May 16, 2006
From the Perspective of a Man
Last Thursday I met a friend for coffee at Barnes and Noble. (Yes, yes, it's so corporate of us, but I also make a point of frequenting the one independent coffee shop in town too, and my friend prefers B&N.) I was waiting for my grande decaf mocha in a mug (not a paper cup), when I noticed that Student C, a talented but uh, challenging student of mine, was sitting by the window, watching me. It was a shock to see him: this particular student absorbed so much of my energy during the year, but when I encountered him off campus, I realized that I hadn't had a single stray thought about him since I'd turned in my grades--god, it felt good to realize that.
"Hey, Dr. Holly," he said. "How you doing?"
"I'm OK," I said. "You?"
"Good," he said. "I'm writing!" And he gestured at the notebook before him on the table.
Then my beverage was ready so I chatted with my friend for an hour or two, and then I browsed books for a while, and then I went back to the café to get some water, and Student C was still there, writing, and he asked me a question about a course I'm teaching next semester, so I sat down to answer it. And we started talking about writing.
He asked if I'd written any poetry recently. "Nuh-uh," I said. "No inspiration." I paused. "You get any good assignments in your other classes? Any good ideas you want to pass on?"
"You should write from the perspective of a man," he said. He raised his eyebrows. He'd been in a couple of classes where we discussed gender; his ideas on the topic, although not the most misogynist I'd encountered, were still not what I'd call enlightened. And I'd been told that when I wasn't around, he often referred to women as "bitches," even women he liked.
"Nah, that doesn't really interest me," I said.
"I knew it!" he said. He shook his head. "I write from the perspective of women all the time, but you can't even imagine what things are like from the perspective of a man?"
"First of all, I've written from a male perspective before, but I don't think it's my best work. Secondly, I don't have to imagine a male perspective," I said. "I see it all the time. I experience it. The world happens from the perspective of a man. And while I may not want to write from that point of view, I'm certainly willing to read stuff written by men. Women are more willing to read works by and about men, while most guys don't want to read stuff by and about women." And I cited a newspaper article stating just that that I'd emailed everyone during the semester.
"My favorite books are by women," he said.
"In that area, you're an exception," I said. "I've known that since we read At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid a year ago. You were the only guy in the class--almost the only person--who really liked that book. You liked it more than I did."
"I loved it," he said. "It's one of the best things I've read in my life." And the conversation went on from there.
At one point he mentioned someone he didn't like. I asked Student C if he had heard about a recent endeavor this disliked person has undertaken. Student C had not, and he became indignant and offended upon learning of it. "That cocksucker!" he exploded. "That pussy!"
"Hear what you just did?" I asked. "You just asserted your support for patriarchy."
"What're you talking about?" he asked.
"You called this guy a cocksucker, when you know he's not gay. You called him a pussy, when you know he's not female. Why use homosexuality and female genitalia to insult this guy?"
"It's just automatic," he said. "It's just what you say about someone you really don't like."
"This is what I meant," I said, "about how the world happens from the point of view of a man--a straight white man, I would add."
"No, no!" he said. "You're making too much of this. The words themselves don't even matter. It's the idea behind them."
"This from a poet?" I responded. "You're always telling me how much you love language. And now you tell me the words don't even matter?"
"But there's an idea..." he began.
"Exactly," I said. "And the idea is that invoking gayness and femaleness are the most effective ways to insult a man. I mean, why not call him a dick?"
He frowned and looked out the window. "Dick," he said thoughtfully. "Dick." He turned back to me. "It's just not the same."
"Exactly!" I said. "Merely being a penis is a mild insult. But being a cunt, that's really bad." I shook my head. "You're pretty race conscious, and you get annoyed when you encounter racial stereotypes in the texts we read or the discussions we have about them. You would never dream of insulting this guy by hurling a racial epithet that invokes brownness or blackness, but you say it's automatic and insignificant when you invoke these other kinds of difference. Why is that OK?"
"OK, OK," he said. "You're right. It's a bad thing. But it's just how the world works. It's just what people understand."
"It's just what straight men understand," I said. "I understand it because, as I said, the world happens from the point of view of a straight white man, not because it makes any real sense or to me, or because I think it's OK. What I don't understand is why you can defend this."
And it was clear to me that Student C really did get what was wrong with what he'd said. But it was also clear that he didn't want to change the way he talked about women he liked and men he didn't like--not because he felt he was morally justified in what he did, but because he didn't want the bother of monitoring his speech or thoughts, or altering his habits.
And that's pretty discouraging, when even guys who understand the problem are too lazy to do much to correct it.
What do we do about this? I think I did an OK job of explaining the problem to the guy. How do I convince him it's important enough that he should change his behavior?
One of my colleagues taught a couple of sections of introduction to creative writing this past semester; he said he was horrified by the number of stories by young men that expressed overt misogyny: he regularly encountered female characters who were called bitches and hos, or plots that revolved around humiliating female characters--and of course there was plenty of attention to describing women's bodies. "I couldn't believe how much rage against women these stories revealed," he told me. "And there was nothing at all like it in the stories by the women. These young women should be angry, should be enraged, but they're not. And even when they write about sex and relationships, they just don't objectify men in the way they themselves are objectified."
He said that he talk outside of class to the authors of particularly misogynist stories and ask if they realized how insultingly they talked about women, if they intended to portray women as objects of contempt who deserve to be hurt and humiliated. "They all claimed to be shocked and embarrassed," he said. "They all told me they really like women, that they have friends or sisters or lovers who are women and that the stories were just something they wrote without really thinking about it, not anything that reveals what they really think about women."
What do we do about matter-of-fact and ostensibly unconscious misogyny in our students' writing and speech?
Posted by holly at May 16, 2006 11:56 AM