Sunday, December 11, 2011

I Enjoy Being a Girl

Facial hair=competent, right?

 You know how sometimes you bump into someone and apologize and back up and knock something over and apologize and lean over to pick it up and hip check someone and pretty soon you're in this sort semi-comic nightmare vortex of apology?  I think that might happen in a second.  Bear with me.

Some people will read this and think I'm an insult to feminism and its hard-won gains.  Some people will think I'm being simultaneously a boring scold and a whiny, selfish baby and, on the whole, too sensitive feministy altogether.  Some people will probably just think I'm a frivolous nincompoop who spends an awful lot of time pontificating on things that really don't deserve it. Oh, and let's not forget that I'll be using broad strokes and will undoubtedly be accused of stereotyping. As far as what I actually am, well, probably most of it's at least partially true.  Except for the stereotype thing, where I hope you'll accept that I'm not speaking for all women, about all men in all circumstances. Call me out if I really hit a nerve, but I can almost guarantee it'll be something I'm shorthanding for the purpose of the discussion.  So then: sorry for not being a credit to my gender, sorry for being so tetchy, sorry I'm a nitwit, sorry for extrapolating generalized scenarios from shallow experience pools.  Sorry for apologizing in advance. I hate when people do that.  Welcome to the nightmare vortex.

Still as proud of bruises as I was at 10.

Anyway.  As a kid I wasn't exactly the poster child for tomboys, but I was a fairly sturdy kid with a healthy belief in my ability to do pretty much what I wanted.  I may have gone for Barbie over GI Joe, but I never felt like it was inappropriate to climb trees or rough house or play cops and robbers or [choose your own "non-girly" activity here].  I liked hanging out with girls.  I liked hanging out with boys.  In short, I was that lucky gal for whom gender politics didn't dominate my existence.  Even in the miserable years of early adolescence, I was more tormented by a general sense that everyone thought I was a nerdy weirdo than by body issues and sexuality, typical crushes-and-heartbreak type melodrama notwithstanding.

For the record, this driver was NOT a girl.
As an adult, I've spent a really long time working in traditionally male environments.  I went to school for architecture, spent a lot of time in a shop using power tools and learning to weld and what have you.  When I came home and went looking for work, I realized that the only job I'd ever had was waiting tables, a lucrative but to my mind loathsome activity so I took a job in a restaurant kitchen as a prep/fry/line cook.  If this doesn't seem like "men's work" to you, take a gander at the gender lines next time you dine out (my experience was primarily in diners).  It's not a hard and fast rule, but you'll usually find the ladies holding down the front end being sweet and friendly and demure (ish) and the gents in the kitchen where the customers can't hear the near-continuous yo'-mama-style banter that tends to flourish.  From there I took my current job, which takes place in large part in the shipping department of a ferry company.  While the company itself is quite progressive and the staff remarkably gender-balanced and largely over-educated, I spend a lot of time in the company of truck-drivers, contractors and other blue-collar workers who are for the most part male and at least initially skeptical (to put it mildly) of women running forklifts and giving them instructions.  Again, there are plenty of delightful, enlightened exceptions to the rule (and plenty who've come around at least enough to keep the peace), but you get the idea.

I tend to be a lazy feminist in these situations.  I nodded politely when someone demonstrated a power tool I already knew how to use.  For every off-color comment that came my way in a kitchen, I could give back tenfold.  It wasn't hard:  I come across fairly wholesome and naive so pretty much anything slightly ribald has the extra shock value of the unexpected. (Of course coming across wholesome and naive also ups the ante in terms of attempts to rattle you with off-color comments in the first place).  These days I use my patented death stare for people who tell me, "I'm gonna need a guy to drive the forklift," or, "Are you sure, baby?  It's awful heavy."  Then I pick their pallet or lift their furniture or whatever silly thing it is that I've already done a million times that day and send them on their way.  I have a deep and abiding hatred for passive-aggression, but it's become my go-to method for answering the implication that I'm in some way incapable of doing my job.  On the occasion that I'm in a foul mood and raring for a fight, I occasionally recommend that they come back tomorrow if they want a man to help them, which I admit is an incredibly immature and ineffective way to address the issue.''

As is my habit, I've just given you the longest possible exposition before getting to the subject at hand (I know, it totally seemed like I was there, didn't it?).

I'll spare you the details, but the other day I had lunch with two friends (one female, one male) and the subject turned to a casual conversation my female friend had with an employee at a deli that morning.  Long story short, they were talking about an imaginary scenario in which your boss hires a professional football player to give out high fives at the end of the day to boost morale.  She answered, "Well, if it's a professional football player, he should slap me on the ass like they do."  Our male friend shook his head.  To his way of thinking, that comment opened her up to "being thought of more sexually."

I said, "I hate that! I want to be able to make jokes like that..."

He cut me off, "...And not pay the price?"

We let the conversation drop there, but it started me thinking:  Am I an unintentional flirt?  Do I, contrary to what I've always thought, project myself in a sexual way as opposed to the wholesome/naive way I perceive?  As noted above, I'm more offended by assaults on my competence than I am by general innuendo, but I consider the latter something I'm lax about protesting as opposed to something I invite.

In my current situation there are a number of men, most of them in their 60s and 70s all of whom I've known for a decade or better who enjoy the old, "Boy, if I was younger..." schtick.  Knowing them well (and having seen them rise to my defense in a platonic, fatherly way when someone treats me poorly), I don't have an objection.  It's a performance.  It's playing at flirtation with the mutual understanding that no one anticipates that it will come to anything or even wants it to.

The situation is slightly more awkward when you take the above situation and change the age to 40 or 50, in part because these are people closer to my peer group and I consider them actual friends.  Still and all, because they're friends, the terms of engagement have been discussed.  I'm thinking of one guy in particular who I ran into at the grocery store early in my divorce.  He started with the usual opening salvo of the routine, asking if I'd "dumped that bum yet," but when I told him what was going on, he became very serious, offered his support and told me that he had no doubt I'd land on my feet, that I deserved to be happy and that I'd be alright because I'm a good person.  He told me about trouble in his own relationship. We talked in the aisle for about half an hour.  At a time when I was discovering that there are a whole lot of slimeballs who consider divorced or divorcing women fair game and an easy target, this exchange confirmed for me that despite the sometimes near-obscene exchanges and vulgar one-upsmanship that characterized many of our conversations, my judgment that it was at heart not really sexual was right.  Which is why my lunch friend's assertion that making off-color remarks in mixed company changes the tenor of an interaction bothered me: From inside my insular little world, I consider this type of thing a strange kind of tomboyish-ness, just locker room talk among friends.

But the fact is, for a lot of people, my gender is a game-changer.  You can be frank and inappropriate with friends of your non-preferred gender, but there's a sort of automatic weirdness to encounters between people who could, theoretically, be attracted to each other.  Maybe because I'm in a long-term, monogamous relationship and, when single, never really actively seeking a partner, this literally never occurs to me.  My friend's comment rattled me because I felt chastised for something I didn't consider a sin.

It's insanely hard to get perspective on behaviors you aren't aware of, so I asked two trusted co-workers, one male and one female, whether they thought I invited the kind of flirtations above or if it was just something that happened.  Both, to my relief, found me not guilty.  My female co-worker suggested that some men have a hard time accepting straight up friendly behavior as something other than flirtation.  My male co-worker assured me that to expect women to maintain a prohibition on "the football player should slap my ass"-type banter in order to avoid unwanted sexual attention was lopsided and unfair.

That said, I acknowledge that it's risky behavior to normalize that dynamic once it's been introduced, and I take responsibility for any weirdness I bring on myself as result.  To date, there hasn't really been any because, as I noted, I make a point of being upfront about the nature of the exchange.

That's about as sophisticated as I get when it comes to matters of sexual politics.  Obviously I'm a little savvier than I was in, say, middle school, but a lot of times it doesn't feel like it.  This has been a fairly long and rambling post, but at the same time I feel like it didn't really have a coherent thesis, and certainly no real conclusion.

I guess what it comes down to is that I realize I really ought to be more realistic about what my behavior signifies to people outside of the hermetic world I've created for myself and act accordingly. At the same time, suggesting that comments made innocently and in jest "invites" sex into a relationship feels a short hop from victim-blaming.

As witnessed by the nightmare vortex at the beginning, I'm bracing for disagreement and strife, but let me add this: I'm genuinely at sea on this. I'm not looking for a fight, but I'd love insight from any comers, even if it makes me feel like an asshole.


  1. Okay, honestly, I have to start by saying that I don't *quite* get where you are exactly going/ coming out on this. I think I do, but, as you said, it's not as clear-cut as your usual line of thinking. So, please bear with ME if I am off a bit.

    My wife is in a similar position. She is one of the biggest unconscious flirts I know; she flirts with virtually everyone, all the time, men and women... and never, ever thinks she's flirting. In her mind, if she is initiating something sexual, you'll know it. But to everyone else, her daily, funny, very friendly, maybe slightly sexual banter can come off as a touch on the flirty side. I think its adorable. But it does stress her out from time to time when someone seems to take it the wrong way.

    In a similar way, I flirt with pretty much every woman I meet that I might, over the course of a million years, consider being with. Which is almost everyone. But in real life, of course, almost none of those encounters will go anywhere. And sometimes that is taken the wrong way too, in both a "Ugh, dude, get away from me" way and a crap-she-just-took-me-way-too-seriously-where's-the-nearest-exit? kinda way. And many times I have found myself on the opposite end- receiving fairly unwelcome flirtations in entirely inappropriate situations, from both men and women. The one benefit of being hit on by your much older male boss or professor is that it gives a guy a sense of what it feels like to be a young woman before an unwelcome advance. And it makes you never want to be "that guy."

    So I guess what I am saying is that I don't think this is a gender issue as much as it is a human one. Sure, there are differences in the way each gender approaches sex, but there are also a lot of similarities. Third-wave feminism has throw a lot of confusion into the mix- when girls are Proud Sluts, what IS a man to do? But completely removing sexuality from our interactions and daily lives makes for a world so dull I would rather not live in it.

    There is no universal answer, because every situation, every person on the other end, has the potential to act differently. Sometimes its okay, sometimes it is not. Sometimes you can read that ahead of time, sometimes you don't find out until way too late. But in the same way, sometimes you can lend a friend $100, sometimes, some friends, you can't. And you usually don't know until it is too late.

    I wish I could give you a universal maxim, but alas, I don't think one exists here.

  2. Yeah, I've put myself in a slightly weird position on this blog where I'd intended for it to operate a little bit more as a sounding board than a soap box, but I haven't really, since the early posts, been moved to write on personal subjects.

    I think ultimately I've just been feeling a little accused and maybe a little hurt by the idea that maybe the way I approach my life is perceived as somehow dishonest or seedy. I guess I just kind of needed to lay all of this out so I could look at it, and also because I'm very conscious of the gigantic blindspot surrounding the way we perceive ourselves being perceived vs. what other people actually see. I'm curious to know how other people understand and experience this, so thank you.

    Also, one of the reasons I approached it from a gender perspective is that it's been presented to me ("it" being wanton non-sexual flirting, I guess) on more than one occasion as a feminine flaw. You're right, of course, that all situations and people are different, and as I said, it's not my intention to paint all men or all women with the same brush.

    Aside from trying to evaluate my own m.o., I think I'm also grappling with the idea that there are actually quite a few men in my life (including several I might not have expected it from) subscribe to this idea that a woman flirting, or even using mildly sexual language as in the high five anecdote, should always be signaling interest and availability else she's being a sneaky liar. I doubt that they assume a man using similar language is gay and hitting on them. I guess it just strikes me as a kind of neanderthal approach to human interaction and a disappointing thing to learn about friends.

    You may have noticed I'm still struggling to articulate just what's on my mind, but your comments are definitely in the right ballpark and, as always, engaging food for thought.

    On the clumsy segue front: The way you described Jen's accidental flirtiness is almost exactly how I would describe my own situation. Which is just another reason that I'm sure we'll hit it off when we finally meet sometime after the holidays. Ahem.

  3. Well, we have a week off between xmas and NY, so let us know.

    I think that, as a guy with a raging libido and rather wild sexual history, that I can say this without sounding like a prissy, feminine apologist, and thus discredit what I am trying to say- But seriously, men need to get over themselves. Thinking that every woman who makes a joke about what you have in your pants means she wants to whip it out right there and go down on you is just plain ignorant, arrogant and stupid. It is just a sad excuse for men to be lazy in their faculties of judgement and morality by putting the entire burden of sexual regulation on women. It is pathetic, and one aspect of being a man I am not proud to share with my fellow men.

  4. Yup. That's about what I was trying to get at. Thanks for being concise for me.

    I kind of want to put it on a business card and just hand it out as necessary.

  5. "...I really ought to be more realistic about what my behavior signifies to people outside of the hermetic world I've created for myself and act accordingly." At the risk of going all Aristotelian on you, I have to say the other side of this argument is the folly of basing everything we do on its signification to the outside world. What I seek is the uneasy equilibrium where I communicate with the outside world directly without a perceived separation.

    Reading your characterization of off-color banter as a come on, I thought about how courts used to investigate what the victim was wearing. Your closing point about blaming the victim is spot on (because you agreed with me. Ha!).

    I have also learned over many years that there's another reason to "watch my language." In professional situations, and not just among workers and management, it's among peers-- excessive informality is perceived as unprofessional. Who knew? If I had known 30 years ago, I might be in management now.

  6. Nah, I have no intention of changing my ways. For starters it sounds incredibly stressful and labor intensive and for seconders, I would still struggle for objectivity so I'd probably just make a huge ass of myself. I'm just suggesting that it might be a good idea for me to attempt to fill in the gaping blind spot I have when it comes to an objective assessment of how I'm being perceived.

    As far as professionalism -- who wants to be management anyway? I've already advanced to the top of my field short of being one of three high mucky mucks despite what might generously be called an unorthodox managerial demeanor all the way around. This is the advantage of working in a field where "business attire" consists of long underwear and duckcloth. The definition of "appropriate" for a female longshoreman is ambiguous at best.

    The more I ponder, the more I realize I wrote this looking for input as to whether my moral compass was out of whack or if I just happened to encounter a pocket of mild, unintentional misogyny among people I otherwise like and respect. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was mostly baiting you and Rob, my resident commenters who also happen to be conveniently gendered to address the issue at hand.
    I spent my twenties talking about your underpants (Sample Depends from AARP, anyone?), so you of all people can speak directly to it.

    On an only marginally related note, I was, and still am, hoping for input from strangers who agree or don't. I think maybe the comments section looks like a private party of three, but maybe someday some brave soul will jump in. Hear that, stranger readers? Jump in!

  7. I love this topic! I am a girl who often talks locker room trash just like I'm one of the guys, BUT when i do... Either i am perceived as a flirty slut, OR a shock value attention whore. Which is a shame, because I think I am a comedian (a la Sarah Silverman). Over the course of my life, it has been guys (well, boyfriends) telling me "if you were a guy, that would be funny, but youre a girl and youre gonna give people the wrong idea..." The real question is: to care what people think or NOT to care. I dont want people thinking "bad" and untrue things about me, but why should I have to censor myself? Aquarians are SO misunderstood..... oi.

  8. Mmm. I have a long and dedicated history of being a people pleaser and an almost pathological fear of getting in trouble, which is, I think, why I let this business eat at me. But you're right. I don't really give two figs if my motives are misunderstood except that it sometimes involves the messy business of setting the record straight when someone reads me wrong.

    How much do I love the phrase, "shock value attention whore," by the way? A lot. That's how much.