Monday, February 25, 2008

The Nitpickety Echidne

I've been told several times that the proper and nutritionally balanced reaction to meeting misogyny on the net or on the television is to just move on. Ignore! Don't pay them attention! They thrive on attention!

Presumably the misogyny will just wither away and not harm anybody if I don't talk about it. Yes, that's the ticket.

Anyway, Shakespeare's sister seems to have received the same e-mails, because she has written a post about the idea that feminists dig up nasty stuff on purpose, that they turn those rocks over just so they can scream about the slithering slimy things they find, that the world would be a much nicer place if we didn't let any of that upset our beautiful minds (to quote Barbara Bush the Elder). Here is a taste of her post:

The truth is, if I actually spent my days actively paying attention to every example of misogyny around me, I would be a profoundly unhappy woman. Not bitchy or grumpy or short-tempered, but paralyzingly depressed. Women have to train themselves to avoid consciously reacting to every bit of misogynistic detritus permeating the culture through which we all move, lest they go quite insane. I write about the things I can't not write about. If I wrote about all the examples of sexism I see every day, I'd never sleep.

Tangentially, the idea that addressing "the little things," like being told to smile or misogynistic t-shirts, somehow demeans feminism or distracts from "real" or "serious" sexism is utterly, completely, devilishly wrong.

Feminism seeks to address all manner of issues, big and small. That women can (and do) utilize the tenets of feminism in every aspect of their lives does not undermine the history of the feminist movement, but instead does it a great honor. Feminism was never meant to be restricted to suffrage and equal pay, held in reserve like a finite quantity that could run out if it's used for "the little things." Feminism is a renewable resource.

Read the whole post. It has many important observations, one concerning the way our space to breathe and to exist will be shrunk, day by day, if we feminists agree to avoid and to skip and to ignore and to stay away from the places where misogyny thrives. And yes, we already do pick our battles and, yes, we already ignore much of what goes on, lest we otherwise explode in a pink fireball against that patriarchally blue sky.

And of course some topics are much more worth writing about than others. Still, there is special value to exposing the tiny pinpricks of sexism, to pointing out that wink-wink-nudge-nudge is only funny from one side of the equation, and that special value is not some satisfaction in being the best nitpicker ever. The value comes from the fact that the jokes we tell, the plots of our television soaps or reality shows, the things we say about the dresses of actresses at the Oscars, all those things reflect the society and its norms, and some of those norms are sexist. Yet almost all of us can go blind to that, because of the ordinariness of these messages and because of their ubiquity.

It's like that story I recently read about some construction workers finding 1970's porn magazines inside a house wall cavity and trying to figure out what was wrong about the women portrayed in them. Something about their breasts was really off. Of course, the breasts in 1970's pornography were still natural breasts. Today's "natural" porn breast is a silicone one. Think about that.

Small things can tell as a lot about the wider culture. So can the way we use words or the way we tell jokes. To dissect those small things is important, not because of some concern for every little thing that happens but because of what they tell us about the underlying relationships, about who it is who has power in this world and who it is who has power applied to them.

A man once told me this joke (and no, he wasn't a reader of the pseudo-evolutionary-psychology):

Q: Why do women have smaller feet than men?
A: Because evolution has shrunk them so that women get closer to the kitchen sink.

Why is the joke funny, if you find it funny? And why would a reversal of this joke not be funny? Then to the wider connections: Do you think that this man would hire women and promote women without any concerns about their foot or breast size? Perhaps. But surely a culture which finds this sort of a joke funny will also think of women as excellently adapted to the kitchen and thereby perhaps not so adapted to the labor market.

So looking at the small things, picking at the nits in the scalp of a culture, is a way of seeing the cultural underpinnings, the very same ones which ultimately will affect the likelihood that women will be safe from sexual violence or that they will have the same legal and human rights as men, all over the world, or the same respect as human beings. Finding those nits and writing about them does not mean that feminists want people to shut up about all that stuff, or at least it does not mean that I'd want people to shut up. The idea is to show the connections, to make us more aware of what it is we are laughing at in some cases, to make us notice why we got that sudden moment of blankness when something was said on the television screen.