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.

 

Here Baby, There Mama: Don’t Politic My Hair

Let me tell you about the angriest I’ve ever been with my husband. Our not-quite-two-year-old son needed his long, wispy, angel hair cut. He hated haircuts and would carry on like a calf getting branded. It was always awful. My husband told me he’d take care of one particular haircut by himself. He took the baby into the bathroom and buzzed his head with electric clippers.

I was furious.

Yes, the baby’s hair grew back. And no one – not my oh-so-scolded husband, not anyone – has ever buzzed it again. The baby is fifteen years old now. His hair is still light blond but it’s also thick, silky, and he wears it long. I love it. Everyone loves it.

That’s the angriest I’ve ever been at my husband. I’m very lucky. I have an excellent husband. I also have an excellent mother. Guess what makes me angriest about the way she raised me. Once again, it’s haircuts. I’m not one to try to blame my mother for everything. She was and is wonderful to me and my six siblings. But she is a demon in a hair salon.jennyshort

Her first six children were born within seven and a half years. No, she’s not crazy. She’s just talented at pregnancy and babies. My mum is never happier than when she’s raising a baby. I don’t understand it — the same way I don’t understand people who are happiest when they’re cooking or playing soccer or doing math.

With a family like that, I guess Mum needed some short-cuts – literally. Five of us are girls — though it was hard to tell from looking at us when we were kids and our mother was choosing our haircuts. Mum had this idea that short hair on girls was “stylish” and modern – that and it didn’t need any time consuming combing or binding with elastics.

amyshort

Some people look fine in short hair. These people are not in my immediate gene pool. We all looked horrible. We knew it even though our mother raved about how pert and bold we were and how boring and backward our girl-friends were with their gorgeously normal shoulder-length bobs. But we were respectful, filial girls and I didn’t rise up and put an end to my mother’s terrible haircuts until I was in the tenth grade. That was when I grew my hair long – crazy long – and never went back. My sisters have thrown off their chains and grown out their hair too.

We all have the hair we want now. We’re educated, independent women exercising control over our own bodies and using a whole lot of high-end conditioner every morning. That’s the happily ever after, right?

Unfortunately, personal preference isn’t the only thing being read into hair length lately. Some click-baiting doofus wrotesarashort an article in response to the recent Hollywood revival of the pixie cut that made my childhood so awkward. He trolls on about how women cut their hair short to perturb and alienate men. The article has been answered by far more thoughtful pieces claiming long hair can be a patriarchal weapon meant to signal reproductive receptivity and with it, submission to oppressive forms of traditional gender roles.

Actually, for most people from my ethnic group anyways, long hair is just the natural state of all hair, for men and women. It’s now been unnaturally politicized by both sides of the gender divide. One of my brothers-in-law snapped and told my sister she had to cut her hair because she looked like the wife of a fundamentalist cult leader. I guess that wasn’t the impression he wanted his colleagues to have of their successful family business. My sister keeps her hair long anyway and sometimes twists it into a tight, top ‘o the head, power-bun that is authoritarian and formidable and totally awesome.

maryshortI admit I’m still insecure enough to worry whether anyone mistakes my long hair as a sign there’s something oppressive in my relationships or worldview – something amiss with my feminism. There isn’t. I’ve written more in defense of feminism than many people will ever read in their lifetimes.  I have nothing to be insecure about.  Part of enjoying my personal autonomy is invoking my right not to cut my hair if that’s what makes me happiest.

All that anger from the beginning of this story – with my husband and my mum – it’s petty. I’ve let it go and moved on. Even in the teeth of the crises, I never had much to complain about.  Unless it’s a token of religious observance, everything that’s said about another person’s hair length seems just as petty to me. And in realms of pettiness, what’s important aren’t the choices we make but the fact that we are free to make those choices.emshort

Sometimes, as Freud is rumored to have said, a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes, a haircut is just a haircut – no social agenda, no revolution, no patriarchal violence – just pretty protein sprouting out of a scalp. When it comes to the way I wear my hair, all I’m trying to say is that I love it long – on my sons, on me, on my sisters, even on my mother herself.

Me, My Mum, and My Sisters Today

It’s Me, Writing in “The Awl”

It’s Me, Writing Psychoanalytic Feminist Film Criticism

This week, I drafted a blog post I liked too much to keep to myself.  Instead of posting it here, I sent it to a cool New York City website called “The Awl” and 48 hours after pitching it, the story was published.  It’s doing well — getting tweeted and shared and picked up by other news sites.  There is an audience out there who gets it.

However, I realize all the psychoanalytic feminist film criticism in it might be off the beaten path for many of the kind people who know me personally and read my stuff out of love.  The “Awl” article assumes readers have already heard of and dismissed the trope — the flat, stock film character — known as  the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”  The term was coined by critic Nathan Rabin in reviewing a movie where a sad young man is rescued by a “psychotically chipper” woman.  Rabin explains, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

My article is a cheeky look at a possible source of this self-indulgent, embarrassing character.  Something tremendously compelling must keep male-writers coming back to it.  The piece was a lot of fun to write and I’m enjoying people’s reaction to it.

Maybe give it a read here:

Manic Pixie Dream Mom – The Awl, Jan 10, 2014

Mothers of All Brothers at the Mall

My sister had just posted a new picture of her baby on Facebook.  In it, my big-eyed, beautiful niece was wearing layers and layers of frilly pastel ruffles.  Beneath the picture, I wrote, “I didn’t know ruffles were the big thing right now.”  Even for idle social media chatter, my ruffle comment was pretty idle.  I didn’t expect anything to come of it.

But then, out of the vastness of time and space, through the miracle of post-modern social networking, another comment came answering back from an old friend of mine.  I didn’t know she and my sister were in touch.  I was surprised.  Frankly, they hardly know each other.  Frankly, my friend and I hardly know each other anymore.  We were closest during our early teenaged years, before I outgrew the worst of my hideous phase and started encroaching on her boy-chasing territory.  Things had been very quiet between us for a very long time.  But now that ruffles were on the table, she had something to say to me about them.

“That’s because you are the only girl in your home,” she told me, “And I don’t think that ruffles were ever your thing…”

She was right about that.

“…Little girls LOVE ruffles,” she continued, emphasis in the original.  “And sparkles, and tiaras, and glitter, and magic wands.  Maybe you should see if you can get a girl to balance out all of that boyness in your house.”

Maybe I’m crazy but it read like a smack-down.  It sounded like my family of nothing-but-sons was being called out as karmic.  She may as well have written, “You like boys, do ya?  Well, take THAT, boy-stealer.”

I replied by doing what anyone put in my position would have done: I quoted out-of-context Bowie lyrics at her.

“There’s only room for one and here she comes, here she comes.”

Unlike me, my old friend – the ruffle expert – has a daughter.  She goes shopping for tiny frilly dresses while I’m pushing a cart full of black and navy sweatpants.

I’ve heard people remark how tragic it is that mothers of boys don’t have as much fun shopping as the mothers of girls.  The idea is familiar enough to make it feel like everyone must agree.  But who actually makes this complaint?  I took a straw poll, pulling comments out of Internet parenting forums dedicated to mothers of all-boy families.  I was looking for any self-reports of mothers being disappointed about not being in the market for pretty dresses for anyone but ourselves.

Here’s what I found: hardly anything.

Every now and then, a long, sad venting post would appear where a mom of boys lists everything about parenting that hurts her.  Once she’d started brainstorming her disappointments, she’d usually toss in a line about shopping.  But in pages and pages of healthy, happy chit-chat about raising boys, it was nearly impossible to find any boys-only moms complaining about the lack of sparkles in their laundry.

So who keeps talking about how sad we must be?  It seems the people most likely to think shopping in the pink section is important are people who are actively enculturating a little girl with prissy, Western notions of acceptable gender roles.  These people care very strongly about it.  But guess who doesn’t care much about it?  Everyone else.

Groaner at the Scholastic Book Fair

Groaner at the Scholastic Book Fair

Shopping may be a strange and backward place for flagrant plays of gender politics but it’s a real one.  Most of the time, gendered shopping is a marketing tool meant to get parents with kids of both sexes to buy double the merchandise they need because pink bicycles burst into flames if boys try to ride them.  It’s got nothing to do with what’s good for the human psyche and everything to do with selling products.

When it comes to underwear and tampons, I can see the wisdom in dividing the marketplace between the sexes.  But when I walked into the Scholastic Book Fair at my kids’ school this winter and saw a table labelled “Books for Boys,” I got angry.  Thanks, Scholastic, for making sure arbitrary gender division in education and the arts stay staunchly and clearly defined.

And thanks, I guess, to everyone harbouring any compassion for women who only mother children of the opposite sex.  Go ahead and feel sorry for us.  In truth, there are reasons for boy-moms to feel a little lonely – a little empty.  They’re real and I believe they’re profound.  The reasons women might mourn for never creating another human in their own image are existential, rooted in our personal identities, our senses of our own immortality, and our fears about dying alone.  And that makes the suggestion that our feelings are all about vapid unfulfilled shopping fantasies outrageously offensive.

Sign Seeker

There I was, walking across the University of Alberta campus in 1992 – stupid, lonely, horrible — and at my feet on the concrete outside the Central Academic Building was a playing card, face down.  I’m a believer is signs and wonders (and I was thinking seriously about dropping out of my statistics class) so there was no way I could walk any further without drawing the card – a wild card, free-range, occurring naturally in the earth.

A Card in the Wild

A Card in the Wild

The back of it was printed with some tiny, uniform pattern, white and blue.  And I wasn’t so bad at statistics that I could fail to know the odds were ten to thirteen – excellent odds — that the side of the card still pressed against the ground would bear a number, pips.  There was a three out of thirteen chance it would be a face card with eyes and hands, a crown and a weapon, footless.  There was only a one in thirteen chance it would be a queen.  As I stooped to flip it over, I decided that if the card was a queen – just lying here, at this precise time — it would mean something.

It was a queen – the queen of clubs.  It’s the lowest suit, the flower queen, dark-robed, white-faced, grim.  No one writes songs about her.  And what is that clover thing of hers supposed to be good for anyways?

I picked the card up, right in front of everyone else walking by, as if it was mine.  No one asked.

I took the card to the library, found some kind of book – I have no idea anymore what it was called or even what term I would have typed into the clunky database to find it.  All I remember of what the book said about the meaning of the queen of clubs is one word: worry.  That was my sign.  Worry — it wasn’t good but it was true.

I kept the queen of clubs, took it home, taped it to the wall beside my bed, right next to a colour print of a detail from a painting of the Virgin Mary that had fallen out of a different library book and landed on the desk, as if it was a sign too.  This Mary was languid, brown-haired like she’s supposed to be.  My hair is yellow.  They always said it would turn brown but it never did.  That’s why it was never me but my sister who they got to play Mary in the pageants at Christmas.  They told me to be the angel – which was embarrassing because, in the book, the Christmas angel is clearly a boy, a white-haired boy.  Little, neuter, dirty-blonde me, the fake Christmas angel standing on a kitchen chair.

The signs stayed posted on my wall until I moved.  The first time I unpacked, I hung them up again.  When I moved for love, they stayed in a box.  They’re still here somewhere – I think.  I could probably find them again if I wanted to but – signs change.

And today, as I walked over the wet ice and traction sand on the road in front of the mailbox, I stepped over a single playing card, face down in the freezing, dirty water.  Its back was printed in a pattern called “bicycle,” white and red.  I’m more of a believer in signs and wonders than ever and I did end up with an improbable A in that statistics class so there was no way I could walk any further without drawing one more wild card.  Signs may change but odds don’t.  The odds were still just one in thirteen that the card would be a queen.  If it was a queen, I would have no idea whether it meant anything.

I stooped in the middle of the road and picked it up.

I’m not stupid, okay.  I know that if this was fiction, I’d have to write this story so that the card was not a queen.  It would have to be something else or we’d all hate this story.  It would be silly.  We’d be right to sneer at it.  But this is a real story – the kind that doesn’t need my permission to be a little bit perfect.

Here I was, on a Tuesday in November, two hours before my kids got home from school, with a new sign,  a real sign — the queen of hearts.

Bon-Bons and Soap Operas and Other Stories

Stop asking me what I do all day.

I’ve been wanting to say that since 1996 when my sister arrived at my apartment during one of the fifteen-minute intervals when my ravenous newborn baby was asleep and found me standing in my living-room flipping through a board book about farm animals.  My reply to “what do you do all day” used to sound noble – the kind of thing that gets championed on Facebook by mothers in need of recognition and respect and, heck, some social justice.  When I was raising my little boys I would have been justified in replying with something like, “I spend all day making human beings from my own guts and mettle, you ignorant boors.”

Oedie, the blue lineolated parakeet. She’s nuts.

1996 was a long time ago.  It’s been ages since that original farm animal board book fell into the toilet and passed out of our lives.  But questions about what I do with my daylight hours remain.  In fact, I’m getting questioned about them more than ever.  My youngest son started full-day school last month.  From 8:25am to 3:40pm, no one has any business being in my house except me and my deranged parakeet.  When my last son left the building, so did my best “excuse” for being at home full-time.

Sometimes I admit my life is now all soap operas and bon-bons, all day long.

But when I’m not feeling sarcastic, I’ll go on and on about how when I’m not doing all the cleaning, errands, shopping, and emergency interventions my family of seven still needs during the day whether any of them are inside the house or not, I’m at home working on my writing career.

These days, enough people work from home that we should all understand it’s not a sham for lazy folks.  Working from home may not be slick and pretty but it’s real.  And it’s an especially common practice for people working as writers.  Still, claiming I’m working as a writer just triggers more questions.

“Working?  But you already wrote your book, didn’t you?  What’s left to do?  What do you actually do all day?”

As far as occupations go, writing is pretty flaky.  I get that.  There’s no tool belt, no lunch kit.  And sometimes working as a writer means looking out the window, driving around crying, or using all the hot water zoning out in the shower.  Yeah, it’s pretty flaky some days.  But in between all those black-box creative cognitive processes there is real work to do.  We write at our big projects but we also write smaller pieces, read and review other people’s books, scour listings for new places to send our work, and manage systems for tracking what’s been submitted to where and how long we should wait before we give up on getting a reply.

For new writers, publicity is vital to success.  It doesn’t come naturally for most of us and it takes a lot of time and energy.  In addition to doing spoken and written interviews (if we’re lucky), we maintain social media presences on three or four different platforms and most of us write blogs.  Sure, some people do this stuff for fun.  I happen to thinking mowing lawns is fun.  But that doesn’t mean people who get paid to mow lawns aren’t really working.

In many ways, writers bring the perception that our jobs are jokes upon ourselves by talking about our work in terms of a lot of goofy, mystical claptrap.  It might help us feel gifted and precious in our own minds but if we’re going to indulge in silly, fanciful claims that make our skills sound like dubious super-powers, other people aren’t going to relate to our work the same way they relate to their own jobs.  People don’t really believe in super-powers – and frankly, neither do writers.  So let’s stop it.

If we catch ourselves beginning sentences with “Only a writer would…” or “You know you’re a writer if…” we ought to know we’re being pretentious and throwing away our professional credibility.  We’re begging people to ask us what we do all day.  I know it may be fun to think we’re doing the opposite – getting people to take writing seriously by astounding them with the “specialness” of it.  But it doesn’t work.  Stop it.  Let’s get off the “Memes for Writers” Pinterest boards and Tumblr blogs and grind our way through some word processor software instead.  That’s what writers do all day.