An Uncomfortable Stew of Shortcomings

This post has been simmering for a while. I can’t seem to bring it to a full boil, but it won’t stop bubbling, so I’m going to pour out the mess and call it done. Deep thoughts get bitter if you let them cook too long in the pot. Time to pull out the ladle and serve up my latest navel-gazing contemplations.  I’ve labeled the post with  “discrimination, harassment, guilt, and violence.” Proceed at your own risk.

I keep reading that labels are limiting, that strong people and wise ones reject labels and embrace the complexity of life. The idea makes me physically ill. I need labels. Labels shape my world. They shape me. They compress the vast, baffling incomprehensible, battering sensory chaos of reality into forms I can grasp. What I can grasp, I can shape. What I can shape, I can master.  I love defining, categorizing, dividing, organizing, sorting, and classifying things, actions, and yes, people.

Good people don’t do that. Guess that means I’m weak and stupid? (Oh, look. Labels.) Yes, social and emotional labels can be brutally destructive. They can flay egos, erode confidence, ruin lives. They can kill. Yes, all true, but the act of labeling does not do that damage. The nature of the label, the dissonance between label and self-label, the inability to move from the cave of shadows into the light of substance — that is where failure lies. Applying labels is not inherently wrong. It’s human. Moving from definition to devaluation is where things usually go wrong, and refusing to accept correction is an unhappily common evil.

When it comes to my own labels. I would rather make peace with them and grow through them than shed them. They have warped me, I’m sure. I was the selfish, ungrateful child, the oblivious dreamer who didn’t understand how the world worked.  I was the awkward sickly one. When I grew older, I added weird, bitch and dyke (Pre-internet, and naive as hell, I had to look up dyke at the library to find out why it was scrawled on my locker. Bitch, now–bitch made me cry right away.) Those labels left marks, but those pressures shaped me, and I like who I am. I won’t give up any part of myself, and I can’t struggle through my days without the freedom to look at people and things and say friend/foe, attractive/not,  interesting/not, helpful/irritating/both, male/female/notsure, fun/boring and all the rest.

I can refuse to make unthinking value judgments. I can refuse to accept first impressions as final ones. And I can work against my own label-affections to quickly adapt and change my perceptions when errors are pointed out. But I can’t stop applying labels based on what my senses tell me.

Speaking of labels, I detest the word feminist. The idea of calling myself one makes my skin crawl with disgust. That’s an horrible thing to admit, given that I believe to the marrow of my bones that men and women are inherently equal and deserve equal opportunities at all stages of life.  I applaud others for embracing the philosophy by its proper name, like I can be perfectly happy that others enjoy being called cute. (That’s another label that grates on me like sandpaper. Notice that I’m not blaming the label itself…but I digress.) I roll my eyes at any woman who says that they “don’t need feminism.” I silently judge them. I still loathe the word.

It’s the associations. It’s my own experience. It When I was in my formative years, the feminists in the spotlight were people like Bela Abzug and Gloria Steinem and organizations like NOW,  who assertively and loudly declared that women didn’t need men and that men were evil. It galls me when I hear people now insist that feminists don’t believe those things and never did. It’s revisionist history at its worst.  I read the essays. I listened to the speeches. In the 70’s, American feminist leaders did, in fact, and in print, declaim the entire male population as irreparably flawed and accuse the whole sex of deliberate, aggressive, violent oppression. They made broad sweeping negative generalizations and dismissals of the exactly the same kind they despised men for making. They did, publicly and repeatedly, disrespect women who made “traditional” personal choices. Women who didn’t toe the political feminist line on every issue were called traitors to their sex.

I believed then, and believe now, that the movement squandered huge opportunities for change by alienating people like me, who had no desire to be associated with hate-based organizations. I still deeply resent that my belief in equality is associated forevermore with the negative proclamations of those years. For me, the word is as ruined as nationalism or socialism.  Those are two other concepts whose good names were sullied not only by the propaganda of their detractors, but by the actions of their adherents. I believe in the principles. I just can’t stand the trappings.

Sexual Harassment
It doesn’t happen to me. Should I feel guilty about that? I do, sometimes. Oh, I don’t mean that I’m magically exempt from systemic oppression. I am subject to the same handicaps of any female in a male-dominated culture. Those burdens weigh lighter on my shoulders than on those of many others, though, and I have no explanation for it.  I feel incredibly lucky, and undeserving, and guilty as hell that I have never attracted random sexual attention. I have boobs and a booty. They’ve never been groped without my approval. (Possibly once on a crowded dance floor. Once. Ever.) I’ve gotten honks and catcalls as I’ve walked, sure, but never felt a sense of personal threat. I’ve never been confronted sexually, or cornered, or lewdly propositioned.

I’m not young. I was driving before the movie 9 to 5 came out. Abuse was an assumed aspect of employment when I hit the job market. Improving work environments was barely an idea, yet I have never suffered the humiliations and personal violations that my relatives and friends have.  My sister told me once about rocking and mumbling while awaiting public transit, because it deterred unwanted male attention. I’d never considered the problem. No one ever accosted me.

 There’s a comedian who talks about the element of uncertainty and threat (“is this my rape? Is it going to happen this time?”)  that colors some confrontations with men — and the unfunny truth that every confrontation has the potential for violence. I do know that feeling. I’ve observed aggressions aplenty. I’ve watched others get squashed in their seats or pressed in crowds. I’ve seen guys bothering acquaintances after a pickup line was courteously declined. The everyday hostilities do not touch me, like death’s shadow passing over the first born of the Hebrews in Egypt. I wonder, what unspoken signal do I send, what vibe do I vibe, what pheromone I exude, that I’ve so far been exempt? Or is it just luck? I don’t know. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter. I can only go on as I have and hope for the best.

I’m left with this strange painful impression that I haven’t earned my badges. I have no street cred. My understanding is that of education, not experience. Not that I want those experiences. No. Emphatically not. Not at all, and my heart goes out to those who have endured them, but it’s a heart that can only beat in sympathy, not clench in empathy. That never feels adequate. It isn’t enough.  It’s alienating, to be in a demographic but not of it. 

So. Those are the big three topics that have been chafing my chitlins lately. There are more, but that’s more than too much for one confessional. I need to go find some pictures of kittens or watch clips of laughing babies for a while. Happy ideas to paste over the raw uncomfortable places.

There. The pot is no longer boiling over.

8 responses to “An Uncomfortable Stew of Shortcomings”

  1. trailerdiva Avatar

    I get called bitch or the c-word at least once a week at work. I've been mugged. I've been sexually assaulted. I do not care for the word feminist either, but it was a rude awakening for me when I actually realized in junior high that I was going to have to work harder for what I wanted simply because of my gender. Men aren't inherently evil; I have met some truly wonderful men in my life. There are many women who seem to want us to return to the dark ages, a pox on them, I say. I grew up with labels, starting with my father. He still calls me “the fat one in the cities”. Gotta love it.

  2. Dan Brown Avatar

    Haven't been sexually harassed?! Wtf, over? I mean, as you pointed out, you have the requisite attributes, arranged, in my estimation, in a pleasing manner. Perhaps it's due to your habit of looking folks in the eye… asshats hate having victims look 'em in the eye

  3. K.M. Herkes Avatar

    It's weird, right? I get the hairy eyeball of doubt from some people when I admit it. I want to force-choke the ones who then ask it it disappoints me. I feel obligated to point out that social attractiveness only shapes the style of street harassment, not its occurrence. It arises from two asshat presumptions I call, “All Women Exist For My Judgment” and “All Women Need to Hear My Opinion.”I'm sure my demeanor wards off a lot of asshats, but I suspect my shield of obliviousness is at work in this. When walking in public, I tend to divide the world into active/potential threats and things I ignore. Catcalling and commentary may be happening without me even noticing. Which must be galling to anyone doing it in hopes of getting a reaction.

  4. K.M. Herkes Avatar

    Ha! Gotta love it indeed. My sibs and I sat down once and hashed through which parental labels we would've happily swapped. We were raised by political activists. I don't ever recall being unaware of the disparity between the way society valued men and women, nor do I recall ever believing that I should behave as if that treatment was right or fair. My parents stumped for the ERA. I might've picked up my disgust for “feminism” from Mom, because she became pretty disillusioned around that time. The feminist groups in college were definitely focused on the negatives and being exclusionary. I preferred the company of male gamers who welcomed me, however cluelessly (Several thought I was lesbian because I wore flannel shirts without a bra. True story.) Meanwhile, a genetics prof I asked for help with work told me it was pointless because women couldn't not grasp the complex math. I respectfully disagreed and dropped him like a hot potato. Went on to ace the course under a different teacher. That year, Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for (wait for it) genetics. Heh.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    you are well made, if probably a little on the small size. But your small size should only increase your exposure to harassment. perhaps it the big “don't mess with me” sign you have over your head. one time a woodchuck had gotten into my parents basement. I chased it around for awhile until I finally had it cornered. it pitched a big fit and made all kinda scary sounds. you are that woodchuck. maybe not intimidating but enough to say leave this one alone. btw I have been in your presence when you have gotten some very inappropriate attention perhaps your harassment line is skewed. I do happen to know your response to aggression is more aggression.feminism: I believe men and women are different but deserve equal opportunites labels I don't mind being a description. I mind being a catagory

  6. Michelle Parrinello-Cason Avatar

    I've done some similar reflecting on labels (though I whole-heartedly embrace “feminist,” I admit that I'm younger and did not come to it with the same negative messages that you speak of here). I study rhetoric, and I know that labels are just a way to capture the power of language, to name ourselves. We are powerless without these capability because it is the only way that we make sense of our experiences to other people and, often, to ourselves. Language is powerful, and the desire to do away with labels is nonsense to me. Without labels, we can't identify and share. Labels are only a problem when we pretend that they can't be layered. As you mention in the feminist portion of this post, there were (and, unfortunately, still are) some who think you can't wear the labels of feminist and wife or feminist and stay-at-home-mom simultaneously. That's not a problem of labeling; it's a problem of limited perception.

  7. K.M. Herkes Avatar

    “capturing the power of language to name ourselves.” Love it! The whole idea is nonsense, I agree. That's why I wish I didn't see it suggested with depressing regularity” “Refuse to recognize labels,” “Be more than a label,” “Don't be defined by a label,” Etc. Blah.I think I am a little envious of those who can embrace the feminist label along with the concepts. The principles are too important for me to refuse to acknowledge, so I am resigned to riding out the reflexive moment of nausea when someone applies the label to me. Thanks for sharing.

  8. K.M. Herkes Avatar

    You know how to turn a great phrase, you really do. And I love when you leave me little stories like this. I can totally picture that woodchuck.(And I do make some scary sounds sometimes. Rawr.)Women shouldn't have to be woodchucks like me to be able to walk unmolested in public, though. That's the thing. But I know you know that already. Respect isn't your middle name, but it could be.