The upside

25 03 2010

Recently, I had an email exchange with an old friend about that British study published this month which claims that we (society) are still sexist in our writing.

I wanted to share it with her not only because she is a close friend but also because she is intelligent and she is, at times, interested in feminist perspectives.

I got a quick response from her and was not surprised to see that it was a long one but was surprised at how defensive she seemed. I read her words with a quickening heartbeat – my old friend was bristling at a somewhat tame study. When I initially decided to send it to her, I had considered it something we could both relate to and recognize easily – the wording “he or she” is so common in english language. In verbal situations, the female is almost always listed second. It’s a subtle way to maintain females as second-class citizens. Or worse: invisible in the instances of ‘guys’ being used to describe a group of people of varied genders. “Hey guys”, “those guys”, “what are you guys up to”, etc. Can you imagine someone approaching a mixed gender group and saying, totally seriously, ‘hey gals, how’s it goin?’*

After a few back-and-forths, none of which consisted of personal criticisms rather just discussions of language, we closed it on the agreement that talking openly is essential to exposing oppression – though she ultimately said that this in particular is not a very important issue.

In a way, ‘masculine first’ language isn’t the most damaging thing in the world if you measure it as a single blow at a time but if you zoom out and view the effect it has on all of us – its subtle influence individually expands to widespread unnatural male privilege which extends the power of men and maintains the oppression of women.

Language is important.

I was definitely glad to find a common agreement between us – very glad to know that she values discussions as well but I’ve been bothered that she felt defensive, especially considering I wasn’t challenging her, or at least, I didn’t think I was. I’ve been wondering – what is so threatening about feminism?

Let me wind it back a little:

While I surely had feminist thoughts when I was a kid (mostly in response to mega TV watching) – I never would have labeled them as such. I never paid attention to the word until I saw Ashley Judd wearing her ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt during my college years. “Interesting” I remember thinking but I didn’t immediately jump on the chance to belong to a new group. I’ve always been skeptical of groups, labels, boxes – quite a loner really. But the older I got and the more places I visited, the more I discovered a sexual/gender bias in this country (and that I was complicit). A few snowballs of revelations later and I was proud to don the label.

What the word means is different to every person, as it should be. To me, feminism is intertwined with humanism. Feminism is not an isolationist point of view – it’s an all-inclusive perspective. All genders can be feminists and yes, couples can live a feminist lifestyle.

So why does my friend bristle? I think it has to do with the threat of feminism against the ideal American image. Here is a woman who is earning her PhD right now and what she wants more than anything is to be married to a great guy. I wonder if she feels that diving full-body into feminism would mean sacrificing the perfect marriage she’s been dreaming of for so many years.

She and I talk openly about the social pressures for young women to marry – indeed we talk openly about feminism. So she is aware, as many people are, yet she remains defensive (occasionally). On a certain level, I understand. I want her to realize her dreams and I get that it’s hard to match feminism with, well, anything. I also get that her defensiveness might be a temporary emotion rather than an eternal rejection. I imagine we are all defensive when we face our biases – and we all have biases. I figure in such a moment, if it’s not an immediate ‘oh shit!’ revelation then it’s probably an expulsion of defensive language in response – but perhaps the brain still logs the thought for later digestion. (So I’m thinking, maybe she’ll come around – I’ve definitely had my defensive moments during the long process of shedding ignorance/naivety/or just considering something I’d never considered before).

I wish that all people could embrace feminism as part of being a good person – as part of caring about other people. That we could view it as intertwined with empathy and our responsibility as part of a larger society. That people realize there can be love – even heterosexual love – in feminism. [For love and feminism, read this if you haven’t yet: Courtney E. Martin’s essay on love and activism]

I speak as a person who has this. At least right now. I am going on three years in a relationship with one man who has taken the dive into feminism alongside my own efforts. Efforts, yes, though sometimes it does seem effortless, feminism requires a conscious citizenry – consider how easy it is to participate in sexism against men as if there is some battle of the sexes. A lot of new feminists participate in that kind of dialogue and, to me, that is a phase that needs to be dropped. It’s not beneficial. Together, me and my live-in partner discuss the world through feminist lenses – we also have sex, laugh, misunderstand each other and take vacations together.

Do we want a mate just for the sake of having a mate? Need a companion just so we won’t be lonely? Don’t sacrifice your rights, legitimacy or dreams just for the sake of getting married. Instead – invoke a future of growth – with love and with a mate that you can really talk to – a companion that really cares.

I’m not saying that the transition into a new you is easy – if you’re just now pursuing social justice, it’s difficult to wake up the next day with new eyes. And it’s very difficult to deal with the different ways we’ve all been socialized (based on gender, sex, race, birth location). And yes this means that if you are a female and want a heterosexual relationship with a male that is long-term, satisfying and aware of the humanity of women – it might be a difficult trek. It’s important to mention here that it’s possible for it to be more challenging for the female than the male. I watched my brother transform into a feminist years before I understood what was happening yet our mother still lives a life filled with ‘defer to the husband’ moments.

I respect my friend and cherish our relationship. I love that we can have civil conversations about this very complex society in which we live. There are so many things that I have learned from her and she’s mentioned the same thing about me. I’m not complaining about her but just musing on how a strong, intelligent, young woman might come to decide that her worth is intertwined with her relationship status, and in 2010 no less.

I look to my brother’s beautiful relationship with his wife – their immense compassion, crazy hilarity and lush life together – and I envision a better future for all couples who really go there – who dive into the concept that humans are freaking humans. Equally.

*I can actually imagine this now that I go there in my mind. With certain people, this would totally fly. In a mainstream setting, however, the audience would probably think it’s a joke.

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