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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Failing to please

In the comments for a Pharyngula post about online harassment of women journalists, Rachel Kiernan wrote:
This insanity isn’t just levered against female writers. Female politicians receive even more vitriol than their male coworkers or females in other lines of work. Otherwise secular and liberal Germany is filled with men who have something pathological against Angela Merkel, usually about her appearance and based in an absolute hatred against any female politician. An Italian newspaper called her a “lard ass,” in spite of the fact she’s considered to be the de facto leader of the E.U. and has bailed out their banks. In addition to the problems associated with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, France has a problem with male politicians molesting their female staff members while female politicians must endure cat calls just to show up to work. Of course, the news also recently broke about a male politician in Bolivia raping a female politician at a party after she passed out from drinking. So… it would seem as though a photo equals consent, clothing equals consent and the inability to say “no” is also consent. The constant threat of rape is just one example of what can and will happen to women if they dare make themselves seen and heard.   
The ugly reality is that “male machismo” is considered a basic human right for most of the world, including many liberal and secular countries. It’s meant to silence and hide women who otherwise might not “know their place” in society, reminding us all that if we ever fail to please, we can and will be humiliated, threatened, hurt and much worse.
The words "if we ever fail to please" stuck out to me. When trying to formulate a simple and coherent concept of everyday sexism-- the kind practiced by generally good people, just people who have spent little to no time thinking about sexism as a concept to begin with-- I end up falling into a Jeff Foxworthy-like game of "You might be sexist if....." And what I often end up with is something like "You might be sexist if you think the most important thing about a woman is whether she's sexy." If you're talking about a woman who is notable for something other than being sexy (such as, for example, winning an award, writing a book, running a business, inventing a product, etc.) and the main or even the only thing you can manage to say about her involves how attractive (or not) she is....you might be sexist. If you think a woman's primary job is to be sexy and her actual job is something other than porn star, exotic dancer, or prostitute...you might be sexist. (Which is not at all meant to disparage actual porn stars, exotic dancers, and prostitutes)

But I like "failing to please" because that encompasses being sexy, but also leaves room for subservience. For the ways in which a woman who isn't yet sexy, is long past being sexy, or never could be sexy might still yet please. You know, like being properly deferential-- not presuming to argue with a man publically, or otherwise exert authority over men. Accepting one's non-sexiness as a character flaw and attempting to make up for it in other ways, such as being a good cook. After all, ideally all women would be both sexy and good cooks, but if you have to choose between the two, go with the good cook because then you'll get the best of her talents without having to fight your mates off to keep her! And so on.

So yes, "failing to please" is a good catch-all. It sums up very well the general notion that women must live for men rather than for themselves, or at least before themselves, and those who don't are to be shunned and ridiculed if not worse-- sometimes far worse.

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