I’d Rather Be a Cyborg…: The Unexpected Inter-sectional Feminism of Losing My Hearing

20170823_143656 (1)My hearing has never been good. Normal hearing is something I’ve had to work to maintain all my life with surgeries and procedures in doctors’ offices. Over time, I’ve progressed to having irretrievable below-normal hearing in the upper frequencies on my left side. I am hard of hearing, and as I age I will only become more so.

Knowing this, accepting it about myself is important in situations where faking normal hearing could cause problems, like when I’m standing in a noisy airport security line, talking to an officer, a fellow short-lady, through a pane of glass taller than both of us. Instead of gambling, guessing what she wants, I say, “Sorry, I’m hard of hearing,” explaining that I can’t meet her halfway and she needs to bear more of the burden of communication than she’s used to—which really just means she has to stop being verbally lazy and ask me about the yoghurt I forgot in my bag in a louder, clearer voice. The upper frequencies–voices of women and children–are less heard, and until they are, they need to be louder. The sexism built into my language tells me to call voices like these “shrill,” a word meant to shame people into silence, but a word which, for people like me, simply means “audible.”

My deaf sister-in-law says I need to stop introducing my condition with “Sorry…” Wheelchair users aren’t expected to stare down flights of stairs and tell anyone they’re sorry. I get it, and I’m working on it. I’ve even realized why I’ve always suffered a little stab of anger whenever someone doesn’t hear me and lets me know by saying, “Sorry.” The implication that anyone needs to apologize for not hearing—or not seeing or not walking—is ableist and backward. The idea that intruding on able-bodied privilege with requests that accommodations be made to social and physical structures that dismiss and deny special needs is something that demands an apology–I hate it. I do feel sorrow for the decline in my hearing. But I’m not responsible for it. No one owes anyone else a normal level of natural ability in anything, including hearing.

Anyways…

I noticed the decline in my hearing once I switched from working at home to studying in a large, crowded university—especially when my studies are in a new language where the skills and strategies I use in English to guess and gloss over what I don’t hear can’t be applied. While my Chinese reading and writing is quite good for someone at my level, my ability to understand what I’m listening to is bad. By the end of the month I spent living in China this summer, I realized that, some of the time, when I was giving my stock reply of “I can’t understand what you’re saying” what I really meant was “I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Coming home to my English-speaking family, I saw for the first time how much trouble I was having receiving all kinds of messages, including ones in my native language.

The audiology clinic asked me to bring an able-bodied handler with me to my hearing test, but I rebelled and came alone. The appointment was a sad trip back in time to when I was seven years old and facing my below-average hearing for the first time. Strangely enough the list of words I had to repeat in the soundproof booth hadn’t changed in all that time. The list was an odd, old-fashioned collection—and old-fashioned means sexist and Anglo-centric. The words were meant to be recognizable to elderly men. “Whitewash, inkwell, cowboy, baseball.” I asked, “Do you have lists in any languages other than English?” No, of course they didn’t. English was confounding my test results. Once I realized the list of words was taken from Tom Sawyer, once I knew I was amassing a set with a theme, I could guess them even more easily than usual.

I’ve never worn eyeglasses, and my childhood surgeries completely extinguished any interest in getting my ears pierced so I’m just now learning to tolerate a foreign object against my ear. My hearing aid penetrates much further into my head than I expected. It’s an infiltration. “I’m a cyborg,” I told the technician–not a word from the clinic’s list.

Back at our house, with my new circuitry, my youngest son was relieved I hadn’t come back with a hole drilled in my skull, and my oldest son congratulated me on my “augmented reality.” I smirked. “You mean, like your glasses?” That’s all a hearing aid should be for someone outside of Deaf culture who comes to be hard of hearing later in life. It’s eyeglasses for the ears, the restoration of a baseline. Cyborg-me knows it but does not know how to believe it yet, and sits by herself flexing her jaw, tipping the electronic node against the inside of her post-human head.

Learn a New Language from a White Boy

20160707_162819[1]By the time the WordPress robot posts this update, I will be on my second trip to China, sputtering through a four-week language immersion course in Harbin. Before leaving, I got a preview of it on my son’s field trip to our local urban Chinatown. We were part of a big group of elementary school students in a dim sum restaurant where the busy staff didn’t seem to be taking seriously the religious dietary restrictions of two students I was responsible for, so in desperation, I spoke to the servers in Mandarin. When our exchange was over and the servers were gone, there was a beat of silence, big-eyed kids, and the other mom at the table saying, “I was not expecting that.”

No. At the first few syllables, non-Chinese speakers hearing me hacking away at my not-quite second language usually look horrified, like I’m an idiotic monster trying to do some excruciating Mickey Rooney fake-Chinese comedy. They relax when they see my noise accepted by Chinese-speakers, and then I go from an idiotic monster to a unicorn.

In China, no one is surprised to hear unicorns blundering through the language that is not only local, but the most spoken language in the world. Most people nod at me, maybe smirk, maybe feel bad about discussing special pricing for foreigners right in front of me, correct my speech with cool matter-of-fact-ness, and when it’s over, they might say something about how I shouldn’t get too discouraged.

The reaction of Chinese-speakers outside an explicitly Chinese social context is different again. I was having ‘coffee’ with my professor and her baby in a suburban café, far from Chinatown, when she waved me to the counter and told me it’d be okay if I used Chinese to order a drink. The staff would understand. Ever the obedient student, that’s what I did. The café lady laughed at me. It’s a typical reaction. I didn’t think much of it, smiled, waited for it to pass. What was different about this encounter from the rest of the times I’ve spoken Chinese “in the wild” was that I was standing next to my professor–the person who, more than anyone else, is responsible for teaching me Chinese, who knows something of how difficult it’s been, how profoundly nervous I once was to do anything but read a script. She interrupted the laughter, telling me the lady was just surprised. What I’d said was fine. Later, I asked another professor why Chinese speakers in Canada laugh at me. He described it as “laughter of encouragement.”

These are the explanations of my teachers, friends, and mentors—people who nurture and protect my determination to study and learn Chinese. But it’s not all about me and they may be protecting more than that. I’m old enough to have seen Wayne’s World in its theatrical release and I remember the extended punchline of a joke that is nothing more than an ethnically Scottish North American (like me) having a conversation in Chinese. Hilarious, right? Mike Myer’s on-screen Chinese is strange and overwrought but the fact is, when Chinese is “toned down,” it’s unintelligible. I already walk a line too close to unintelligibility to risk crossing over it because of something like shyness. I can’t afford to hold back. I’m not making fun. I’m just trying to make sense.

There is one more kind of reaction I get when I use Chinese. It comes from a certain kind of person, always—always—an English-speaking man I do not know well. It has happened online and in person. I’ll mention I’m studying Chinese, that I’ve traveled there, might even say something about being a graduate student in a modern languages department. Then the man tells me he is interested in languages too, maybe even in Chinese. Am I using Duolingo? All of this is fine until, instead of asking me anything about learning languages, he shuts down my attempts to enter into a discussion and simply tells me about learning languages. I mentioned the laughing Chinese-speaker phenomenon to a man like this and he told me my lack of understanding of the tonality of Chinese pronunciation must leave me accidentally saying silly, laughable things. Actually, when he took a trip to China, he was praised for his near-native pronunciation of the half dozen pleasantries and place names he had learned to say. Guys like these tend to be the same ones who post memes about Ockham’s Razor, and the simplest answer to my observation about laughter was surely not a complicated, inequitable connection between the English-speaking majority in our community and the ambivalent relationships it fosters between local ethnic diasporas and their ancestral languages. No, the simplest explanation was that I must be foolish.

I was ticked off but still a unicorn. I smiled at white Chinese-language-mansplainer, and you can probably guess what I said.

你说中文吗?

It’s the Chinese equivalent of “Parlez-vous français?” or “Hablas español?” – the kind of phrase the barest of beginners ought to know.

He blinked. “Sorry, what?”

Mm-hm, that’s what I thought.

That Time I Stole a Truck

oldkeyOn the first day of this fall semester, I opened the door of my garage where, strangely enough, my car was parked. To my surprise, blocking the foot of my driveway was a skid-steer and a one-tonne flat-bed truck. I was trapped. Unless I was prepared to sprint twenty kilometres, I wasn’t going to make it to school.

The machinery belonged to the contracting company that had been repairing sidewalks on our street. But there was no trace of the men who had left it there to blockade my house. Except for me, the street was deserted.

“Hey!” I called out, just in case. “Is anyone here? Come on. You’re kidding me.”

No one was coming.

The name of the construction company was written on everything so I phoned their headquarters. I spoke to a guy who identified himself as “I Just Work Here at the Office” and I offered to arrange to have their gear towed away if it was too inconvenient to send someone back right away to move it for me.

Mr. I Just Work Here and I hung up. And while I waited to see what he could do, it occurred to me that fastidious craftsmen like these might be too meticulous to bother with details like securing their vehicles. Maybe my freedom didn’t depend on tow trucks or whims of construction workers. Maybe I could free myself.

Sure enough, the truck was unlocked and the keys were in the ignition. I climbed inside, cranked the key, backed up — beeeep, beeeep, beeeep – and, because I am a genius, moved the truck down the street to where it wouldn’t be obstructing anyone.

The work crew was back on the block by the time I had finished and walked back to my house.

“What were you thinking parking across my driveway? I had to move your truck myself.”

“You went in our truck?” the dude said. “That’s—not legal.”

Now, this is not a story of one of my finest hours. I am neither a gracious nor a composed character in this weird little suburban vignette. But give me a little credit for not saying the words “prosecutor’s wife.” Give me credit for not tossing my hair and saying, “Oh, you want to play that’s-not-legal with me, do you? Well, you forcibly confined me in my home by blocking the exit. That could be a criminal offense too, ya know.”

All I said was, “Yeah. Go ahead and recover your stolen property. It’s parked right there.”

“You can’t do that.”

“I did. And your correct response is, ‘Sorry for your inconvenience, ma’am.’”

He never said those words but he did move the skid-steer without my help and I did get to school. I felt a little bad about the scrappy conversation. The construction goofballs are just a bit older than my oldest kids, after all. I’m patient and empathetic when my own big kids mess up and this was a lapse in character for me.

But I didn’t feel sorry for moving the truck myself. Life—what’s left of my life, in particular—is too short for sitting around getting mad and late when the keys are right there, dangling from the ignition.

managehairWhile my oldest kid was working his first part-time job, as a stock-boy in a grocery store, he showed me this picture. It’s about unsatisfied but mostly civilized customers who don’t want to argue with teenaged frontline workers and primly insists on taking their extremely important retail grievances to a higher court. Notice the model in this picture is a probably little younger than me.

I’m getting closer to the age of the lady below. This is Kathy Bates in “Fried Green Tomatoes” acting out in a parking lot. I always thought this was a dumb scene – a grown-up smashing her car into someone else’s because they were rude and put her out and deserved it. The scene is still over-the-top but it’s starting to make more sense.kathy

I don’t want to talk to the manager. I don’t want to phone the office and wait for a guy. I don’t want answers anymore. I don’t want anyone to get in trouble. I just want results. It’s not about a haircut or hormones or insurance coverage (like it was for Kathy Bates’ character). It’s about time–four decades littered with the usual amount of smoking crap and a complete lack of desire to know where it came from or who put it there. I just want it gone even if I have to muck it out myself.

If the clichéd catch phrase of young women these days is supposed to be “I can’t even…” maybe the catch phrase of women my age should be “I can even…” And I if I can do it without someone  coming out of the office to help, I’d actually prefer that.

Beware women my age. Don’t box in our vehicles. Don’t start ridiculous arguments with us, panic when they’re not going well, and then try to say we came up with the whole feminism thing not because we’re actually suffering but so we can fib our way onto some bogus moral high ground. Women my age are not actually nasty or crazy. We have our wits about us. We also have skills and knowledge and experience. We aren’t hobbled by our sweet babies anymore. We have each other. We can see for miles. And we may insist on being called ma’am.

Ode to an #uglyfeminist

I do not wish to be beautiful. I’ve learned a lot and lost nothing of lasting importance by going through life far from beautiful. I am complaining about nothing. I wouldn’t be thinking about ugliness at all if it hadn’t come to the social media forefront recently with the Twitter hashtag #uglyfeminist.

The hashtag is as troll-ridden as it sounds. It’s not a springboard for enlightening discussion (something the Internet is not known for anyways) but a brawl. On one side of it are misogynists who think it’s clever to reduce millennia of struggle for safe and equitable conditions for half of humanity to a joke where women they do not find sexually attractive are simply frustrated at being unworthy of the social favour men mete out. On the other side are women posting pictures of themselves showcasing their conventionally attractive looks to—I don’t know—prove #notallfeminists are ugly. Some feminists actually do fulfill their social obligation to look the way men want them to, and shame on men for not fulfilling their side of the social contract, I guess.

Now, I won’t tear down my Twitter sisters any further for living their struggle in the ways they see best. I continue to believe that tossing out wedges for women to drive between each other—like the #uglyfeminist hashtag—is an old device men use to make peace for themselves by keeping women preoccupied attacking each other. I won’t do it. But I will share a few things I’ve learned about why ugliness matters.

Ugly is the opposite of beautiful – the opposing end of a crude, arbitrary, culturally constructed spectrum of physical attractiveness. As long as the lights are on, the appearance of beautiful humans affects the people around them. Beauties are able to change other people’s behaviours, beliefs, and sway their emotions just by looking the way they look. Don’t argue. If this wasn’t true, the multi-billion dollar advertising industry would not exist in the form we all know. Most of the time, being beautiful makes the daily hassle of social life easier. It’s a form of privilege and power.

On the opposite pole of the spectrum, we ugly folks have our own kind of power over people.  Like beautiful people, we affect other’s behaviours, beliefs, and emotions simply by showing up and looking the way we do. The effects are different in nature but not in potency.  But where the beautiful can inspire warmth and affection they may not deserve, we can inspire disgust and derision we don’t deserve.

I’ve experienced disgust and derision based on my looks. Most of it happened in junior high school when both my looks and the people around me were at their worst. I’ll spare us the details but on a rainy day in 1987 I was voted ugliest girl in school by a group of loud, rude boys who didn’t know me at all.

They were personally offended that a girl would let herself be so unattractive to them. My looks were transgressive. They flouted the social code that promises boys they’re important and social life ought to be constructed to keep them happy, comfortable, and gratified. As part of that social code, girls are expected to look the way boys want us to.

By being ugly, it was as if I didn’t know how important boys were—or worse—that I knew and I didn’t care. The boys knew in a tacit, latent way they probably didn’t fully realize they understood, that I needed to be punished for my transgressive ugliness. If looking bad all on its own wasn’t aversive enough for me (it was) they would provide the aversion themselves by humiliating me in public. And that’s what they did.

Girls responded to my ugliness differently. At nearly every all-girl-party I went to—especially ones with older, big sisterly girls—I would be given the gift of a makeover. Someone would stick my head in the sink and set about changing my life, just like in the movies. In the late 1980s this meant curling irons, hairspray, and loads of eye makeup. It was sweet and noble and futile. When the big makeover reveal moments fell flat (unlike my high, sprayed bangs) I felt an especial hate for my ugliness, for its imperviousness to makeovers—its rejection of my friends’ love and goodwill.

Sensing my parents’ reaction to my “awkward phase” was bittersweet too. “Awkward” is a term grownups apply to gently describe the unbalanced strangeness in the form and features of children they remember as silky, sparkly babies.  Adults say “awkward” like an apology, with longing and grief. Longing and grief spring from love. There’s heartbreak in the word “awkward.”

I wish I could say I was ugly as part of some precocious feminist stunt—that it was about rebellion and wilful disobedience to oppressive social norms. That wasn’t it at all. I was ugly because I needed my braces off. I needed my body to relinquish the emergency weight it added to get me through the growth spurt that never came. I needed my hair to grow out of the awful cut my well-meaning mother chose for me. I needed to start buying my own clothes. I needed the 90s to start so everyone else would wash off their eyeshadow, let the aerosol out of their bangs, and join me in low maintenance grooming regimens. I needed mean-boys to grow up. Eventually, all of that happened.

Is being ugly what made me a feminist? It must have been one of thousands of factors. Did it make me the frustrated, bitter, unwanted man-hating caricature of the #uglyfeminist hashtag? Clearly, it didn’t. Most of the people who mean the most to me are men—my husband, my five sons, my father, brothers, cousins, brothers-in-law, friends, mentors, colleagues. I don’t spend much time baking them cookies or ironing their shirts but I do love them in my own way.

And it goes like this: a few years ago, I caught one of my teenaged sons sharing an unflattering photo, a candid shot, of a 13-year-old girl we know, the daughter of a family friend. He and a male friend who had never met this girl were laughing, mocking, and posting the photo in a fairly obscure region of a social media website. The odds of the girl ever seeing it herself were low. That didn’t matter.

“Honey, don’t,” I said to my son. “That girl is me.”

This is the gift I, an ugly feminist, try to give to men instead of beauty. It’s truth, which, as sweet, silly Keats says, is beauty after all.

Arriving at the “Twilight” Party Years Too Late

The words have been said so often by so many millions of lads to so many millions of lasses, that they must be worn to tatters. But when you hear them for the first time, in some magic hour of your teens, they are as new and fresh and wondrous as if they had just drifted over the hedges of Eden. Madam, whoever you are, and however old you are, be honest, and admit that the first time you heard those words on the lips of some shy sweetheart, was the great moment of your life…    L.M. Montgomery, 1924

While my husband was away from home this winter, fighting crime, I fought to keep my happiness from capsizing. Little sorties became important, like roaming alone through Wal-Mart during Valentines week. It was there, in a seasonal hearts-and-flowers display, that I found a three-in-one DVD collection, the trinity of twenty-first century young adult romances, the first three movies of the Twilight series, for $9.99.

I have a secret weakness for young adult romance (secret up until a moment ago, anyways). I spent my teen years reading Greek drama and the Victorians. My idea of escapist reading was L.M. Montgomery. My idea of desperation reading was my mother’s Stephen King collection. The Sweet Valley High novels on my sister’s side of the room neither interested nor tempted me.

My appreciation for YA romance is an adult-onset phenomenon but it’s genuine. When I paid $3.33 per flick to catch up on Twilight five years too late, I expected to be indulging in a guilty pleasure. Ironically or not, I wanted to like the series. I understood a lot of people didn’t like it. But haters’ gonna hate, right? And Stephenie Meyer and I have more in common than just our professions. Rock on, Sister Meyer. Thanks for the good time. That’s what I hoped to be saying.

But instead of cheering, I was groaning my way through Twilight.

“Nooo.”

“Whyyy?”

“Dooon’t.”

Carol and Mike from the Brady Bunch

There wasn’t a lot of dialogue in the movie version of the story. The film was mostly heavily filtered frames of pretty scenery, clunky CGI action shots, quiet staring, and slick soundtrack. When there was talking, the lines were often awkward and incongruous. For instance, big daddy vampire and his bride—the Cullen “parents”—were written and played like Mike and Carol Brady.

Sometimes, when I wondered why a character says something in a certain odd way, I’d find out it was because he was repeating a stand-out line from the original novels. What was more puzzling than these strange lines were the ones that weren’t nearly strange enough—the obvious lines a writer might jot down in a first draft but then refine into something more nuanced and artful as the story matured.

“Never go for the obvious kill,” a Twilight vampire warns a werewolf, “They’ll be expecting that.”

Never a truer word…

Forty minutes into the fourth movie (yes, I keep buying them) Twilight’s appeal started to *ahem* dawn on me. By that point in the movie, nothing has happened except exactly what we knew would happen. In all that time, the couple gets married. That’s it. The plot doesn’t advance a single step. It just delivers in hair-shoes-makeup detail what it’s been promising all along. It’s “fan-service.” Twilight gives its target audience, mostly teenaged girls, precisely what they want—the pretty boys, the comfy wardrobe, the smooching, the cool parents, the social one-up-manship— everything, right down to each word of dialogue. That’s the genius behind the series. The entire endeavor is fan-service.

As a jaded old lady and a writer in my own right of fiction approaching a Gothic love story, my first reaction to Twilight—the groaning—was about weariness with cliché, disappointment with the people behind the story and the audience in front of it for going for “the obvious kill.” As a demographic of writers and readers, we can do better.

Romantic piggy-back: looks like it can be pretty boring

But L.M. Montgomery’s advice (the quote at the beginning of this piece taken from Emily Climbs, her folksy, nineteenth century flavoured, Maritime-y take on the gothic teen romance) is worth considering. So sit down, Madam—or Sir—and remember high school dating. I remember it as a cringe-worthy mess marked by a few perfect moments—iconic moments that are a lot like everyone else’s perfect moments. Epic piggy-back rides, private musical recitals, handmade jewellery, working on a car together, catching someone staring from across the parking lot, secret knocking at the window, dancing in public with everyone gawking because it’s obviously a huge deal (or so we imagined) —those aren’t just personal moments. They’re ones we share with each other and with stories like Twilight.  That’s what makes them clichés: their truth.

Twilight is criticized for the expectations it fosters in young girls about romantic love. I don’t know if there’s much anyone could do to prevent those expectations. The romantic words, the gestures within the story are fairly universal in contemporary Western adolescent relationship scripts—or, at least, in my old diaries. Maybe those expectations are just as inevitably widespread. Twilight didn’t strike a nerve with young women because it unearthed the vampire fad at just the right point in history. It resounded because it told our own stories back to us, without trying to dress up or disguise the worn out “tatters.” It didn’t so much create young women’s culture as it reflected and codified what was already there.

Here is where I could plough into the fact that movies like The Avengers and Transformers perform the same fanciful but clichéd reflective function for young men only they get away with it without the searing social commentary leveled at Twilight for no reason other than sexism. I could, but instead I’ll stick to girl-talk. I’ll continue with L.M. Montgomery and her description of what our sweet, tattered words look like to onlookers:

Everything had suddenly become ridiculous. Could anything be more ridiculous than to be caught here…That’s how other people would look at it. How could a thing be so beautiful one moment and so absurd the next?

This is what impresses me most about Twilight: its refusal to balk at its own ridiculousness, its headlong dive into the absurdity of everybody’s love story. I don’t know why she did it. I don’t know whether it was calculated or not. But I’m going to choose to believe Stephenie Meyer is a brave writer. She wrote what we all know, what so many people apparently wanted to hear repeated. And she did it with that “unflinching” spirit critics usually praise. It’s like a teenaged girl stood up and used her own fingers to flip off the entire literary world. There’s something fierce and kind of admirable in it—but nothing that can keep me from flinching my face off.

6 Ways Men Can Talk About Feminism Without Sounding Like IDIOTS

I want to help.

There’s a lot of ignorant talk about feminism in my social media feeds lately. And I want us – no, I want you, men — to be able to talk about women and feminism with all the good will you intend and without the whole thing backfiring, blowing up in your face, biting you in the butt — whatever ironic disaster metaphor best describes that awful, idiotic feeling of trying to speak respectfully only to find you’ve botched it.

“You crazy! I’s just tryin’ a help!” My favourite line from Glen in “Raising Arizona”

I’m not talking to depraved, deliberate “Hey Baby” misogynists.  And I’m not addressing domestic sexism where men talk about “babysitting” their own kids or “helping” with housework in the places where they live and eat. I’m talking to grown, educated men who attempt egalitarianism and make a mess of it. All of the following faux pas come from my own experiences. I’ve heard them said, often directly to me, by men who should know better. Sometimes they’re said combatively, sometimes just clumsily, but always ignorantly. So let me help.

Men, do not say:

1)      “I’m the only man here so I’d better be careful.” This statement, spoken by men when they’re outnumbered in a group of women, says you are behaving differently than you would if you were surrounded by men. It implies you fake deference for women in our presence but will speak more freely and truthfully when we’re absent or properly subdued by the unspoken threat latent in an abundance of male bodies. Don’t be careful. Be kind. Don’t be fake. Be honest. And if your honesty is going to offend us, fix it in a genuine way, not simply by censoring yourself. Definitely don’t expect us to be charmed or grateful you’ve put on your bogus lady-manners for us.

This “outnumbered” statement is doubly offensive because it implies women are volatile and violent and it’s only our typical lack of ability to physically dominate men that keeps us sweet. It suggests we’ve been waiting to indulge in violence against men. The further implication is that the standard male-dominated power structure is needed to preserve the peace.  The same “logic” has been used to justify racist regimes. It doesn’t apply to women either.

2)      “I wouldn’t dare have an opinion on that…” This statement is often meant to be a jocular, humble approach to women’s issues. It’s a man admitting he’s not an expert. While that’s nice, it also effectively ends conversations where women have more relevant or detailed knowledge and experience than men. Just because men may not be experts in an area, just because in the end they may have to defer to women on a subject, they are not excused from participating in discussions of these issues. All women’s issues are human issues important to all genders. Refusing to risk talking about them is not respect. It’s marginalization.

3)      “Can you explain to me how this is sexist?” Even when this is an earnest question, it’s problematic. To some of us, this question sounds like you’ve pointed to the sky on a nice day and petulantly demanded, “Explain to me how that’s blue.” Sexism is so vast and pervasive, so much a part of our worldview, it can be hard to address. We do want to talk to you about sexism. We want to help you understand the sky. But it should take some effort on your part. Do some research. Prepare yourself to talk with us about feminism. It will take time. I can’t explain decades of social theory and a lifetime of discrimination in one pithy quip you can carry in your wallet and pull out to test if things are sexist. The key to understanding sexism is empathy – looking at things the way someone else, someone of a different gender, would see them. Though empathy can never be perfect, it is a skill that can be cultivated. But no one else can do it for you.

4)      “I have a mother (wife, daughter, sisters, etc.) so it’s not like I don’t know anything about women.” Hey, everyone is related to females. That’s how our species works. You are no more of an expert on women for having a mother than anyone else born on the planet. So don’t expect us to be impressed or to add any weight to your claims just because you’ve got close genetic or legal ties to women. We can already tell you’re related to women by the way you, you know, have skin and guts and breath.

5)      “My lady-friend says feminism means XYZ and you don’t XYZ therefore you are not feminist.” There is no Feminist Rulebook, no Feminist Gestapo that storms our houses, inspects our feminism, and revokes our title if we don’t adhere to strict, narrow guidelines. Feminism is like any complex, big-tent idea system – like communism or capitalism or Islam or Christianity or other ideologies loosely shared by huge, varied groups of individuals.  One of the things holding feminism back is in-fighting between women. If you foster those schisms, you are an opponent of feminism, not an ally. Don’t think we don’t know what you’re doing. Let us agree to disagree without fomenting more discord. Especially since we don’t recognize a central arbitrator of what’s good feminism, you’d better not dare to cast yourself in that role. A woman is a feminist because she says she is. She does not have to negotiate her feminism with you.

6) Don’t talk about our gender as if it’s a magic power. Good women are good people — nurturers, caregivers, etc. — because of choices they make, not because there’s any magic determinism in our sex organs forcing us to be good. Give us some credit. Don’t understate and diminish our free will or our humanity. Just like you, we can always choose to be bad. Some of us do. An angel acting angelically isn’t all that special. A real person choosing to act angelically is and it deserves respect, not a bunch of sentimental, simplistic mumbo-jumbo.

Bonus (So I don’t have to rename the post): Enough with “beauty.” Unless you’re judging a beauty contest, it’s not appropriate to comment on strangers’ appearances. Especially when spoken to a group, it comes across as insincere, patronizing, and placatory (see item 1). It can even seem creepy. A good rule is if you wouldn’t tell men they’re beautiful in the same setting, don’t tell women they’re beautiful. Too much is said about how we look anyways. Set it aside and appreciate other things we bring to social life.

There now, back to the social media fray.

If Looks Could Kill: Why My Characters Have No Eye Colours

In preparation for an upcoming multi-author book event, I’ve been reading novels outside my usual range of Can-lit and literary fiction.  The atypical reading choices I’ve been making have been eye-opening – literally.  So far, what’s struck me most in my venture into crowd-pleasing commercial fiction is the diligent reporting of characters’ eye-colours.

Maybe everything I know is wrong but for me, all on its own, the colour of a person’s eyes determines nothing about how they experience life.  Okay, I admit my blue-eyed family may do more than the average amount of squinting in bright light.  And if I ever produce a brown-eyed child while married to my fellow blue-eyed husband, it would add some horrible drama to our home-life.  But most of the time, iris pigment is not the crucial narrative factor a random sample of Western pop-fiction might lead us to believe it must be.

Mentioning eye colour in literature can be a nice touch — like writing at length about a sunset or the ocean or whatever. (Writers can get away with a lot in the name of world-building.)  And in the right context, eye colours can be important story elements.  In Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade, Judy Garland closes her eyes and tests Fred Astaire’s devotion by challenging him to remember her eye colour.  Even as a kid watching the old movie on TV with my mum, I knew this was an important moment.  It advances the plot, reveals something about each of the characters, and it’s hecka sweet.  Well done, 1940s film-makers.  Look at you, making eye color genuinely relevant and letting it arise organically from the narrative.  That’s how it’s done.

The same could be said for any detailed description of characters’ looks.  Descriptions can work to propel the story, motivate actions, explain character traits.  But sometimes they’re dumped into a story apropos of nothing.  It’s as if we’re driving along an icy street and someone yanks up the parking brake and we’re flying in a circle for a moment, calling out eye and hair colours, spinning out of the true direction we’d been traveling.  Or it’s like the story has deteriorated into a junior high school Language Arts lesson and we’re now outside the narrative reading a “character sketch.”  At their best, character sketches are just exercises meant for the writer’s purposes.  They’re notebook scribbles, not even first drafts, and certainly not good reading.

I hope all of that sounds technical and reasonable.  Here’s a personal reason why I write without bothering to explain the minutiae what everyone looks like: I don’t care.  I honestly do not care what people look like.  That’s not to say I’m any less shallow than anyone else – I care far too much about how people smell – but it is to say that when I’m choosing what to pay attention to, a person’s looks aren’t all that compelling.

When I’m acting as creator of a book-world, I let everyone look the way readers want to imagine them.  That’s done by forgoing physical descriptions I don’t need for plot and thematic reasons.  Giving up the creative control that comes with dictating everyone’s colour palette is worth the sacrifice if that’s what it takes to keep physical traits from interfering with everything else I’m trying to say.

Describing a human being’s looks – even a fictitious human being’s – is actually not like describing a sunset.  It might feel idle and innocuous but it’s not.  Sunsets don’t come with politics.  People do.  Spelling out physical descriptions can introduce prejudices and tropes that distance readers.  If that’s what an author wants (and sometimes it is), carry on, I guess.  Descriptions also run the risk of fueling male gazes and other sources of negative stereotypes. They can end up assuring readers certain appearance-based prejudices are right and fair.  I have a revulsion to abetting that.

In the novel Eleanor Rigby, Douglas Coupland deliberately withholds the information that the narrator, a woman, is overweight.  He allows the reader to discover her through what she does and says and only later introduces what she looks like.  The delayed fat-reveal is brilliant.  I was surprised at how it affected me.  I am not a fat-shamer.  I’m not fat myself (she rushed to say) but during my most intensive baby-raising years I was a bit of a chubby-chick.  It runs in my family.  I love fat people.  I understand on a deeply personal level that they are not lazy or greedy or bad.  And it meant I was shocked at how my vision of Coupland’s character unwittingly changed for the worse after I read she was fat.

To add another layer of complexity, Coupland’s narrator challenges the reader, saying we must have been able to tell she was fat before the reveal, as if something so fundamental must have been visible all along.  Of course, it wasn’t.  Her looks don’t make her any less human or relatable as a character.  But it’s only through withholding a physical description and showing us our own reactions to it that Coupland demonstrates the depths of our appearance-based prejudices and how easy it is for writers to be complicit in maintaining them.

By the way, Judy Garland’s eyes – they were brown.