As a grad student, I had the pleasure of being a teacher’s assistant. While I really did love the experience, there was nothing in my adult life that has made me feel so old. The gap between an 18 year-old shiny new university student and a 29 year-old jaded grad student with a giant debt and giant chip on her shoulder is astonishing.
One moment that made this gap particularly apparent was our discussion on feminism- or rather, my discussion on feminism. When I asked the class to raise their hands if they were a feminist, about four out of approximately 50 students raised their hands. Amazed, I assumed this lack of association was either a) because they clearly did not understand what feminism was or b) they were all asleep. Well, it turns out a) and b) were only partly true.
Mostly my students did not identify with the term because it has negative connotations, feminism doesn’t seem relevant to their lives, and because they believe that men and women are equal. Where was I supposed to start? I wanted to quote Caitlin Moran in her response to the lack of women who classify themselves as feminists: “What do you think feminism IS ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it the freedom to vote? The right not be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue,’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF SURVEY?”
Instead, I went on what turned into a 10-15 minute rant about the usual: the wage gap, rape culture, eating disorders, gender norms (and how these negatively affect men too), domestic violence, how the conservative government villainized feminists in the 80s in an attempt to get back to more “conservative values”. Unfortunately, while I may have changed a few minds, I likely just played into the “angry feminist” stereotype, which at first I felt badly about. But lately I have to ask myself- how is it possible to be a feminist and not be angry? How can you interact daily with the effects of patriarchy and not get pissed off?
Not getting pissed off would be just be another example of adhering to gender norms and expectations. As a woman, I’m not supposed to get angry or raise a fuss- it’s “unladylike”. I’m not sure how this norm came about. Sometimes I imagine a bunch of men sitting around designing the game of patriarchy- “Don’t you think the women will have a problem with this?”- “Nah, we’ll just impose a set of rules that prescribes how men and women should act- we’ll just say women shouldn’t get angry and raise a stink about things because it is not in the female character- biologically or socially- and if they do, they’ll be ostracized.”- “Sweet.”
I wish I could count the number of times I’ve been told to ‘lighten up’ when I point out any number of injustices that exist. Just ‘lighten up’, ‘it’s just a joke’, ‘don’t take things so seriously’. Well, guess what? This is me lightening up! The fact that I don’t scream at the top of my lungs every time I see sexism (or racism, or heterosexism, or cissexism, or ableism, etc.) enacted is a sign that I have in fact, “lightened up”. The fact that I can still laugh (because what other choice do we have but to laugh at oppression?) is me “not taking things so seriously”. It’s a survival tactic and we all have them.
In this line of work, we engage daily with how factors such as economic dependence, domestic violence, gender norms, sex work and trafficking, injection drug use, and incarceration can impact women’s risk of HIV. Women who belong to socially and economically marginalized populations face inter-connected determinants of health that can adversely impact their HIV diagnosis and treatment. How is anyone not to get angry about this? When a woman tells you she was infected because her husband refused to use condoms and she had no choice but to go along with it because of economic dependence, how do you not get upset? When a woman tells you she had to sell sex for food, how are you not fazed? When a woman tells you she contracted HIV because she was raped as a tactic of war, how do you even go on? How, exactly, do I “lighten up” in these circumstances? Please, I am open to suggestions.
This is largely infuriating because it is so difficult to change. It is structural, so deeply engrained in our laws, our culture, our politics, our arts, our media, our relationships, our jobs, our psyche that we are not even aware of the many ways different forms of oppression exist, let alone the ways they are connected.
Perhaps I am not doing the best job of picking my timing to unleash this anger either. For example, the other day a friend of a friend called me an Eskimo because I was wearing a particular parka. I politely corrected him (without singling him out because part of being a woman dictates that I be cautious not to hurt people’s feelings), to which he replied something to the effect of ‘whatever’. I kindly tried to point out to him how the term could be offensive and brought up the recent campaign for the Washington Redskins to change their name as an example of how names can be offensive. Being a sports fan, and likely wanting the conversation to end there, he again diminished this argument by telling me: “it’s fine”.
Now maybe it was because I had just come from work and had been listening to my colleague talk about sex work in Guelph, maybe it was because I could feel eyes ogling me as I had walked into the bar that day, or maybe I am just so tired of white, heterosexual, male privilege, but this comment made me angry- to say the least. I wasn’t rude…really- I was stern and merely pointed out that yes, it might be “fine” for him as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class man, but he, given his identity and location, really couldn’t comment much on whether it was “fine” or not for Aboriginal populations.
Yes, I was angry. Yes, it was apparent. Yes, people looked at me. Yes, I immediately felt bad when I saw the confused look on his face. And yes, it maybe wasn’t the best time to unleash some of the anger I carry around with me- but when is really? If it is not in these interactions in our personal lives, then when?
Change starts with the individual, right? And sometimes the conversation that starts this change is not a polite one.
Well, I can bet you he will remember that conversation and maybe even thought for a second about his own privilege. So what else was I supposed to do? So I apologized and told him I was just feeling a bit tired of the patriarchy that we live in, because, of course- I didn’t want to look like an angry feminist.