Monday, January 4, 2010

Feminism, Revisited

When I was in the 7th grade, I was a raging feminist. At the time, I had a sweet, somewhat troubled young boyfriend, the Modern Jewish Boy. I adored him, and spent hours on the phone with him voicing my opinions about relations between the sexes (a subject that, at age 13, I felt I understood quite well). This was shortly after the Anita Hill allegations about Clarence Thomas, and I remember venting to him how shocking it was that a man who treated women as Thomas had could be allowed on the Supreme Court. It was also the year that Bill Clinton was elected President, and I became a devoted fan of Hillary. I wished fervently that she could one day, perhaps in 1996, be elected President, and I wrote her a letter to tell her so. On Halloween, I dressed up as Hillary and went trick-or-treating with the MJB and my friend Ms. B, who was dressed as Bill.

Three years later, now age 16, I reunited with the Modern Jewish Boy. During one of our early phone calls, his mom interrupted us to pass along a question through him: was I still a feminist? “No,” I replied, “I'm over that stage.” I cringed inwardly as I recalled those long-ago conversations. “Feminism is not a stage,” his mom told him to tell me in reply.

Despite her advice, I continued to not worry much about sexism or women's rights. I didn't consider myself to be either a feminist or a non-feminist; I believed in women's equality, of course, but I didn't see sexism as a big problem in this country. When my sister became a women's studies major and stopped shaving her legs in college, I scoffed at her and dismissed her views as extremist. I worked as an intern for a while at an African American historical house museum, lived in a largely black neighborhood in Brooklyn, taught a lot of black kids who lived in homeless shelters and whose futures looked pretty bleak, and all of these experiences made me think that racism was a much bigger problem in this day and age than sexism. When my friend Miami Nice announced that she'd be voting for Hillary Clinton in the New York State primary, I tried to dissuade her by telling her that it was more important for our country to have a black president than a woman.

All of this changed for me when I realized with a sickening shock that I spent the past three years living with a man who not only didn't respect me, but didn't respect my gender. In part my ignorance can be attributed to his skill at hiding it, but I have to admit that there were signs; he made disparaging comments about women he knew, mostly about their physical appearance. It's not that I let him get away with it entirely. I called him out on it, and told him it's not okay to talk that way about women (or anyone, but he never commented on men's bodies). But I also glossed it over in my mind, chalking it up to his Europeanness. It sounds so naive now, but it never occurred to me that he actually might think women were lesser than men. There have been times in the past few months when I have used the word “misogynist” to describe Moustache, but this doesn't accurately describe him. He doesn't hate women, he just doesn't accord them the same respect as men. As my awareness has heightened, I've begun to realize that this subtle, insidious sexism is more widespread than I thought.

And perhaps I've even been guilty of it myself. When La Moustache announced that he'd be heading off on his grand tour, my immediate reaction was two-fold. I worried that our relationship was ending and felt heart-broken that he wanted to go on a trip without me. But a series of questions also leaped into my mind: “If Moustache leaves, who will change the oil in my car? Who will wash my laundry? Who will do my taxes? Who will pay for my car insurance?” And I have to admit that this was a big reason why I didn't want him to leave: I didn't want to face the prospect of doing all these tasks myself, and I wasn't sure I could do them (or at least do them as well as he could). I am grateful for this forced reminder that I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself.

La Moustache has many admirers, including friends who know both of us. Some of these people have posted updates from his blog on Facebook, and added their own words of encouragement and support: “Good luck, Moustache! We hope 2010 will be full of adventure and joy for you. You have so many people back home who love you and are thinking of you!' (Please note that La Moustache is not on Facebook, so he has no way to actually read these words.) Upon reflection, I believe that some of these people are clueless, and don't realize how he treated me; perhaps I even gave them the impression that I was fine with his trip as I attempted to walk the fine line between conveying that I am not okay with his actions and being a bitter ex-girlfriend. However, other people know how he treated me, and either don't have a problem with it or think that he was a jerk, but that's not a reason to stop being friends with him. After all, he's famous now, and maybe if they're nice to him he might invite them to join him for part of his epic journey!

I've been nostalgic for Brooklyn lately, and there are a few musicians who remind me of my former home who have been getting frequent play on my ipod, such as Jay Z, “Best I Ever Had” by Drake, and Beyonce. Among these, I'm embarrassed to say, is Chris Brown. As I bought his album I thought to myself, “He's an asshole and I wish I weren't giving him my money, but listening to his music doesn't mean I approve of men who beat up their girlfriends.” In retrospect, I realize that by buying his music and listening to it I am tacitly supporting his behavior in the same way that people who read Moustache's blog and pass it on are supporting his behavior. I can't un-buy it, but I can and will throw it vehemently into my little iTunes trashcan and listen to some Rihanna instead. Us women gotta stick together.

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