It started, as many bad things do, by jumping into the fray on a Facebook post's comment section. I went against my usual rules of holding back, not getting involved -- and decided to comment.
The post, hailing from a family friend, was sexist -- a photo of a scantily-clad woman, featuring text declaring a woman's proper place in the world. You know, the garden variety "in the kitchen"-type place. My bumbling older family friend, unfamiliar with social media, had meant to send the photo to his girlfriend privately, as an inside joke. Except, he didn't. To all those not so technology savvy -- take note. Figure out how to direct message. Do your homework. It's worth the extra minute of clicking on your iPhone keyboard. Although that is beside the point, what is relevant is the events that transpired.
In my comment on the very public post, I told my older friend that I hoped this photo didn't reflect the way he conducted his relationships. I checked Facebook a moment later and saw a notification pop up -- a comment had been posted after mine. Another Facebook user, Jack (name changed for privacy), had responded to me. Jack's quip to me read, "The best way to keep a man happy is to keep his stomach full and his balls empty." Oh.
Jack later defended the comment to me privately, citing it as an inside joke with "the guys," original poster included -- a group of mid-40s men sharing LOLs online. But the reality is that the comment sat there beneath the post, beneath my comment, in the public eye. Passively insulting women idly browsing through their newsfeed, avoiding their workday tasks. "The best way to keep a man happy is to keep his stomach full and his balls empty."
I was mid-way through typing out a reply to Jack on the post when I hesitated, and deleted. Another friend had already commented below him, telling me to "relax." Don't to take all of this so seriously. It's just a joke. I stopped myself from writing, but I couldn't put a finger on why I took my hands off the keyboard.
I realized part of it has to do with this specific person -- Jack doesn't take anyone seriously, especially when they're angry, and especially over social media. But the bigger worry, the bigger issue nagging me, was that if I responded, if my comment was out there for a larger audience to see, I'd be immediately categorized as The Angry Feminist. The girl who couldn't hold back her rage at the world. The girl who has to speak up on every small thing.
My urge to voice my opinion was quickly stamped out by my fear of becoming a caricature -- and all this transpired in my head, before I even had the chance to finish typing my reply.
The next day, I discussed the incident with a close group of friends. Much of their advice about the sexist Facebook rhetoric centered around a commonly used phrase: "Don't let your emotions get the best of you." Another was, "That's the response they're looking for." While we all agreed that these sexist quips weren't acceptable -- especially on social media -- I was bothered to hear friends giving external voice to the "don't be emotional, don't be a caricature" rationale that I'd battled the previous day alone in front of my keyboard.
I've come to understand that so much of my frustration with this internal conflict revolves around one word: anger. Anger from seeing clearly misogynistic or sexist posts tossed around like innocent banter online, anger over the fact that this banter can actually translate into my day-to-day life, and anger over the fact that I can't express my opinion that without being pigeonholed into a stereotype.
Such a simple piece of advice when in a heated discussion -- "stay rational" -- seems to scratch the surface of an extremely complex issue. How can I not feel emotional about something so close to me, like the female experience? How can I hit mute on my feelings? I realize that my friends' level-headed reactions gave me pause because, as much as they mean well, part of their advice asks that I deny the feelings I'm experiencing when I read those abrasive posts. They ask me to ignore my anger, to be complacent, and figure out a way to express myself more reasonably.
Which is exactly what I did the second that I let my Facebook cursor blink, and decided not to type. The expectation of logic took hold: Step back; be calm; assess the situation from a distance.
Don't get emotional.
But feminism, and the female experience, are inherently emotional. It doesn't matter how many gender studies courses we take: At the end of the day, we are human beings, not academic dissertations, and human beings react.
Calm discussions about gender theory won't change the unease and resentment I experience as catcalls and lewd insults alike are hurled at me from strangers on the street. Logical debates on sexism don't make it any less intimidating when the bigger security guard at work grabs my arm as I walk by him to tell me to "have a nice weekend." Those moments will bother me the rest of the day, but a part of my brain tells me to disengage -- don't get emotional. Don't become The Angry Feminist in the office, or on Facebook. Or anywhere.
Conversations and debates about feminism and sexism in modern society do not merely cover "women" as a noun, or hashtags, or legislation; these conversations also speak to me, my personal experiences, the impact that our choices and your words can have on my life. When I discuss the challenges facing women in society, I am not just speaking to you about a general injustice I see in the world, I am not simply waxing philosophic about gender; I am also speaking to you from the place in me that can feel fear when I walk alone at night.
And maybe that place can make me angry.
Living in fear of The Angry Feminist stereotype encourages complacency. To expect women to "be rational" in the face of blatant sexism cancels out the validity of our shared experiences. It asks women to remove their emotion from a very personal issue and deal with it in a calculated, stoic manner. We wouldn't give the same advice to someone whose home has been robbed. And it is not only an unrealistic expectation -- it's confusing and breeds shame.
We have to be in touch with our emotions in order to recognize those subtle, pervasive moments, to push past the immediate reaction of "oh, it's not a big deal." We can calmly rationalize why our boss calls us "honey" while sticking to first names for male employees: "It just slipped out because he's being friendly, he's used to using that language." We can try to laugh off the phrase "stomach full and balls empty," dubbing it "harmless Facebook humor."
And yet, there is discomfort. And whatever sets off those red flags inside us doesn't come from the rational organ in our skull -- it comes from the gut. It's the same gut reaction that we got as little girls when older men got a touch too close. When our gut-based emotions flare up, it calls to our attention an imbalance that needs tending to. We have to trust the gut, because the gut exists outside of social constructs like The Angry Feminist. And the best way to do that is not to tell women to distance themselves from their emotions, from their natural anger -- the best way is to have them listen to their anger, and then become inquisitive. The alternative simply caters to the rules set out by those painting feminist caricatures -- they prefer that women not speak up, not feel confident in their emotions. In short, they prefer silence.
By the time I'd parsed out my relationship with stereotypes, the Facebook post was long past its prime or relevance in my life. But the opportunity to address the situation arose again at a family dinner later in the month.
The original poster, my family friend, was in attendance (you remember: the one who can't quite pin down the difference between the words "post" and "private message." Please just learn it. So easy. So fast. Will save you lots of pain.) Also in attendance was Jack, along with a few of their close friends, and I found myself in the midst of their group -- it was the comment section, seated around a dinner table. The Facebook post came up in conversation, and the original poster recalled that someone -- Jack -- had given me "a hard time" in the comments. As Jack began to defend his point (his joke?) once again, I asked him how he'd feel about his quip when placed in the context of our personal life -- as someone who helped raise me, how would he feel if that "quip" about the role of a girlfriend were tossed in my direction? Should I -- a girl whose diapers he once changed -- make sure that I keep a man's "stomach full and his balls empty"?
As I talked about it at the table, I felt my face get a little hotter. I could hear my voice get a little sharper. But instead of immediately worrying about how I was being perceived, instead of feeling the weight of the Angry Feminist caricature bearing down on my shoulders, I could feel something else: the weight of silence being lifted off my chest.
The flustered look on his face as he tried to take back his "quip" didn't hurt, either.