Commissioned post count: 2 out of 8 requests so far.
Elissa G. donated and requested that I write about my opinion on “an individual’s responsibility to his/her community. For example, a person may not commit “X” crime, but by not speaking up and being proactive to change things, that person may be silently contributing to an environment in which “X” crime is considered an accepted thing. What can/should an individual do to take responsibility for bad things in his/her environment? How far does the responsibility reach?”
She acknowledges that this is a seriously broad topic, but I’ve elected not to have her narrow it down so that I can just write whatever I want. And since this post got away from me a bit, it’s going to be a two-parter. Brace yourselves.
I’ve decided to start this impossibly broad discussion with 4 instances where I encountered sexism, to varying degrees, and did nothing about it. (I’m defining sexism here as roughly: “degrading or demeaning remarks and/or actions toward a woman or women that probably would not be said or done to men.” I am not addressing thoughts because I am not the thought police. Your thoughts are yours to deal with.)
Incident #1: Degree: pretty minor.
Dragon*Con. September 2013. Waiting in line to see George Takei speak. (I was number 976 on the line, fyi. And it’s not like there was no other major panel going on; I’m pretty sure William Shatner was speaking in the same time slot. He had a different line. The lines wrapped around several blocks, crossing each other a couple of times which was in no way confusing.)
As one is wont to do while waiting on an infinite line at Dragon*Con, I struck up a conversation with my line-neighbor. I don’t recall exactly what we talked about, aside from basic fandom affinities and speculation about his odd accent (he was from Georgia [the state, not the country] but his accent was a bizarre mix of US southern and some kind of British or possibly Australian and even he didn’t know where it came from). He was a big man, probably in his 40s and I was probably a head and shoulders shorter than him and maybe a third of his width, but he seemed perfectly nice and non-threatening, albeit not terribly well-educated despite the accent.
Anyway, at one point, he asked me what I was dressed as. For reference, here’s what I was wearing that day:
(The shirt is blue, by the way. For some reason it looks black here. Oh well.)
I told him it wasn’t actually a costume; I’d just had a bunch of weddings to attend over the summer and bought a bunch of cheap ballgowny-type dresses and now was wearing them all in succession on the 4 days of Dragon*Con. Because as every Con-goer knows, even an unseasoned Con-goer such as myself, fandom is the only place where you never have to ask: “But when would I wear that?”
“But,” I added, “I figured that if anyone asked, I could just tell them I’m Inara from Firefly.”
“The whore!” he exclaimed.
“Companion,” I corrected, using the Firefly term for Inara’s job.
“The whore!” he repeated loudly, oblivious. “You’re the whore! I knew it! As soon you said you said you liked Joss Whedon shows, I was thinking, ‘She’s the whore!’”
I didn’t object again, or say anything about how “whore” is an extremely disrespectful and derogatory word (as is discussed within the show itself) and if he absolutely must, I’d prefer to be called “space prostitute” because SPAAAACE, and I didn’t say that using words like that to refer to people, fictional or otherwise, contributes to slut-shaming, also violence against sex workers, rape culture, etc etc. I knew that a) he didn’t mean it maliciously and b) someone who very loudly refers to a young woman as a whore in front of an infinite line of people is probably not self-aware enough to bother with nuances of word usage.
So I shrugged and changed the subject.
Incident #2: Degree: a bit worse, I think?
Brooklyn College Radio station. Sometime in 2013. Horsing around by the computer nook outside the sound studios with some of the other radio people, waiting for our turns to go on the air.
I confess, I don’t remember the conversation leading up to this at all, but there were three girls there, including me, and one guy. Everyone was bantering and joking around, and for some reason the guy returned a remark made by one of the girls with something like, “Oh, you know it, sugar-tits.”
The girl just kind of made an incredulous noise and said in disbelief, “Did you just call me sugar-tits?!”
And the guy, who looked sort of embarrassed and was not quite looking her in the eye because even he knew that that kind of comment was not warranted in this semi-professional setting or in this totally non-sexual conversation, laughed and slapped his knee, “yeah, yeah, I did.”
And of course I knew that going off on some kind of feminist rant was absolutely not what the situation needed and would just make everybody involved even more uncomfortable, plus I was relatively new to the radio station and did not need to get a reputation as a humorless feminazi, plus the guy was higher on the authority totem pole than I was and was actually mostly responsible for me even interning on my show in the first place, so I just said, “Hey, if anybody’s the sugar-tits around here, it’s me.” Because, well, yeah. And if I couldn’t properly defend the other girl from that kind of attention (which was clearly uncomfortable for her even though she tried not to show it), at least I could take the focus off her and package it in a way that gave me some control over it. And thus began an argument between us girls wherein we debated who was the true sugar-tits in the room while the guy just sat there in his shame.
But no, I did not call him out on it.
Incident #3: Degree: A bit worse than #3, owing to slightly greater power imbalances and potential safety concerns.
Heading home the afternoon after enrolling in the automotive school you may have heard me talk about. May 2014. I was semi-lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood, trying to find the bus I needed to transfer to because holy moly are there a lot of buses in that area and none of them were mine.
Walking just ahead of me down a street lined with little shops was this tall, gorgeous African American girl. She was wearing high heels, blue ones with studs, the kind of shoes that look more like a sculpture or work of abstract art than actual functional shoes, but she was walking in them so they were clearly impressively functional.
They also caused her already impressively-shaped backside to jiggle quite noticeably as she walked, although it should be noted that that probably would have happened regardless of her shoes because anatomy + physics. None of her clothes were in the least suggestive, by the way — she was wearing a fairly high-necked white t-shirt and light blue skirt that went past her knees, but like I said, she was hot stuff and it looked great on her.
As we walked by, there were, of course, catcalls and wolf-whistles and “Would you look at THAT, I like THAT”s from the peanut gallery, by which I mean the boys on the street, and narcissist though I am, I knew that for once they weren’t catcalling me. It was broad daylight so nothing was going to happen beyond catcalling, but if the same thing had happened at night, yikes.
The girl didn’t even seem to notice or hear them at all, but once we were out of earshot, I felt compelled to say something dignity-affirming to her, something to make her feel like more than just a piece of meat. So I turned to her and said, “Those shoes are awesome,” because they were, and (tip to those who don’t know) complimenting a girl’s clothes or shoes isn’t usually objectifying because what you’re really complimenting is the fact that she has good taste.
“Thanks!” she said with a smile, and I grinned back, and, both of us smiling, we went our separate ways.
But no, I didn’t say a thing to those boys.
Incident #4: Degree: Depends who you ask.
Monsey. The weekend before a cousin’s wedding. About a month ago. We were visiting the very religious and somewhat isolated enclave where my cousins live. It was what we call an “aufruf,” a huge get-together of extended family and friends giving the groom one last send-off into married life.
My cousin, the groom, asked me to speak. I was shocked, because public speaking by women in front of men is not done in this community; women don’t even sit with men at the formal meals. Sometimes they even go so far as to have separate tables with a divider between the men’s section and the women’s section. This includes separation of husbands and wives as well as brothers and sisters, by the way. I had of course not prepared a speech, but the prospect of giving one was exciting and I felt honored.
But when I told my mother, she urged me not to speak, on the grounds that it would not be well-received by this particular community and would make them uncomfortable at having their accepted norms violated. I knew she was right, and rather than make a fuss, I told my cousin that I would write up a speech for him and post it on facebook for him. After all, it was their community that was welcoming us and their community’s hospitality that we were enjoying, and it would have been obnoxious to rock the boat and thumb my nose at their customs. Even though I strongly disagree with those customs and do think that they can ultimately be harmful to young girls and their self image, as well as the ways in which they relate to men and men relate to them. That was not the place to get up on a soapbox and make a nuisance of myself. No one would have listened, anyway.
[Postscript: We wound up hosting one of the post-wedding celebration meals at my house, where men and women sat together, and I spoke there. The speech was very well-received; it got a lot of laughs and several people came up to me afterward to tell me what a great speech it was. Huzzah!]
My point in giving you all these stories is simply this: Standing up for what you believe is right is complicated.
There is no blueprint on how and when to do it. Every situation is different, with its own unique set of calculations. There are concerns involving safety, practicality, receptiveness of the listeners, and so on. Often you have to decide whether it’s worth it to stand up for something on principle, or if you should choose your battles carefully and pick spots where your standing up will actually have a chance at having an impact. If you go full throttle on every little thing, no one takes you seriously.
This is an issue with Jezebel — while I applaud many of their efforts to point out sexism and social injustice and often agree with them, and I am absolutely glad that someone is doing that, I also know that many people tune them out because they’ve become white noise, blaring at a constant volume. So I don’t have to be Jezebel; I try to add a different voice and not take vocal umbrage at all injustice. Because hey, the world is full of injustice and being upset about all of it all the time is just too much, and I don’t think that anyone should feel responsible for doing that or for fixing all of it.
You do the best you can and don’t beat yourself up for not doing more. That’s all I got.
There are other aspects of communal responsibility that I want to talk about, but they will have to wait until Part 2.
Agree? Disagree? Like my posts? Consider donating and commissioning more of them, via my GoFundMe campaign — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive — and thanks for reading!