This could also have been called ‘How gender roles conspire to keep women quiet’ or ‘Rambling thoughts of a woman tired of being told to be nice or be quiet’.
Bitch. Harpy. Fishwife. Nag. Feisty. Firey. Troublemaker. The gendered language we use when describing women who use their voice. Clutch your pearls, you may. Women refusing to shut up, who are angry or demanding attention – despite how worthy the cause – are still something to be avoided, by and large. On twitter last week there was a hashtag #thatgirl about the sexism faced by women in tech. As in, “Oh, you’re that girl”. The one that calls out bad behaviour or simply shares ideas. Dangerous, right?
I’ve always been that girl. I aspire to be that woman and then some. I am also quite shy and prefer to socialise in small numbers. I am full of nerves and addicted to anxiety. But I can think of so many examples of people who have judged my communication with them, professional or personal, based on the common stereotypes women are pitted against. I can’t think of a time where this commentary was issued as complimentary. I have on occasion been told that I am strong and determined, passionate and even “a breath of fresh air” because I was honest (like this was abnormal). On many more occasions I have been told that I am intimidating (my favourite, as it happens), abrasive, rude, dismissive, cold and Not A Team Player. Unprofessional. Guess where I was told these things most frequently?
Many of us would be able to give anecdotes of times where what we considered an obligatory friendly smile has somehow been scrambled in translation to mean Come At Me Bad Boy to some random dude on the street. On the train. At your workplace. If you make no particular effort, you are a Bitch. If you endeavour to appear polite and civil, as the Femininity Code requires of women, you are Inviting Advances. New guy at your workplace tells a joke in the staff room. You laugh…more like a sympathy giggle. Because you’re trained to be polite. Don’t want him to feel awkward! Then one day you find yourself making a formal complaint including serious sexual assaults and your manager says, “Well, you did laugh at his jokes”. It can happen. Trust me.
If a man, (say the man they hired to work in a position senior to mine at this school who would soon became a criminal and sexual offender), came to a team meeting with ideas and eager to contribute – he is a Team Player, Leadership Material. We can excuse his boorish, innuendo-laden diatribe because, you know, men are like that and besides, he Gets Things Done. Lighten up! Ignore it! Be Professional! Just shut up and take it.
An aspect of my experience I have found interesting on a sociological level is the differing expectations and boundaries of communication. How we were ‘allowed’ to use our voices (me, not much. And when I did, I was mistaken or unprofessional). The workspace and its containment (me, no doors can be shut, no privacy, no personal boundaries. You must be accessible and visible at all times). Even our physical selves (me, not allowed to laugh and fake friendliness but also not allowed to distance myself or appear like I’m Not A Team Player even after they did what they did). I carried a lot of gender stereotypes with me in terms of ‘good behaviour’ and tried to politely keep everyone happy all of the time. Until I couldn’t anymore. I had to put a stop to it. And when I stopped killing myself trying to play the servile young woman, the knives were sharpened and all heading directly for me. It was fascinating. Morbidly, desperately fascinating.
The all-accommodating woman should seek to appease everyone, keep the peace and at all times promote inclusivity and union. *cue flowers and soothing music* Men may start wars and discriminate. Women are to embrace all. Women shouldn’t leave anyone out. Women shouldn’t Say No. I find this notion particularly insulting when juxtaposed with another who will not be constrained by these petty concerns (my ‘mentor’ teacher who was in fact hostile and concealing crimes), the Principal agreed she was not going to change and asked that I be The Bigger Person and do it anyway. She might learn from your example, he said. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAno. I’ve seen it recently in twitter discussions on feminism. There are all kinds of silencing and other bullshit going on there. There will always be ‘robust discussion’ and dissent in any large cohort – and we are talking about a group encompassing more than half of the population – but amongst the expected variety of values and political persuasions I find one comeback the most offensive.
You can’t say that.
Feminism is INCLUSIVE, not exclusive. (So women…you can’t tell anyone that they are not included…?)
The insinuation being that you cannot seek to focus discussion on issues which inherently involve only women, amongst yourselves. You cannot do this because men and trans women ‘feel left out’. You shouldn’t talk about menstruation because it excludes people from the conversation for whom menstruation does not occur. This was actually A Thing. This is as ridiculous as decrying testicular cancer awareness because women aren’t included. Except that wouldn’t happen, would it? Firstly, we’d all be awarding extra points to men for talking about their health concerns at all when we all know men struggle with feelings and addressing personal health concerns. Secondly, women wouldn’t demand to be included in a conversation about testicles. And men would not be shamed by forces so ingrained in us all that so many women don’t even question it – you must not say no. You have to make sure everyone feels included and everyone is happy. Don’t rock the boat. Just let it go. Stop what you were doing. No. Because we only expect this of women. Of ourselves.
If you don’t hang out on the Internet too much, you may not have been privy to the…discussion…about vaginas recently. Well, not about vaginas which could have been useful, but whether women are Allowed to Use The Term Vagina At All. That’s right. A feminist tv star was organising ‘Night of A Thousand Vaginas’, a comedy event to raise money for reproductive rights of women in America. And rather than lament the fact that women have to hold fundraisers to access reproductive health options in a free country in 2014, some people decided that the real tragedy was the word ‘vagina’.
Talking about women with vaginas is, apparently, cissexist/heteronormative/cisnormative/shaming/exclusionary/ essentialist and some other bulldust. I didn’t see anybody say directly to these people: Stop It. This is not about you. With a few exceptions (they know who they are) most people either AGREED that talking about vaginas was unfair to People Without Vaginas…and they presumably meant it. A few women subtweeted (tweeted their thoughts without directing it at anyone in particular) on the sly, avoiding ‘rocking the boat’ or causing ‘further offence’.
This is what I heard: YOU can’t mention vaginas in case someone doesn’t like it.
This is what I said next: VAGINA VAGINA VAGINA VAGINA VAGINA PICTURE OF VAGINA VAGINA (you get the point)
Then someone directly accused me of ‘taunting’ people by saying ‘vagina’. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Then I started to burn inside.
You know what counts as using the word vagina to ‘taunt’, to hurt and shame? When the defence barrister in your cross examination in Court says it. Asks you about “the lips of your vagina”. Repeats it in different tones of voice, louder, trying to make the description of your most intimate parts being touched against your will sound like a joke.
THAT is the wrong way to say vagina.
So I will say the word and reference my own vagina any fucking time I feel comfortable to do so. I will encourage other women and girls to look after and protect their vaginas, and break the taboos around discussion of parts most would prefer we saved for porn movies and ‘lad mags’ any fucking time I feel comfortable to do so.
Up against every stereotype and socially constructed pressure on female behaviour conformity I will make my own decisions, thanks, about my body parts, my biology, my safety and my value. I will decide the boundaries I choose to construct around important dialogue I need to have and I will decide whom it is with.
Probably the most ‘dangerous’ of these ideas is that I will say NO when I want to, when I need to and when I have to. I am not here to create world peace. I am not here to make every single living thing feel At One in my presence. I am not here to make everybody else happy. I don’t have to fulfil other peoples’ ideals of ‘inclusive enough to be feminist’. I cannot understand why anyone who thought feminist values were important would feel compelled to tell me or any other woman how I’m Doing Feminism Wrong. Or that my vagina, under any circumstances, is not my own to discuss or otherwise.
I reiterate, these are seemingly bizarre expectations (AKA judgements) which would not be demanded of a man. The spoons it takes to pounce on women talking about their lived experiences which are not even in dispute as fact…instead of addressing actual instances of discrimination or threat which are mostly propagated by traditional masculine social standards and behaviour. Might there be a reason that women with a voice (which, historically speaking, they’ve only just found) are targeted in this way? Discussing vaginas is a threat to no one…ever. But whether we name it or not, everybody knows women are raised as softer targets, primed to be shamed, blamed and Be Nice.
All I hear is: Don’t make trouble. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t start anything. Don’t be a bitch. Don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Don’t make anything awkward. Just smile. Just shut up.
Servility. Sycophantcy. Fawning. Ignoring my own reality and truth. That can all fuck right off.
As if to round off my gender stereotype rant with a nice sexist full stop, here is a little etymological factoid for you:
“First attested in 1537. From Latin sȳcophanta (“informer, trickster”), from Ancient Greek συκοφάντης (sukophantēs), itself from σῦκον (sukon, “fig”) + φαίνω (phainō, “I show, demonstrate”). The gesture of “showing the fig” was a vulgar one, which was made by sticking the thumb between two fingers, a display which vaguely resembles a fig, which is itself symbolic of a σῦκον (sukon), which also meant vulva. The story behind this etymology is that politicians in ancient Greece steered clear of displaying that vulgar gesture, but urged their followers sub rosa to taunt their opponents by using it” from here.