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Misogyny, or Not Misogyny? That Is the Question

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"I just don't see it like that," my boyfriend shrugs. He's not upset. He's not even really arguing. To him, our disagreement is simply a divergence of two equally valid opinions. To me, one of us is acknowledging a goddamn fact and the other is not.

We've just seen a four person production of Hamlet in downtown Manhattan. Generally, we're both underwhelmed. Specifically, I'm offended by the scene where Prince Hamlet, feigning insanity, greets two old school chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have been sent to spy on him. Hamlet figures this out and, for lack of a better phrase, fucks with them.

This is a scene with three male characters traditionally played by three male actors. In this micro-cast production, however, Rosencrantz is played by the lone female in the cast. Throughout the show, when the actress is playing a male character, she's addressed as male and referred to with male pronouns. The script has not been altered. This lady-Rosencrantz is male.

Which is why, as the scene unfolded and Hamlet began to tease and bully Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I became increasingly confused and then disturbed by Hamlet's very gender-specific harassment of Rosencrantz. While he is physical with both characters -- yanking on their costume pieces, aggressively leading them around the stage -- he is only sexual with Rosencrantz, who is, for all intents and purposes, a man. Except that he's clearly not.

Hamlet grabs Rosencrantz's ass forcefully and holds on, thrusting his pelvis and miming sex. He attempts to kiss and touch Rosencrantz "romantically." And as Rosencrantz squirms and tries to get away, Hamlet grabs Rosencrantz's breasts. Except Rosencrantz doesn't have breasts. The actress does.

Suddenly, I am not watching Hamlet harass Rosencrantz. I am watching a male actor harass a female actor in a highly gendered manner. And I'm uncomfortable. But when I express my distaste for that misogynistic scene, my boyfriend -- who would call himself a feminist -- doesn't see the problem with it.

"He -- the actor -- was trying to make his fellow actor uncomfortable," my boyfriend, also an actor, explains. "That's a valid acting technique."

"But she's not playing a woman!" I argue. "And besides, if his goal is to make his fellow actor as uncomfortable as possible, wouldn't making sexual advances on the other male actor be more effective?"

"Maybe. But it's still a valid choice."

"If she were a woman onstage!" I insist. I weigh my next words. I'm about to crack open this conversation and expose it to a much brighter critical light. "I think he feels like he has the permission to touch her in a way he would never touch a male actor," I say. To me, it screams male privilege. It screams casual, unconscious sexism. This unthinking, automatic choice is a loud, shrieking choice. And it's completely unheard by my boyfriend -- a misogynistic dog whistle.

"I'm not convinced she wasn't a woman in that scene," he comes back.

And here's where the argument gets fishy, I have to admit. The production, at times, was self-aware and self-referential in that, with a nudge and a wink, the cast would sometimes acknowledge the fact that the actors were playing different characters, drawing attention to the gimmick. Therefore, my boyfriend argues, we're not pretending that these people are the characters. The actors are saying, essentially, "We know we're actors and we know you know we're actors."

If I had seen any other instances of gender-blind characters being treated as the gender of actor and not the character, maybe I would have bought it. Essentially, he tells me that what I've seen is a matter of interpretation, and he doesn't interpret it that way.

And now, I'm upset. I'm angry with my boyfriend for not seeing what seems perfectly obvious to me: A male actor treated a female actor in a manner that expressed, inherently, his belief in his license to do that onstage, to make that acting choice, because his scene partner was female. And maybe a lot of people would excuse the actor and accuse the director, but in this case, the actor playing Hamlet was the director! It was all so perfectly, perfectly plain.

And I don't think the guy playing Hamlet is a terrible person. I think it's all much more sublimated and unconscious than malicious misogyny -- which is what makes it so insidious. Similarly, it's not that my boyfriend is a raging misogynist; it's just so much not a part of his world that he is blind to the more malignant undertones. This subjectivity is a disease we all suffer from.

A prime example: my good friend's former roommate, a 6-foot, thin, blond goddess. Basically a supermodel with a sweet disposition and the naïveté to match. Her world was full of free drinks and instant admission to nightclubs and men falling over her to make her life easier. "People are so nice here!" she would exclaim about New York City, a place that has never been nice to anyone.

When my friend was turned away at a club or a guy didn't call her back, Goddess was quick to excuse the lapse and provide the benefit of the doubt. "The club was probably too full!" she would say. Or, "He probably lost your number!" Because those were the rules of her world. People were kind. Clubs opened their doors. Guys called you back.

Or: "He's using a valid acting technique!"

Reality is subjective.

And that's what, now months after Hamlet, in the wake of anti-slut-shaming campaigns, of Elliot Rodger, of #YesAllWomen, of the maze of conversations my boyfriend and I have had about misogyny since then, I have come to realize: We really are living in different realities.

So I explained why I felt slut-shamed by his condemnation of the casual sex I'd had before we started dating. I explained why what Elliot Rodger did was a hate crime and not just a product of alleged mental illness. And I explained that he has a privilege that I do not enjoy: The privilege of being unaware of misogyny.

Having a feminist boyfriend doesn't mean that he sees the same production of Hamlet you do; it means that when you call out misogyny, he knows enough to say, as mine now does, "I believe you."

(A version of this post first appeared on the feminist blog Radical Notion.)