Sunday, March 29, 2009

Feminists: not all crazy man-haters?

by Christina DiGasbarro

I began writing a novel in eighth grade, while I attended a middle school where, for most classes, boys and girls were separated. I’m not sure it did much good—and I would have preferred all co-ed classes, just because that makes things more interesting—but it didn’t do much harm either. Exceptions to the single-sex rule, though, were the language classes, so my Latin class was a pretty even mix of boys and girls. Perhaps because we were separated for most of the day otherwise, we all took full advantage of the opportunity to interact with members of the opposite sex. For the boys, this seemed to entail good-naturedly teasing us girls quite a bit of the time.

But, being in eighth grade, some of that teasing was, while not malicious, singly intended to get a rise out of us—teasing like: “Go to the kitchen and make me a sandwich.” (One particularly clever girl did make the boys a sandwich one day: she got two pieces of bread, put handfuls of sand from the playground between them, dressed up the edges, and, if memory serves correctly, one of the boys may have begun taking a bite of it before realizing the prank.) Regardless, I, having a bad habit of rising to every piece of bait offered me, became very adamant in my feminism whenever comments like the above were made. Feminism, as I understood it at the time, meant that women could do anything men could, and that women didn’t need anybody and were supposed to be absolutely independent, and that women shouldn’t do anything that might be perceived as weakness. So, I would argue vehemently with the boys and get disproportionately bent out of shape. Of course, at the time, I refused to recognize that the boys did not, in fact, really think women belonged in the kitchen—they simply realized that such teasing was the easiest way to get a reaction and attention.

The relevance of this to my beginning a novel is that, influenced in part by my experiences in Latin, I attempted to make my heroine adhere to that perception of feminism. If one of her male friends offered to help her with something, she refused on principle; if one of her male friends tried to offer her some sort of protection (e.g., against aggressive harassment, or when she physically couldn’t protect herself), she rejected that as well. She was just being a strong and independent woman, refusing to rely on a man for anything, right?

But, once I matured a bit, and as my writing matured along with me, I saw that writing my heroine in that manner was tiresome and not really productive. I realized that if a female friend had offered her the same help or protection in those situations, she would not have categorically rejected that help—she probably would have accepted it gratefully. I realized that, if the only reason she rejected her friends’ help was their gender, that she was doing them a disservice and, in fact, being sexist by assuming that her male friends, like all males and simply because they were male, were patronizing her. I realized that she ought to recognize that her friends were offering their help because she was their friend, not because she was a woman. And finally, I realized that writing her simply as a strong character—not as a woman with an in-your-face kind of strength, without the ability to recognize the need for help, without the maturity to properly deal with her weaknesses—would give a truer picture of her, and it would still accord with my core feminist ideals.

I often think about all of this because it is tied up with the misperceptions Josh wrote about earlier this week. Josh rightly commented on the worrisome feminism that becomes misandrist; and I also am afraid that the perception of feminists as women who hate men, or at least as women who eschew men, is too prominent.

I also think about all this when I encounter guy friends who, for instance, offer to carry my package back to the dorm for me. I tend to refuse offers like those categorically (unless I’m really, really struggling), and I’d like to think that my refusal is simply a wish not to burden anyone else; I’m sure that I would refuse such an offer from a girl friend too. But I know that, somewhere inside of me, there’s usually a defiant little voice saying, I can do it myself even if I am a girl, thank you very much. And I don’t think that’s at all productive, and it’s certainly ungrateful, which is an ugly trait in anyone; I don’t think there’s a reason to reject common courtesies simply because of the gender of the person making the offer. It’s something I’m trying to work on.

Meanwhile, in a broader sense, I think there’s every reason to combat even the slightest tendencies within feminism that seem to or that do, in fact, come across as working against men, as eschewing men, or simply as ignoring men and making them irrelevant. Ultimately, feminism doesn’t exist to set women up as a separate (but equal!) class of citizens on their own, or to subjugate men to a matriarchy; feminism exists to make sure that women are mixed up in the same class that men inhabit and that everyone is treated equally, across the board and within one system.

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