I remember being taught about slippery, misleading false cognates when I first started learning a second language: a word means something in one language, but the same word means something else in another. I return to this idea of false cognates again and again, but more in terms of life and how related things are (or are not). I wrote about this – the things that pop up repeatedly, seemingly coincidentally, but without any connection. But somehow even randomness can be wrapped together to make something thematic. (“As Laplace has pointed out, to discover is to bring together two ideas that were previously unlinked.” –Advice for a Young Investigator, Santiago Ramón y Cajal.)
If an interdisciplinary-style university education taught me anything, it’s that interconnectedness can be woven from very little. Sometimes the connections are more subtle but reasonable – we, even without thinking, curate the things we are open to by the choices we make. I may read one book, then watch a talk show, reflect on a book I read some time ago, have a conversation that all strike the same chords. It’s unconscious but guided by the things that keep feeding and forming us.
Case in point: A woman acquaintance who never shuts up about her feminist bona fides and is fairly judgmental about approaches to feminism (because, she stubbornly asserts, women can and should do anything!) that do not align with her views on How Feminism Is Done and What It Means to Be a Liberated Woman. She also does her job based on her ‘instinct’, despite the fact that what she is doing should be informed by readily available data. This leads to expensive mistakes and a lack of results. Part of her ‘instinct’ (which may well be correct in this case) is that the company she works for must have all its videos and voiceovers done in men’s voices. She is certain that this will resonate with the core audience (mostly developers) because no woman will sound authoritative and credible. That might be true, but isn’t that also a part of feminism? Working to change what is perceived as credible (so that women are not automatically discounted as “not credible”)?
I’ve seen this happen in many companies, even in my own job a couple of times; I happened to see this article about how most companies’ video/marketing ads are centered on and make use of men to create “the impression that marketers aim their technology products and services at adult, white men and that these images serve to reinforce the association between masculinity and technology.”
“According to the researchers, the emotionality and passivity of women in most of the advertisements analyzed perpetuates the idea that women are not in control of the creation and usage of technology.”
Sure, there’s certainly something to be said for what’s realistic, what’s expedient versus lofty goals of changing minds one tech video at a time. But it’s also a miserable failure of follow-through to never challenge stuff like this, particularly if you’re a vocal mouthpiece of this need for equality. Demand that women in tech be taken seriously, but don’t bother to inject women into your outward-facing communications efforts?
False face, fucked filter
When I write that we ‘curate’ the reality around us, it’s very much the same concept as people who end up reading only news or ideas that confirm their bias or worldview. Sometimes it works for us (opening us up and guiding us to new and interesting places) but often works against us (letting the walls close in, making a truly fucked-up filter through which to see (or not see) the world and its realities). I’d guess my own ‘curation’ (a word/concept that is so overused that I hate using it here) is strange and eclectic because I want to ‘taste and see’ (Levertov) everything. Even the stuff that hurts, even the stuff I vehemently oppose.
But the point here is that even the most casual path taken generates its own trails of interconnectivity. Against this backdrop of ‘false/when-convenient feminism’, I had just read Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which in and of itself is not a ‘feminist’ book (she has written a much-read book on the subject, though, called Bad Feminist) but deals with issues germane to the subject (identity and ‘sub-identities’, e.g. being black, being the child of immigrants, being female, being queer, being a victim of sexual assault, being fat, etc.). It’s not a vast leap to go from Gay’s book to Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen, which explores various aspects of behavior that have been off-limits for or criticized in women. Petersen examines ways in which a handful of famous women exemplify these “too much” traits, getting at the heart of the fear that comes with stepping outside the lines and being (or being perceived as) the “unruly women” Petersen cites in her title. Petersen begins by discussing “acceptable” female celebrities who cultivate a tightly controlled brand (interestingly, I read this on the heels of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, which was written at a time when ‘personal branding’ was in its infancy) as a counterpoint to the women who do and say what they want and in doing so become points of “fascination and disgust”, e.g. Serena Williams, Lena Dunham, Hillary Clinton, Madonna, Nicky Minaj, among others). It’s a lot more nuanced than that. I suggest you read the book.
“This Is How Much America Hates Women. Not all women, of course. … In other words, unruly women—the type who incite Trump’s ire, and whom millions of voters have decided they can degrade and dismiss, simply because they question, interrogate, or otherwise challenge the status quo.” –Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud
(As a side note, while most of her observations on Madonna and aging were astute and valid, it felt a bit like Petersen, while not eviscerating Madonna, really took her to task in a way that felt out of place given the subject matter and the more thoughtful and laudatory tone granted to every other person in the book. It was intelligent “breakdown takedown” and analysis, but felt like the writer reserved some extra ire to heap on Madonna, well-deserved or not. Also, Madonna: French women, and some other Europeans, have aging with quiet sex appeal almost down to a science. No one needs a regressive Madonna trying to create something like that when it exists in nature already.)
What happens if you do tell your truth or story as a woman? What if you don’t play your role? In these unruly women we see both the good and the bad. But the central theme in the end plays out like you, as a woman, are always damned if you try, but equally damned if you don’t. And you are double damned if you try too hard, try too late, try at the wrong time, and try while being any number of other ‘wrong’ things according to society’s skewed standards. Especially in America.
I happened to revisit Frankie Boyle’s proposal: America Hates Women from American Autopsy at the same time as I was reading Petersen’s book. As long as misogyny runs rampant in men and women both, and even in the double standards of purported feminists, I’d agree: you can’t win as a woman. You’re hated on some deep, dark and often unacknowledged level. And these days, it’s open season – so it’s not deep, dark or unacknowledged. The Twitter feed of the current president of the United States is a good place to find a whole lot of that darkness raging right out in the open.