feminism Is Illogical, Evil, and Incredibly Unsexy
Men are so cute when they rail against feminists.
Posted August 3, 2009
"Any reasonably attractive young woman exercises as much power over men as the male ruler of the world does over women" declares Satoshi Kanazawa.
Without even getting into the definition of "reasonably attractive young woman" (RAYW) which can lead to a whole lifetime of arguments (and I haven't had my second cup of coffee yet), I'd like to take exception to my distinguished colleague's assertion that pretty girls have as much influence in the world as men with money, guns, property, lawmakers and lawyers on their side. If that were the case, then RAYW would be the ones running governments, owning corporations, deciding the futures of educational, economic, and cultural institutions. There would be no war, no slave camps, no government-graft, and Tampax rather than Viagra would be covered by all health care plans.
I take feminism seriously, and treat anti-feminists lightly.
I also take it personally and here's why:
When I started my first year as a student at Dartmouth College, there were five men for every woman. I thought I had it made. Dartmouth had only recently admitted women, and the administration thought it best to get the alumni accustomed to the idea by sneaking us in a few at a time. With such terrific odds in my favor socially, how could I lose? I'd dated in high school and although I wasn't exactly Miss Budwiser I figured I'd have no problem getting a date every Saturday night. But I noticed an unnerving pattern. I'd meet a cute guy at a party and talk for a while. We would then be interrupted by some buddy of his who would drag him off to another room to watch a friend of theirs "power boot" (the local vernacular for "projectile vomiting") and I realized that the social situation was not what I had expected.
Then somebody explained to me that on this campus "they think you're a faggot if you like women more than beer." This statement indicated by its very vocabulary the advanced nature of the sentiment behind it. If a guy said he wanted to spend the weekend with his girlfriend, for example, he'd be taunted by his pals who would yell in beery bass voices "Whatsa matter with you, Skip? We're gonna get plowed, absolutely blind this weekend, then we're all gonna power-boot. And you wanna see that broad again? Whaddayou, a faggot or something?"
It turned out that the male-female ratio did not prove to be the marvelous bonus I had anticipated. But still I figured that the school was good enough to justify spending the next few years getting down to studying and forgoing a wild social life. I thought it would all work out, that at least I would be accepted in my classes as a good student and get through the next couple of years without too much worry or trouble. Okay, I told myself that I could live with that and found in fact that dating guys from other schools to be a healthy practice anyway.
But the real shock came in the classroom where I was often one of two or three women in the group. One professor, I remember, always prefaced calling on me or any other woman in the class by asking "Miss Barreca, as a woman, what is your reading of this text?" I was profoundly embarrassed to be asked my opinion as a woman, since it seemed somehow less authoritative than being asked my opinion as a student or as a "general" reader. At first, I jokingly replied that I would be happy to answer "as a person," but that it was hard for me to answer as a woman. When the professor didn't so much as smile, I knew that tactic wouldn't work. Every time I raised my hand to answer a question, I was asked my opinion as a woman. It frustrated and angered me, because I wanted to be treated as an individual and not as a representative of a group.
It took months to understand that in the eyes of this teacher, I'd always be a "Miss" rather than just another, ordinary student. When I realized that there was no alternative, I figured I'd go with it, exaggerate the situation enough so that I could at least enjoy myself. So I started prefacing every answer with the phrase, "As I woman, I think Shakespeare means . . . ", "As a woman, it strikes me that Tennyson's point is . . . " But then I figured, why stop at this? I started to say "As a woman, I think the weather's rather cold for June." "As a woman, I think I'll have the meatloaf for dinner." "As a woman, I think I'll go to bed early tonight." It started out as a joke, but as it caught on (a number of my friends started to use the same strategy to make the professors and guys in general hear how their remarks sounded) we started to examine further. Maybe we really were always speaking as a woman. Maybe there was no such thing as speaking as "just" a person. Maybe we always spoke as women whenever we spoke. Maybe this joke wasn't such a joke.
So that even as I stopped saying "As I woman, I believe such-and-such," I started thinking it. It occured to me that nothing was neuter or neutral. I saw that my responses were in part determined by the fact of my gender--as well as by other factors like my class and ethnicity. I didn't read novels about war in the same way a man would, for example, since I hadn't been brought up to consider going to war as a soldier as a possible future for myself. I hadn't played war games as a kid, I didn't find the idea of war engaging. It did not have "universal appeal" since it didn't appeal to me, a narcissistic but nevertheless compelling argument. In the same way that the male students complained that Jane Austen was obviously a second-rate writer because all she was interested in was marriage (Mark Twain once said that it was "a pity they let her die a natural death"), so I decided to assert that Hemingway's concern for bullfighting was no concern for an intelligent, insightful woman. Of what interest is bullfighting to the contemporary female reader? Hemingway was therefore second-rate, by their definition, since his subject matter had limited appeal and seemed gender-specific. I learned to answer "Of course" when asked whether I responded to things as a female. I learned to accept that and even enjoyed discovering the ways in which my viewpoint differed from the perspective offered by my male peers.
But even understanding that the world identified me first as a woman and only secondly as anything else didn't stop me from being horrified the first time somebody called me a "feminist." I thought being a feminist meant I couldn't wear lipstick or crave men with small behinds. I thought that "feminist" meant I couldn't send "Peanuts" cards to guys who I was afraid wouldn't call back, or buy stockings with seams. I thought "feminist" meant no more steamy flirtations or prolonged shopping trips. I thought it meant braided hair and short nails, maybe mandatory tofu. I certainly associated feminism with humorless, dour, and--worst of all--unblinkingly earnest women. That was because I was accepting the male version of things, which was sort of like believing the mouse's version of the cat, since it entailed being given access to a vision that could see nothing besides teeth and claws.
I was warned about so-called feminists. I was told by boyfriends, relatives, professors and other disreputable sources that such women were ambitious, sharp-tongued, a little too smart for their own good. They told me that only women who couldn't get laid got political. They told me what was perhaps the biggest and most interesting lie of all: that independence and ambition were unattractive in a woman. They also suggested, subtly but seriously, that too much of a sense of humor in a woman made her unattractive (a comment to which comedian Elayne Boosler would reply "Comedy is very, very sexy when it's done right"). Luckily, during a moment that eclipsed all earlier illumination, I heard a female graduate student repeat a wonderful line from writer Robin Morgan, "We are the women that men have warned us about." It was as if the little light-bulb that appeared over Bugs Bunny's head when he got an idea suddenly appeared over mine. It seemed unnerving, actually, that I was gazing reprovingly at all those qualities that I myself possessed. I was certainly ambitious, ready to speak and eager to defend my position on a subject. I liked being a woman, was proud of my femininity and believed myself to be equal to any task set before me by society--at least as well equipped to deal with them as any guy I sat next to in class (he could no more skin a bison than I could and I could probably defend myself on Tenth Avenue more ably than he).
So, when I really thought about it, I was already a feminist no matter what I chose to call myself. When I looked around, I saw a lot of smart, funny women who also fit the bill. We were all feminists, the fun kind, whether or not we'd admitted it aloud before. It was sort of like admitting we were secretly Bad Girls, and for me the admission held the same sort of delightful relief. Oh, is that what I am? Is this what the word means, is this what the name names? Is this what a feminist is? Oh good
It's like when Gloria Steinem was told on her 40th birthday "You don't look forty," to which she replied "This is what forty looks like."
When I was told after that moment of revelation "You don't look/act/speak like a feminist," I answered "This is what a feminist looks/acts/speaks like." These old narrow ideas of the feminist as a dour, sour-faced woman have got to go. Feminists are not a lonely tribe of women fenced off from the rest of society. Feminists read cookbooks and clip coupons from Sunday supplements. Feminists like to dance, flirt and wear high-heels, often doing all three at the same time. Feminists can like men--and enjoy the process of liking individual men for their own worth instead of valuing all men simply because they're male. Feminists enjoy the company of other women and value the company of other women. Feminists don't wish they were men; they celebrate their womanhood.
Nicole Hollander had "Sylvia's" daughter pose the eternal question "Ma, do you think I can be a feminist and still like men?" Sylvia replies, as she always does, in unambiguous terms: "Sure. Just like you can be a vegetarian and like fried chicken."
While Hollander's example is wonderfully funny, it also indicates the way in which women struggle with the do's and don'ts of feminism. The point of feminism is not to alienate men, but for women to focus on our own concerns and needs, to establish our own values. These may or may not coincide with the already established values of our dominant culture, just as our concerns and needs may or may not fold neatly into a relationship. The point is to work on making decisions based on choices that are really choices instead of following a script--in other words, it means learning to laugh at what we find funny instead of just following along with the laugh track and to make trouble when trouble is necessary.
I see, rather remarkably, my female students going through the same sorts of trials and self-examinations today in spite of the fifteen years of feminism that have passed. Some of these women students are planning to go to medical school. Some are engineering majors. They are track stars or nationally-ranked basketball players. These young women certainly work hard, compete fiercely and are not embarrassed about admitting that their goals are high. They work to put themselves through school. Most of them aren't considering getting married until they're several years into their chosen professions. Most of them leave home after graduation to make their way in cities across the country to find interesting, challenging jobs.
Yet when I ask how many of them consider themselves feminists, only about a third in any one class will dare to raise their hands. These women may not be afraid of getting bad scores on the LSATs or GREs, but they're afraid of not getting a date. They can be independent, intelligent and proud to be women. But a little word like "feminism" scares them. One girl, a student who'd taken two women-and-literature classes with me said that she loved the material, that the books had changed how she thought about herself and her relationships with men. We were having coffee in my office while discussing the subversion of the marriage plot in the contemporary woman's novel when I mentioned something about being pleased that her feminist perspective was being finely delineated by her careful work on the novel. "Oh, but I'm not a feminist," she said, surprising me, "I don't like that word." I gulped, and felt that whatever work I'd done in class I'd obviously missed out a crucial discussion.
Why are so many women afraid to call themselves feminists? It is because they fear the condemnation of experts such as Satoshi Kanazawa?
Catharine R. Stimpson wrote an article for Ms. in 1987 about how important it is for women to learn to say the "F Word" in public. Stimpson, who is the dean of the Graduate School at Rutgers University, is of course referring to the word "feminism" when she uses the phrase "the F Word." We know well enough that nobody's embarrassed to say the word "fuck" anymore, but a lot of women are still hesitant to say the word "feminism" in mixed company--as if saying "Yes, I'm a feminist" is much more unladylike than telling somebody, for example, to "fuck off."
The trouble is that to a number of people, the two phrases are synonymous, which is a great pity. Stimpson suggests that if women continue to change in a positive way then "people will be able to say 'feminist' as casually as they now say 'wife' or 'kid' or 'snack'" and ends her article by calling for feminists to use "more audacity, more humor, when we speak of feminism."
Most of feminism is made up of just such gestures. The last thing feminism is about is exclusion. Feminists can be defined as those women and men who recognize that the earth doesn't revolve around anybody's son--or around any one group. In a collection of essays on women's humor titled Last Laughs: Perspectives on Women and Comedy, Fay Weldon quotes the old joke "Question: How many radical feminists does it take to change a light-bulb? Answer: That's not funny!" Weldon then goes on to say that humor acts as a kind of a shorthand that "saves me from writing a long paragraph about how feminists get accused of not being able to make jokes, and a few of us certainly can't, which makes a few of us uneasy, which is why it's a joke in the first place..."
Adapted from They Used to Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted...