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Authors: Rebecca Solnit

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The Volunteer Police Force

So the cat is out of the bag, the genies are out of their bottles, Pandora’s box is open. There’s no going back. Still, there are so many forces trying to push us back or at least stop us. At my glummest, I sometimes think women get to choose—between being punished for being unsubjugated and the continual punishment of subjugation. If ideas don’t go back in the box, there’s still been a huge effort to put women back in their place. Or the place misogynists think we belong in, a place of silence and powerlessness.

More than twenty years ago, Susan Faludi published a milestone of a book called
Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women
. It described the double bind of women in that moment: they were getting congratulations for being fully liberated and empowered while being punished by a host of articles, reports, and books telling them that, in becoming liberated, they had become miserable; they were incomplete, missing out, losing, lonely, desperate. “This bulletin of despair is posted everywhere—at the newsstand, on the TV set, at the movies, in advertisements and doctors’ offices and academic journals,” wrote Faludi. “How can American women be in so much trouble at the same time that they are supposed to be so blessed?”

Faludi’s answer was, in part, that, though American women had not succeeded nearly as well as so many imagined in gaining equality, they weren’t suffering nearly as much as was being reported either. The articles were backlash, an attempt to push back those who were still moving forward.

Such instructions on how women are miserable and doomed haven’t faded away. Here’s the magazine
N+1
in late 2012, editorializing on a recent spate of backlash articles about women in the
Atlantic
:

Listen up ladies
, these articles say.
We’re here to talk to you in a way that’s limited and denigrating.
Each female author reports on a particular dilemma faced by the “modern woman,” and offers her own life as a case study. . . . The problems these women describe are different, but their outlook is the same: traditional gender relations are by and large bound to endure, and genuinely progressive social change is a lost cause. Gently, like a good friend, the
Atlantic
tells women they can stop pretending to be feminists now.

A volunteer police force tries to keep women in their place or put them back in it. The online world is full of mostly anonymous rape and death threats for women who stick out—who, for instance, participate in online gaming or speak up on controversial issues, or even for the woman who recently campaigned to put women’s images on British banknotes (an unusual case, in that many of those who threatened her were actually tracked down and brought to justice). As the writer Caitlin Moran tweeted: “For those who say, ‘why complain– just block?’—on a big troll day, it can be 50 violent/rape messages an hour.”

Maybe there is a full-fledged war now, not of the sexes—the division is not that simple, with conservative women and progressive men on different sides—but of gender roles. It’s evidence that feminism and women continue achieving advances that threaten and infuriate some people. Those rape and death threats are the blunt response; the decorous version is all those articles Faludi and
N+1
cite telling women who we are and what we may aspire to—and what we may not.

And the casual sexism is always there to rein us in, too: a
Wall Street Journal
editorial blaming fatherless children on mothers throws out the term “female careerism.”
Salon
writer Amanda Marcotte notes, “Incidentally, if you Google ‘female careerism,’ you get a bunch of links, but if you Google ‘male careerism,’ Google asks if you really meant ‘male careers’ or even ‘mahle careers.’ ‘Careerism’—the pathological need to have paid employment—is an affliction that only affects women, apparently.”

Then there are all the tabloids patrolling the bodies and private lives of celebrity women and finding constant fault with them for being too fat, too thin, too sexy, not sexy enough, too single, not yet breeding, missing the chance to breed, having bred but failing to nurture adequately—and always assuming that each one’s ambition is not to be a great actress or singer or voice for liberty or adventurer but a wife and mother. Get back in the box, famous ladies. (The fashion and women’s magazines devote a lot of their space to telling you how to pursue those goals yourself, or how to appreciate your shortcomings in relation to them.)

In her great 1991 book, Faludi concludes, “And yet, for all the forces the blacklash mustered . . . women never really surrendered.” Conservatives are now largely fighting rearguard actions. They are trying to reassemble a world that never really existed quite as they imagine it (and to the extent that it did, it existed at the expense of all the people—the vast majority of us—forced to disappear, into the closet, the kitchen, segregated space, invisibility and silence).

Thanks to demographics, that conservative push is not going to work—the United States is not going to be a mostly white country again—and because genies don’t go back into bottles and queer people are not going back into the closet and women aren’t going to surrender. It’s a war, but I don’t believe we’re losing it, even if we won’t win it anytime soon either; rather, some battles are won, some are engaged, and some women are doing really well while others suffer. And things continue to change in interesting and sometimes even auspicious ways.

What Do Men Want?

Women are an eternal subject, which is a lot like being subjected, or subjugated, or a subject nation, even. There are comparatively few articles about whether men are happy or why their marriages also fail or how nice or not their bodies are, even the movie-star bodies. They are the gender that commits the great majority of crime, particularly violent crime, and they are the majority of suicides as well. American men are falling behind women in attending college, and have fallen farther in the current economic depression than women, which you’d think would make them interesting subjects of inquiry.

I think the future of something we may no longer call feminism must include a deeper inquiry into men. Feminism sought and seeks to change the whole human world; many men are on board with the project, but how it benefits men, and in what ways the status quo damages men as well, could bear far more thought. As could an inquiry into the men perpetrating most of the violence, the threats, the hatred—the riot squad of the volunteer police force—and the culture that encourages them. Or perhaps this inquiry has begun.

At the end of 2012, two rapes got enormous attention around the world: the gang-rape murder of Jhoti Singh in New Delhi and the Steubenville rape case, involving teenage assailants and victim. It was the first time I remember seeing everyday assaults on women treated more or less as lynchings and gay-bashings and other hate crimes had been: as examples of a widespread phenomenon that was intolerable and must be addressed by society, not just by individual prosecution. Rapes had always been portrayed as isolated incidents due to anomalous perpetrators (or natural uncontrollable urges or the victim’s behavior), rather than a pattern whose causes are cultural.

The conversation changed. The term “rape culture” started to circulate widely. It insists that a wider culture generates individual crimes and that both must be addressed—and can be. The phrase had first been used by feminists in the 1970s, but what put it into general circulation, evidence suggests, were the Slutwalks that began in 2011 as a protest against victim-blaming.

A Toronto policeman giving a safety talk at a university told female students not to dress like sluts. Soon after, Slutwalks became an international phenomenon, of mostly young, often sexily dressed women taking back public space (rather like the Take Back the Night walks of the 1980s, but with more lipstick and less clothing). Young feminists are a thrilling phenomenon: smart, bold, funny defenders of rights and claimers of space—and changers of the conversation.

That policeman’s “slut” comment was part of the emphasis colleges have put on telling female students how to box themselves in safely—don’t go here, don’t do that—rather than telling male students not to rape: this is part of rape culture. But a nationwide movement organized by mostly female college students, many of them survivors of campus sexual assault, has sprung up, to force change in the way universities deal with such assaults. As has a movement to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the military that has also succeeded in forcing real policy changes and prosecutions.

The new feminism is making the problems visible in new ways, perhaps in ways that are only possible now that so much has changed. A study of rape in Asia drew alarming conclusions about its widespread nature but also introduced the term “sexual entitlement” to explain why so much of it takes place. The report’s author, Dr. Emma Fulu, said, “They believed they had the right to have sex with the woman regardless of consent.” In other words she had no rights. Where’d they learn that?

Feminism, as writer Marie Sheer remarked in 1986, “is the radical notion that women are people,” a notion not universally accepted but spreading nonetheless. The changing conversation is encouraging, as is the growing engagement of men in feminism. There were always male supporters. When the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, thirty-two of the one hundred signatories to its Declaration of Independence–echoing manifesto were men. Still, it was seen as a women’s problem. Like racism, misogyny can never be adequately addressed by its victims alone. The men who get it also understand that feminism is not a scheme to deprive men but a campaign to liberate us all.

There’s more that we need to be liberated from: maybe a system that prizes competition and ruthlessness and short-term thinking and rugged individualism, a system that serves environmental destruction and limitless consumption so well—that arrangement you can call capitalism. It embodies the worst of machismo while it destroys what’s best on Earth. More men fit into it better, but it doesn’t really serve any of us. You can look to movements, such as the Zapatista revolution, which has a broad ideology that includes feminist as well as environmental, economic, indigenous, and other perspectives. This may be the future of feminism that is not feminism alone. Or the present of feminism: the Zapatistas rose up in 1994 and are still going, as are myriad other projects to reimagine who we are, what we want, and how we might live.

When I attended a 2007 Zapatista
encuentro
in the Lacandon forest, focusing on women’s voices and rights, at the end of 2007, women testified movingly about how their lives had changed when they had gained rights in the home and the community as part of their revolution. “We had no rights,” one of them said of the era before the rebellion. Another testified, “The saddest part is that we couldn’t understand our own difficulties, why we were being abused. No one had told us about our rights.”

Here is that road, maybe a thousand miles long, and the woman walking down it isn’t at mile one. I don’t know how far she has to go, but I know she’s not going backward, despite it all—and she’s not walking alone. Maybe it’s countless men and women and people with more interesting genders.

Here’s the box Pandora held and the bottles the genies were released from; they look like prisons and coffins now. People die in this war, but the ideas cannot be erased.

Image Credits

 

All images by Ana Teresa Fernandez courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris.

1. “Untitled” (performance documentation), oil on canvas, 6"x8", from the series “Pressing Matters.”

2. “Aquarius” (performance documentation at San Diego/Tijuana border), oil on canvas, 54"x82", from the series “Ablution.”

3. “Untitled” (performance documentation at San Diego/Tijuana border), oil on canvas, 60"x72", from the series “Pressing Matters.”

4. “Untitled” (performance documentation), oil on canvas, 70"x80", from the series “Ablution.”

5. “Untitled” (performance documentation), oil on canvas, 72"x60", from the series “Teleraña.”

6. “Untitled” (performance documentation), oil on canvas, 72"x60", from the series “Teleraña.”

7. “Untitled” (performance documentation), oil on canvas, 53"x57", from the series “Ablution.”

Acknowledgments

 

There are so many people to thank. Marina Sitrin was a great friend and supporter and “Men Explain Things” was written at her instigation, and for, in part, her younger sister Sam Sitrin, and Sallie Shatz took me to that strange party in Colorado where it all began. Friendship with older feminists, notably Lucy Lippard, Linda Connor, Meridel Rubenstein, Ellen Manchester, Harmony Hammond, MaLin Wilson Powell, Pame Kingfisher, Carrie and Mary Dann, Pauline Esteves, and May Stevens has been valuable and reinforcing, as has that of younger feminists—Christina Gerhardt, Sunaura Taylor, Astra Taylor, Ana Teresa Fernandez, Elena Acevedo Dalcourt, and many others whose fierce intelligence about gender politics makes me hopeful about the future, as does the solidarity of the many men in my life and in the media who are now attuned to and audible on the issues.

But perhaps I should start with my mother, who subscribed to
Ms. Magazine
when it first appeared and kept up her subscription for years after. I think the magazine helped her, though she struggled for the four decades that followed with the usual conflicts between obedience and insurrection. For a child who had devoured the
Ladies’ Home Journal
,
Women’s Circle
, and anything else I could find to read, this new publication was a fiery addition to the diet and a potent tool to use to reconsider much of the status quo inside that house and outside. Which didn’t make it easier to be a girl in the 1970s, but did make it easier to understand why.

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