Saturday, May 16, 2009

Perverts, Punctuation, and Performing Public Privacy

I've been putting this off because it's depressing and difficult and I'd rather not have to relive it. But here it is: I was at an academic conference in March, perusing the book tables, and I happened to be dressed casually since it was the last day of the conference. I was wearing this:

Some middle-agey white guy at the next book table catches my eye, smiles and says: "I really like your shirt." I say "thanks." He asks me where I got it. I tell him it's from a feminist bookstore no longer in operation. He smiles kindly and says: "Oh well that's a great shirt." I thank him again. He adds (still smiling): "And the apostrophes are in all the right places." I'm still nodding and smiling back but suddenly feel confused. Before I absorb what has happened he turns around and walks away.

I don't think of myself as naive, but this interaction took me completely by surprise. It took several minutes before I registered what he could have meant and several more minutes before I could repeat what had happened to my colleague/friend. Her reaction was one of immediate rage and disgust. She helped me realize what I was suspecting; the guy was making a wholly uninvited comment about my chest. It wasn't friendly and harmless chitchat, it was gross and inappropriate. And later over cocktails with our professor/colleague/mentor/advisor who also identifies as a feminist, we hashed out and reacted to how absolutely awful this incident was on so many accounts. She remarked that this guy was, unfortunately, representative of a lot of men she had encountered at such conferences. Vomit.

What was even more surprising to me was that minutes after this incident occurred, I was walking out of the book room and another guy stopped me to ask what my shirt said. He made direct eye contact with me as he spoke, and was very clearly avoiding looking down at my chest. My colleagues and I had to laugh at this ironic sequence of events, which we continued to process for a long time afterward.

Every time I've put on this shirt since returning from the conference I've thought about that guy, his sense of entitlement, that he could go ahead and comment on my body without any consideration of how I might feel, without any respect. It's even more ironic when I think about the message written across the shirt, calling for respect toward women and their bodies (playful though this message may be worded). In truth, I wear clothing with writing on it expecting people to read what it says no matter where the words are placed. Go ahead! Read my shirt! Maybe you'll learn something. But this is NOT an invitation to objectify, feast and comment on my body. Making that leap from observing to consuming my self-presentation is indicative of your learned misogyny and privilege. It is NOT consensual.

Lady A. and I came face to face with this sort of dickheadery yesterday when dressed in our queerleader outfits, cheering for our friends' softball team as we do every Friday. A crotchedy ol' guy told us flat out that he was seating himself behind us so that he could watch "the view" as we cheered. When we told him to get lost and stop being gross he got defensive, and actually argued that we "dress like this and go out into a public space" and then have the "nerve" to call him "a pervert." Eventually we joined forces to drive him off our bench, making it entirely clear that he was unwelcome. But he went away grumbling, not apologizing (of course), probably chalking it up to our "bitchiness" rather than his unfair privilege and sexist fucking attitude.

Let me be clear: I dress (and fully intend to continue dressing) how I want whenever I want and my choice of dress DOES NOT serve as a free-for-all occasion to objectify and sexualize me. My body is not a public buffet. And here's where I'm sure it gets complicated for all the sexist fucks out there: Feminine-presenting individuals have every right to choose when, how, and if we wish to invite (sexual) attention, but that choice is ours to make. No one should assume. No one is entitled.

I think the person who dresses and the person observing the dress(ed) are "in relation(ship)" to/with one another--to varying degrees, of course. And when I say "in relation(ship)" I mean a lot of abstract things, but one thought I'd like to put out there is that dressers/observers aren't necessarily occupying polarized or dichotomous positions. For example, when I dress I *might* have an audience/observer in mind. I see dressing as costume, masquerade, a performance. For me, it is rarely an isolated act; I often construct and imagine my audience/observer AS I dress. So like the text printed across my shirt, I invite eyes to look at and engage with (and maybe delight in) my choice of clothing. But this doesn't stand as an invitation to fall into sexist scripts of objectification or power-over dynamics.

Anyway, I'm feeling somewhat defeated and lost because I don't know how to sum this up and present it to those who need to "get" it the most, especially in those swift, surprising moments when shit happens.


lady_a said...

hey, i'm going to comment on this later, but i wanted you to know i changed my blog URL:

i think you may need to change that on yr dashboard. :)

lady_a said...

i think this is my favorite blog of yours yet. perfectly stated.

mike m said...

AND, all the apostrophes are in the right places.

highfemme said...

Thanks for this post. Your rage is refreshing. Keep fighting the good feminist fight, in all its forms!