23 January 2008
A Few Good Men
Last week, The New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Bob Herbert called Politics and Misogyny, in which he asserts that
“Sexism in its myriad destructive forms permeates nearly every aspect of American life. For many men, it’s the true national pastime, much bigger than baseball or football.”
I don’t know if I agree with Herbert – I certainly don’t want to agree, I don’t want him to be right! – but too often it feels true.
This is not an us-vs-them world, folks. It can’t be. We’ve grown too small, have gotten to know each other too intimately, to persist with the casual marginalization of any group of people, whether they be of a different culture, a different religion, a different race, or a different gender. The planet’s not doing too well, the global economy’s going for a ride, and as it turns out, we’re all interconnected. We’re all in it together, guys, and it’s not going to be easy.
Still, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be, as we’d say in my post-colonial lit class years ago, “Othered,” particularly when you’re securely in the dominant group. The other day I overheard some (white) friends arguing about the existence of such a thing as “white privilege.” One friend said, you can argue against it, but you cannot escape it. The other said, you don’t have to escape it, because it doesn’t exist.
I thought, I wonder if my non-white friends would agree.
Over the years, I’ve been in my fair share of fights about women, women’s rights, and feminism. If you ever dare to use the term “feminazi” in my presence, I will yell at you until you hold up your hands and apologize. If you tell me that “most of the battles feminists were fighting for have been won, at least in the United States,” I will publicly mock you… even if it means I’ll be disregarded as “just another angry feminist.” (I don’t feel like an angry feminist… an angry person, sometimes, and a feminist, certainly, but I think you can be a feminist without being angry. Maybe I’m wrong.)
I’m friends with a lot of men, and as I have impeccable taste in friends, they’re all quality people. The men in my life are generally intelligent, funny, creative, and very kind. (And devastatingly good looking, of course.) They’re the kind of guys who complain about how “women never go for nice guys,” while peeking at you out of the corners of their eyes, waiting for you to praise them for being such sweethearts. They’re the kind of guys who will drive you home if you’ve had too much to drink, help you carry a couch up three flights of stairs, lend you a hundred bucks when your wallet gets stolen. They’re great.
But they don’t always stick up for women.
Sometimes they listen to their friends or colleagues making disrespectful or inappropriate comments about women, and they don’t speak up. Sometimes they tell jokes or stories where women are the punchline – too strong or not strong enough, too smart or not smart enough, too pretty or not pretty enough. One of my dearest guy friends likes to call me when he’s been dumped and tell me that I’m the only woman he likes, that I redeem his faith in womankind. Shit, I always think, what if I screw up?
If you’re one of my menfriends, you’re probably getting defensive now. “Hey, I’m a good guy. I treat women well.”
You are. You absolutely are, and you do. And I know that sometimes it’s hard to see the little ways women get hurt around you, and the little ways that you can stand up for them. But when you can – when you see something that demeans women, and when you speak up about it – you can make a hell of a difference.
When I was student teaching at Grinnell, I was one in a class of three: me, my professor Jean, and my darling friend Cam, who’s long been one of my favorite men on the planet. In class, we were discussing methods of textual analysis, ways of deconstructing and understanding works of literature, and we started talking about reading texts through a feminist lens. Cam looked thoughtful, and said, “Do you think it would have a different impact on the students if I were teaching them about feminism?” You could see the idea playing across his face, as if never in his entire 23 years he had thought about feminism and women and the ways they’re presented to teenagers, but now that he was thinking about it, it seemed like it might be an incredibly important thing to talk about with students and there was no reason he couldn’t be the man to do it. “You mean, would it mean more coming from a man?” I asked. He nodded. Jean and I looked at each other as if our new puppy had just learned how to file taxes, and nodded enthusiastically. “YES, it would, it would be GREAT.” Jean said, “All your students will look up to you, Cameron, and you can set such an example for them!” Cam smiled and said, “Okay, then I will,” and it was decided.
I remember I felt so lucky to know such a good man, who was sensitive enough to empathize with women and to get the importance of feminism, and brave and confident enough to talk about women’s issues with teenagers. Very cool, Cam.
Last weekend, I was in Wisconsin, at my step-grandmother’s 87th birthday brunch. We had ten adults, a teenager, a tween, and a baby at one long table. The food was fantastic and at any given time there were at least three different conversations swirling around the table. I mostly talked to the people at my end of the table, but every now and then I’d pick up hints of other conversations, sentences or phrases here and there, and sometimes I’d get pulled in. The most compelling of these side conversations involved my brother-in-law, an attorney, talking about a big case he’s been working on forever. I didn’t hear a lot, but from what I could pick up, it’s a sexual harassment case with a number of female complainants against a company. What struck me was Justin’s voice as he talked about the case, how adamantly he felt that these women had been wronged, how intense he was about it. He described some of the actions in the case, some of the harassment, and I thought, “Well, that’s how it is,” (oh, cynical me) but Justin was like the sword of vengeance, coming down to smite the offenders. “No woman should have to go through that,” he said. “It’s despicable, and the worst part is that it’s not uncommon, at all.”
Again, I felt lucky to have such a good man for a brother. Later in the car, I asked Natalie, “Have you ever heard a man get so fired up about defending women?” “No,” she said, sounding amazed. “I was very impressed.” (Sadly, the fact that we were both stunned just to hear a man get so heated about women being harassed tells me that it's far too rare in both our lives. In an ideal world, we'd be rolling our eyes a little at yet another man passionately standing up for a woman's right to go to work without being harrassed. Oh you men, we'll say, you just want everyone to have equal opportunities all the time! That's just how you are!) Thanks, Justin, for fighting on behalf of women. I'm proud to say you're my brother.
Both Cam and Justin are fathers, and it makes me happy to think of the good examples they’ll set for their children. Obviously, this is an historic time for women, and regardless of how Senator Clinton does in the long run, she’s setting precedents right and left. Still, issues of gender equality, feminism, and women’s rights haven’t disappeared. The gender gap still exists. In the coming months, given the nature of politics in this country, I’m sure the meanspirited and often misogynistic sentiment toward Clinton will resurface with more frequency. I just hope that when it does, you good men – not just Cam and Justin, but all of you, you nice guys, you good, kind men – will notice it, and fight to stop it.