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Archive for January 8th, 2009

"You'd be so much prettier if you smiled more!"

"You'd be so much prettier if you smiled more!"

Sadie, one of my favorite writers on Jezebel, had a post today called “When the Nice Guy Down the Street Makes You Uncomfortable.”

I thought I’d share it here because I think a lot about nice guys making me uncomfortable, and it’s a huge hot-button issue on Jez. We all know that the public world is inhospitable when it comes to women’s privacy. Like most women, I get a lot of unwanted attention from men, even in my super-small hometown of 20,000: catcalls, honks, weird semi-come-ons from guys I’m talking to in the park or on the train. Sometimes the shouts are about my boobs, sometimes they’re about my skin color, and sometimes they’re just cause I’m female. Even when I had my head shaved to the bone, multiple guys yelled out lasciviously, “Hey, Sinead O’Connor!”. Like a whole lot of women, I’ve also been the victim of a train wanker.

But Sadie’s post is about the subtler liberties that men take when women are friendly, or polite, or even just interacting—when guys take your courtesy as an invitation to flirt or give you unwanted attention. Sadie mentions her friend who’s creeped out by the guy at the deli, who always notices when she’s not in for a while, and tells her to smile more (which a lot of women hear from a lot of men). Jez commenters follow up with a host of examples of this kind of interaction: a tallchanging deli guy who handed a customer his phone number on a $50 bill,  a co-worker who sent a commenter a love letter after she asked how he was, bagel guys who hoot and holler as you approach their bagel stand and tailor their comments to your expression. As Sadie writes,

It can be hard to explain the complexity of a dynamic in which you just feel slightly intruded upon: in a word, uncomfortable. I’ve stopped going to delis and stores because of things like this; once or twice I even asked a male friend to go in with me which, sadly, always seems to put an end to it. In none of these cases was the guy in question rude or vulgar or even predatory — it’s not like having to brush off a creep at a bar or something — but there was always an excessive interest and a certain lack of boundaries probably only women are aware of. An insinuating look, an overly-long glance, a significant smile can be enough to make a trip to the store a daily ordeal.

At the most superficial level, it’s kind of comforting to know there are people whose minds retain you and your idiosyncracies permanently, but on a thinking level, it’s weird, invasive, and a little disturbing. Why do we have to be sex objects even when we’re getting our air conditioner fixed or handing in a report?

To be on the receiving end of that subconscious power trip is horrible no matter what the context, but the insidious inroads it makes into the minutiae of women’s daily lives are really upsetting. In my own experience, guys don’t understand this stuff. Even the guys I told about the asshole jerkin’ it on the train didn’t really get it—boys who had been writing essays about Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, and Harriet Tubman since grade school.

I do know women who don’t care about this kind of stuff, but it strikes me as especially bad that men don’t get it. Of course the notion that male support legitimizes women’s feelings, which controls our politics and our media, is wrong, wrong, wrong. What worries me is that guys don’t notice the logic of “You should smile more.” It’s the logic of possession, the underpinning of the entire patriarchy, infiltrating our everyday lives, and our relationships with men we thought we could trust, people we thought were allies in our fight. It seems pretty clear that men think women are always available to comment on, compliment, and control. How can we draw their attention to how fucked-up that logic is?

The Jez commenters have also unintentionally created a database of fabulous things to say to assholes. Check it out.

EDIT:
I’d like to add that it worries me not just that men don’t get this, but that anyone doesn’t. This post is not about simple flirting. Flirting is something different from the interactions we’re discussing—it’s not disguised as friendship; it doesn’t presume intimacy or the desire for it, it expresses a hope for it; and your reaction has the ability to make the flirter stop. We’re talking about when someone continues acting like there’s the potential for something more than a random or friendly interaction, when you don’t reciprocate at anywhere near the same level. It’s like no matter what you think of the situation, they still think you’re attainable—they still think they can acquire you. It worries me that anybody, M, F, or Otherwise, doesn’t consider the non-flirt a little intrusive. At the risk of offending women who don’t mind the non-flirt and echoing Catherine MacKinnon, someone I consider pretty paternalistic for a feminist, it seems like if this kind of stuff doesn’t bother you, you’re not paying attention to what you as a person deserve: privacy.

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One thing that always ticks me off is Vassar’s constant love of traditions that should have kicked the bucket 100 years ago. Some of Vassar’s traditions I love, others not so much, which brings me to today’s topic of discussion… THE DAISY CHAIN.

But what is the daisy chain you ask! I did a little research and according to the Vassar College Encyclopedia,

Every year, a group of sophomore women, chosen for their leadership skills, class spirit, and eagerness to volunteer their time, are chosen by a committee of the senior class council to carry a 150-foot chain of daisies and laurel, the Daisy Chain, at Commencement

Harmless enough, right? Well let’s see how do I become a member of this daisy chain?

Historically, “daisies” were chosen for both their “contribution to college life and their attractiveness,” making the early chains a kind of beauty contest, which apparently caused those not chosen much unhappiness.

Gee whiz, I wonder why, dear encyclopedia. Perhaps it’s because standards of beauty are rather subjective, unfair, and completely unrelated to the wonderful world of learning. But dislike for the daisy chain is nothing new. It caused such an uproar in 1912, that the New York Times did a piece discussing how the tradition, which dated back to the late 1800s would be stopped due to the “girls” all becoming extremely “envious” of one another, but apparently nothing happened and the tradition continued. But whatever, who wants to be in the daisy chain, anyhow right? I mean it doesn’t really mean anything does it?

The daisy chain became famous as a symbol of feminine beauty, mystique and even fertility, and also of the elite status imputed to a “Vassar girl”: if being a Vassar student was to be amongst the cream of the crop, then to be a “daisy” was to be la crème de la crème.

Yuck. Please tell me this tradition has gone away! Or at least radically changed, right? Well let’s look at some pictures:

In looking at these photos I have to wonder what has changed. Now I’m no expert, but I’ve yet to see a girl in one of these virginal white dresses that can’t be seen as traditionally pretty. Perhaps, I’m wrong here but in my research and from my memory I’ve yet to see a plus size girl out there. And what if you’re male and wish to be apart of the daisy chain, and wear a white dress? Sorry, you have to  wear “blue blazers, white pants, and purple daisy-print ties,” (because that’s super masculine) and get to “hand out programs and help guide relatives and other Commencement guests to their seats”. Notice the men don’t go parading down the aisles. I wonder why not.

And what does a “daisy” do besides carry a ridiculously long chain of daisies at graduation? Well they do many important things and activities I’m told, though it’s hard to find out exactly what. It’s something of a secret sorority. I do know however that they produce Mr. Vassar, a male beauty pageant. How fabulous, I can see so much has changed since those late 1800s, for instance, the dresses are now sleeveless, and they hire someone to make the chain, and now instead of only being objectified themselves, they help others to objectify men too.

And then of course let’s not forget the fact that the Daisy Chain has historically been (and dare I say it continues to be) racist? How many daisies of color are there, exactly? There is a separate group, the African Violets, who organize activities for seniors of color. The group which started in 1991 has only been permitted to walk behind the Daisy Chain at graduation as of 2005. Seriously? I wanted to find out more about African Violets, but of course, there is no entry for African Violets on the Vassar College Encyclopedia, apparently they are not one of Vassar’s celebrated traditions.

I’ve been told that the beauty standards have been dropped from the application process, officially anyway. And that one is able to apply to the Daisy Chain or the African Violets regardless of race or ethnicity. However, is it really such a wonderful tradition to uphold? Why bother keeping it? I like daisies as much as the next person. But why celebrate this exclusivity and historical sexism and racism? And one can’t deny the fact that it’s plain ridiculous in this day and age, to say okay, boys dress like this, and girls dress like this. Girls parade with flowers, and boys guide the way. Nice.

And here I thought I went to a seven sister school to feel liberated and to learn, not to be objectified like a flower and duke it out among my fellow “sisters” based on who was prettier, whiter, and more fertile.

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