I realized recently that hanging out with a bunch of men is like hanging out with a bunch of white people – there is a limited level of tolerance that once surpassed, ain’t no body got time for it. My boyfriend said to me recently that while he realizes that power dynamics work on a grand scale (impressive) – for example, that men have privilege and power over women within a structure of systematic, sexist oppression – he doesn’t see how oppression works on an individual level and within interpersonal interactions (typical). It is a valid question to have, and one that is difficult to answer and explain, especially to members of the class of people who generally are the ones making you feel shitty about your gender, race, sexuality, [insert oppression here] by their behavior during these interpersonal interactions.
This weekend brought up for me a great example of the way power dynamics work on an individual level, as I found myself surrounded by men (straight men, ew) for the majority of the weekend, and this is including Friday. As you can imagine, I was over it real, real quick. Any woman who is paying a lick of attention can relate to the experience of being the only woman in a group of men, saying something at the same time as a man, and having what she said be disregarded in favor of what the man has said. I would argue that this is as common an experience for women as being hit on, and it’s bullshit! Men are so used to privileging their voices over the voices of women that when it happens it is barely noticeable by either gender – it is just the order of the day, once a-fucking-gain, men unapologetically taking up space while we women wait, hope, and fight to be recognized and acknowledged within that space.
Interactions do not have to be directly sexist from one person to another for the dynamics of sexism to work themselves in. None of the men I was surrounded by this past weekend have any reason to feel anything but benevolence towards me – I am their friend’s girlfriend so my existence is minimally relevant them, just someone to be nice to while they hang out with my boyfriend. Regardless, because oppression has made it so that public space is still the domain of men, their voices are automatically privileged because space belongs to them. Obviously I don’t actually have to be “in public” for male privilege to kill my fucking vibe everywhere I go – three’s a crowd so as long as there are three or more people conversing, the space becomes “public” if there is at least one male in the group. Like in the French language. In French, you can refer to groups of people (“they”) as either “ils” or elles,” the former being masculine and the latter feminine. The only time you would actually use “elles” is if the group of people you are referring to only has women in it – one man and you automatically refer to the group as a group of “he’s:” “ils,” even if there is only one motherfucker in it and throngs of women.
And actually I take that back – you don’t need to have one male in the group for the dynamics of sexism to work themselves in neatly. Yes, in terms of privileging voice in a conversation, a male voice is required for this direct interaction to take place, but this does not mean that the insidious and slimy nature of sexism doesn’t work its way into our conversations as women with women as well. In fact, it would be silly of me to assume that we as women could ever really escape the privileging of a male voice, a perspective, a framework… after all, isn’t that world in which we live? More than twice this weekend did I want to break into James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” as these fools were talking and completely missing the fact that I had uttered sounds, words, interesting and relevant commentary on what was being spoken about at any given time. It’s not that we are being ignored as women. (Some of) what we say eventually is heard and is responded to, but it takes an assertion on our part for our voices to have equal paring with the voices of men, and this is very literal and very figurative.
Not only did the privileging-of-male-voices turn me off this weekend but in general the ubiquitous male gaze. The male gaze is something I have said hi to, told to fuck off, and struggled to escape from, and for the most part (I think but probably not) I feel I have gained enough awareness of it at least to try to resist it in a constructive and safe way. This weekend, however, as I spent copious amounts of time in the presence of heterosexual men as the only female, I also found myself reverting to more patriarchal and sexist ways of thinking. Freud (fuck Freud) calls this the defense mechanism of regression, where one regresses into “earlier stages of [psychological] development” when faced with a stressful or threatening event. I wasn’t stressed or threatened by any of the events that happened this weekend, but I am in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar practices, dynamics, and expectations than I am used to, so I found myself regressing. At one point during the weekend, while the boys were cleaning (one advantage of loving to cook is having people offer to clean up the mess afterwards!) I sat in the dining room of this beautiful, grand flat I am staying in in Paris, smoking a joint while overlooking the sun-soaked apartment tops of the neighborhood through giant windows, listening to music, generally just chilling the fuck out. When I listen to music I close my eyes and bob my head to the beat and try to enjoy the sensual experience of being spoken to through the medium of a musical rhythm… so the boys come into the room to eat and I continue to do my own thing, but now because they are in the room I was conscious of myself, of how I looked, how I moved, how I sat; just really mundane shit that no one should ever really give a fuck about ever.
It was strange for me to experience such sudden and familiar self-consciousness, and essentially, as I have identified it, be susceptible to the subtle and gripping power of the male gaze. I know myself enough to know that this is what I was responding to, but I didn’t understand why. When thinking about regression as a defense mechanism, perhaps I was regressing into a more sexist and patriarchal way of thinking because I was already especially sensitive to the gender dynamics of the weekend, starting with being over the male-voice-privileging. I am in a country unfamiliar to me, with people who understand things differently than I (culturally), with the hurdle of language to overcome when trying to communicate. I am also in a very unfamiliar environment in the sense that I am living with my boyfriend for a short time, and this is after coming from living alone in my own apartment, in my own city, lit as fuck with all black errythang. How did I go from being a lit-ass bitch paying all her bills to a (still) lit-ass bitch who is (still) paying all her own bills – lol – but worried about what some fucking guys (white guys at that) think of me??? It’s regression! Thank you Freud… for that ONE thing, I guess.
It is quite an adjustment to be living like a wifey (temporarily) when I am generally anti-wifey, to live within a culture that is much different (but in many ways the same) from the culture that I come from, and I am changing and growing and learning everyday. Sexism, however, is sexism wherever you are, and male privilege stanks just as much abroad.