May 16, 2007

You might be a woman if… (three)

Posted in Feminism at 9:37 pm by The Lizard Queen

[Part three in an ongoing series; here are parts one and two]

…you’ve ever said “nothing” or “I’m fine” when asked what’s wrong, and the significant other — or friend, or family member — has expressed frustration at the obvious lie.

I say I’m fine all the time. More often than not I’m able to convince the people around me it’s the truth. But I’ve had SOs get frustrated with me because of it. A few years ago I was able to determine that part of the issue is that I’m not always great at verbalizing my feelings, particularly when I’m upset or angry. So, often what I mean by “I’m fine” is “I can’t yet put what I’m feeling into words and thus am not ready to discuss it.”

However, lately I’ve been thinking there’s more to it than that. I’ve known for a long time that I’m not supposed to feel angry, because good girls don’t get angry. (And now I can say, well, fuck being a good girl, then.) If I’m sad, though, I’m just sensitive. Or on the rag. Either way, I’m oh-so-female. So I’ve been conditioned not to express those emotions in order to appear “normal” — because everyone knows that men are the norm, and women are deviations from that norm.

But, of course, that’s a double-edged sword. If we express those more “negative” emotions, then we’re just being “female.” If we don’t, if we say we’re just peachy even when we’re clearly not, then we’re being manipulative. Welcome to the fun that is being female in a man’s world.



  1. DavidD said,

    Liz, I think you’re being sexist in your analysis of this.

    Good boys aren’t supposed to get angry any more than good girls are. Sensitivity is labeled differently in boys than in girls. I don’t think there’s any reasonable way to quantify which way is worse. They’re both bad. By the way, have people ever told you that you were being sensitive because you were “on the rag”? If so, were they male? Even if they were exclusively male, why don’t you see their unenlightened oneupsmanship as an individual shortcoming instead of blaming an entire gender for it?

    Sensitive boys eventually get called all those lovely labels our opinionated public quickly attached to Cho Seung Hui for daring to talk about his being a victim in explaining his mass murder/suicide. Unknown to Time magazine, not everyone who is self-absorbed is a narcissist. Some have plenty of internal problems that demand attention. Before it gets that bad, sensitive boys are called a “baby”, “Mama’s boy”, “wimp”, and “sissy”. When I was a teenager my brother came home for a visit. I went to hug him. He made a joke about how I must be gay, insecure child of his generation that he still is. I think of that now, and I know I had enough rage in me at that age to want to throw him through a window for making me the butt of yet another putdown. I’m sure I didn’t reveal that at all externally. I know I only felt a little of it internally. At least I verbally could have ripped him a new one about all the trouble his defense mechanisms had caused me, how dysfunctional that was, so why not grow up? I had no words for that then. Even now I suppose I would wind up speaking a lot more out of oneupsmanship than love if I chose to tell my brother what I know about this. It’s easy for anger to go that way.

    Even though I first saw a psychologist at 20, it wasn’t until I was in my thirties when I discovered a simple phrase to express any anger, “I don’t like this,” whatever it is that’s the object of my anger. It’s amazing to me that no mental health professional gave me even this simple a tool, this handle I came up with myself trying to express my anger in a functional way, failing at that much more than being successful. That short sentence was something I learned I could always say, somewhere in that gulf between shouting obscenities and not saying anything. Realizing what a useful starting point this was for expressing my anger was also testimony at how awful our society is with anger. Why is that?

    One reason is that anger is often destructive. Liz, I know both of us got that message growing up. We saw how bad things can happen from watching others let go with their anger. Neither a patriarchy nor a matriarchy is needed to teach that lesson, nor does the anger have to be that bad. People seem to get that message from the most ordinary displays of anger. Then many of my fellow liberals have formalized that impression, saying things like anger has no place at all in a spiritually enlightened person. Nonsense, anger can be shaped into determination just as fear can be useful for prudence. Evolution didn’t give us a limbic system as a curse. But the limbic system is nonverbal. Integrating all these emotions with the smarter part of ourselves can be difficult. There’s always some truth to a feeling, but words that explain that feeling are frequently lies.

    This is a huge topic. It deserves better treatment than to round up some scapegoats and say they’re the problem. Our society has a hard time with emotions. Many try to be Vulcans. I would have once, but I don’t think our ultimate being will come from our intellect. It won’t come from rejecting our intellect either but through integrating everything we are. I think it will come from what I learned in Al-Anon, to be honest, to be open-minded, and to be willing, willing being the most important since one can be willing to be all three until one knows how actually to be honest, open-minded, and willing. So I’m willing to express my anger and my sensitivity now, and to do that as lovingly as I know how, but still be angry and be sensitive. It was a very narrow slice of our culture that taught me that. I’m sure you’ve noticed, Liz, no one has given you that lesson wrapped up with a bow. No slice of our culture is that easy. Yet that lesson is here somewhere, within all this other junk.

    By the way, I might be a woman, but I’m not. I notice I’m not that different, though. Yet there are men and women who are very different from either of us emotionally and not just in one way. Human nature loves dualisms. Cognitive neuroscience doesn’t know the exact mechanism, but some feature in the cognitive areas of our brain causes us to make concepts readily as “X” and “not X”, dividing things into two, not three, four or more until we have much more experience about things. Our cognitive nature this way plus the reality of gender differences for sex and reproduction makes the duality of gender a powerful concept, not just for Taoists. Yet as Taoists do, everyone overdoes dualisms somewhat. There is often greater truth in the unity of a number of things or the individuality of each of a number of things. With experience we can grow past our least sophisticated cognitive nature.

    Not only do dualities mislead us, convincing people that they are “X” and “not X” invites strife. People may channel that into healthy competition sometimes, but if you ever do that in a classroom, make more than two groups. It’s less vicious that way. And in real life, dividing us into two is natural, but it’s a nature best overcome. It’s a very narrow slice of our culture that will teach you that, too.

  2. Dave Regan said,

    I think that DavidD has an excelent point. It is important to note that men have the same problem living in a MAN’S world (though perhaps not quite to the extent that women do). That is to say that just as women will be labeled for showing their feelings so will men. The average man does NOT want to hide his feelings but has been trained to by the “Alpha Male” mentality of our society (showing emotion is a weakness etc.). Men to are labeled as deviant or bad or women for expressing feelings just as much as women are.

    I can’t add much more that hasn’t already been touched upon above but I would like to point out that Norah Vincent’s book “Self Made Man” has some insightful discussions on this topic.

  3. (Excerpted and edited from an e-mail to DavidD)

    I’ll definitely cop to oversimplifying things in all of these “you might be a woman if” posts. Still, I think the fact that men who express emotion are called sissies is telling, and I stand by the sentiment of this post, if not the exact phrasing. While I did make two comments about men, “men are the norm, while women are deviations” and “being a woman in a man’s world,” I don’t blame men, especially not individual men. Women do just as much to perpetuate society’s huge issues with emotions and with gender. Still, the message we women get from society is to be good, to be unflappable, not to make waves, to be quiet. Some of us are better at shrugging that off than others. The fact that men receive the message that they should be tough and unemotional, that being sensitive makes them less masculine — and they do, I know they do, and I know that it’s a huge problem — doesn’t, in my mind, detract from my above point.

    I have plenty of male friends and acquaintances who have encountered at least one of the three “you might be a woman if” scenarios I’ve described so far. I think I would wager that these things happen to women more often than they happen to men, but it might be that since I’m a woman, I’m just more aware of it when it happens to women. If nothing else, I’m more aware of it happening to me. But how many normative things like sitcoms and stand-up routines joke about women’s “irrational” emotions (like emotions are rational in the first place)?

    A few of my friends took a seminar in the spring of 2005 (I’d thought about taking it, but chickened out) with a professor who is Chicano. More than once a story has been related to me in which one of the students, a white woman with whom I didn’t have much contact with but who rubbed me the wrong way in the little bit of contact I did have, told the professor in regards to a particular piece of literature, “You see race because that’s what’s important to you. I see Jesus because that’s what’s important to me.” Easy for a white person to say. It seems to me that when you’re not part of the dominant culture, you’re aware of all the ways in which that culture reinforces itself. A Chicano is going to be hyper-aware of race because he’s been reminded all his life about how he is Not White. I’m hyper-aware of gender because I’ve been reminded all my life about how I’m Not Male. It’s not really anyone’s fault outside of those above-mentioned unenlightened men with individual shortcomings, but the fact remains.

    A final thought — am I to understand that because this happens to men too, I’m wrong and/or shouldn’t be complaining? I feel like that’s the message I’m being sent from these comments so far. Can you see how that just reinforces my overarching point?

  4. Evil Bender said,

    The fact that hierarchies and systems of power have negative consequences for those who benefit from them does not invalidate the experiences of those who do not have the power.

    The argument that men in our society have fucked-up relationships with emotional expression does not mean that the patriarchal systems which encourage those reactions do not weigh even more heavily on women.

    White people suffered from the effects of slavery, too, but that does not mean that black people were racist in complaining abut its effects on them.

    Can there be any doubt that women are second-class citizens in our society today? I, for one, don’t have much use for the male refrain of “it happens to us, too.” Yes, it does, to some extent. No, that doesn’t invalidate anything LQ is saying here.

  5. Dave Regan said,

    I can’t see where anyone has used the idea that “it happens to men too” to invalidate lizard queen’s argument. Of course the argument is valid and illustrating that a problem is more widespread than initially stated is no way to invalidate that problem. it’s important to realize the full extent of the influence of this sort of emotional oppression in order to understand it’s causes and societal effects. To realize that this sort of mentality is not just to the benefit of men and to the detriment of women. It is to the benefit of a few powerful, well off, men who don’t have the emotional maturity (or health?) to ever consider a negative thought and to the detriment of just about everyone else.

    Yes, women are not yet on the same social footing in this country, there are many reasons and causes of that. To compare this idea to a white person not being apologetic to a black person because “racism effects everyone” is to setup a straw man. Yes perhaps there were a tiny fraction of white people that were effected negatively by slavery, but by and large the negative consequences of slavery fell almost exclusively onto black slaves. This is not the case with the sort of emotional oppression that goes on in our society.

    Telling you that it is not socially acceptable to express the feelings that you need to stay mentally healthy, and sometimes to even develop the emotional connections you need to stay in touch with your own humanity, effects everyone negatively no matter what your race or gender is. It is creating a breeding ground for closed mindedness, disconnection, and neuroses.

  6. Cara said,

    I’ve come to realize that I say, “I’m fine” half the times I do because I mean, “I don’t want your help with this problem, and if I tell you about it, I know you’re going try to solve it for me (even if I tell you I don’t need your help).” Another, say, 40% of the time, I say “I’m fine” and I mean, “I’m not fine, but I know full well that what’s bothering me is basically irrational and not something I want to try to make sense of to you.” Maybe 10% of the time I say, “I’m fine” am I actually avoiding the “conflict” of saying what’s wrong.

    I guess I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault but my own for perpetuating the “I’m fine [but not really]” phenomenon in the way I do. The only person truly stopping me from expressing things is me, whatever the historical “reasons” are.

  7. Mishka P said,

    cheers to lizard queen and the evilest of benders. good post and comments (from you guys (and only you guys)) – patriarchy Affects everyone negatively and positively. white supremacy Affects everyone negatively and positively – i love the intersectional approach to power and gender/race that these posts bring up. in fact, intersectionality is one of the greatest things about feminism (the second best thing being pithy tee shirts). Good feminism acknowledges that the current masculine power structure holds men to an impossible standard that is violently damaging to everyone. Good male and female feminists recognize their power and privilege, recognize the costs of these powers and privilege and seek to discuss and deconstruct damaging power structures. Plus good conscious citizenship it isn’t about responding to discussions in the vein of “well i don’t do that…” that’s pointless, why not think about how you can help instead of how you are exempted? (did i mention that another perk of feminism is vehemnt self righteousness??;))

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