31 Mar 2014

The Complications of Compliments

"If it's not too anti-feminist to say this...."
"Can I be horrendously sexist for a minute?"
"I'm about to say something misogynistic..."
These are not phrases that immediately precede words of terrible sexism, as one might think. It's entirely understandable that that's exactly what you're expecting to hear, as we all know that as soon as someone utters the words "I'm not racist, but....", they're guaranteed to finish the sentence with a proclamation of racial prejudice. Ditto "I'm not a homophobe, but...", "I've got nothing against them, but..." and all other passive-aggressive forms of expressing bigotry.
However, these three phrases were uttered by men in my life, intelligent men who know that any expression of sexism to my ears will be met with a rebuke so forceful it will burn their faces off, so one might expect them to tread a bit more carefully than the average caveman who complains about gays or people with brown skin or thinks sexist jokes are a way to impress a woman. And you'd be right. What followed the three phrases above were not jokes about washing up or domestic violence, not proclamations that the gender pay gap is just women's fault for wanting to have babies, not suggestions that wearing a short skirt is 'asking for it' nor any of the garden-variety expressions of misogyny that one unfortunately still encounters far too often in this supposedly progressive society. Instead, two were compliments about my appearance, and the other was an admission from a male friend that he had had sexual thoughts about a woman he saw that day.
So why such caution in expressing these non-earth-shattering thoughts? Has the stereotype of feminism as hostile to all matters sexual and appearance-based really permeated so far that even the smart, feminist-friendly men in my life are afraid to say "You look nice today?" or "I found the woman in front of me in the queue attractive?".
If it has, I'm not going to blame feminism for this misunderstanding. To my mind, it's pretty easy to understand. Feminism never made it a crime to comment on a woman's appearance. What feminism has always objected to, is the treatment of women as if their appearance is the first, or only, thing that matters about them, the disproportionate focus placed on the appearance of women, while men's appearances are secondary to their (already assumed) capabilities as people, the insane pressure on women to appear a certain way, and the framing of female sexuality as nothing more than a performance to visually appeal to others and please men.
Unfortunately, paranoia about endorsing any of the last four phenomena appears to be halting men from even entering the arena of complimenting women, to the point where they find it safer to just say nothing, rather than risk a torrent of infuriated abuse. Again, I repeat, that's not feminism's fault - if anything, it's the fault of an insidiously-planted and still much-supported warping of feminism's image to that of the (and oh, god I really hate using this phrase) man-hating, humourless harridan.
Even though a quick glance around the average feminist meeting will show you plenty of young, slim, white, long-haired, feminine women whose appearance could frankly not be more media-friendly and who tend to outnumber those who prefer short hair or lumberjack shirts, the feared yet mythical misandrist warrior is still the face of feminism in so many people's minds. Even in those of the men who know and love myself (young-ish, size 10, long-haired, make-up and dress-wearing) and many other feminist women in all our multi-faceted, strident glory. How is it that such a tired and offensive stereotype still manages to wash away these men's knowledge of real women, and replace it with the notion that if they tell me I look nice today, they're going to get their face smashed in?
It fucks me off that debates still rage about whether we should be trying to make feminism less 'scary', more accessible and more 'appealing'. I say, absolutely not. I say, I'm all for educating and explaining, but I'm dead against pandering, and I am not dressing up my belief system as anything other than its own messy, furious glory in order to placate those who demand such a disguise in the first place. If you aren't sympathetic to feminism's aims to begin with - and that's not the same as admitting you don't know a lot about it, or don't understand certain parts of it, because those admissions are not a problem in themselves - then it's not my job to make it 'prettier' for you. If you can read and you've got internet access (which your reading my blog implies you do!), then you have all you need to educate yourself. If you're already thinking "Wot, I might not be able to refer to women who reject me as 'prick-teasing sluts'?" with outrage, then me trying to glossy-up feminism for you ain't gonna achieve a damn thing - your problems with women run deeper than any argument I can offer in favour of not treating them like shit.
But to the 'good guys' who are confused, who feel that the demand for respect sometimes jars with the way they look at, or think about, women, and feel guilty about that fact, I'll say this. It's OK to find people attractive. It's OK to notice a stranger's body parts. It's OK to fantasize, and even though I know there are feminists out there who deeply disagree with this, I believe it's OK to have fantasies that seem dirty, violent, disrespectful, or involve language or imagery that you would not dream of describing out loud. Why? Because they're just fucking fantasies. They're not hurting anyone. If you're feeling like you want to make those fantasies a reality in a way that disregards the agency or bodily autonomy of another person, then that's a problem, yes. But I refer you to my comments above - if that's your problem, it's not an issue for feminism. It's an issue for the therapist's couch, and that's where you should be heading for guidance. As I said in my previous post about porn addiction, I don't care what sexual fantasies a man has, or what his thoughts are about a woman's appearance, as long as he continues to behave in a way that respects women as full people, not just bodies, and not just there for his entertainment. I'm not interested in policing what's in anyone's head - because god knows I'd be thrown in the clink sharpish if people could see some of what goes on in mine.
Also, while there are some lucky people who genuinely don't care about how they look, most of us - male and female - do. Although I agree that the disproportionate emphasis on female appearance is evidence of a sexist society, and that our increasingly visual culture is threatening to spiral out of control, I don't think caring about looks per se is evidence that we're warped as a species. Far from it, I think it's quite natural. Animals groom themselves and so do we. In some Native American societies, it was the men who plucked their eyebrows and painted their faces to appeal to the women. We all want to be noticed, we want to be found attractive, and in most cases, that's because we would rather like to have some sex. If I was planning to celibate for the rest of my life, then I might take a lot less care over my appearance (and who knows, I might still strike lucky, because much as a sexist society tells me I'm nothing without my hair done, my make-up flawless, my legs shaved etck, I can recognise that I'm not actually hideous without those things), but the reality is that I'm a pretty highly-sexed individual, and I want the people I find attractive to want to have sex with me. Shocker! So if someone I know and trust compliments me on my appearance - whether or not they're the object of my attraction -  I might be quite pleased, because it's a little bit of confirmation that my career as a sexually active human being is likely to continue.
What I'm not going to be pleased about are the following: wolf whistles, car horns being honked, strangers shouting comments about my appearance in the street, comments that reduce me to nothing other than body parts, being touched without my consent, and a million other sleazy, disrespectful approaches that every woman you know will have experienced at some point in her life. What's the difference between this and my male friend telling me I look nice? It's pretty simple. In one scenario, I know I am being seen as a full, varied and complex human being, with feelings, thoughts, values and a personality as well as a face, hair, a bum, boobs and a vagina, and I know this because the person addressing me has known, loved and respected me for 15 years. In all the other scenarios, I instead experience the horrible sensation of having my humanity disregarded and being defined by nothing more than my body. That's the difference. Every woman knows it, because we've all experienced the shitty, undermining and often threatening way in which the latter is carried out, and if he cares about women at all, every man will make sure he knows that difference too.
Now, some man (or woman) might be looking at me from across the street and thinking about my bum or boobs or vagina in a way that makes them feel guilty. They may be having 'animalistic' thoughts, filthy fantasies, imagining my body in all kinds of naughty positions. But unless that person uses their thoughts as an excuse to approach me in a way that reduces me to nothing other than a receptive body, I do not care what they're thinking. I have no wish to condemn that person as anti-feminist. A person having dirty thoughts about me and still respecting me as a human being are not mutually exclusive. If you think the two are, then that is your problem to resolve, not feminism's.
It's really not that complicated.


Weebly/Aly said...

Hi Chas,

I'm a little confused. You say "So if someone notices something appealing about my appearance - whether or not they're the object of my attraction - and comments on it, I might be quite pleased, because it's a little bit of confirmation that my career as a sexually active human being is likely to continue."

I'm intrigued as to what the drunk guys in the library said to you now to for you to have got so annoyed at them.

I tend not to compliment people on their appearances because some will take offense, so to prevent causing offense it is better to keep quiet.

Catherine 'Chas' Scott said...

I've rephrased that line to make my point clearer - "So if someone I know and trust compliments me on my appearance - whether or not they're the object of my attraction - I might be quite pleased", but I think the paragraph afterwards sums up drunk guys shouting at me in the library does not count as a compliment - "What I'm not going to be pleased about are the following: wolf whistles, car horns being honked, strangers shouting comments about my appearance in the street, comments that reduce me to nothing other than body parts", as their behaviour counts as both of the latter (if you substitute 'street' for 'library')!

As I hope the post adequately conveys, it's all about context. Strangers shouting random comments about your arse is never intended as a compliment - it's intended to intimidate, humiliate and silence you, and give the abusers a laugh at your expense. It's not intended to make you feel special, but rather picked on. I don't believe that any man does it genuinely thinking he is going to make a woman feel good about herself.

More on that topic here - http://allthatchas.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/what-were-you-thinking.html

As you say, it's really not hard to follow the maxim 'If in doubt, don't'.