I did some catch-up reading at two of my favorite blogs today, both Alyssa Rosenberg’s joint and Blinded Trials. I found myself going back and forth between an Atlantic essay by Elizabeth Wurtzel that Rose talked about, and yet another post by Rosenberg on the Pixar movie Brave.
Going back and forth, I found myself getting incredibly sad.
Let me start with the Atlantic piece by Elizabeth Wurtzel. For those that don’t know Wurtzel, she’s the author most famous for the chronicling of her issues with clinical depression and substance abuse. I tend to think of her as one of those people who is now mostly a New Yorker famous for being a famous New Yorker. Her essay in the Atlantic is a feminist critique of wealthy women choosing to stay home and raise children (or let nannies do it for them). The essay itself is – I’m sorry – terrible, more of a screed than coherent argument. I won’t go into all the reasons I disliked it, mostly because I’d be a fool to think I could do better on that score than Rose has already done. But this line from Wurtzel caught my attention:
“Who can possibly take feminism seriously when it allows everything, as long as women choose it?”
At the risk of putting my toe into a pool where it is neither needed nor welcomed, I’d like to suggest that in this sentiment, Wurtzel gets what feminism should be entirely wrong. I realize as I say this that I am not a woman. I’m also not gay, or from a poor family, or a person of color. I am, in fact, a bit of a poster child for all of those DNA-given attributes that allow me an undeserved seat among America’s privileged set. But this seat of undeserved privilege does give me a unique perspective, which allows me to have a pretty knowledgable opinion about what the true advantage of being part of said privileged set means.
Let me explain.
You know how one of today’s social conservative memes is that non-poor, straight, white males are really the only people in America that are truly discriminated against? That we represent a group in chains, yearning to be freed by society’s firm and unfair hand? Yeah, well that’s a bunch of sh*t.
The strategy by this generation of conservatives to play the victim card can be entertaining if you don’t take it seriously, but it lacks a serious mooring in Realityland. Because the truth of the matter is that being a non-poor, straight, white male in America is awesome – but not for the reasons everyone always says that it is.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, the reasons people point to are true enough. For example, I know a lot of conservative men who complain about their “rights” being infringed upon these days. And it is true that I do know one who truly appears to have been repeatedly passed over for promotion in a company where literally all the managers are women, but he’s a pretty far-out-there outlier. Aside from him, the biggest complaints I hear are that we straight white men can no longer tell off-color jokes round the water cooler, try to score some action in the office without being threatened by a lawsuit, or do a tomahawk chop at an Atlanta Braves game. This last one despite the fact that:
- no one’s stopping them,
- they don’t live in Atlanta, and
- they never watch baseball.
That’s how cushy we straight white males with money have it in this country: our big “rights issues” are being told it’s not OK to treat other people however we want even if it offends them.
Compare this to women I know that outperform men in their fields but can’t get the market to translate that to equal, let alone superior, pay. Or my friends that are gay and have made life-long commitments to a partner, who simply want to get married but are not allowed. Hell, I live in one of the more liberal metropolises in America, and a recent study here by our own police department revealed that blacks and hispanics are pulled over for searches twice as much as white drivers, despite the fact that they find significantly more contraband with the white drivers. Not having to deal with any of these things is definitely nice, but they still aren’t what’s the best advantage to my accidental situation.
My advantage is so innate, so drilled down into the societal DNA that binds us together, that it was many years before I even recognized that I had it. My advantage, born from being a non-poor, straight, white male, is this:
It never occurs to me that I can’t do or become whatever I want to do or become based on anything but my comparative knowledge and skill level.
It seems simple, but there’s a power in that realization that cannot be overlooked. Unlike many blacks I know, I never had to think long and hard about what kind of black person I wanted to be; I certainly never worried if I were being perceived as “too white” in a job interview. Unlike a lot of my gay friends, the success of my career choice isn’t dependent on either finding just the right kind of job in just the right field with just the right company, or keeping quiet about what makes me me. Unlike most women I know, I don’t have to worry that if I don’t dress attractively enough at work I might not be taken seriously, but that if I dress too attractively I might not either.
And I don’t mean to insinuate that any of those examples I gave above are by any means the worst or most common thing people who aren’t non-poor, straight, white males have to deal with. Anyone reading this could think of dozens more, I should think, but that’s not the point. The point is that I don’t have to worry about any of them. Hell, I never have to think about any of them.
Which brings me to Rosenberg’s blog. If you’ve never read it, I’d encourage you to start. She’s a terrific and engaging writer who effortlessly goes back and forth between being serious and fun. More than that, she has a way of viewing things that never occurs to me, that allows me to stand and view something as familiar as my favorite TV shows from an angle I never realized was there. She is, simply, quite awesome.
So much of what she writes about is the role of women in popular culture. How is this female character being portrayed; how is that one? What will their degree of allowed sexuality say to other women? What will the way they’re drawn, or shot, or dressed, or scripted say to young girls who might look up to them? It never stops with Alyssa. With the state of our pop culture this says more about her dedication and pop culture’s failing than anything else, but still… it never stops. What must it be like to have to deconstruct everything, all the time, to get a sense of where society thinks you as a person currently stand? What must it mean for parents of daughters, to constantly wade through all of that because you want them to have better opportunities to be themselves than generations before were allowed? It seems like it must be exhausting; reading too much of Alyssa in one sitting makes me sad, even when she is not.
And this is why I think that Wurtzel is entirely wrong in her declaration that feminism will only have won when women have finally limited themselves to a certain number of choices for their career and lifestyles. I realize that, being a man, my saying this is going to come off as man-splaining, but as one of the people who lucked out in the ridiculous and unfair Societal DNA Sweepstakes, I have to tell you that limiting yourselves as a group – any group – seems a dangerous path. Feminism, from my man-splaining viewpoint, will have finally won when there are equal opportunities and results to the point where no finds themselves wondering what feminism’s role should be anymore. It will have won when a woman is allowed to choose any path (including physicist, President, or even mother) and be rewarded the same as a man, without having any group of people tell her that she should do something else based on the biological obligations of that extra X chromosome – even if that person is a self-described feminist.
Wurtzel says feminism means nothing if it allows everything a woman might choose. I think she’s wrong.
Feminism should allow everything, so long as a woman gets to choose it.