Last week someone asked my husband why there weren’t more women in ham radio and other techy jobs/hobbies, and being a good feminist he asked me what he should say. The response he’d been tossing around, he said, had something to do with how nobody tells women they can do science, math, or engineering.
This, it seemed to me, was a start but only the tip of the iceberg. I mean, it’s generally true that people don’t tell girls they can get into technical hobbies or STEM professions, but does that really get to the heart of what we’re missing? The implication then is that all girls need is a firm steady guiding hand giving them a Walkie-Talkie and a physics text. Not only does it understate the complexity of the problem, but it leaves your argument open to facile rebuttals: “But my daughter’s Girl Scout troop learned how circuits work.” “But I tell all my math students they can succeed.” “But my niece was signed up for science camp and she just didn’t like it — are you sure it’s not something innate?”
Because the problem isn’t the messages girls don’t get — it’s the ones they do. It’s not the lack of someone telling them, in so many words, that math and science are open doors for them. It’s the fact that everything else in their life tells them that’s not true. Maybe nobody says out loud “but that’s math, that’s for boys.” Some well-meaning parent or counselor or teacher may actually say otherwise. But overt articulation is not the only way that messages get through. Maybe teachers call on you less in certain subjects. Maybe the books and gifts you get push you down one path instead of another. Maybe it’s just the tone in your mother’s voice when you tell her what you want to be when you grow up — disappointment, or amused indulgence. Maybe after being bombarded with these unspoken conclusions every day since birth for your entire life, Teen Talk Barbie no longer needs to tell you in so many words that math is hard.
The same is true of other messages girls get. As Sweet Machine posted recently, Harriet Jacobs of Fugitivus put her finger on how these implicit messages operate in the case of rape and resistance. It’s true of body image too. No quantity of Sesame Street songs about how there is only one you and you are fundamentally worthwhile is going to fully counteract the million insidious messages that say you’re ugly, you’re unloveable, you take up too much space, you don’t measure up. It’s like putting on a Band-aid before you walk through a thicket of thorns. Even if nobody says it out loud (and face it, they probably do), women aren’t stupid. By the time we’re four or five, we can read the wall of text next to the checkout. We can interpret advertisements and facial expressions. We hear subtext. We know the score.
When we talk about the messages that women receive, this is often interpreted as meaning things that people actually say directly and in so many words. Wouldn’t that be simple, if we could just make sure people told girls out loud that they were unique and valuable people? But we are subtle creatures, primed to take in information even when it’s not served up to us on a platter. As an example: I was turning this post over in my head while driving home from the Metro the other day, and I thought to pay attention for a few minutes to all the information I was taking in as I drove. In addition to paying attention to the road and (vaguely, since I do this drive every day) noticing where I was and which direction I was going, I was also taking in messages about the weather, the time, the season, my bladder, my hunger level, the fit of my shoes which were rubbing on my heel, the feel of the steering wheel, an itch on my ear, the functioning of the car, the behavior of other cars and pedestrians not in my direct line of vision, the music and lyrics of the song on my iPod and its relationship to the song before it. I’m generally not consciously aware of all these bits of information, but they come together to make up my picture of the world at any given instant. And if any kind soul had told me they weren’t true, I’d know they were blowing smoke.
This is why patriarchy is so difficult to defeat — because you’re soaking in it. Unless you lock a girl in a windowless, TV-less room from birth and have her wet-nursed by Hortense from Jezebel, she’s going to encounter the sticky tentacles of a social system that says she’s more decoration than person, and a flawed decoration at that. She’s going to encounter them every single day of her life, reinforcing each other, ganging up, forming part of her understanding of reality. And just telling her she’s fine how she is — or not telling her, out loud, that she isn’t — simply will not be enough.
This is also true, by the way, of the messages men receive. I’ve been thinking about this, especially Jacobs’ points about how women learn passivity, in connection with the gym shooting incident (by the way, Kate has a brilliant post about the gym shooter and Nice Guy Syndrome on Broadsheet, in case you missed it). Jeff Fecke wrote a post at Alas about shooter George Sodini’s pathological attitude towards women, in which he talks about the way that “pickup artists” the man’s loneliness and told him that women were less than human:
Sodoni [sic] went to seminars where they told him to “kill the nice guy,” as if niceness was his failing. He read books telling him that if he was assertive enough, bold enough, that twentysomethings would be beating a path to his door… Sodoni looked to charlatans and hucksters who claimed that you, too, can get the girl of your dreams if you just insult her enough.
(You can see the responses of some of these charmers to Sodini’s rampage at another post on Alas, but be warned that you will feel crushing despair.)
It’s all very well to think of Sodini as a sad crank whose chipped shoulder was exploited by misogynist con men. He really did have a little devil whispering in his ear that women owed him sex and deserved to be hurt and mistreated for withholding it — he was even paying the devil for the privilege. But it would be a grave mistake to imagine that just because these messages were more overt than what we usually hear, they were in some way unusual. Sodini paid people to tell him that women are lesser beings. Most men get those messages for free.
We can’t symbolically get rid of Sodini by pointing out all the explicit encouragement he got from the PUA community, both before and after his repugnant crime. Normal men don’t seek out that encouragement, it’s true — but they don’t have to, because they live in the society that bred the PUA movement in the first place. The difference between the messages Sodini got and the ones men are bombarded with every day is only a difference of scale and obviousness, not one of kind. This is why otherwise decent men make sexist jokes (or listen quietly to sexist jokes), or justify or minimize “gray rape,” or derail discussions of feminism by focusing on men’s needs. It’s overt feminist messages that are unusual, not overt sexist ones. In an atmosphere of constant sub rosa misogyny, where that constant misogyny actually forms part of our sense of reality, it’s the people who object that bring us up short, more than the people who participate or even take it to extremes.
Why do feminists “overreact” to the tiniest traces of misogyny in ads and media, things the more enlightened call harmless fun? Because those tiny traces pollute our minds and our environments. Because we struggle each day through a miasma of subtle, insidious particles of information saying that men need to fuck women into submission, that women are inherently lesser beings, that women’s looks are their only worth, that women’s safety and health and comfort are unimportant — and the particles that stick to you don’t wash off easily. Because this polluted environment breeds girls who think they can’t do math, but also men who kill. And because contradicting only the most obvious, bald-faced, clear-cut messages just doesn’t do enough to stop it.