Guest Blogger Elysia: Evo Psych and Icky Girls

Friend of Shapely Prose Elysia (who writes the blog Born That Way) is an evolutionary biologist, and she had some choice words for the latest dude to use evolutionary psychology as an explanation for why he believes seriously douchey things about women. Please give Elysia a warm welcome. — Kate

My friend Sweet Machine brought a recent post by Amanda Hess to my attention.  In her essay, Ms. Hess discusses a blog entry on the Scientific American Mind website, written by one Dr. Jesse Bering. Once you’ve read her post, come back here to see me talk about how good (and bad) science can be totally skewed by reporters.  Even scientists.  Just so we start on the same page: Dr. Bering discussed the concept of menstruation as shameful or dirty.  He presented some good evidence for the social context of menstruation as having a huge impact on the way women experience/remember first menses (although he also seemed to be saying that Western feminism was wrong in concluding the same thing).

Dr. Bering is described as an evolutionary psychologist – a title which always makes me uneasy, because as “just” an evolutionary biologist (actually, I’m a population and evolutionary geneticist), I have seen very little thus far from the field of evo psych that actually gets the evolution part right.  (I’m always willing to give it a try, though, in hopes that someone will prove me wrong about the field.)  Let’s start out with the premise: a male researcher is curious about women’s first menses, and the psychological context and consquences thereof.  Fair enough.  What else does Dr. Bering have to say?

“Without a doubt, the best studies on the subject of menarche are those that have attempted to reconcile individual differences in age of female pubertal onset with various evolutionarily relevant variables in girls’ social environments.”

The best studies?  Not my field, so I can’t judge, although “without a doubt” with respect to a set of studies on a very general topic being the “best” of anything is a standard not often met in science. However – evolutionarily relevant is my field.  So the question becomes: has evolution, of either culture or biology, shaped human psychological response to first menstruation?  There follows in Dr. Bering’s essay a series of anecdotes and studies grounded in 20th-century data.  From a strictly biological viewpoint, this is hardly even the blink of an eye, and evolution simply cannot have occurred and been detected.  Let me repeat: citing only data from the last 100 years, approximately five generations, is insufficient to demonstrate that biological evolution has occurred.

“[G]irls growing up in homes where the biological father is absent but the stepfather is present tend to mature faster than those living under the same roof as their biological fathers (their bodies are essentially competing with their mothers for the attention of this genetically unrelated male …)”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying and discussing mammalian reproduction during my graduate work and professional life.  My response to the quoted passage: Wait, what?  The last time I talked about this type of interaction was during a lab meeting, in the context of mouse mating behavior.  Female mice experience an acceleration in sexual development because they are being influenced by an adult male’s presence, via hormones he produces – they’re not competing with their mothers for matings, but experiencing a side effect of cohabiting with non-parental males.  (Read more here and here.)  My evolutionary just-so story, err, hypothetical explanation for this observation is that some male mouse had a different body chemistry that could induce sexual maturation in any female nearby, which would mean he’d have more babies than other males because he’d be, you know, there when the females matured.  His sons might have that same capability, and if this provided enough of an advantage relative to other males (and survives a number of other conditions, including pressure by female biology working against it), you could end up with males generally affecting female sexual development – regardless of any relationship between the male and nearby females.  Please note that a juvenile female mouse’s mom does not appear in this model.  The implication of your phrasing – “their bodies are essentially competing with their mothers” – does hint at the lack of volition in this situation (the idea that girls’ bodies are simply reacting to a biological stimulus) but sets up a mother-daughter rivalry where none exists.  Mom has nothing to do with this, except having gotten remarried.  Not to mention, there’s no accounting in your summary for siblings, stepsiblings, the role of stress…it’s a fascinating observation, but there’s a lot of careful dissection of the situation that has to be done before it’s appropriate to flag this as mother-daughter competition.  (If such detail exists in the professional scientific literature, please, someone let me know!)

“reminds me of that shower scene in Steven King’s Carrie (you know the one).”

Excuse me, sir, your preconceptions are showing.  (Really?  A horror flick?  Really? Let me guess – you also consider menstrual blood to be dirty.  This and other word choice throughout the essay is consistent with that position – is that what you meant to convey?)

“[The Head Teacher] suggested that ‘nobody would want to talk about it’ and that there would be ‘hell to pay’ from his many ‘conservative parents’ if he put his name to the research.”

Sooo…because some parents might have been unhappy, this means that the girls themselves were necessarily ashamed?  Because that’s sort of how that reads.  The research study was challenging because of – oh wait! – a larger societal attitude that might or might not have accurately reflected the girls’ own feelings.

“Such anecdotes would appear to pose some serious problems for traditional feminist theories, which tend to argue that Western negative attitudes toward everything from menstruation to vaginas at large are simply the result of cultural constructions.”

When you follow this sentence by a paragraph of examples of how women in different cultures experience different responses to the onset of menstruation, it…doesn’t sit well with a lot of readers.  Especially when you go on to say:

“According to most Western females, however, nothing could be more nightmarish than the prospect of “leaking” in public, and so perhaps it’s not too surprising that so many teenagers say that, in retrospect, their preparation for womanhood amounted to little more than a how-to guide for hiding their menstrual blood from all other eyes.”

As a layperson in psychology and sociology, I can only say that this doesn’t surprise me, given how much Western culture seems to prize cleanliness in…everything, to the point where it seems to be backfiring.  (Hygiene hypothesis, anyone?)  Seriously, it seems like a viable alternative hypothesis is just that cleanliness is so highly valued that any and all sexuality gets shoved into the shadows.  How often do we talk about men remembering the first time they ejaculated?  Popular humor about boys suddenly doing their own laundry seems on its face to be consistent with the same “cleanliness above all” hypothesis.  I’d love to know if anyone has studied the influence of Puritans and other Protestant groups that largely shaped early American culture, the evidence of which we still see today, and how their feelings about cleanliness and purity have contributed to this. (Sweet Machine, editor/human extraordinaire, suggests the work of Mary Douglas for further information.)

In fact, Dr. Bering, you allude to something like this when you discuss Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s work.

Oh, and I’m not the local expert on this, but I hear there’s this thing out there – this idea that men have, for many years, tried to control female sexuality.  Wouldn’t propagandizing menstruation be a convenient way to do that?

” When the researchers asked 157 white, middle-class ninth-grade girls what advice and information they would give to younger girls about menarche, […] one lone teenage girl of this entire group of 157 participants—ever linked menstruation to reproduction …”

Do you really think that this shows “clearly that, in the minds of these newly fertile adolescents, reproductive biology—that is to say, the actual purpose of periods—was a complete afterthought in their thinking”?  Or could it be that those girls were trying to pass on practical information to their peers, since they were asked what advice they would give?  Trust me, my public school sex ed made it abundantly clear that menstruation was part of reproductive biology.  But that’s not much comfort when you’re not ready to reproduce, and it’s not helpful in understanding the logistics of being a pubescent girl.

“I’m sure many of my straight male friends are indeed praising Allah for the invention of Kotex.”

If you have a daughter or a wife or girlfriend or sister – please understand that she may hear you say things like this and not want to discuss menstruation with you.

” … here comes my British accent—bloody companies and their concern with the bottom dollar.”

Your (public) Facebook page tells me that you hail from Ohio.  That doesn’t rule out a British accent, but I am rather curious.  Also, in making puns of the word “bloody,” you are actually engaging in a joke based on slang, not accent.  To perpetuate a quote I rather like, words mean things (link goes to an OT explanation).   And distorting those meanings as you do here gives me pause; were I grading this, I would become suspicious that you were attempting to sound smart so I wouldn’t notice any problems with your work.

“In fact, I’ve often wondered if the tremendous reservation that most parents have in communicating with their children about sex has the ironic consequence of making their children more curious about it—a curiosity that translates into earlier and more frequent sexual activity.”

Trust me, you’re not the first.  In fact, I’m willing to wager that the vast majority of people at or past their teens in Western society have pursued various “illicit” exploits because their parents forbade them or refused to talk about them.  (Also, have you ever studied Prohibition?)

“And that makes me wonder if there weren’t (and aren’t) perhaps some natural selection pressures at work here, forces favoring parental modesty over candor in the sex education of children.”

Seriously?  Your hypothesis is that modest parents will have higher fitness (i.e., in the long run, will have a reproductive advantage) than immodest parents (and the word “modest” is so subjective that I feel this is already a difficult hypothesis to argue).  That means that the children of modest parents must in turn be modest parents to their own children, or you simply have a fluctuation with a period of a generation, right?  My very own parents decried their parents’ modesty and had fairly frank discussions with me, as appropriate.  And while there’s such a thing as temporally-varying selection..this doesn’t seem to be such a case.  (By way of explanation: temporally-varying selection.  Put simply, sometimes the force that makes a particular feature favorable can itself change over time.  Say you have dandelions in your yard – the features of a dandelion plant that grows well in rainy March that let the plant have more babies may not do a lick of good for that plant’s offspring when dry July comes around.  Here, well, you can imagine that modesty might be bad if we were facing certain kinds of famine, as it would mean fewer babies and a higher chance that they’d survive, but it’s unlikely that every single generation – or every few generations – we’d alternate between stark feast and famine.  Even if it were true, biological evolution in humans takes thousands of years, so it would be extremely hard for me to come up with a plausible mathematical model in which relatively recent social mores affect biological fitness.)

No offense, but this is a poor reflection of the basic components of evolutionary biology.  No, strike that – I hope to offend you enough to get you to stop and think, because as an evolutionary biologist and instructor, I am left to deal with the aftermath of students who come in to my classroom with serious biases about a field they’ve only ever seen misrepresented.   Partly because essays like yours get into the lay media.  It’s especially infuriating to see sloppy or inaccurate science used to justify positions from the mildly offensive to the abhorrent.  Please don’t let the entire field of evolutionary psychology devolve into a mere shadow of the science it could be – I’d rather it be “based on” rather than “inspired by” evolution.

Yes, it’s important to realize that cultural constructs influence the way biological events are experienced and recalled.  It’s important to link biological and cultural evolution, and to remember that we humans are animals.  And as a male ape, you are well within your rights to wonder how female apes differ from you; just please remember while you call elderly women apes that you are one, yourself.  More importantly, it’s great for you as a human man to want to understand the human woman’s experience, and I encourage you to reframe your language to make it clear that you understand that distinction. Because your personal discomfort with my menstruation – or my feminism – does not a sound scientific discussion make, and dismissing my humanity when you examine my biology ill befits a doctor of psychology.

For the record: I make no claim to perfect impartiality here – this is just me, a professionally trained scientist and a self-identified feminist talking about why a particular piece of popular science writing raised my personal and professional hackles.  Like any good scientist, when I’m working, I try to minimize the impact of my own bias on my research, but you know what?  I’m human, and biased, and the best I can do is own those biases and be honest about them with friends, students, and colleagues.

Cha-Cha-Cha-Chaka Chubby

When it's this good there's no saying no...

I once signed up for a dating site and despite stating I was chubby/fat/whole lotta woman I frequently received messages of the “well just exactly how fat are we talking?” variety.

These assclowns had a lot of cheek demanding I clarify shit that was spelled out when their own profiles often rocked euphemisms like freelancer. Have a job or learn a trade or write a novel – just don’t waste my time with high flying acts of chow chowery designed to disguise your lack of ambition. I didn’t care what folks looking to date me – when I was on the market, so to speak – did for work/living/rent scratch, as long as it didn’t involve sitting on my couch all damn day, burning up my internets and making my light bill sky high – while graciously allowing me the privilege of financing their fuckery.

It should go without saying, I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT FOLKS WHO ARE UNABLE TO WORK. It should go without saying, but since it won’t – for the privileged hard headed folks in the cheap seats1 (cause of that whole othering POC thing, which frames our word choices as far more loaded and intentions far more sinister than if the same words were written by a NWL) – I’ve said it HERE AND NOW.

Playa, do you have a jobby job or what? Well just exactly how deadbeatish are we talking?

If the spirit moved me, my reply might go something like this:

Go to American Eagle/Gap/Macy’s and pick up a pair of [size redacted to avoid “you’re an inbetweenie” derailing] pants and hold them up to the light. If they look “too fat” then my delicious fat ass is TOO FAT FOR YOU. Good day to you, sir!

I am fat. I am a chunkerbutt. I am hourglassy. I got real big tits. I got a real small waist. I got some hips. I’m 5’0ish. My weight fluctuations have mirrored that of my personal hero Chaka Khan. Sometimes I’m Chaka Khan “I Feel For You” size.

Ha. I dance like that (still). *point Cha-cha-cha pizza served head snap big finish*

For like ten minutes in 2002 I was Sweet Thing chubby and often wore my hair and clothes like that.

Mostly, I’m Chaka “Ain’t Nobody” fat2 Oddly enough I have that outfit and sometimes my hair looks like that, except dark brown. Damn, I wish I could SING LIKE THAT, though.

I used to hesitate calling myself fat, not because of any shame – cause I don’t have any – but with an earnest desire NOT to misappropriate the term, in real life only when I won’t let a zombie playa street harass me or on the web or when I’m on certain meds, do I get called fat to my face. Chubby is the way I acknowledge I fully understand that my fat is relative and my experiences have often been relatively free from the kind of tormenting – though I’ve certainly had my share – faced by those bigger than I am.

Besides, you just aren’t going to hurt my feelings by pointing out the OBVIOUS.

With FULL FRONTAL FUCKING ACKNOWLEDGEMENT I am an “acceptable” kind of fat given the shape of my body and my height – my fat gets a “pass” not because I’m black. Not even cause I got real big tits, but mostly because as a black woman I’m just not supposed to be “sexy” or desired anyway. Sexualized, yes. Sexy, not so much. Being called fat – when it’s tossed about in as an insult and in an ignorant manner – is another way of saying, “You’re supposed to something else. Something a little less eye sore-ing and a lot more crotch tenting/soaking.”

In addition being fat isn’t my sole visible oppression. There are few others that get way more attention, thus it’s not always at the top of my lists of things I need to deal with, but it’s always there. Moreover, it doesn’t change how I practice my activism, which is different than most people.

I don’t seek to win hearts and minds. That’s not my style and besides, they are way better folks for that job. I don’t care what people think as long as it doesn’t blow up my spot or the spots of others dealing with oppressions. What I care about is behavior. My activism seeks to make it unpleasant and EMBARRASSING and EXPENSIVE to engage in fuckery. My style of activism – whether it pertains to fat or other -isms – seeks to cause folks tremendous shame and discomfort so they STOP ENGAGING IN THE BEHAVIOR and pressure others to do the same. That’s why I’m nasty when I smack down acts of -ism fuckery. I’m not trying to get folks to “embrace a diverse range of voices” – I’m way too pragmatic for that – I’m just trying to get them to STOP WHATEVER FUCKERY THEY ARE DOING, hopefully embarrassing them and causing others to give it serious thought before engaging in similar behavior.

I am all about the “you ain’t got to go home, but you’ve got to get the fuck up on out of here” style of activism. I’m like Eastwood after beating down a mess of assclowns who then looks around and says, “Anyone else want some of this?”

I’ll give you an example. I used to work with a woman who often used the term “Porch Monkey” (hopefully I don’t need to explain why that’s not a good thing when the bulk of the org’s service users were BLACK). I am not the freaking thought police. I don’t care what she thought about black folks, provided it didn’t inform her treatment of them at work and as it related to the services she was supposed to be providing.

I made things REALLY unpleasant. I tattled. I brought it up in meetings and finally demanded they bring in a diversity specialist to shame us all via workshops for two long days. You know what, after that, I never had to say another word and wouldn’t you know she modified her behavior. If she even started to say any word with a “pah” sound there were like five coworkers ready to bitch about not wanting to do “race training” again. Moreover, she became a better worker, when she actually had to do her work rather than complain about the folks she served. You’d be surprised how quickly folks change their behavior when the price is too high to stay the same.

I didn’t care that my doctor – initially – blathered on about my size when I had good numbers and came in for vaginal tune up. His thoughts about my size or his biases were not my business; his behavior was. So I complained. I ranted at him. I ranted for all the fatties who aren’t as mean as me.

Three years later, he’s the one proselytizing HAES and FA when I lose my way. Think I changed his heart or his mind? No. But I damn sure changed his behavior. And if you happen to go to him, you best believe he won’t be concern trolling you about your fat.

I’d do this for fatties who love me. I’d do this for fatties who hate me. I will have your back even if I don’t like you. If someone’s blowing up your spot (regardless of -ism), you can call on Snarky’s Machine. I’ll smack ’em down hard enough to harsh their ancestors’s mellows. Seriously. Nothing gives me more pleasure – other than sex and cupcakes – than telling an assclown where to go and how to fucking get there.

As a fat activist, that’s how I roll.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a hairbrush and a standing room only engagement of Through the Fire I need to attend to. Hopefully I can finish before the neighbors call to report hearing the sounds of small animals fighting in the dumpster.

a more expletive riddled version of this post appeared on Snarky’s Machine.

1 don’t even start. “Cheap Seats” is a termed most often attributed to Broadway where there is no such thing.
2 and sometimes this version of Ain’t Nobody fat too And you better believe I strapped big ass into an outfit JUST LIKE THIS ONE in my goth days and you couldn’t tell me shit except, “Play on, playerette.”

The Last Three Paragraphs

I wrote another piece for Broadsheet yesterday because this Daily Beast piece made me tremendously ranty, and I figured I might as well get paid for it. I’ve been thinking a lot about the social advantages and disadvantages of motherhood these days, so once I started, I couldn’t shut up even more than usual. Which meant that the piece I turned in was absurdly long, and I fully expected to see large chunks of it missing in the final version.

What’s missing, as it turns out, is the last three paragraphs. They were exactly the right thing to cut, since I’d already made my argument (and then some) by that point, and the rest was a combination of tangent and reiteration. But the tangent was one I really wanted to get in there — that choosing not to have kids really doesn’t come off as a glamorous, attractive choice, just because it might increase a woman’s chances of reaching the top of her field. If you know you want kids, the message childless* women send is kind of beside the point. I know people who want/have kids, who don’t want kids and who are ambivalent — and sometimes, ambivalence gives way to a default decision one later regrets — but I have yet to meet a woman who’s like, “I am absolutely certain I want to be a mother, but I’m going to completely ignore that overwhelming urge because it might ruin my career.” Some women gamble on delaying pregnancy and lose, but that’s really not the same as saying, “I desperately want children but have officially decided I will never have them because Sonia Sotomayor is my hero.” And that’s what Beinart seems to be worried about.

So. Please do go read the Broadsheet post, because that’s all about how brutally hard it is to balance motherhood and career ambition, and if you just read this part in isolation, you’ll think I’m missing the point entirely. (I’ve been writing and thinking a LOT lately about my own ambivalence toward having children and how much of it stems from the fact that neither childless women nor mothers get the social support and respect they need, so committing to either feels like asking to have a load of shit shoveled down my throat — whereas existing in this liminal state allows people to project whatever future they think is best on me, and thus not harass me too much about my choices. Problem is, this state has a fast-approaching expiration date.) But I think there are lots and lots of important points that arise from Beinart’s piece, basically — too many for one post — so I wanted to put up the rest of my rant, and open a space for discussing the whole thing that’s free of Broadsheet trolls. And make sure you all saw Tami’s piece, because it’s brill, and I basically spent the whole rant working up to quoting her, but then that got cut.

Without further ado, the last three paragraphs:

And trust me, young girls are hardly getting the message that choosing not to have children is an easy path — or if they are, they shouldn’t be. If you haven’t thought too hard about it yet, girls, let me break it down for you: In addition to the potential for lifelong regret, which you’ll never stop hearing about from the Hewletts of the world and their proxies among your friends and family, you will be widely regarded as a freak, as incomplete, selfish, irresponsible, unfeminine, somehow broken — what kid of woman doesn’t want kids? — and you’ll spend half the time and energy you saved by not having kids defending that decision and your credibility to people who inexplicably think it’s their business. So basically, the message you should be hearing loud and clear is that you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t — which means the only good reason to have kids or not is because it’s what you feel is best.

Blogger Tami of What Tami Said nails it:

The problem is not that women without children are getting too many extra goodies, too many shots at the brass ring. The problem isn’t that working mothers don’t have enough role models to demonstrate that they can have it all. The problem is that for all our superficial obsession with “baby bumps” and our pledges that “the children are the future,” we aren’t willing to walk the walk. We don’t support women in having it all. We fail to back up our supposed belief in families with legislation and societal values that truly establish successful nurturing of the next generation as a priority. (I can pretty much guarantee that our “family values” friends on the right would be the first to rail against any sort of strengthened parental leave or socialized childcare.)

Beinart concludes his argument, “[C]hoosing Wood would send the message that women can have kids and still reach the apex of their profession. That’s a message that I’d like my working wife –and our 2-year-old daughter — to hear.” Hey, as a married 35-year-old professional currently grappling with the question of whether I can handle motherhood, that’s a message I’d love to hear myself — but only if it’s true. And for the most part, right now, it’s just not. Right now, the number of women who reach the apex of their profession, kids or no kids, is still so tiny relative to the number of men who do, the girls and women I know will take any dingdang role model we can get. So instead of scrutinizing potential Supreme Court appointees’ reproductive choices, it would probably be more helpful if men who care about their wives’ and sisters’ and daughters’ futures would help women agitate for longer parental leave, subsidized day care and a culture that supports women who choose motherhood, women who don’t, and women who want to balance parenthood and career ambition without being condemned as either coldhearted monsters or half-assed employees, just like men always have.

*I’m using “childless” because I actually find “childfree” just as problematic, in addition to the fact that not everybody without kids identifies as such. To me, “-free” overcorrects for the lack implied by “-less”; now, instead of implying that people without children are missing something, we’re implying that people with children are burdened, and those of us without have dodged a bullet, suckers! I don’t particularly like what that says about parenthood or about people who choose not to have kids, who are often stereotyped as simply unwilling to sacrifice and take on the responsibilities of parenting. So what I’d really love is something in between, but since I can’t think of anything, I revert to the word that’s more commonly used.

CNN Makes Jaclyn Friedman Sound Like a Victim-Blamer! Again!

It’s hardly a well-kept secret that journalists can make an interviewee sound like she said pretty much anything. Those of us who are asked to speak on controversial topics know we risk seeing our words twisted to fit a predetermined narrative — even to suggest the exact opposite of what we clearly meant — every time we agree to an interview. But it’s still quite a jaw-dropper to watch it happen as blatantly as it did this week, when CNN’s Carol Costello warped an interview with Jaclyn Friedman (friend of SP and co-editor of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape) into something about “raunch culture” and the pernicious influence of Ke$ha. The whole video (which purports to explore “what could be the ‘third wave’ of feminism,” because apparently, the last twenty fucking years have gone unnoticed by CNN) and a transcript are available over at Shakesville. But here’s the juicy part:

Costello: When it comes to binge drinking, experts say, sadly women are up to the challenge. According to Southern Illinois University, in 1996, 33 percent of women admitted to binge drinking or having five drinks in one sitting in the past two weeks. In 2008, that percentage shot up to nearly 41 percent.

Jaclyn Friedman, Editor, “Yes Means Yes”: It’s a really troubling message.

Costello: That’s disturbing to feminist editor Jaclyn Friedman. She says women having fun or making stupid mistakes is one thing, but adopting destructive, raunchy behavior is scary.

Friedman: When it comes to sexual assault, most rapists use alcohol to facilitate sexual assault.

Aaaand, bam, Jaclyn’s gone and we’re back to Ke$ha. That song is so catchy!

If you’re looking at that part I bolded and going, “WTF, Jaclyn?” well, you should be. You’re absolutely right that it sounds nothing like the position of a feminist activist who spends half her life explaining and decrying rape culture. Mostly because it’s not her position. Not even a little bit. On Twitter, Jaclyn’s explained that she actually “said there was a double standard worrying about girls’ drinking and not boys’, and that the trouble with the binge drinking culture in general is that it gives plausible deniability to rapists. And that we should be telling men that THEY need to drink responsibly, because alcohol’s not an excuse to rape! ARGGGGHHHHHH.”

So the real question is “WTF, Carol Costello? What the fucking fuck?”

Jaclyn was kind enough to G-chat with me for a few minutes this morning before she got on a plane. I could probably keep ranting about this bullshit for another 90 pages or so, but for now, I’ll just leave you with what she sounds like when the interviewer is not merely exploiting a subject’s feminist credentials to further a tiresome, sexist narrative about “dirty girls.”

Jaclyn: Part of the problem is one of nuance — the things I’m trying to say sound complicated, because they aren’t things that people have heard much before. It’s easy to understand the “OMG bad girls! Danger!” trope. Everybody knows it and can name that tune in three notes.

Me: And that tune is apparently “Tik Tok.”

Jaclyn: Hee. Yes. It’s a lot harder to say: “Wait. It’s not that simple.” To talk about women’s freedom to be “good” or “bad” or drink or even do risky things, just as men have that freedom, while simultaneously talking about the real danger that is violence against women, and how the “bad girl” trope is used to excuse it. But I also think they knew what story they wanted. And when I didn’t give it to them, they just made it work anyhow.

Me: Yep.

Jaclyn: Because they never once asked me about “raunchy behavior.” Or third wave feminism!

Me: I know! I can’t stop laughing at “what could be the third wave,” even though it also makes me want to cry.

Jaclyn: And I told them straight up that it was ridiculous to wring our hands over girls’ drinking and give boys a free pass. I’m just so angry. Because this is the second time I’ve been on CNN. Different producers, different reporters, different shows. And the EXACT SAME THING happened both times: I gave a smart, nuanced interview in which I steadfastly refused to victim-blame. And they edited me to sound like a total victim-blamer.

Me: Unbelievable.

Jaclyn: To be fair, I haven’t done this kind of soundbite interview for any other networks. So I’m not singling out CNN over, say, FOX or MSNBC. I have no idea.

Me: But if they’re going to keep spinning it like this, it’s like, what’s the point of having you on instead of just inviting someone from the Independent Women’s Forum or whatever?

Jaclyn: What’s the point? I have more cred. Which they are evidently determined to DESTROY.

Me: And then this goes out there as “what bona fide feminists believe,” and we have to spend even more time telling trolls that’s bullshit.

Jaclyn: EXACTLY. I mean, I’m CRUSHED to think anyone now thinks I actually believe that bullshit. I spend my entire life trying to UNDO that bullshit.

Me: I know!

Jaclyn: I am secretly pleased about one thing: All the people who bought Yes Means Yes b/c they saw me on that segment are going to have quite the surprise when they start reading. :)

Me: Ha! Right on.

Jaclyn: We did get a sales spike after it ran.

Me: That is terrific news… Although also sort of depressing news because it reinforces why we need to keep throwing ourselves to the wolves like this.

Jaclyn: Uch, I know.

Me: Well, thank you for taking one for the team YET AGAIN.

Jaclyn: NP. Wish it had gone better.

Slightly Pre-Friday Sorta-Fluff: I’m Kate Fucking Harding

So, the other night, I went to see my friend (and sometime Shapeling) Tari play at a local bar, and as usual, I was slightly surprised by how awesome she is. Not because I have any good reason to underestimate her, but because A) I just don’t hear her play all that often, and B) it’s always a little surprising to see someone you mostly know in one context (in this case, the internet and $5 martini night at another local bar) in a different context, where they happen to kick a hundred kinds of ass. I have all sorts of friends who are writers and artists and performers, all of whom I know are tremendously talented and hardworking, and yet, when I see evidence of their tremendous talent and hard work, I still go, “Oh! Right! You really aren’t fucking around, are you?” ‘Cause it always seems a little magical, even if you know better.

So I did that the other night, when Tari came over to talk to Al and me in between sets. I was all, “Holy shit, that was so awesome!” like she’d just spontaneously done a backflip off the bar or rescued a kitten from a burning building or something, as opposed to doing something she has spent basically her entire fucking life training to do, and which she practices continuously, and which makes up a substantial portion of her identity. Like, WHO KNEW?

You know who knew? (I mean, besides me, if I’d thought about it for half a second.) Tari. She is, after all, the one practicing and performing and listening to herself all the damned time. And here is the actually surprising (well, not if you know Tari, but still) awesome thing: She said as much. Instead of just being all, “Aw, shucks, thank you, you’re too kind, and really, XYZ didn’t go as well as I hoped, and I’m still working on ABC, but I guess I’ve had worse shows…” she said something like, “Thanks. Yeah, I like to think I’m good at what I do. I could act all self-deprecating, but it is, you know… what I do.

And Shapelings, I am ashamed to tell you I had a moment there — just a little one, like a second long — of thinking, “Wow, that was –” Except, before I could even get to what it was — arrogant? cocky? inappropriate? — I was like, KATE WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU WHAT THAT WAS WAS THE TRUTH. And P.S. You think exactly the same thing about yourself.

And so I said as much. Something like, “Yeah, I know what you mean. After 25 years or so of practice, I’m pretty sure I can write.”

And we laughed. And part of my brain even noted, in that moment, that what just happened was unusual and very cool: Two women had just had a conversation in which they admitted out loud that they were good at something, without feeling the need to qualify it with a bunch of stuff about how they’re not as good as they could be, or how other people are so much better, or how the things they’re good at aren’t really important in the scheme of things. I almost said “a bunch of bullshit” there, but you know, it’s not bullshit. We’re not as good as we could be, because who is? (Also, the years ahead would be pretty bleak if we had no improvement to look forward to.) And there are people who are much better at what we do. And in certain schemes of certain things, at least, who gives a rat’s ass if you can write or sing well? So none of those statements actually qualify as bullshit, in and of themselves. But that compulsive need to acknowledge all of those things whenever someone gives you a compliment, to make sure no one could ever accuse you of being arrogant or cocky or inappropriately self-congratulatory about a demonstrated skill you have worked really hard on building? That’s bullshit.

And I thought maybe I should write a post about that, about how qualifying anything that might sound even vaguely self-esteemy is such an ingrained habit for so many women, we not only do it to ourselves, we police our friends when they don’t. About how I sat there for that one second, even if that’s all it was, and thought “WTF? She’s not supposed to say that!” when Tari said the exact same thing about herself that I’d just said. And there is a whole other post somewhere in my brain about how believing that only other people had the authority to determine whether I was good or bad, pretty or unpretty, funny or unfunny, etc., was at the core of my self-hatred and miserable body image for oh, 15 or 20 years.

But right now, I don’t want to talk about that. Right now, I want to talk about Sady fucking Doyle.

Sady fucking Doyle, if for some reason you’re not familiar with her, is the proprietress of Tiger Beatdown. And she recently went gloriously apeshit on a troll called Freddie, who was your fairly typical, if impressively relentless, mansplainer who totes considers himself a feminist but fears for the future of the movement because it’s full of all these lady feminists saying things he doesn’t agree with and/or things he ostensibly agrees with but not presented the way he would say them (note: joking makes feminists seem unserious, even if everything else makes us humorless), and if we would all just shut up for five minutes and listen to reason, we could work together and really get some social justice going! But tragically for womankind and indeed humanity, all these unpleasant, talking, joking women everywhere make feminism a hard sell to normal people! DID YOU EVER THINK OF THAT, YOU GUYS?

So, yeah. Sady went off. And then she went off some more and some more and some more and there were a lot of delightful boner jokes, and the phrase “I’m Sady fucking Doyle!” was invoked, and you should go catch up on all that if you missed it. I just got myself fully caught up today, and that’s when I learned that Sady has already pretty much written the post I wanted to write about that little moment with Tari, which you should read all of, but here’s the paragraph that says it all:

And, yeah, the “I’m Sady fucking Doyle” thing turned people off. You think I didn’t know it would turn people off? Women are not supposed to say that shit, even when it’s true. And it was there completely on purpose, with full acknowledgement that people would call me a narcissist, self-absorbed, in love with myself, etc, for saying it. Because I wanted to convey to Freddie that Freddie ain’t shit, largely because he actually ain’t. But I also wanted Freddie, who is hugely terrified of women who assert their authority and primacy in the feminist movement, to be confronted with the sight of a woman acknowledging, accepting, and reveling in her own authority and power. That shit is terrifying, often even to women, but definitely to men. So now Freddie’s sulking that Sady Doyle is “telling everyone about how impressed with herself she is.” And I am. Because I knew that would piss him the hell off. Because I’m a woman, and I have accordingly been taught my entire life to view myself as lesser-than, to devalue my own accomplishments, to accept it when other people treat me as lesser-than and devalue me, which they (if they are men, especially) have been taught to do. And I refuse. I say no. I tell you I’m Sady fucking Doyle, and I expect you to believe it. Being a woman who likes herself, is proud of herself, is impressed with herself, in public: There might not be a more subversive act.

I believe it.  And  you know that opinion is worth something because I’m Kate fucking Harding.

So this is actually not a very fluffy topic, but it at least struck me as an opportunity for some positive feel-good commentary (in addition to the usual analysis). Because Shapelings, I want to know what makes you awesome. We’ve actually done “toot your own horn” fluff threads before, but this time, I’m not interested in anything so ladylike as a mere toot. Today, I’m not interested in your tiny superpowers; I’m interested in your power. I want to know what makes you Screen fucking Name.  Lay it on me.

“but who can distinguish one human voice amid such choruses of desire”

America lost a great voice this weekend: the poet Lucille Clifton died. She was 73 years old.

Clifton wrote wonderful, poignant, witty poems whose formal simplicity belies their emotional and political depth. She wrote of the realities of living in a large, black, female body in a racist, sexist culture; she survived cancer and wrote of the joys of the body in the face of mortality. I hope all Shapelings have run across the marvelous, body-loving “homage to my hips“:

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.

Read the rest here.

From “scar” (in The Terrible Stories, which has a section on breast cancer):

we will learn
to live together.

i will call you
ribbon of hunger
and desire
empty pocket flap
edge of before and after.

You can find a longer collection of Clifton’s poems, as well as an introductory essay to her work, at the Poetry Foundation. Warning: tissues may be needed. Clifton’s poems touch on abortion, whiteness, hate crimes, war, menstruation, grief, and so many other “terrible stories;” yet they vibrate with such compassion and clarity of vision that it’s easy to forget how tough and nervy they are. Blessing the Boats, her selected poems from 2000, is an excellent entry point for new readers, and a powerful testament to the importance of Clifton’s voice to our culture.

I’ll let Lucille Clifton end this post herself, with a video of her reading in 2008.

Rest in peace, Lucille Clifton. Thank you for being one human voice.

Me? A mansplainer? Let me mansplain.

There is some hilarious shit going down over at Zuska’s. See, she posted a definition of “mansplaining” that included stuff like this:

You May Be A Mansplainer If…

1. You MUST explain why everything I said is beside the point, and wrong, and silly.

2. You MUST explain why you are not a mansplainer, then re-explain things to the wimminz. Also, call them sexist.

4. Ignore everything everyone says, then accuse everyone else of being sexist to you. Follow this with some SERIOUS explaining! Teh wimminz are slow, but they will surely understand someday! Because you are a MAN! And you are SPLAININ’!

And she got comments that included gems like these:

  • If someone is sure they’re right — and you’re sure they’re wrong — there’s no discussion to be had. Either one or both are idiots, right? I guess there’s more male idiots who don’t know it, but I’m not sure if that’s a special problem — I don’t know whether a wishy-washy idiot is any better than a hard-ass idiot.
  • Maybe this thread would have involved less argument if you had a “WOMEN ONLY” label on it. There’s a lot of men on SciBlogs who can’t help but feel perturbed for being singled out, and can’t help but commenting when we are perturbed (because we haven’t been socialized to always stuff our feelings like girls are).
  • Members of every gender, race, height, sexual orientation, and religion on this planet probably “explain” things in a way that is condescending. What’s condescending is trying to make it momentarily exclusive to men just because you’re a woman.
  • As a Feminist XY, I feel like you’re shitting on us for being XY, and not sufficiently Feminist because I feel hurt at being shat on. … Go ahead and condescend and trivialize and rationalize my emotional responses away now.

It’s silly to talk about mansplaining! I’m not doing it, or I’m only doing it because you made me! And you are SEXIST!

Here’s a thing about mansplaining and why I care a lot about it: it is annoying, and frustrating, and insulting, and deeply rooted in institutionalized sexism, and often profoundly harmful to women. We talk about all of that. What we don’t always talk about is how easily it shades into gaslighting: your reality is false, my reality is true. The biggest mansplainer I’ve known made me doubt my sanity for years; I am still recovering. This isn’t just a supremely sexist and problematic internet habit. It can be a psychologically violent act.

That said, it’s more fun if we treat “you might be a mansplainer if…” as a fun meme, right? Over here, we have a tightly controlled commenting policy, a (usually) reliably feminist readership, and less visibility to d00dz than Zuska. So I invite you to continue the game. Feel free to use comments from Zuska’s thread, and the ensuing post “Men Who Cannot Follow Clear Directions from Women,” as jumping-off points for your signs of mansplainerism!

Also, at almost the same time that SM sent me the Zuska link, another friend sent me this:

(click to embiggen)
(I have no idea who to credit for this so please let me know if you know)

This is a great structure — I’m already testing out yelling “CIRCLE 8!” when faced with certain behaviors — but it needs to be tweaked to apply to feminist blogs. Where do you think mansplainers should go? (I think 8th circle.) What other behaviors should go on here? (I think “people who post off-topic links” should be up near the top, “people who announce they haven’t read the comments” should be further down, and “people who complain about echo chambers/their free speech being compromised” further down still.) What should the poetic-justice punishments be?