It’s dangerous for women.
It’s unsafe for women.
It’s toxic for women.
It’s hostile, it’s unwelcoming, it’s problematic for women.
You might have seen things like this said a lot recently. These are loaded phrases that get plastered across blogs and op eds, while also floating around various channels of social media streams in tweets and comments. They are phrases that are often employed to describe a variety of social realms such as workplaces, career fields, majors, academia, gaming, media, social media, and a whole host of other public and semi-public spheres.
Sometimes it seems like almost every facet of the first world (specific to American culture of the Western world) has been at one point described in this particular fashion.
Trigger warning: rape, street harassment
There is a narrative that is cavorting its way around the feminist/social justice spheres of thought which says these places are hostile, unwelcoming, scary. It is an idea based upon the perceived ubiquity of active or passive patriarchal aggression, in any of its particular manifestations.
Because these places have or say things that could be construed by some flavor of feminist thought to be misogynistic (or even merely problematic), they are dark places that we, women, dare not go. At least, this is the vivid impression that I get when entire fields of study are labeled as an “ugly place for women.”
Sometimes it’s merely an indictment of “bro culture” or some kind of apparent club of dudes doing dude things and therefore making the poor non-dude woman feel alienated for some reason or other. As in, oh no there are legos everywhere, it must be for males. Hey everyone, a reminder: woman aren’t a homogeneous mass of perfume and dresses, incapable of playing with the boys – feminism destroyed that notion decades ago – and boys aren’t a homogeneous mass of lego-loving brodude misogynists. But, I digress.
Usually the attitude that comes attached with descriptions of negative environments for women is a little more foreboding than simple discomfort with the presence of Legos, though. This trend of calling things unsafe or hostile for women, whether it be STEM cultural environments or public streets or online forums, paints a picture of an unapproachable world overlaid with exclamation points and caution signs.
Consider the most recent controversy in our collective memory: the infamous tale of how a scientist wore a tacky shirt. Shirtgate. Now, I’m not going to go at length recounting the whole story (though I may come back and edit this to include links that sum it up well, for any passerby who may be in the dark about it). I will, however, summarize my impression of the whole thing. I thought it was entirely silly. All of it. From the offense, to the reaction, to the sweeping generalization of how women feel in STEM fields, I thought it was all exasperatingly silly.
The important bit about Shirtgate is that the occurrence was widely used as an example to show how terrible STEM fields are for women. Terrible, it seems, almost to the point of no return. I feel that in every storm of controversy there ought to be a quiet eye of rational proposals for actual solutions… and among all of the outrage there seemed only be statements of this sucks and little discussion of how do we actually make this not suck. Of that little discussion, the only idea that seemed to be given any widespread credence was a vague notion that men should just learn not to be assholes. Well, OK. Sure. That’s pretty basic. (Nevermind the fact that -yesholyshitI’mgoingtosayit – not all men are assholes to begin with).
The math is presented thus: Men should stop being assholes. Once that happens and STEM stops being a horrible environment of horribleness and bro clubs, women will come in droves and be comfortable and happy and successful.
Do we really just need safety and comfort? Is that all we are capable of getting?
I am starting to think that’s not how it’s going to work. Perhaps I am becoming cynical, but I cannot shake the thought that the world does not change in precisely that way. The world, I think, doesn’t change just by us telling it to change – just like a person with clinical depression can’t just magically decide not to be depressed because somebody told them it would be a good idea. Angrily berating the world when it doesn’t change immediately is also useless. Cathartic and understandable, but useless.
Perhaps, instead, we should look at precisely the thing that feminism originally strove to address: the way we are socialized. Sure we are socialized to be more submissive and quieter and to be sexual objects, yadda yadda. Society does its thing. But I think for a moment, we ought to rest for minute from analyzing the issues of the universe and take a look inward, at what feminism is telling women.
I think the modern feminist mistake is the propensity to dwell indefinitely on ways society shits on women… to the point that we are backing ourselves into a corner of shit, surrounded by impossibilities on all sides.
Frankly, I’m not so much interested in getting worked up about how the world shits on me as a woman. I am more interested in getting worked up on strategically figuring out how to overcome the shit once and for all. If that involves some energy spent on spreading awareness and arguing minutiae, then fine… but that’s only the first step. There is more to do than participate in shitfests.
Remember the M&M analogy? #NotAllMen. Street harassment.
I once took a lot of solace in ranting about my street harassment experiences, and it felt good to express the daily annoyance and sense of discomfort that I felt commuting in public spaces. It never feels great to be aware that you are sometimes nothing more than a body to ogle at, particularly when you didn’t volunteer for that position (kudos to the ladies who do consent to oglings of various sorts). It is an annoying and occasionally anxiety-inducing reality that I have to live and deal with.
Notice I say “deal with” – ultimately in the grand scheme of things, street harassment is an unlucky crossroads of many different cultural forces that won’t be solved in the time it takes for me to get to work. So I deal with it.
But then, the trend picked up – suddenly I wasn’t the only one complaining to my friends about creepy dudes shouting at me and barraging me with personal questions and comments. Suddenly it was a hot topic by some weird cosmic coincidence. Cool, I thought – hopefully some people will become more aware of how they treat others, and some people will gain a finer understanding of negative experiences that women tend to encounter.
I figured that’s just about all of the attention we really needed on the subject.
But then it kept going, and it turned quickly into this monster of a trope that any man could rape you and if you are a woman you are never really safe anywhere you go because poison M&Ms.
And, then, boom – the discussion of street harassment became an exact doppelganger of the warnings I’ve been handed of all my life. If you walk alone, you’ll get raped. If you walk at night, you’ll get raped. If you let boys into your place, you’ll get raped. If you hang out with boys without any other girls around, you’ll get raped. Even as an adult: “Hey I’m Liz and I want to join the Peace Corps.” “Oh that’s nice… just please reconsider, because I heard a lot of women in the Peace Corps get raped!”
By the way, those are all actual statements that I have been explicitly told in the past. I think it is pertinent to state that most of those warnings were given to me as a part of a conservative christian paradigm… the same paradigm wherein my church youth pastor specifically banned girls from climbing ladders in church while we set the stage for a skit. I couldn’t hang up my own set designs from the ceiling – a boy did it while I observed. Girls were to be coddled, not challenged.
And now… I am expected to be afraid of all men too?
When you’re told your entire life that you might get raped, you start to get a little bitter at the idea that the entire world is a potential hazard everywhere you go. Hell, the first time I was told I might get raped was when I was four years old. And, when you’re told things like you are not allowed to climb ladders because you’re a girl, you get a little ruffled at the idea of restrictions conferred upon you solely because of your gender.
When I was a teenager, I was drawn to feminism because it seemed to be a system of ideas that told me “The world may tell you that you’re at risk of rape, or that you’re ill-suited for certain work, but don’t worry, you are strong and you do not need to be afraid of the world just because you are a woman. You are not inherently weak or vulnerable. You are a human, just like everyone, and while your risks and needs may be slightly different from that of a man’s, you are equal with men and deserve to traverse the world just as freely as men do. You can climb ladders.”
And also stuff about eschewing gender roles and all that jazz. You know, the basics.
That was my impression of the core message of feminism. Was I wrong? I am starting to wonder, because suddenly I look to feminism and see the very same monstrous fears that conspired so long to keep me from walking down the street, or befriending the variety of men who I care about, or entering into any career I damn well please.
And that is where the rape culture anxieties and Shirtgate collide. From my perspective, feminism is somehow turning into a swirling mass of the very same fears feminism originally sought to demolish. The world tells women that we cannot be engineers, and rather than teaching women to ignore what the world says and live our lives to fullest capacity, we are once again accepting what the world says and finding ways to repeat it back to ourselves.
The unspoken implication: You cannot explore the world. You cannot traverse it. You cannot break the glass ceiling. The boys will have their club. The scientists will be assholes. You will get raped. This is how the world works. This is Patriarchy.
And, maybe, just maybe, the din of gender roles (“women can’t be engineers”) has finally started to actually fade in the world at large, and we can’t hear the change on account of our own noise.
We are telling ourselves that we can’t climb ladders because we are women, and we blame the ladder for being to high.
Feminism is better than that. Feminists of previous decades paved the way for many freedoms and levels of equality that are incontrovertibly accepted and normal today. We should embrace the ever living fuck out of that until the very last drop of misogyny and stereotypes and patriarchy is squeezed out of the world by sheer force of our immovable presence in the world.
This is a movement that is meant to become obsolete, as all good social movements should. The way to do this is to shake ourselves free of constraints, not by screaming at the world to change so that we can live in it, but by living in the world with confidence and indomitable steadfastness until it changes from the inside out.
We shouldn’t let a fucking shirt stop us.