Females, ranting

So Clay Shirky wrote this rant about women. Uh oh! Basically, he’s all mad and disappointed with us, because you guys! We’re not being obnoxious and aggressive like men are! We’re not demanding attention and lying about our abilities and getting in people’s faces enough!

I don’t want to make him sound like a total dick--I think his intentions were honorable enough--but he’s misguided and apparently completely in the dark about how much most of us hear this shit. Deanna Zandt brilliantly articulates the wrongheadedness of his argument, and you should read her post. Deanna designed the Let’s Panic site, and one of the best things about 2009 was getting to know her. Her response is a lot smarter and more inspiring and positive than anything I could conjure up, so you should read it in its entirety, but here’s a snippet:

Asking women to be more like men (which is different than what Shirky claims we're doing when we ask men to be "sensitive" and "listen" — that's just asking for a little humanity, there) falls on a spectrum of prescribing feminine behavior that is dangerous and unhealthy. We're putting the onus on women to fit themselves into a culture that doesn't value them enough to begin with.

Anna North over at Jezebel also had some great things to say, and while reading these two posts I just felt more and more stupid that I couldn’t manage anything smarter than ALICE SMASH. Ah, well. We’re lucky we have these other people to say it for us!

This "change-yourself-to-fit-in" advice has been given to pretty much every marginalized group over the years, and it sticks around because, for some individual people, it works. But those people still have to work within the existing power structure. The harpy/diva/bitch archetype isn't going to go away because a few women are allowed to sneak around it, and the culture of rewarding self-promotion above other qualities isn't going to become fair for everyone just because a few women manage to share the pie. Those who are marginalized by a system are often those best able to see its flaws, and teaching those people just to work around their marginalization is a great way to keep them quiet, and to keep anything from ever changing. Let's not fall for it.

Look at how shy and timid these women are! OH, WHY CAN’T THEY SPEAK THEIR MINDS?

I wanted to share a story with you, something that was stirred out of the dusty crevices of my mind when I read Clay’s post. When I was at Wellesley, I took this Shakespeare seminar that was taught by the college’s most popular English professor. In addition to a larger lecture-type class, we broke out into smaller discussion groups, which he led. Anyway, Wellesley, in case you don’t know, is a women’s college. What you also may not know is that students from MIT and Harvard can and do take classes there. And by “students” I mean “guys.” There were always one or two MIT guys in the English classes, and there was one in my discussion group. And oh, this guy was a blowhard. He completely dominated this group of maybe 10 or so women. He was the first to respond to every question; he started up gratuitous arguments and cast forth his opinions like they were inarguable and he basically annoyed the everliving shit out of all of us. And, I’ll admit, he was intimidating. He was aggressive and didn’t seem to care that his opinions sometimes made no sense, and anyone who challenged him was treated with a torrent of bullshit—as if the quantity of his words could make up for the absence of meaning.

A few weeks into the class, I met with the professor to discuss a paper I was working on. All he wanted to talk about, however, was why I couldn’t be more like the guy who was in the class. Why all of us couldn’t be more like that guy. He seemed to actually admire this asshole, and he regarded our failure to shout him down as our collective failing. As if he didn’t have some responsibility to manage the discussion or encourage a variety of opinions.

He seemed horrified, and pitying. “One man in the class, and you all shut up,” he said. A few times. So basically the only solution he could see was that we all emulate the asshole in the class. If we were all like him, we wouldn’t have a problem, and would have nothing to complain about. That was, oh, twenty years ago, and it is indeed wearying—and not surprising— that Mr. Shirky is still propagating the same nonsense.

In conclusion—here, let’s all help Haiti some more, shall we? I’d like to encourage you to donate to Partners in Health—which, incidentally, is run by fellow Wellesley Alum Ophelia Dahl. A WOMAN. How did she manage that? So curious.