Liz Lemon Is No Tina Belcher

I’m a bit behind on the times, but I’m finally getting around to watching 30 Rock. Unsurprisingly, I deeply enjoy it and also appreciate that Liz Lemon is unabashedly interested in promoting women. But there’s one little thing that drives me crazy every time I watch the show.

Tina Fey is a conventionally attractive woman. She is skinny, white, has a pretty face, dresses perfectly well in the show and elsewhere, is able bodied and cis. There is really nothing about Tina Fey that falls into the unattractive category. She also is a pretty normal person. Her weirdest habits are such odd things as eating, not going to the gym, and working too much. So why are there comments nearly every episode about how Liz Lemon is fat, how she’ll never get a boyfriend, and how she’s really weird?

There’s an entire plot line about how she needs to settle instead of holding out for her ideal man, because she’s already over the hill (at the age of 40, which is younger than my parents had me). How damaging is it to see a beautiful, skinny woman called ugly and fat over and over? I know that personally when I watch the show, I walk away feeling more self conscious and more worried about my appearance because any body is apparently fair game for criticism, even in shows that are purportedly feminist.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with being not conventionally attractive, or honest to goodness full on weird. See other feminist idol Tina Belcher, the teenage heroine of Bob’s Burgers who is voiced by a man, drawn almost entirely with straight lines, and basically incapable of human interaction. She writes erotic stories about zombies. But Tina is not ashamed. Tina loves who she is, and no one gives her crap about it in the show.

The contrast in 30 Rock is uncomfortable. Liz isn’t doing anything wrong. She’s perfectly competent at her job, and yet she’s sexually harassed, teased, mocked for her weight and her body, and told she needs to stop eating as much. She seems ashamed of her behaviors, which is a weird choice for the writers and for Tina Fey as Liz is supposed to be a strong (although flawed) woman. We don’t need anymore women with stereotypical, unrealistic flaws. We don’t need anymore women whose flaws are that they work too hard and don’t clean enough and have high standards when it comes to dating and like to eat. I’m getting really sick of the “very pretty person portrays nerd/ugly person” trope, as it reinforces over and over again that a. ugly people shouldn’t be ugly because it’s wrong in some fashion and b. that if you actually aren’t conventionally attractive then you’re full on hideous.

This is hardly a new complaint. We see it in a lot of the geek to pretty girl movies like The Princess Diaries or She’s All That. Except that in this case it’s a show that’s heralded as being good for women, and it’s not nearly as obvious. There’s no one telling Liz that she directly needs to change in order to get something, just mocking. We can do better. We can have more Tina Belchers.

Integrated Sports

I’ve recently become a fan of pro basketball, something that I never in my life thought would happen. I watch it often with my boyfriend and a couple of our other friends (all male). And more often than not, I’m struck and annoyed by the casual sexism that comes across in the reporting, who gets to report, the cheerleaders and dancers, and of course the fact that the league is still exclusively men (MenBA) while the WNBA is discounted (often by the same people I watch basketball with, who in many other areas are big proponents of gender egalitarianism).

So it isn’t unheard of for me to opine that we should integrate genders in sports. We have trans and intersex people who are trying to compete, amazing female athletes who do beat male athletes in a variety of sports (equestrian events are integrated and women win medals regularly, Billie Jean King beat out Bobby Riggs in tennis, many of the top rock climbers in the world are women and top distance runners are often women), and the current system tends to devalue women’s sports and create an extremely unhealthy environment for men who participate in sports (see: the NFL’s horrific record on domestic abuse).

The problem is of course that we do have statistical data showing that in many of the most popular sports, the elite men have a significant advantage over the elite women. In the NBA for example, height is such a high predictor of success that almost 17% of all men over 7 feet tall are in the NBA (this is so ridiculous I can’t even process it, as the league as a whole is one of the smallest professional sports leagues, with only 15 members per team). The tallest woman in the world today measures in at 7 ft 3 inches, whereas the tallest man is over 8 ft, with the next few trailing in the inches behind them, making it far less likely that women will physically be able to compete against the taller men.

There are many similar examples, like upper body strength in swimming, or weight in football. And unfortunately, most of the extremely popular sports are those that trend male: football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer all skew towards the male body type, whereas some sports that are geared towards women’s strengths, like ski jumping, open water swimming, gymnastics, figure skating, and shooting are not advertised, supported, or seen as important in the same way that male sports are. While there’s no surefire way to change the attitudes of people towards these sports, media coverage of them would go a long way towards showing people that they are actually interesting (also note that gymnastics and figure skating get huge numbers of views during the Olympics when they are broadcast widely).

There’s some good evidence that the cultures that make up male dominated sports are harmful both to the people who engage in them and the people who interact with them, pushing men to view women as objects and socialize exclusively with other men, giving them a skewed idea of what women are like and what they’re capable of. That means there’s good reason to consider integrating sports, especially as the sports that are integrated (for example cheerleading) show good evidence of being healthier for everyone involved and bestowing benefits like teamwork, understanding, and respect for women’s leadership abilities. So why don’t we integrate sports, and if we do, how should we go about doing it?

The first and most obvious way to integrate would be to simply have one league in which everyone plays, potentially with an A and B league so that we get the same number of athletes playing and so that we get the same set of less powerful athletes playing at the B league (something that many people find more interesting for the different styles of play it encourages).

The problem with that is that in the most popular sports the A league would de facto be predominantly male even if it wasn’t in a de jure fashion. It might even lead to less women in sports if there are events that are so skewed towards male bodies that men would make up the entirety of the A and B leagues. Ok, bad solution.

Another possibly more helpful way to integrate by gender but keep the playing field relatively even would be weight classes. Of course this won’t work for every sport, but it would be a start and could be instituted in sports where weight is a significant factor. For something like the NBA there could even be height limitations in some leagues. Or consider leagues that are mixed genders and require a certain number of men and women on the playing field at any given time. Even competition, but probably a slightly different game than the basketball we see now.

It also seems entirely possible that there could be leagues with slightly altered rules to make women more competitive. Some people might whine and moan about how this would destroy the sport, but all our rules are completely arbitrary anyway and the way we set up our competitions is completely arbitrary, so why not make it more accessible to women? I know you all love dunks, but imagine a league in which dunks weren’t legal and how that would change the playing field for gender equality. Ok MenBA fans, stop throwing things, you can still have a dunking league too if you want.

Of course a lot of the work when it comes to gender integration of sports is going to be convincing fans that women are both athletic and interesting to watch. It’s convincing people that sheer power is not the most interesting athletic attribute (or at least not always). It might even be shifting the massive amount of time and effort that certain leagues put into maintaining a masculine image towards one that’s more inclusive and accepting of people who don’t just want to commit exclusively to sports and only sports all the time by proving that they’re men, manly men, the manliest men.

There are so many interwoven cultural signifiers that take up residence within our conceptions of sports, both in the way they’re coached and presented to boys and men, as well as the way they’re consumed (typically by men and in coded male settings). Simply changing the rules to integrate women isn’t going to convince people to value different athletic traits and abilities or new ways that the games might develop if women were integrated. Too many people will simply see it as artificially lowering the playing field because they value power and sheer strength over balance, flexibility, finesse, or skill.

So even if we could find a great way to integrate sports, there’s probably a lot of work at retraining our brains and societal expectations to appreciate new things.

tl;dr I don’t see gender equality in sports happening any time in the near future.

 

Vocal Fry is Not a Crime

Once upon a time there was a new feature in language called vocal fry. It sounded a little like a cracking or growling sound and was generally an unconscious way of speaking. For some odd and utterly non factual reason, this feature of language became associated with young women, which meant that everyone and their brother and their uncle and their dog felt the need to comment and inform young women that it was bad, hurting them, and making them less hireable.

No one knows why the way young women talk is such a big deal to so many people (in particular old, male type people). Especially since vocal fry is also common among young men, actually causes no damage to the vocal chords, and has been around for quite some time, and is actually a totally normal feature of speech that most people use on a regular basis. So why the hate on women for using the speech pattern?

Well as with many things, this is another trend that you can add to “things we hate young, mostly upward mobile women for” because it seems that the only reason people dislike it is because it’s associated with the ladies (and a side helping of misunderstanding the nature of language change. Language changes. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Move on). Everything from leggings (sluts without pants!) to uptalk (why do you talk like you’re so uncertain you stupid girl!? Oh wait, most British people also use uptalk? Ignore that, it’s bad when you do it) to feather tattoos on your ribcage (trashy! so trashy!) is deemed horrible when young women do it. And yet there are all sorts of other people who engage in these same behaviors that don’t receive the same repercussions. In fact, there’s little evidence that any of these things cause any actual harm or problems to anyone (except that some people keep bitching and whining about them).

I’m really over the concern trolling of people who want to tell young women what to do, who say they’re just looking out for the well being of teens and young adults. Nope, sorry. There is absolutely nothing wrong about behaviors that you find kinda annoying because they’re different. And the oh so weird coincidence that many of those behaviors are associated with teen girls? Huh…might just say something about you.

So get over it. I’m vocal fryin’ dawgs.

Transhumanism, Gender, and Definitions

In the process of talking about things like transhumanism, I’ve started to hit a wall in my questions when it comes to identities, most particularly gender identities. It makes perfect sense why people should get to define their identities for themselves. It makes complete sense that there are more identities than male and female, that we need new words and new perspectives about how people can act and dress and talk. This is all new and exciting and I love the conversations about how we can make gender identities reflect the ways that people actually feel and identify.

But there’s been something hanging around at the back of my head that just came to light while reading this article about cyborg as gender (content note: the author has a really rudimentary understanding of trans issues that really detracts from the rest of what he’s saying). And then I realized: I no longer know what the heck gender is.

So the traditional definition of gender is the outward, cultural expression of your biological sex. Gender activists have pretty much blown that to smithereens, and the existence of intersex, trans, genderqueer, agender, bigender, and all sorts of other gendered people really complicates the idea that there is a one to one connection between sex and gender such that gender is an expression of sex. Really the fact that there are people who express the same sex differently (even people in the same culture or family) calls into question the idea that gender is the culture version of sex. The idea that gender is just an outward expression of the body parts you have is pretty outdated.

So what about other definitions? Some newer definitions include the idea that gender is how you feel or identify personally. If you feel like a woman you are a woman. That makes sense, but what does it mean to feel like a woman? Does it mean you’re more comfortable in the body typically assigned to women? No, because there are absolutely trans* or genderqueer people who prefer feminine pronouns and identify as femme but who don’t physically transition to a body assigned female. Does it mean to act stereotypically “feminine” or want people to treat you like a woman? No, there are butch trans women, and cis women who behave outside the norm, and tons of women of all stripes who are active feminists who want to change the way they’re treated.

Is it just about what feels comfortable? Does it feel comfortable to use certain pronouns or a certain name? That seems so far removed from the original definitions of gender that I’m not sure it makes sense to call them the same thing anymore. Perhaps it has to do with comfort in certain clothes or behaviors, but again, the labels that we give to gender seem to have little to no correlation to the outward expressions of gender. There are men who cross dress and women who buzz their hair, but we still recognize that if they identify as a certain thing they get to be that thing.

So when I say “I identify as a woman”, I’m not even sure what I’m saying anymore. When someone says that their gender is cyborg (which seems to make about as much sense as a lot of other gender identities: it’s a particular way of relating to your body and presenting your body to the world), what are they saying? I saw someone once write that they felt autism took the slot in their brain that people typically reserve for gender. They believed their gender was autistic. I’m starting to wonder if “gender” might not simply be a word for “first or basic identity”. Perhaps it’s the thing that we most strongly see ourselves as, and as we begin to create new gender categories, the old ones are becoming less and less helpful since they don’t actually point to a coherent category anymore (as anyone can fit into the categories of male and female. This isn’t a bad thing, it just means we need better categories that actually describe the ways people act and dress and speak without all the stupid baggage of the gender binary).

If that’s not the case, then it might be more helpful to break down the concept of gender into slightly smaller categories. There are already words for how you present (femme, butch, etc) that could be fleshed out to simply describe someone’s aesthetic. We might also need better words for the variety of things that “sex” encompasses (chromosomes, primary sex characteristics, secondary sex characteristics) to allow people to identify if they so choose based on their bodies. Maybe we also need more words for passive/assertive distinctions, or other personality differences separate from gender. But none of these seem to get at the question of core identity that many people view gender as. The problem seems to be that there are so many components to what a gender identity can look like that we’d need more words than anyone could possibly keep track of to label all the combinations that could exist.

None of this is to criticize anyone’s current gender identity. None of this is to invalidate the way people feel in relation to their bodies. It’s simply to question whether the words that we’ve inherited are the most useful in labeling the ways that we feel, or if we need to explore what we mean when we say them. It’s entirely possible that someone has already clarified a newer definition of gender that I was simply unable to find (if so, please link me), but I don’t think relying on words that imply a connection between sex and gender or between gender and the body is very useful when the ways that we understand gender today don’t rely on those connections.

I would love it if we could start to expand core identities beyond gender (which is the first category most people try to ascribe to people), so that people would allowed to identify as autistic or black or disabled first if they felt it was the most pertinent element of their identity. In order to do that, I think we need to start questioning what we mean when we say gender.

 

Yes We Should Talk About Bodies

Body positivity, skinny shaming, fatphobia, fitspiration. The internet has brought the age of infinite scrutiny of bodies. There are a lot of problems with this. There are fights, there’s an us vs. them that appears between fat and skinny women, there’s name calling and huge amounts of pressure to be fit and healthy.

One solution to this that many people suggest is that we should stop paying so much attention to bodies. We should focus on what people do and who they are and what they say. None of these things are unimportant, but the tendency to push the focus away from bodies in order to make people feel better about their bodies has quite a few downsides, and it’s one that I don’t hold with even though I have seen firsthand the dangers of focusing too much on my body.

I was reading earlier today a post with some criticisms of the body positivity movement. I am all for some of their thoughts (no, it’s really not that helpful to replace fatphobia with skinny shaming), but I was surprised when I hit #3: “It Keeps Us Body Focused”. The thrust of it was that we shouldn’t pay attention to what we look like because we aren’t our bodies; we’re the things we do and the personality inside. A lovely thought, but not really backed up by science.

Let’s talk for a minute about embodied cognition. I love embodied cognition, and I think you should too because it’s utterly different from the typical ways that we think and speak about minds and bodies, but also appears to have a fair amount of evidence supporting it. Embodied cognition is the idea that our brains and thoughts aren’t simply housed in our bodies, in many ways they are completely dependent on bodies. Our bodies not only influence the way we think, but sometimes changes in the body can completely change how we think. Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka define it as follows: “Embodiment is the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex internal mental representations.” One great example is this study that found people who needed to pee, who were hungry, or were tired were less likely to believe in free will.

George Lakoff, a linguist, has done a lot of work on embodied cognition and found that many if not most of the ways we speak and think are based off of our bodies. We use spacial metaphors for nearly everything, and those metaphors have a physical effect in the brain which can influence our bodies. For example a study found that when asked to think about the future, participants leaned slightly forwards but when they were asked to think about the past, they leaned slightly backwards.

None of this is hard evidence that our thoughts are entirely dependent on our bodies, but they do give some evidence that what we’re doing with our bodies has a big effect on our thoughts and vice versa. For more on embodied cognition, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Ok, so what does embodied cognition have to do with body positivity and improving self esteem for women and girls?

I have this suspicion that despite the intense scrutiny to which we hold our bodies and the bodies of others, we actually spend very little time paying attention to our bodies. We pay attention to how our bodies look, but not to how they feel or what they’re doing. And we ignore the ways that they affect us. We ignore that when we’re hungry we can’t think and we’re cranky. We ignore that being sleep deprived makes us nasty, angry people. And while there are times that we’re willing to point out how our bodies are ignored (for example when it comes to healthcare), we don’t necessarily talk about how embodiment affects our experiences of sexual and domestic violence, or of low self esteem, or of perfectionism, or all the other problems that women are facing today.

I’m willing to put down money that these things both have an impact on and are impacted by our bodies and our bodily experiences of them. Ignoring the actual, real bodies of women has led to a lot of problems in the past, from horrible medical care to rape. I suggest a reframing of feminism to a focus on bodies, but not bodies that are cut apart from our minds and seen as some kind of separate entity. Rather we need to spend some real time figuring out for ourselves what our bodies can do and how they’re frickin awesome (this may or may not involve looking at your body), as well as educating other people about what our bodies mean to us.

The obsession with certain body types is not actually a way of showing that we value our bodies and that we place importance on them. While it is a kind of focus on bodies, it’s actually a focus on the outside perception of bodies. It’s an obsession with standards and rules. But it misses out on whether our bodies are healthy and functioning, it misses out on all the ways that our bodies communicate to us (many of our emotions come to us through physical signals), and it misses the ways that oppression harms our bodies.

If any person is going to be relatively happy and fulfilled they need to be able to pay attention to their body enough to pick up on cues that something is wrong or that things are going right (like hunger cues or a runner’s high), as well as to understand that we can affect our emotions with our bodies. Respecting our bodies, both male and female and other, is actually pretty damn feminist since the masculine ideal tends to be of a disembodied rational brain. Let’s imagine a world in which politicians take a minute to do a mindfulness meditation when they start getting out of control angry. I imagine it would be a way better world, but I also imagine that it’s a world that’s respecting the traditionally “feminine” virtues a little more.

It’s possible that feminism can be successful by ignoring bodies and focusing on accomplishments. But I find it hard to believe that a movement that seeks to make people more empowered, happier, and create a just society will do so by ignoring an integral part of the human experience.

 

Gifted Kid Syndrome and Overcompensation

Ozy (who is amazing) has a (amazing) post up about what they call “Gifted Kid Syndrome“. In order to understand this post you need to read that post. Sorry, but I promise you’ll thank me because it’s insightful.

Like Ozy, I was often classified as a “gifted kid” and defined myself as “The Smart One” through much of my life. I was hardly an anomaly. Especially for girls, overachieving has become some sort of national pastime. There seems to be a leakage of the “have it all mentality” from women into the new generation, and girls are beating out their male counterparts in terms of grades, as well as keeping up the prerequisite extracurriculars and volunteer activities necessary for a college application.

But underneath the drive for “achieve achieve at all costs!” there is another impulse that girls still seem to be trained in, which is one of caretaking and self-flagellation. Other people are more important than you is a message that somehow every woman and girl that I know has internalized to some extent or another. These two impulses come together in a nasty iteration of the Gifted Kid Syndrome that Ozy identifies.

“At the same time, if you define yourself as Smart, there is going to come a time when you’re Not Smart. When you meet people who are smarter than you, or you  have to suddenly start working at a class. This can induce low self-esteem, depression, and general emotional crisis, because if you’re The Smart One what happens if you aren’t smart anymore? (Bad things. Especially if you’d already decided that you’re better than people because you’re smarter than them and suddenly they’re smarter than you.)”

Somehow as a girl there are two important things you have to do in order to be A Good Person: you have to never hurt anyone (never ever ever) and also you have to be perfect (at school and work and extracurrics and everything). So imagine you’ve spent most of your life building up your self esteem on academics and accomplishments, and trying hard to keep quiet about it all when other people are around, then you realize that you’re not actually the smartest person in the room, or that you are struggling because you never learned how to study.

It’s incredibly easy to go from “The Smart One” to “I suck” when your whole identity is stacked on that one (very unstable) foundation. Ozy definitely touches on this, but I think there can be an added component of guilt and self hatred surrounding relationships with other people when you’ve been raised as a girl, because the moment you realize that you’re not the smartest you begin to see all the ways that you were behaving in an arrogant and self-obsessed way, potentially hurting other people. Cue “you’ve been a bad female” feelings.

I distinctly remember getting a B on a test in high school and trying to tell my friends about how anxious and upset it was making me. Mostly they rolled their eyes and thought that I was bragging. Not only did I feel I was starting to lose my identity on the academic side, but it quickly became clear that I had to go to an extreme place of self-flagellation and self hatred in order to deal with it because anything else looked like a humblebrag.

I have seen too many smart, talented young women fall prey to this. They manage to balance incredibly low self esteem (in the form of losing their academic identity) with a kind of self obsessed perfectionism that implies they think quite highly of themselves (you don’t expect perfection of yourself if you don’t think you can be perfect). So these unrealistic expectations become a way to humanize yourself, to prove to others that you’re putting their needs before your own, even as you desperately push yourself to continue being The Smart One, above everyone else.

Being not just a Smart One, but a Smart Girl presents a particular set of challenges because being smarter than other people implies you’re better than other people in some way, but don’tcha know that as a girl you’re supposed to shrink in order to let other people fill the space?

I wonder if this has anything to do with the epidemic of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and just sadness that so many young women around me feel. There’s such a pull to overcompensating for being The Smart One when it feels like it both caused and solved all your problems (see: the loneliness Ozy cites and the feelings of superiority). There is also a lack of nuance in communal dialogues around being smart or gifted, so that we’re really left with the options of either being perfect or useless. This means when you realize you’re not perfect, it’s all too easy to jump to the conclusion that you’re utterly useless.

I don’t know if boys have this same feeling, the same impulse to soothe those around them and not be too forward or too uppity, but it is nearly impossible to balance the fragile self esteem of being The Smart One with that impulse. We don’t have to be perfect or endlessly, utterly selfless. There is room for complexity.

Mental Illness Isn’t Your Scapegoat

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: abusive relationships are horrible. We should do everything we can to provide people with information on what an abusive relationship looks like, how to get out of one, and how to stand up for yourself and your boundaries, as well as support for those who are trying to escape an abusive relationship.

There are many good resources out there on how to recognize unhealthy behaviors. There’s also lots of people out there doing work specifically with women and girls to remind us that we don’t deserve abusive relationships.

What is not a good response to abusive behavior is blaming mental illness. I can’t believe I have to say this, but it is 100% possible to have a mental illness, really any mental illness, and not be abusive. This includes individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder. Pointing towards abusive behaviors as intrinsically linked to any of these disorders is not backed up by facts (there are many abusers who use all of these same tactics and do not have any mental illness), and throws the rest of the individuals with mental illness under the bus in order to advocate for abuse victims.

This article at Self Care Haven has some great information about techniques that many abusers will use. Unfortunately, it couches it entirely in language of “narcissists” and how those individuals behave, rather than recognizing that any abusive individual can make use of these tactics (and many do), and recognizing that a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not a life sentence to being an abusive person who cannot have real relationships.

Abuse is a pattern of behaviors and interactions. It is not a personality. We don’t get to simply label any behavior we deem bad as “mental illness” in order to ignore how we as a society have contributed to it or in order to brush off any support we could provide for someone to change. I am all for speaking openly about mental illness and the challenges it can present in relationships and everyday life, as this is the best way to improve treatment and diagnosis of mental illness, but more often than not we use the label of “mental illness” to close a conversation about a difficult or painful topic.

Gun violence? They were mentally ill. Start a registry.

Domestic abuse? Mentally ill. Don’t date people with personality disorders.

Do you just disagree with someone? They’re probably mentally ill too.

Here’s the truth: even the personality disorders that make it most difficult to hold down relationships are not a life sentence. Borderline Personality Disorder, which has long been seen as the land of the manipulative and angry, has an evidence based treatment that has high success rates. Many people with BPD have totally functional lives with families, jobs, and everything else a healthy human being might want (ok, maybe not everything, but they lead fairly boring lives for the most part).

There are absolutely highly functioning individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or Antisocial Personality Disorder. There’s evidence that Cognitive Behavior Therapy can reduce symptoms and increase functioning, allowing patients to form better and healthier relationships. More study is definitely needed, but instead of broadly labeling personality disorders (especially ones that already come with a lack of empathy and distrust of others) as breeding grounds for abusers, perhaps we could put some effort into finding treatment for people who have these disorders.

None of this is to say that people who have mental illnesses should be excused of abusive behavior. But providing information about abusive behaviors and giving tools and support to victims is not mutually exclusive to providing mental health treatment options to abusers, and absolutely does not require that we assume a certain mental illness necessitates abusive behavior.

There are some parallels here to threats of suicide or self harm. If you have a mental illness, there is a possibility you will feel urges to enact these behaviors. Letting a partner or friend know that you are feeling the urges is definitely a good idea. Threatening the behaviors in order to get your partner or friend to do something is not ok and cannot be excused by mental illness. The urges are the same, the behaviors are different, and choosing the healthier route is a skill that can be learned. Similarly, the urge to use and manipulate people might be a hallmark of a personality disorder, but the urge doesn’t necessitate the behavior.

We can do better in how we talk about abuse.

Suicide as Manipulation: Bad Relationship Tactics

Last night I was listening to Harmontown (a most ridiculous podcast composed of Dan Harmon venting with his friends about random things), and part of the podcast included Dan and his girlfriend Erin talking through a fight they had just had. At the end of it, Dan jokingly said “well of course we’re staying together because I’ll never leave her and if she leaves me I’ll kill myself.”

Now I realize that this is a joke and I realize that as a feminist (TM) I am not allowed to have a sense of humor, so here goes, I’m going to get offended about this: don’t make this joke. Please. Even in a light-hearted manner. More often than not, this kind of joke has something at the heart of it, which is the message “If you leave me, I won’t be ok. I’m so much more dependent on you than you are on me that you have to stay with me or what I do will be your fault,”

Something that is never, ever, in a million years, ok is to threaten suicide/self harm if your significant other doesn’t behave in a particular fashion (having sex with you, staying with you, saying “I love you”, etc). I understand that it might be true that you will hurt yourself in the event of a breakup. I understand that you might feel that your significant other is the only thing that’s keeping you sane and alive in a given moment. But these things are not appropriate to share with that person because whether or not you intend them to be they are manipulative. This is 100% not to say that you can never disclose that you are having urges for these behaviors, but if it’s framed in the “if you do x I will do y” kind of context, you are suddenly putting the responsibility for your safety on someone else’s shoulders and that is inappropriate. Particularly if your response to someone else bringing up issues is to threaten self-harm, your relationship is based on manipulative premises and that is emotionally abusive.

This is going to be a short post because most of what I’m saying is (hopefully) self-evident, but rarely have I heard people address this particular abusive behavior head on, or even reference the joke-version that actually comes up surprisingly often. In this case, I understand that it’s a joke, but even bringing up this possibility to your SO is a dangerous tactic to use if you want to continue to have a healthy relationship. It tells them that somewhere in your brain that’s a thought. It tells them that maybe, just maybe, it could happen. So while it’s not the same as actually making the threat, it’s definitely not something I’d suggest if you want to be a decent human being.

Marriage Is What Brings Us Together Today

It’s that time of life where everyone is getting married. My brother has had a wedding to attend nearly every weekend since summer began, and even my not-so-interested-in-marriage friends are starting to get engaged. And so comes the phenomenon of name changes, and with it the anxiety that I get when I see my friends choosing to give up an identity marker as part of their relationship. While conversation about name changing has died off somewhat in the feminist movement, it’s still easy to find articles arguing both sides of the issue: women should be allowed to have the choice, it’s not unfeminist to do what you want to, women need to demand that men change their names, what on earth do gay and lesbian marriages bring to this debate, and why is it that 90% of the country still thinks that women should change their names upon marriage?

There’s a lot of deeper issues that names tap into. In literature, philosophy, sociology, and politics, names have importance. They help us define something, give it identity, allow it a place in the world. Names ground things in history, they give us a shorthand way of understanding what something is (this is particularly true of minority identities: having a name for your identity goes a long way towards making you feel part of a community or towards having legitimacy). So while many people might say that a last name just isn’t that important, that’s simply not true. Practically speaking, changing your name requires rebuilding your name if you have a career or contacts, changing a whole lot of official forms and documents (passports, driver’s license, etc), and changing even the way you think of yourself. It takes work, and that work far too often becomes the woman’s work.

Mary Elizabeth Williams argues that she doesn’t think most of her friends who changed their names are “pawns of the patriarchy” or that they’ve given up something by changing their names. It’s true that there are absolutely circumstances where a name change can be an act of liberation (e.g. changing the last name given to you by an abusive father), but for most people who choose to do it simply to please their partner/family/society, it might be time to get a little more critical. I doubt anyone is suggesting that women shouldn’t be allowed to change their names, simply that there’s a place in the conversation to ask why it’s always women and to challenge women to question. Choice feminism is great, but even freely chosen actions can contribute to an overall milieu of sexism.

What strikes me most about these conversations is the fact that every reason to change your name feels like an excuse. Every reason or situation could be solved in some other fashion that doesn’t require a woman to join her identity to her husband’s but not the other way around. If a woman doesn’t like her last name or has uncomfortable memories with it, she doesn’t have to wait around for a marriage to change it: you can change your name at any point in time. In fact one of my close friends just recently did this, and she’s all the happier for it because it was a choice of her own identity rather than a switch away from a painful identity into another person’s identity. If you want a unified family, hyphenate or make a new last name. The only honest to god reason for wanting a woman to change her last name but not a man is sexism, whether it’s in the form of a man feeling a woman needs to commit or a family wanting to carry on their name or some other variation thereof.

Spoiler alert: nothing about a title or name should change how you feel about someone or your commitment to them. While names do have power, they don’t make or break a relationship. My mother didn’t change her maiden name. My parents have been together for ??? years, through some incredibly rough times. No one could ever accuse my mother of not being committed to her marriage and her family (and if you do I will personally rip you a new one). The only confusion that ever happened was that one of my Spanish teachers thought my parents were divorced. We all got a hearty laugh over that one. Sometimes my friends don’t know what to call her. It’s real tough for her to tell them “Kathleen”.

Stop expecting women to bear the burden of accomodation. I’ve heard a fair number of men say that it was important to them, to the integrity of the relationship, or to carrying on their family name for their wife to change her name.  Can I just suggest that if your husband has cited any of these reasons you question your choice of spouse since that’s a whole pile of double standard he’s throwing all over you? Anything that says “women should do this, but men don’t need to,” is pretty textbook sexism. It doesn’t mean that you’re wrong for wanting to do it or a bad person. It means you’re participating in a sexist system and that we all need to learn how to question it. If you honestly feel that your marriage will be better because your wife changes something about herself, question that. If you feel pressured to change your name in order to be a good wife, question that.

There is absolutely no objective reason that a woman should be expected to behave differently when adjusting to married life than a man should, so let’s stop pretending it’s all for family unity and get to the heart of the issue: sexism. I don’t think every woman who takes her husband’s name is deeply hurt or oppressed by that decision. But I do think letting lots of little things slide reminds us over and over that we’re in a culture that values men and men’s identities over women’s, and that I have a problem with.

 

You’re Allowed To Be Influenced

For most of my life I have been vocal about not wanting to get married. Extremely vocal. Marriage is only what you make it, it’s unnecessary, it’s got too much history in patriarchal structures, it costs too much. I’ve never felt any particular need to announce to the world in general that I’m in love and want to be with my partner since the one who needs to know that is actually my partner not everybody else. I still believe most of these things. I still think that marriage is unnecessarily prioritized in America, and that defining a romantic relationship as the basis of family is unnecessary. I still think that weddings are a scam to cost lots of people too much money and that marriage makes straight monogamy the building block of society.

But I’ve realized that I want to get married anyway. Kind of a lot.

I’m not immune to culture. I’m not immune to the messages that paint your wedding day as the most romantic day of your life, and that illustrate marriage as a beautiful commitment between two people. I’m not immune to the excitement and joy that other people feel around weddings and marriage, and I’m not immune to wanting a pretty dress and good food and dancing.

I’ve spent a lot of time feeling guilty about the part of me that’s been influenced by culture, the part that wants to femme it up and be swept off my feet on my wedding day. But feeling guilt about the ways in which culture has influenced you doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t demolish the patriarchy, it’s just another way to tear yourself down for having feelings. Everyone has internalized things that they don’t necessarily believe logically. That does not make those things bad or wrong, just arbitrary. But not all arbitrary decisions are harmful. Sometimes you just have to pick between chocolate and vanilla without a logical reason except “I like chocolate”.

There are certainly problems with choice feminism, but as far as choices go, the decision to get married doesn’t have too many direct negative impacts and the choice to do what you think will make you happy as an individual is a pretty strong feminist choice when you’re a woman who spends too much time ignoring their own preferences and feelings.

There are absolutely contexts in which we need to question and challenge the cultural messages that we’ve internalized. But there are also circumstances where those messages are fairly harmless. There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by external forces. It doesn’t make you a sheep or a bad skeptic or a horrible sexist. It means that you’re a normal human being who has grown up within a culture, just like everyone else. The place at which you need to make decisions is when you realize that one of your beliefs has come to you through culture. Once you’ve done so, you need to decide what the consequences of acting on that belief are, how much it will affect your happiness to try to leave that belief behind, and whether there are good reasons to believe what you do.

Sure, it’s never good to hold beliefs without any critical thought put into it, but sometimes we have to accept our arbitrary preferences. So yeah, I want to get married and I don’t need any more reason than that.