“I Know You’re Smarter Than Me” 2: Backlash, Feminist Ideology, and Flexibility

Clarisse Thorn's picture

This was originally posted over at Feministe! and Clarisse Thorn: Pro-Sex Outreach, Open-Minded Feminism.

It’s dangerous to start posts with anecdotes, but I’m gonna try it again. This one is from when I was a little baby proto-feminist, and I got my period. My mama, who was born in the USA in 1945, regaled me with stories about old myths around menstruation: she talked about how when she went to college, for example, her home economics teacher very seriously reassured the students that “Now, it’s just not true that if you bake a cake while menstruating, the cake will fall,” and “Now, it’s just not true that if you milk a cow while menstruating, the milk will sour.” Imagine, if you will, living in a world where that kind of myth-busting had to be offered at the university level.

Mom then told me all about how PMS used to be viewed by doctors when she was young; how many male doctors used to simply refuse to accept the existence of PMS; how patronizing doctors would be when she was growing up, about her body and her experience. Mom suggested that I someday take a look at the gynecological sections of 1950s-1960s medical textbooks, just so I could see how medieval they were. She talked about how it used to be accepted among doctors — who were almost all male, natch — that a woman who felt cramps while menstruating was making it up. That a woman who felt unusually emotional or even in physical pain while menstruating was just being all hysterical, moody and useless — you know the way women are! She explained that as more women became doctors and feminism gained traction and science advanced with a broader perspective, PMS became recognized as a real thing. Cramps were no longer “typical female hysteria”.

I thought about this recently when I saw the 2009 film “Jennifer’s Body”, which was written by avowed feminist Diablo Cody (who wrote “Juno” too), and which I ended up liking a lot more than I usually like horror flicks. Here’s the menstruation-relevant exchange:

Needy [the main character]: Are you PMSing or something?

Jennifer: PMS isn’t real Needy, it was invented by the boy-run media to make us seem like we’re crazy.

Interesting, right? Especially in context of my mother’s analysis. But I can totally see where it’s coming from. PMS may not have been invented by the media (and maybe other women of my mother’s generation would like to comment if they’ve got a take on this subject) — but regardless, PMS has sure as hell been co-opted by the media, and by sexism at large. I have definitely seen plenty of dumb assholes in my generation dismiss feminist arguments, or really any emotional thing ever said by a woman, by snickering: “Oh, she’s just PMSing.” And I would be astonished if the Feministe commentariat hadn’t experienced an overwhelming amount of those same shutdowns. That is the kind of treatment that Diablo Cody is trying to push back against with those “boy-run media” lines — and justifiably so!

For me, the moral of the story is this: At first women had to work hard to get PMS recognized because our attempts to talk about genuine physical and hormonal reactions to menstruation were dismissed as women being moody, hysterical and useless. Now that PMS is recognized as real and not a mere figment of our girl brains, it’s being used to dismiss women as moody, hysterical and useless. I begin to see a trend ….

Things have advanced a lot since my mom was young, but we still live in a culture that routinely discards women’s perspectives. Here’s a sobering point I picked up from a recent email that exhorted me to donate to AlterNet.org’s Gender Byline Gap Project: Ms. Magazine recently started a campaign against the New Yorker after the magazine went two full issues with only two or three contributions by female writers, in a close to 150-page magazine. It’s not just the New Yorker. January’s issue of Harpers has only three out of 21 stories by women. The Nation’s latest print issue has four and a half female bylines out of 17 articles. Katha Pollitt just wrote a great Slate article on this topic, too. And The Op-Ed Project points out that 84% of the USA’s Sunday talk show guests are men, 85% of Hollywood producers are men, and 83% of USA Congresspeople are men.

Last week, I wrote a post called “I Know You’re Smarter Than Me”: Clarisse Thorn’s Feminist Ideology. I started that post with an anecdote, too — one in which I gave an example of a dude starting a gender politics conversation and then, when I reacted, shutting me down with an underhanded, condescending-but-supposedly-complimentary, supposedly-innocuous statement: he said, “I know you’re smarter than me, so let’s not get into it.” There was a lot more to last week’s post than that, but one of the points I was trying to make is that a guy shutting up a girl can easily seem socially cute, or entertaining, even funny; it can seem “charming” or “complimentary” on the surface; it’s not always overt or blatant. But — especially in the context of a cultural tapestry where women’s perspectives are consistently undervalued — even then it’s not innocuous.

The reaction to that post was mixed. Some people really liked it. Some people immediately started picking apart the dude’s behavior, and my reaction. Was I really certain that he’d been trying to shut me down? Is this really an example of entrenched societal sexism?

Look, of course I’m not “certain” his statement was influenced by gross gender politics. In fact, if I’d felt sure that the dude in question respected me, or understood my objections to the conversation he’d started, then I might have taken his “I know you’re smarter than me” as a joke rather than a patronizing, disguised “shut up”.

I chose the example because it was subtle, and I wanted to give other feminists something to think about in terms of being subtly shut down. Unfortunately, the nature of such a subtle example is that I can’t be totally certain about it. Interactions are complicated, words are slippery, people are different, situations have context: there will never be a perfect example of these kinds of understated social dynamics.

But … how many times do dudes get to be “trying to be friendly and not really jerks” when they shut women down, before there’s more to it than that? At what point does it stop being “that one asshole dude” (or “those two asshole dudes”, or “okay it was three”) … or even “that one nice guy who just said one sexist thing that one time” (or “two nice guys” or “three nice guys” or “one nice guy who, okay, yes he says it a lot, but ….”) I noted that I’ve experienced other similar situations, and plenty of commenters backed me up; at what point does it stop being “that one guy”, “that one time”, and become a pattern? And at what point does an example become good enough to represent the pattern?

These are real questions, by the way, at least in my book. Not just rhetorical ones, though I think they also serve rhetorical purposes.

There’s something else worth adding, too, about this particular example. Admittedly, there were points in that post where I was pretty snarky about this dude, but one of the things I really like about feminism is that it gives me a great framework to think about people who act in oppressive patterns without thinking that they are Incontrovertibly Bad People. What I am saying here is that I don’t think, and never did think, that he’s an evil guy; in fact, I thought he was pretty nice, really, overall.

Individuals bear responsibility, but culture affects these things too. Feminism has taught me that culture often encourages people to fall into oppressive patterns, which we should watch out for. This means, unavoidably, that individuals sometimes have to be called out or used as examples. But it means that they’re, you know, people. Who can be understood as people.


* * *

One of the tricky things about privilege and oppression is that they tend to replicate all down the line. People who are constantly dismissed will tend to dismiss others. People who are exposed to a lot of violence will try to use violence to resolve things. This is the thing that worries me about the feminist movement, and many other anti-oppression movements as well. If we acknowledge that these small shutdowns — like what I talked about with the aforementioned dude — matter when they are performed against us by others, then we should acknowledge that those shutdowns matter if we perform them, too.

And if feminists tend to come from a background of feeling shut down, ignored, or even attacked or violated, then isn’t it worth asking about whether we’re extra likely to replicate those patterns against others?

I have been thinking a lot about this lately, because I am trying to figure out ways to make a significant portion of my career as a writer — which is hard! But it’s not nearly as hard as it would be if I weren’t:

1) White.
2) Cis-gendered, heterosexual.
3) Upper-middle-class.
4) In possession of a college degree.
5) Able-bodied and healthy.
6) Born in the USA.

There’s more, but I don’t want to bore y’all. Really, the only bits of my life that are generally ruled more by negative stereotypes than positive are the bit about being female, and the bit about being BDSM-identified. That, as near as I can tell, is it.

This matters, it matters a lot. For one thing, I think it’s worth asking how much my privilege has enabled me to get access to a platform like Feministe, which means that privilege is already affecting who I can reach in writing. For another, with so much privilege, it is far too easy for me to forget and ignore the experiences of:

1) People of color.
2) LGBT people.
3) Poor people.
4) Less educated people.
5) Disabled people.
6) The entire rest of the damn world.

One of my wise activist friends once said to me, “Movements for social justice seem to inevitably center on the concerns of the most privileged members of each movement.” The only way to work against this is with consciousness: trying to build a strongly diverse perspective in every moment, from square one. And given how privilege and oppression and violence replicate themselves, it may be especially problematic for me to have the kind of privilege that I have, and simultaneously come from a feminist background that has educated me about the way women have consistently been shut down … unless I resolve to watch myself and never feel entitled to shut others down, or ignore their perspectives, in the same way.

“I know you’re smarter than me, so let’s not get into it”: this isn’t only a kind of subtle shutdown that I can feel frustrated about and condescended to if someone says it to me; it’s also something I should be careful about with in terms of shutting down other people. If I do that, then perhaps I should be called out or used as an example. I’d hope that I’d also be seen and understood as a person.

* * *

I also tend to think that refusing to replicate power systems doesn’t just cover the “stereotypical oppressed groups” — it needs to be centered in all our conversations. This is hard, and no one is perfect. But there are points of feminist ideology that can be, and sometimes are, used to silence or attack rather than to liberate and create.

For example, I would never question the existence of “privilege”, and I believe that privilege has a strong and unmistakable effect on discourse in uncountable ways: like the ways I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the lack of representation of USA women in media and the halls of power; also in many small ways that were highlighted by that amazing Privilege Denying Dude meme that swept the Internet a bit back (if you missed that meme, here’s a good synopsis of how it went down).

But — while the concept of “checking your privilege”, of trying not to speak without understanding the experiences of others, is one that I have personally found valuable and useful — sometimes the word “privilege” or the idea of “privilege” can be used to silence people who have good intentions and valid critiques. And it’s up to us to keep an eye on our motivations and our intentions and our goals: to make sure that we aren’t telling people with privilege to sit down and shut up out of narrow-mindedness or even our own forms of power hunger.

Patriarchy is not dead, and — as demonstrated by the difference between my mom’s experience of menstruation and my experience of it — patriarchy will use whatever excuse comes to hand to perpetuate itself. Let’s be aware of both small and large ways that patriarchy affects our lives — and simultaneously, let’s not be patriarchy’s new excuse.

My goal here is not to encourage anti-feminists to storm onto Feministe and tell us all What Feminists Do Wrong. (No, seriously. Dear anti-feminists: just don’t.) My goal is not to increase the already ridiculous amount of trolling that feminists put up with. My goal is not to undercut or destroy feminist safe spaces that are clearly labeled as such. But I want the strongest feminist movement possible, and I believe that means creating conversations that are non-oppressive and generous and open to critique, as well being analytical and aware. What are some ways that we can do that? What are the difficulties we’ll deal with while doing so, and how can we deal with those?

And no, I was not PMSing when I wrote this post.

(For more awesome menstruation links:

Iron deficiency is not something you get just for being a lady, by Kathryn Clancy

If Men Could Menstruate, by Gloria Steinem)

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