September 9, 2019
Lately I've been a bad feminist. I feel like I no longer deserve the proverbial patch sewn above my breast pocket. I should rip it off and slink into the shadows of the patriarchy from which I came.
A combination of the early death of my mother, my affinity for my father, my mentally-ill stepmother, and my collection of male best friends meant that for the first two-thirds of my life I was one of those girls that "didn't like other women". I wore that shit like a badge of honour - though it really was more like a set of chain mail armour. The female authority figures in my life were largely untrustworthy, emotional, gaslighting - or had inadvertently abandoned me. By contrast the men in my life were strong, rational, successful, and could do whatever the fuck they wanted. They only listened to and supported women when it was convenient to them. Their needs came first. I didn't recognize it as a gender divide back then, but by the time I was 10 years old I aspired to walk through life with the same ease and privilege as a man.
I can remember at big Easter dinners when I was a kid, sitting around the table surrounded by plumes of cigarette smoke, listening to the men talk shit as the women bustled around the outskirts of the scene - clearing dishes and serving tea. Of course I wanted to sit with the men and listen to their crazy stories. Who wants to help clean up and gossip in the kitchen? Who wants to be described as a group of clucking hens?
I think the illusion of acceptance and exception to some hidden rule made the flickers of betrayal all the more biting. And it took me much longer to see the damage of what was really happening.
One of the clearest examples of this was meeting a close friend of mine to celebrate his birthday. I had assumed it was just the two of us going out and hadn't done anything special to get ready. I was wearing a cute and simple sweater over a pair of jeans. Hair up, no makeup. I didn't realize it mattered. My worth in his eyes had never depended on what I was wearing so why would it now?
I showed up at the bar to him sitting with a group of men I didn't know. They smelled like too much Axe Body Spray and eyes slightly squinted. They were on the hunt. I have never felt so unwelcome in that friend's company. I think he had forgotten he invited me. I could tell the men immediately felt silenced around me, and I did my best to ignore their schoolgirl whispers as I sipped my Coke. No way was I going to drink around these bros. They opened up after my friend told them "don't worry, she's cool."
Don't worry. She's cool.
What the fuck is that supposed to mean?
Except I know exactly what that means.
I started talking shit. You know - that bitch is a whore, I bet she'd blow you in the bathroom - whatever. I had to earn my keep. I had to "be cool".
I'd never had it slap me in the face like that before, the realization that I was selling myself out like that. But I had been doing it for years. Haven't we all.
I'd laughed at dirty jokes that belittled me.
I'd smiled politely as colleagues made lewd gestures towards actors' headshots.
I'd rolled my eyes when I found my boss standing on my desk chair to look out the window and down women's shirts sitting at the patio below.
I'd kept walking when someone slapped my ass on set.
And that shit was just at work.
Being in the "cool girl" club has it's disadvantages. You relinquish your membership to the lady-club. No one compliments you on your looks, because you’re never pretty. Look, you're either the one being cat-called or you're standing next to the dude doing the cat-calling. There is no in between right? Right?
I remember the first time a stranger acknowledged me as an attractive young woman. It was the janitor at our Grade 8 school dance. I can still remember what I was wearing, and the asshole I was trying to impress. The janitor was mopping something up and as I stepped around him he said to me:
"Be careful sweetheart."
This 50-year-old janitor made my night because for a flicker of a moment he gave me value in an area of my life I had subconsciously written off. In that flicker of a moment, I was someone worthy of being deemed a “sweetheart”. I was pretty.
Those moments are few and far between. I feel ashamed that I still sense a glimmer of validation when some maintenance guy whistles at me in an airport loading zone. It's also jarring. Like all of a sudden I think "Oh right, I have boobs and a vagina. Huh." It's in those moments that I remember I am being hunted like those women the night of my friend's birthday. It makes me zip my hoodie up a little higher.
Working with a string of strong, sane, bad ass women began to change everything for me. It opened my goddamn eyes to what was going on, what I was putting up with, and what I could do about it.
Apparently if your boss tells you to lose 10 lbs, asks you to sit in on auditions where he plans to sexually harass women, refuses to sign off on things unless you baby him like his mother - or any combination of the above, you have every right to tell him to go fuck himself. This also applies if your boss is a woman.
I began to find my tribe of boss bitches, and we built each other up in a way I'd never experienced before. I realized these woman had so much in common with me, and I was shocked to realize that somewhere along the way I had alienated myself from them. It felt like I had so much catching up to do.
I had a brief period of mourning. And of being really angry. I thought I was angry at men, but mostly I was angry at myself and the patriarchy bullshit I had believed and put up with for so long.
Fighting the good fight has its downsides. I'm pretty sure I lost - at least in part - a job over it. But the crazy thing is I wasn't all that upset. To set boundaries and fight for what's right means being able to accept the consequences when those are pushed.
But old habits die hard. A shitty part of the human condition is the fact that an easy, base way to connect is by coming together to tear another person down. To talk shit. The same way I'd learned to talk shit when I was around those post-Easter dinner tables. It's easy to let comments slide, to not start something when you hear an offside comment. To let it go. To laugh in spite of your goddamn self.
My anti-feminist digressions smacked me in the face recently when I was out with a group of male colleagues. At some point in the night I noticed them drop their voices. I caught fragments, snippets, but it was enough for me to know they were discussing the relative attractiveness of past female co-workers.
I didn't say anything. But if I had it would have been something like this:
The second you start debating the physical, sexual qualities of a female co-worker, you put a value label on it. And it puts a disgusting target on all our backs. Because now, as I stand here beside you, I realize that I have been mistaken in thinking you consider us equals.
Now, if you don't evaluate my sex appeal it implies I don't even register on your value scale. If you do, I suddenly fall neatly and solely into the category you choose, as if nothing I've ever done factors in. This feeling of marginalization happens in a second, and is done in a low voice because you know what you're doing is wrong.
And suddenly I’m back on that barstool, sitting across from my so-called friend, realizing that I'm a third-rate citizen who doesn't even register as female because you don't want to fuck me.
I'm a goddamn creative executive who has suddenly allowed herself to be transported back to 8th Grade, looking for a janitor to tell me I look pretty. I have failed. I have betrayed myself.
The moment passes, and the window closes for me to say anything. I feel ashamed. Somewhere along the way I began letting myself down again. All the versions of me.
10-year-old me sitting at Easter dinner trying to camouflage as a young man.
14-year-old me desperate for a cat-call to validate my self-worth.
Early 20s me knocking on a closed office door and waiting an extra moment to make sure I don't walk in on anything.
Late 20s me talking shit about other women to become "one of the guys".
Old habits die hard.
But I don't want to make excuses.
I want to be better. I want us all to be better. For all those past versions of us. And for future us too.