About an hour ago, my mom and I got in a fight about something she said to me that hurt my feelings. She didn’t mean to hurt my feelings. She was making an observation. I snapped back at her and she told me to stop being mean. I explained that I wasn’t trying to be mean, but that I hoped she could at least try and understand why her comment might be hurtful to me. Soon after, she told me she understood why I might have been hurt and she apologized for that. But I wasn’t done being angry. I picked apart everything she said. I started crying. I started crying more. I sat there and thought about why I was having such an intensely emotional reaction to this little thing my mom said. And I realized that it’s because I’d spent the hour before our fight looking at a photo that showed up in my Facebook newsfeed earlier when a friend of mine posted about how she’d tried to have the photo removed from Facebook and was met with refusal.
I’m not going to post the photo because I do not want such garbage on my website, but I will describe it for you and you can find it yourself on the Facebook page pictured above.
It’s a photo of a white family of five. A wife, a husband, two daughters, and a son. The wife and two little girls’s hands are bound with Christmas lights as if by rope and there is tape over their mouths. The husband and little boy are standing above them and the husband is holding a sign that reads “Peace on earth.” The caption for the photo, presumably written by the photographer, reads, “Finally, Peace on Earth.”
Here is what I see: I see a family who is probably much like my own. Seemingly financially well off, white, living in the U.S. The family looks like people I have known in my life. Their children look like my brother and I did as kids. Their children look like the children of my friends. They look like a regular family trying to take a funny family Christmas photo. Except here’s what else I see: I see a little boy and his grown father standing and kneeling above three women. I see a smirk on the father’s face. I see the eyes of three women, their heads all cocked to the side, their stares not communicating anything even remotely resembling laughter or joy.
Here’s what you’re going to say:
And here’s what I’m going to say:
No, I don’t know this family. I don’t know those kids. Maybe they had a great time that day. Chances are they don’t understand what’s going on. Chances are this family had NO idea people would find this offensive. Chances are the family and the photographer and the people supporting them on Facebook really and truly believe that there is nothing sexist or misogynistic about this image. When the above commenter says, “No one has been hurt, injured, whatever you wanna say…,” chances are she honestly believes that.
But this isn’t the point. This isn’t “just a photo.” This isn’t “just a joke.” This image and almost all of its accompanying comments tell me exactly what I have always known, what the women in my life have always known, what we’ve been screaming from the margins for longer than I’ve even known how to use my voice: our society hates women. We hate women. I say we because all of the above comment screenshots are from female commenters. Because misogyny is as ingrained in this culture as hate toward everything else that doesn’t suit the cis-white heteropatriarchal norm. Which is to say, if you are not a straight white cisgendered male, you have to CONSTANTLY confront images like this one and you have to know, again and again in film and television and advertising and literature and in conversations at family holiday dinners and in conversations at friendly holiday work parties and in your own goddamn Facebook newsfeed that you are looked upon as a burden, as not worthy of a voice, as not worthy of safety or respect or even consideration. You are the punchline to a joke.
It isn’t only men who perpetuate this kind of subtle aggression toward women. It’s also other women. It’s like how, as a kid, I was always the first to make a Jewish joke or a Holocaust joke or to call myself a cheap Jew the moment before a friend or stranger could call me that first. Or to call myself a bitch or to tell people I must be on my period, even when I knew I wasn’t. If I can stand in front of you and tear myself down, you can’t tear me down. Except the thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that me tearing myself down out of fear you’ll beat me to it really is just you tearing me down. Because my actions are a direct result and consequence of the feedback I’ve gotten from society about my identity.
Do I think the women in the above comments are defending this misogyny because they’re struggling internally with their identities? No. Because that’s how Power works. It takes the cultural hegemony and pumps it into your blood, into your air and water supply. It fills all your media with the most subtle images of degradation and disrespect disguised as “just how it is” or “just a joke” or “not that bad.” It feeds you this until you grow big and then you feed it to your families, your coworkers, your friends, and on and on and on until it becomes an ontology and an epistemology at once. A way of being and a way of knowing.
This blog post has been a long time coming. It’s an argument that lives in my head on a daily basis. It is an argument about how it’s the little things, the everyday violence, that creates the big things, the threats to our safety, to our bodies. When you post a photo of three women bound and gagged with two men standing free and smiling above them as a Christmas card, I do not bleed. The women in the photo do not bleed. No one’s body is compromised. At least not in this exact moment. But you perpetuate a culture that makes light of the degradation of women. That tells women they are annoying. They talk too much. They need to be silenced. The little boy in that photo is going to be a man some day. And as women, we know what men are capable of. How they can take their fists to our bodies, their knives to our bodies, their guns to our bodies. How they’ve learned this from their fathers and their uncles and their television and film heroes, their sports heroes, their male teachers, their mentors, the country that raised them. Let us not forget Elliot Rodger, who murdered two female students at UC Santa Barbara because he wanted to punish women for rejecting him. Men, too, died as a result of Rodger’s misogyny, because he wanted to punish anyone who received what he felt entitled to, which was the female body.
The other day, I read a painfully accurate blog post called “Being a Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence.” In it, the author says:
Men start to say things to me on the street, sometimes loudly enough that everyone around us can hear, but not always. Sometimes they mutter quietly, so that I’m the only one who knows. So that if I react, I’ll seem like I’m blowing things out of proportion or flat-out making them up. These whispers make me feel complicit in something, although I don’t quite know what.
I feel like I deserve it. I feel like I am asking for it. I feel dirty and ashamed.
I want to stand up for myself and tell these men off, but I am afraid. I am angry that I’m such a baby about it. I feel like if I were braver, they wouldn’t be able to get away with it. Eventually I screw up enough courage and tell a man to leave me alone; I deliberately keep my voice steady and unemotional, trying to make it sound more like a command than a request. He grabs my wrist and calls me a fucking bitch.
After that I don’t talk back anymore. Instead I just smile weakly; sometimes I duck my head and whisper thank you. I quicken my steps and hurry away until one time a man yells don’t you fucking run away and starts to follow me.
After that I always try to keep my pace even, my breath slow. Like how they tell you that if you ever see a bear you shouldn’t run, you should just slowly back away until he can’t see you.
I think that these men, like dogs, can smell my fear.
This is something I know well. My best friend sent me this post. There has been silence and distance between the two of us for over a year now, but despite our grievances against each other, she knew it would still be appropriate to send me this piece of writing because the violence we face as women is bigger and more important than any falling out between us. It is worth talking about even when we can’t talk about anything else.
We when stand up for ourselves, we become endangered. But it’s not just men who endanger us. It’s women complicit in the sexism fed to us our whole lives. Women who tell men this is ok. It’s in small things like how we say “husband & wife” instead of “wife & husband,” how we default, still, to male pronouns, or how we hear “smile more” from a man on the street and think it is harmless. How we value cultural production by men more than that which is made by women. Sexism and misogyny appear in our lives in thousands of small ways. Microaggressions. We say, well this isn’t that big of a deal. We say, you’re overreacting. We say no, #notallmen in response to #yesallwomen. (I know I am not the first person to have written that sentence, and I am not going to be the last.)
There was recently a dust up in the literary world when author Claire Vaye Watkins wrote an essay called “On Pandering” about how she’d always valued the voices of white men more than any other when consuming and producing writing. Because this is how she was educated. How I, too, was educated. In that essay, she brings to everyone’s attention to an incident with a male author, Stephen Elliott, that was steeped in sexism so obvious to any woman that we hardly even acknowledge it when it happens to us because it is simply that quotidian. I checked Elliott’s twitter to see if he’d reacted in any way to the essay. He said:
And I saw women responding to him saying things like:
I sat in my apartment and angrily tweeted the following out into the void:
I know telling women to sit the fuck down is not in the spirit of feminism, but neither is a woman telling a man, don’t worry about these accusations against you, because you were nice to me and so all of your actions toward other women are forgiven. “Keep on.” I figured no one would respond because I didn’t tag Stephen or any of the people defending him. Because I wasn’t actually trying to pick a fight that night. And yet…
Here’s the thing: When a person of color says, hey that’s racist, you as a white person do not get to say that it isn’t. When a woman says, hey that’s sexist, you as a man do not get to say, no it isn’t. But because these power structures are internalized, sometimes a woman might say to another woman, hey this isn’t sexist. A woman might say to another woman, like all those women defending the Christmas photo, hey, chill out, back off, calm down. It was never my intention to shame or censor this stranger who I didn’t know existed until she showed up in my Twitter notifications. It was my intention to point out the ways in which women telling men they can continue with their sexist behavior undermines other women working to bring sexism to the attention of the public.
You might take issue with my use of “we” throughout the above paragraphs, and I understand and accept that there is no universal “we” and that I do not speak for every person or every woman. But I use “we” to deliberately make this a first person plural argument. Meaning that the kind of misogyny I am attempting to highlight is the result of a plurality of individuals. A large plurality. I include myself in that plurality because I, too, am a part of this culture, and though I try everyday in my writing and teaching and conversing to fight against the cultural hegemony that subordinates people of color, women, queer people, religious groups prevalent in parts of the world most of the U.S. refuses to understand, I am a product of this culture and I am inescapably part of it. I, as a white person, am part of the racism that results in the death of so many black people at the hands of a system my tax money and my capitalist impulses supports. I, too, have called women “bitches” in a way that is hateful and meant to be harmful at certain points in my life. I have used language recklessly out of sheer laziness or worse, with malicious intent.
What I am saying is, we cannot lament gun deaths and terrorism and physical violence against women and Donald Trump and environmental injustice and everything else we seem to create a hashtag for if we do not at the same time interrogate the systems that have created these circumstances, and part of interrogating these circumstances is being attentive to what we put out in the world, in image or in language or in any medium. For a long time, I believed that microaggressions–these small instances of racism or sexism or homophobia–were a result of a country that was violent toward those bodies it does not value. But what I’ve learned with age and time and reading and listening and teaching is that the microaggressions, the jokes, the “didn’t really mean it”s and the “you know I’m not actually ____ist”s lay the foundation for action. The attitude comes first. The ideology. The belief system. The myths we accept because we don’t want to look too closely at them lest we see the cis-white heteropatriarchy behind the curtain.
If it’s not clear by now, I know I will not convert anyone’s belief system that is fundamentally in opposition to my politics to begin with. I do not know how to do such a thing. We operate in different registers, from different planets, seemingly. My audience is people I know, who want a different world, who would never think of themselves as racist or sexist or homophobic but who, time and time again, have proven themselves to be uncommitted to self-reflection. My intended audience is all the well meaning students and civilians I’ve encountered on University campuses and on the internet and in the world who truly do want something better for us, but who make comments counterintuitive to this project all the same. Unthinking liberals and well meaning fiscal conservatives. Allies in name but not action. Myself. A reminder. This is a constant process of evaluation and re-evaluation for myself, too.
It’s the “it’s not that bad”s and the “you’re overreacting”s and the “stop being so politically correct”s and the “well at least Trump is entertaining”s that allow violence to reign and to terrorize those all too familiar with what it’s like to be even remotely in the margins of history. It’s a denial of others’ experiences. It’s the people who say, “it’s not that big of a deal.” It’s the people who say, look over here at this real violence, at this real issue, as if what we define as reality is somehow outside the purview of those who built this country on the backs of slaves, at the expense of women and queers and the differently abled and the poor. It’s the photo of three women bound and gagged on a Christmas card, a man and a boy laughing at the punchline that is their silenced mother and wife and sisters and daughters tied up on the ground in front of them. It’s a photo like this that’s killing us.