Sunday, March 8, 2009

What is a "real woman"?

I hate it when I'm expected to conform to a stereotype rather than treated as an individual. I really hate it when people say "women are like this" and then expect every single woman to be more or less like that.

Ge me right here: I know that we are all prejudiced -- that we all have a tendency to have expectations based on previous experience. I also know that when it comes to problems in inequality between groups, it makes sense to discuss those differences. The problem is when people are unaware of their assumptions and think that their experience of how things are on average is a prescription for how things should be. That's when they (mostly without knowing it) put pressure on others to conform, rather than to try and meet them as the individuals they are.

Oh yes, this is a pet peeve. And very personal.

Let me give some examples.

I (call me A) once talked to a female colleague (let me call her B) about a woman we both were acquainted with (C). I was a little bit pleased with myself for having deduced that C was practicing some martial art from her relaxed stance when we had to stand and wait for a long time. I know that in that way you can stand forever without getting tired, and you are balanced and prepared to go. To explain what I meant I imitated it (probably not very well) to B. Her reaction: "That's not a very feminine way to stand".

You might see this as a very innocent comment, but what it tells me is that B judges (including C) people from her stereotypes, and the most important thing about how a woman behaves is whether it's feminine. By repeating comments like this she tells me (and everyone around her) that even if she doesn't say it, she thinks I should also first and formost be feminine as much as I can help it, before I can have any other characteristics.

This makes me a bit angry, but I'm too polite to always thake a fight. I hate those little innocent comments, because they are ultimately opressive. They tell people: stay in your place, behave as you are expected.

I know that there are many differences between men-on-average and women-on-average, but I also know that those differences are smaller than the variations between individuals. I think it should be expected of everyone in a polite society to at least have the ideal to allow others to be different from the stereotypes. I think that it's difficult to get to know people as fascinating persons if you always see them through your normative ideas. And sometimes I think it's worse for men, because they often have even more pressure on them to be male.

When I hear the men in the coffee room talk about their wives as "the boss", and exchange cliche phrases of how women are of course incomprehensible to men, I almost feel sick. What does that mean for how they see me as a professional? I might be oversensitive, but on the other hand this actually might have consequences for how people treat each other. If they expect communication failure, I would not exactly be surprised if they will have communication failure. And they spread this expectation, giving it on to others.

By the way: I mentioned exactly this coffee lounge incident to some students over lunch one day. The reaction from the male student: "What, are you a feminist?"

"I'm a woman, isn't that enough?" was my answer.

I don't want to be a "real woman". I want to be me. And I don't want the first reaction when I speak about something I find interesting to be "isn't it very unusual for a woman to be interested in that?" (Maybe more about this another day.)


Anonymous said...

After that argument for letting gender be secondary to individuality (as good a definition of feminism as any), I find it strange that you would see it as problematic to call yourself a feminist.

Dr M said...

Björn: I can't and won't speak for Åka, but it really isn't so hard to see why it might be problematic to call yourself a feminist. I subscribe to pretty much all of the views Åka expresses in this blogpost, but still wouldn't call myself a feminist for a number of reasons. Just to mention a few: Feminism is terribly ill-defined, and can mean almost anything to anyone. You can't know what someone might read into it, and you still have to explain exactly what your views are. That said, to a great many people, feminism doesn't just mean "letting gender be secondary to indiviuality", but is a term that comes with a lot of political baggage, usually of some socialist persuasion or other. I am most certainly not a socialist, and would not like to be associated, even implicitly and wrongly, with socalism or with people like Eva Lundgren and Tiina Rosenberg. Thirdly, a century ago (or decades, as the case may be) gender equality was all about giving women the same rights and legal status as men. Even though much remains to be done, society has thankfully progressed to the point where we no longer need to discuss women's suffrage and such things, but can think about gender roles in a more general way (as in the blogpost). That is a discussion that should not focus on one particular gender, which the term "feminism" implies, by etymological construction.

In short, "feminism" is a term that mostly just gets in the way of seriously discussing the actual issues.

Anonymous said...

Should women have the same rights as men? If you think so you are a feminist. Whatever opinions Eva and Tiina has in addition to that doesn't change that, and it is you that muddles the argument by bringing that up.

Johan A said...

"That's not a very feminine way to stand" was today's non-sequitur for me.

Dr. M: I see what you mean and how the F label can be viewed as another form of labelling, but I also think saying that you are letting the anti-feminists win. They have striven to make this label uncomfortable, and they are reaping the fruits of that.

Åka said...

Really short reply. Yes, we did have a little conversation about the word "feminist", but for the sake of clarity and brevity I just left it out from my post here. Maybe not so good. Well. Anyway, usually I have no problems with calling myself a feminist, but sometimes -- as you say -- it really becomes an uncomfortable label that you want to avoid. I try not to *start* conversations at that end.

Andreas Davour said...

M is spot on here. There are way to many morons calling themself feminists for me to do it.

Those of you who think feminist just means equal rights, face the fact that it doesn't any longer. It has acquired a new meaning, and a lot of that has to do with a certain political party with which I'd never want to be associated with even if I think equal rights is a no-brainer.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to say this, but the meaning of "feminism" hasn't changed. Any extra connotations you might have are all in your head.

Andreas Davour said...

Then you live in a *very* different social context than I do. Good for you, maybe.

To infer that it's all in my head is just silly though. I don't just make things up, you know!

Johan A said...

Ante, you are still letting them win. There are countless of morons out there calling themselves liberals, conservatives, socialists. Atheists. What about Christians, do you still call yourself that? You (and most people) don't apply the same principles to those labels, but the anti-feminists are for some obscure reasons winning this battle.

A.R.Yngve said...

"And sometimes I think it's worse for men, because they often have even more pressure on them to be male."

This has surely been said countless times before, but: Men should be careful with how machismo -- the pressure to "Show Strength" (by a very narrow definition of the term) -- actually makes them quite vulnerable.

A person who must "prove" himself at every turn can easily be manipulated into doing very stupid things: "I'll bet you don't have the guts to climb that power line/fight that guy/swallow this pill/win a Darwin Award" etc.

For example, when someone accuses you of "backpedaling" in a discussion, it's the ol' machismo game: "I'll bet you don't have the guts to never change your mind."

Women who feel the need to prove their "femininity" (also very narrowly defined) are basically playing it safe.

They know they will rarely be pressured to take risks, but rather the opposite: play it safe, do not stand out from the crowd, do not display initiative or creativity, don't risk public failure.

But there's so much more than one way to define "risk". Or "strength". So much of these roles is based on defining the terms, or "framing the debate". Language shapes our thinking.

Can language be used to liberate us from the prison of definitions?

Johan said...

"I might be oversensitive"

Not at all.


Andreas Davour said...

Well, I agree there's something to it. You might want to fight when someone is taking over a word like that. How, that's more problematic. Feminism have changed, for good or bad. Keep using it when the people who speak with is interpreting it as something else just makes them think you mean something else than you do.

Ignoring the fact that a word changes just wont be enough, though.

As for what I call myself? I call myself just me. I already have to explain what I really believe or think, and the categories seems to make people confused these days. I never match their preconceived notions anyway.

Anonymous said...

Either you hold the views that makes you a feminist or you don't. It's not a label that you can choose to apply to yourself. To the extent that you do you have misunderstood what it means.

Johan A said...

Actually, Björn, In disagree with that. Labels are definitely things you put on yourself. Everyone is free to reject other people's labels.

Anonymous said...

Pomo humbug.

Johan A said...

Well, I feel more than uncomfortable telling transgendered people they should shut up and accept they haven't switched genders, for example.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing the confusion of the terms sex and gender into the discussion.

Scrypt said...

I agree that the term *feminist* should be supported, since the only people who use it pejoratively are sexists and/or the historically ignorant. However, I do understand that identifying oneself with the word can have repercussions in the wrong environment. For many of us, getting a bad rep at work or school is not an option.

But that is precisely why one should declare oneself a feminist whenever possible: in a safer context, it simply means one's nomenclature is accurate.

Another consideration: perhaps Åka wants to discuss persistent social/internalized patterns and their effects without limiting the discussion to predefined positions. I think that can be done without avoidance of the term *feminist*, but I also understand the desire of individuals to avoid being limited to the common terminology of previous generations. The question is whether particularity of thought is served by the absence of common terms.