Wicked Kind of Women

This weekend, I was honored to perform at the Denver Art Society alongside a group of incredibly talented, smart, and savvy women. Being surrounded by fearless women has been and continues to be one of the most important parts of my life, and I feel so lucky to be supported, challenged, and loved by such a wonderful group. Below is a rough transcript of the piece I performed at the Wicked Kind of Women reading– just imagine it embodied with a lot of improv and sass! And stay wicked, women.

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When my friend Whitney told me about this all women reading, I was so excited. I love women. I think women are so cool and important and should always have a platform for telling their stories. Louis CK once said, “I don’t think women are better than men. I think men are worse than women.” And I relate to that so much. When I see a woman, I’m like, “Cool! I bet she is smart and funny and has had fascinating life experiences that I would love to hear about!” I feel like I am that Bikini Kill song—Rebel girls you are the queens of my world!

I saw a tweet once that said, “You know the old saying, boys will be trash.” And I relate to that so much. When I see men, what I usually think is, “Well. Looks like you crawled out of a semi-decent dumpster this morning.” Men usually find this really offensive and say, “You CANT hate ALL men!” I mean, first of all, don’t tell me what I can and can’t do, but secondly, let’s unpack this idea. There’s a difference between the individual and the collective. So, while, yes, there are good men and I know many of them, all men do belong to a collective nebulous system that gives them privileges to the detriment of others. That’s what I’m most concerned about—not even the inequity of men being advanced, but the part where the privilege causes tangible harm. If you’re so upset that I’m saying that this system of male privilege and toxic masculinity contributes to the continued murder of people who are not men, you’re probably not someone I want to spend my time with. I feel like I have to say ALL men, yes, ALL men. If I don’t, nothing will ever change because every man will assume they’re in the good man group– which is like the Blue Man Group with slightly less body paint. If it makes all you men and men sympathizers feel better, I have to consider this exact same thing with all of my privileged identities—being white and straight and able-bodied and about a thousand other things. Yes, I’m an individual who tries to do active good, but I’m still a member of those nebulous groups that do active harm.

But it really is true that I don’t hate all men. Here’s a story of a man I don’t hate at all. Art. The post office guy. We have this whole comedy bit down where I go in to mail a package and he says, “Liquid, perishable, fragile, or hazardous?” And I say, “No!” And he says, “This isn’t a care package full of batteries?!” And I say, “No!” but sometimes I like to mix it up. Yesterday, when Art said, “Liquid, perishable, fragile, or hazardous?” I said, “Oh yes, all of those things.” And he said, “Batteries?” “No, Art. A six page handwritten letter analyzing the new Taylor Swift album.” And without even missing a beat he goes, “Then we’d better insure it for at least $100.” Yes, Art. You bet we’d better. I like Art so much!

It is possible that Art is always so sweet to me because he thinks of me as his 12 year old granddaughter. This is not unusual in my life. I have to try really hard to look like a legal adult. Once, recently, I had put a lot of effort into looking like an actual adult human. I was flying on an aeroplane which is always a great opportunity to pretend to be terribly sophisticated. You can sit in an airport bar looking mysterious and unapproachable. So that’s the look I was going for. But on my way to the airport bar, my hair tie set off the TSA’s body scanners. And the TSA agent pulled me aside and said, “Okay, we have to pat your hair but I’ll need you to wait right here until we call in a representative from unaccompanied minors.” At which point I said, “I am not an unaccompanied minor! I am on my way to look mysterious and unapproachable in the terminal bar! Look at my sophisticated outfit!” And she said, “You look 12.”

I went to a literary costume party once and I decided to simultaneously make my youthful appearance work for me while providing social commentary on sexual abuse of young girls. Which is to say, I went as Lolita. My friend went as Humbert Humbert and I really thought we were illustrating, once and for all, that Lolita is not a book that should not be romanticized. I put a lot of effort into my costume. I wore a nametag that said Dolores Haze, which is Lolita’s actual name. I was out to rehumanize her! I wore an incredibly non-sexy work-appropriate outfit that I wear all the time in my non-costume party life. It’s actually my most complimented outfit. The last time I wore it I was stopped by no less than five women, all who told me it was super cute. For the costume party, all I did was slap a nametag on that outfit and put my hair in pigtails.

But all I remember from that night is being incredibly uncomfortable. I have never been catcalled or hit on or sexually propositioned so much in my entire life. This is deeply disturbing to me because I did not look sexy. I looked like a twelve year old. I was trying and succeeding to look like an actual child and that’s when I was most attractive to men. All kinds of men, too. Men my age, men much older than me, homeless men on the street, the PhD holding men who paid to go to that literary costume party. A former professor of mine- who did not recognize me- tried to pick me up. He called me a seductress. Even though I felt completely creeped out by this evening, I was mostly terrified for actual 12 year old girls. Who is keeping them safe? Who is stopping men from shouting these horrible things at them?

Have you waltzed through the girl’s clothing section of any store recently? If you haven’t, take a quick goosey gander the next time you’re in Target. Actually, maybe you shouldn’t aimlessly wander through the girl’s section… I’ll just tell you about it now. There is no longer a difference between women’s fashion and girl’s fashion. Sometimes I’ll pause next to a very cute ensemble that I would wear out in public and I’ll look a little closer only to realize it’s made for a literal four year old. And before you get any fancy pants ideas, no, I do not have the sartorial tastes of the recently potty trained. I’ve been to middle school. All that fearless abandon and willingness to mix prints was stomped out of me years ago.

When I was a kid, the girl’s clothing section was filled with, like, spandex bodysuits in every color. On the one hand, I’m glad nobody has to experience that kind of humiliation, although I do believe that kind of embarrassment builds character. On the other hand though, I really worry that we’re taking something away from kids by making them wear tiny versions of grown up clothing. And I feel really conflicted about that feeling, because I don’t want to censor anyone’s body or fashion choices. That’s what high school dress codes are for. You know why those dress codes exist, right? Because we’d rather send girls home from school than teach boys not to lose it over three inches of exposed shoulder. And if that doesn’t tell you exactly who we value and who we believe deserves education, I just don’t know what to tell you.

So, I don’t want to go all high school dress code on girl’s wardrobes. But I also feel like we’re not saying, “2nd graders, you are people and we respect that even at 7 years old, you do have bodily autonomy, and you can wear whatever you want and we will all respect that.” I feel like what we’re saying is, “You must wear this padded bra, even though you haven’t learned long division yet.” Those are a real thing, by the way—padded bras for baby girls. It’s a sick sick world. And I know that there’s really never been a time where it’s been safe to be a girl or woman in this world, and maybe I’m just more aware of it now, but I feel like we’re publicly declaring that we think of children as tiny adults and because of that, we’re not properly outraged when terrible things happen to children. I think we should all be horrified when women are threatened and catcalled and most people aren’t horrified at all. But it feels even worse when it happens to a kid who already has very little agency in this world. So many girls and women have stories about being sexually propositioned in the street when they were actual children and I don’t get why we’re not freaking out about it.

Have you all seen that CNN video where a woman of color and a white guy ‘debate’ catcalling? I don’t suggest watching it, because it’s just rage-inducing. It’s basically just this sad white guy yelling about how he should be allowed to threaten and harass women and the woman listening to this rant makes the most beautiful reaction faces. You should watch the video just to see her incredible facial expressions. Well, this week, some guy posted that on my Facebook page and said, “Let’s critically discuss this!” And, like, what? What do you want to critically discuss here? The fact that men are trash? Because I think I’ve already established that. But then, some other random trashman shows up and says, “Any fem who says catcalling is never okay is just being a bitch. Because cold approaching is different from catcalling and that’s always okay.” I got so furious that I just deleted the whole thing, because I don’t need that misogynistic bullshit anywhere in my life. Anyone who refers to women as “fems” or “females” should not be trusted. That is a dehumanizing tactic. Anyone who believes that a woman is a “bitch” for stating she doesn’t want to be violently threatened, should not be trusted. And anyone who really thinks that it’s harassment to yell, “Nice ass, suck my dick!” but thinks it’s completely acceptable to walk up to a woman, block her path, make her feel trapped, and say, “Hello female with a lovely rump, put your lips on my penis.” Should definitely never be trusted. That person should probably be on some kind of watchlist. These men who pretend to be feminists while espousing deeply harmful ideologies are what Margaret Mitchell would call mules in horse’s harnesses. More succinctly put, they’re asses.

They’re the kind of guys who think women shouldn’t wear makeup. Just this week, I overheard a guy say, “Yeah, but, like, I couldn’t honestly tell a woman that she’s pretty if she has makeup on because I don’t know what she really looks like.” And what I want to know is, when I come into work wearing one outfit one day and then wear a completely different outfit the next day, does that rock your world? Do you find that deeply unsettling?

These are the kind of people who believe in the friendzone. The thing that kills me about this idea of the ‘friendzone’ is that by the time a guy thinks he’s been ‘friendzoned’ the woman doing the zoning did not consider him a friend. I have never thought, “Oh, yay! Here comes my BFF Jim. He’s such a good and dear friend. My favorite part about him is the way he keeps trying to force me into a romantic relationship!” No. The guy who gets ‘friendzoned’ is the guy I run away from every time I see him coming. I’ve stopped using the term ‘friendzone’ actually. I’ve never ‘friendzoned’ anyone. I have been ‘girlfriend zoned’ many times. You can’t just decide that I’m obligated to be your girlfriend and then have a fit when I don’t agree. And honestly, the way you go from “Date me!” to “You dumbass ho bitch!” in 2.5 seconds does not endear you to me in any way.

I feel like I got off track for a bit there. The point I was trying to make is that when my friend Whitney told me about this all women reading, I was so excited. Because sometimes it feels like the whole world is actively working against women, so it’s really important to have this space where we can tell our stories.

SO ANYWAY YAY WOMEN

Pierre Bourdieu: Social Theory and Cultural Change

I’ve always been a theory nerd. I think about the panopticon every single day. Today, I’m going to attempt to explain social theory as an activist tool. And I’m going to do my best to make it accessible! I love theory, but if we can’t talk about it in a way that makes sense to our daily realities, it loses relevance.

Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociological practitioner and theorist who lived from 1930-2001. I’m telling you that to give you an idea of the historical moment from which his work emerged, and to acknowledge that (like most of my education) these ideas are coming from a dead white dude. I’m going to discuss four of his concepts.

First, let’s talk about capital. Society runs on various forms of capital. There’s economic capital (money and assets), social capital (relationships, group membership), and cultural capital (knowledge and experience). How much money we have, who we know, and how well we can navigate cultural worlds guide our social experience.

We use our capital in fields. Fields are basically any group or cohort. Society is a collection of many diverse fields: religious, academic, athletic. Even the broad social structure of the United States can be considered a field. Agents in a field use capital to gain power and influence. This obviously creates conflict and competition as we vie to gain and trade capital resources. For example, social capital might be traded in for economic capital, like if my friend can get me a job at her high paying firm. Economic capital may be traded for cultural capital, like when I buy books, music, and movies. Capital is what we use to negotiate our position in any given field.

Fields are malleable and have a tendency to evolve. If we were to change the distribution of capital within a field, we would actually change the field itself. This is great news for us, because it means we can change the fields we’re agents in! Bourdieu calls this organic change the habitus. Habitus is the internalized knowledge of a lifetime’s worth of external messages and instruction. We produce our thoughts and actions through the habitus, which results in the continued creation of the external world. I like to think of this as a feedback loop: while the habitus structures society, society is also structuring the habitus. Every image of a woman I received growing up showed, for instance, hairless legs. Now, my habitus defaults to the idea that women should have hairless legs. This thought results in the action of me shaving my own legs. This action results in more societal images of bald-legged women!

Bourdieu’s definition of habitus differs from other theorists; the habitus may guide, shape, and constrain our thoughts and actions but it doesn’t determine our thoughts and actions. I’m in favor of this view, because it positions us as thoughtful, emotional, free-willed beings instead of as pre-programmed automatons.

When our habitus and field are aligned, we react instantaneously and with ease. If I’m writing an academic essay, I know where to put my thesis statement (end of the first paragraph!) without even thinking about it. I don’t have to think about it because my habitus is in line with my specific field: Rhetoric and Composition nested in general academics nested in the broad US society. This is what Bourdieu calls “cohesion without concept”. I’m so ingrained in this community and its value systems, that it’s become invisible to me. (Kind of like how we don’t notice we’re breathing until we have a cold.)

If habitus and field aren’t in alignment, we have to navigate an unfamiliar field that abides by rules we were never taught. When I’m working with students who are unfamiliar with the conventions of academic writing in the United States, I sometimes have to spend a lot of time explaining what a thesis statement is, why it’s valued here, and where to situate it within a paper. Not all fields produce a habitus that normalizes thesis statements!

Capital, field, and habitus all contribute to the fourth concept of Bourdieu’s: symbolic violence. Habitus is a reflection of the dominant narratives of society. Because these narratives are a normalized part of society, the inequality and injustice they perpetuate is often invisible- even to the groups who are being marginalized! This results in marginalized groups sometimes contributing to their marginalization. (I meet smart, talented women who don’t believe in feminism, because they don’t believe they’re subjugated, all the time.) Symbolic violence is the unconscious exertion of cultural domination. It’s ‘symbolic’ because while it’s not physical violence, it’s detrimentally and harmfully shaping society.

According to Bourdieu, the real conflicts aren’t happening between the people in positions of power and subordination but between our habitus and our field. Positioning conversations as a dichotomous struggle between men/women, straight/gay, white people/people of color, won’t result in change. If we want to change the culture, we have to change our habitus, which will then change our field. Essentially, we have to change the way we think and act if we’re going to change our culture and society.

Of course, that’s a gross over-simplification. I can choose to change my habitus by rejecting the external knowledge I’ve been given, but if my material reality doesn’t also change, the whole experiment is ineffective. But material reality can’t change without capital and marginalized groups generally don’t have the capital that’s necessary to change collective habitus. Reducing these issues down to a nice catchphrase, “Change your thoughts to change your world!” doesn’t do anything.

Why, then, did I even bother spending all this time explaining Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas? Because I think there is real value in them! The first step in organizing any social movement is getting people to understand the systems we’re all operating in. Like I mentioned before, I still meet smart women who don’t think feminism matters. Most white people have no idea what white privilege is. Straight people don’t understand why a civil union isn’t the same as a marriage. Our collective habitus has formed around dominant narratives so completely that most of us aren’t even recognizing the culture we’re constantly creating and recreating. We’re breathing without being aware of air. If we’re going to change anything, we need to start by deconstructing these narratives.

Once folks (hopefully those with privilege) recognize the system we are part of, we can use our capital to change our habitus, which will change our field. We really can use our thoughts and actions to change our world. It’s going to be more complicated than that cute little line implies, but it can be done!

Why would you call yourself an angry feminist killjoy?

Is it too polarizing to introduce myself as an angry feminist killjoy?

I was incredibly lucky to be born a United States citizen. There are lots of problems in the US, and this country’s history is cringe-worthy at best. But from what I’ve been taught, it is undeniably one of the most privileged places you can be. This culture (they keep telling me) is at the top: a fully developed, first-world, wealthy nation. The veracity of those statements is debatable, but I know that I’m lucky to be here. I’m lucky to be a citizen. I am in a position to speak and critique without fear. I have a lot of thoughts and a lot of critiques.

We live in a racist, sexist place. Young women are taught to hate themselves and to hate other young women. Maybe no one ever said as much explicitly, but we’re all taught to be rivals, competitors, back-stabbing, jealous maniacs. In our society if you’re not white and emaciated, you’re not doing it right. We live in a place where we don’t talk about our bodies, are ashamed of the totally normal things our bodies do (like bleed and grow hair), and definitely don’t have agency over our own bodies. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make healthy and informed decisions about our bodies? Good luck even getting that education into a public school! Okay, so you found some information and now you’re ready to claim your body and your rights. Awesome! Except you’ll also have to wade through a sea of social stigmas, the kind that say, “If you’re raped or sexually assaulted, it was probably your fault.”

If you’re like me, all of this has been piling up for your entire life. It’s overwhelming. It’s aggravating. It seems like nothing we do changes anything and suddenly you’re yelling, “Don’t you tell me what to do! I am not your puppet!” at a guy in a bar. That’s a thing I have done more than once. I think I startled myself more than the dude the first time it happened. Because we’re also taught to be quiet, to brush off harassment- it’s just the way guys are, right? (Eye-rolling so hard y’all.) Talking back can absolutely incite violence, and we should always make our safety the #1 priority, but there’s something incredibly satisfying about speaking out. The first time I let someone know I didn’t appreciate their unsolicited demands, I realized I wasn’t just annoyed by boys being boys, I was completely livid about our entire flawed society. I’m mad about our slut shaming, victim blaming rape culture. I’m mad that we only recognize a gender binary and punish anyone who doesn’t fit into our impossible boxes. I’m mad about white privilege. I’m mad about all kinds of inequity. I’m really mad.

And that’s awesome! We can do a lot with anger. Anger is a great motivator. So while my natural inclinations and general disposition might encompass that ‘sugar, spice, and everything nice’ line a bit more fully than I like to admit, pleasantries and complacency won’t solve anything. If we’re going to change the culture, we might need to start with a good bit of righteous indignation.

Let’s get angry! Let’s get feminist! If the joy is sprouting from sexism, let’s kill it!