Scotch the grunch

Some interesting responses to the grunch essays. Kalilily has one which I rather suspected was coming; I hope my comment to it clears up any misunderstandings. So does Burningbird. And I’ve seen some fascinating newcomers in my referrer logs.

(Which, by the way, are astoundingly active for a blog that just moved. I try not to be audience-conscious, because it doesn’t help and can hurt, but I can’t help being surprised and humbled at the numbers, and the blogrolls I see this blog on. You guys actually read this stuff? Scary.)

Jonathon does a pithy, if somewhat passionless, summary:

I take from these unambiguous statements that Dorothea wants her relationships with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances—in real life or online—to take place free of any reference to her physical attractiveness, with the parallel desire that we all be more thoughtful, considerate, and aware in our public expression of potentially problematic gender issues.

Yes, that about covers it.

Speaking of public expression of potentially problematic gender issues, however… I got an email yesterday from someone I appear to have convinced (of something; I’m not quite sure what). He asked me what he should do to keep from grunching women he knows or meets. (By the way, I am using “grunch” both as noun and verb; as noun, it can be the act of grunching or the feeling that one gets once one has been grunched. Feel free to discuss its morphosyntax amongst yourselves.)

Specifically, he asked how to avoid the inadvertent grunch, and what to do once it’s happened. And what about women who seem to be asking to be discussed or related to in a fashion that for other women (like, say, me) is grunch-worthy? He gave the example of a woman wearing a T-shirt that said “Stop checking me out.” “Nice shirt,” he told her, with a smile. Was that wrong of him?

Look, I’m a little leery of answering questions like this. Doing so sets me up as an Authority, which I emphatically do not claim to be. I have very carefully restricted myself to talking about my lived experience, the last few days, because that’s all I can authoritatively pontificate about. I don’t talk feminist theory, sociology, or etiquette; I am ludicrously unqualified to do so.

Besides, Authorities tend to attract people trying to knock them down, chop hostile logic with them, trap them in inconsistencies in order to hoot at them and disregard everything they say. If I’d wanted that kind of thing, I’d have stuck it out in academia. Heck, I’m already starting to feel uncomfortable (not grunched—uncomfortable) with the directions Jonathon is going in; I’m wondering if I’m about to be set up as the Straw Feminist so that arrows can be shot at me.

I’ll save you some time, Jonathon: the arrows will hit, sooner or later.

Still, I am sensitive to people feeling lost. Mung knows I feel that way often enough. So I’ll say what I think, as long as we all understand that I am just one person with no special grasp of the issue, as likely as anyone else to get it wrong.

No, I don’t think my correspondent was out of line at all. I’ll leave it to speech-act theorists to explain why, but I don’t think it’s possible to wear that shirt expecting to have it taken seriously. (Perhaps a large number of women all wearing it might pull off such a meaning, but I think they’d need a pretty clear context of protest, even so.) And certainly I find a comment on the shirt rather than the woman hard to construe as a grunch.

But what about my correspondent’s larger questions? How do I not do this? What do I do if I’ve grunched someone without meaning to?

That last one is easy. If you can tell you’ve offended, even if you did so unintentionally, you apologize. Surprising how often that mitigates the offense. And if it doesn’t, it isn’t you being rude.

If you don’t understand how you offended, can you ask? Depends, in my opinion, on how well you know the woman and how serious you think your offense was. Some things are better forgotten. Immediately. Most things aren’t that bad.

How do you keep from offending? Well, look, you can’t. None of us can. Ego vobis absolvo in advance, okay? But trying not to offend is laudable. Here are some ways I would suggest of going about it.

  • Mention aspects of a woman that she has clearly chosen, and leave unsaid what is luck of the genetic or environmental draw. Has she got a nice dress on? She picked it out, bought it, and chose it to wear today. Probably safe to compliment it. Stay the heck away from the way her body looks in it. She probably knows, and may indeed have chosen the dress on that basis, but you are heading for grunch territory if you mention it.
  • Please remember that women have ears. It’s not only the woman you’re talking to (if you are talking to a woman at all) who hears you. To pick an egregious hypothetical example, talking about how hot the new executive vice president is in earshot of her female assistant is a dead-on grunch for the assistant. Misunderstandings are legion in this arena; try not to add to them.
  • Make a conscious effort to vary the ways you describe women, both physically and non-physically.

    You will probably find this surprisingly difficult. I do. Just fluff-writing, I have to pay considerable attention to how I describe female characters. It’s astoundingly easy to turn into a medieval trope. (For a real challenge, try describing a woman physically as you would a man. I do this when I write about Juskinah. The results are curious but fascinating.)

    The bonus here for those who get off on sexually-themed descriptions of women is that women are likely to be less touchy if the sex thing becomes one way to describe women, not the way.

    Plus it’s just plain good for your writing—and Mike, I’m aiming this right between your beady little eyes. Describing women sexually is hackneyed. Been done. A yawner. You want to compliment a woman? Come up with something original to say about her. “I find her fuckable” is as unoriginal as it gets, no matter what you say about why.

I don’t doubt there is more to be said here. I do doubt that I will be the one to say it, at least in the immediate future. Barring another nifty-neato essay question in my email, I’ve just about written myself out. Indeed, I will probably put myself on a strict diet of technology posts for a week or so just to refresh my mind.

Ugly is as ugly does

Andrea and Burningbird are feeling sorry for me at the moment. Poor Dorothea, who must not love herself or allow herself to be loved because she calls herself ugly. (If I’m mischaracterizing the argument here, let me know; but I don’t think I am.)

I’m genuinely shocked that neither of them, wise and insightful people that they are, realized how this perpetuates the tyranny of attractiveness, the immense public yardstick we must all be measured by. By assuming that I cannot like myself unless I believe myself to be physically attractive (to someone, at least; Andrea brings up my husband, and Bb talks about self-acceptance), they allow physical attractiveness a hegemony over self-worth.

Me, I want physical attractiveness completely off the table, and have all along. I did muddy the waters, I admit, by my unvarnished physical description of myself. What I hoped to do thereby, though, was point people at other dimensions of character, other possible descriptors. Hey, guys, the lost watch is over here in the dark, kindly stop looking under the streetlight half a block away.

I partly succeeded. Andrea handed me several graceful compliments on my writing, for which I thank her. I accept valuation of my writing, and of me based on my writing. That’s a dimension I choose to be valued by.

Yet I partly failed. What both Andrea and Bb seem to have missed, or deliberately passed over, is that I didn’t get beat with the ugly stick until relatively recently. I have been perceived by the world at large as pretty. Even, yes, sexy. I wasn’t really any happier about the physical-attractiveness standard then. (Truly. I remember an entry in my eighth-grade journal, nominally about having to go out and buy a supply of larger-size bras, in which I fervently wished that my breasts could be magically wished onto someone who would actually value them.)

I mean, I don’t even like it when my non-physical characteristics are reduced to bodily or sexual attractiveness. I didn’t let Mike off the hook when he claimed that my mind was somehow sexy, did I now? What I hear from Andrea and Bb’s well-intentioned (and appreciated) efforts to get me to admit I might be attractive amounts to “Everybody has to be pretty. If you aren’t pretty some way or other, you’re nothing.” Which is exactly, exactly, the message I objected to when it came from Mike Golby.

Other people (e.g. Halley) can fight the good fight to expand the definition of attractiveness. I’m all for that; my own parameters for physical attractiveness are so unlike the culture at large’s that I’d like the definitions changed just so I can see more people on TV and in movies that I actually want to look at.

(Not to mention listen to. Pretty has such a stranglehold on American TV that it boasts pitifully few listenable voices. Does anybody remember the character Peggy Ruth-Anne, played by Peg Phillips, from Northern Exposure? Homely as a mule, but oh, that voice! I used to keep the tail of my eye on the TV even when I wasn’t really following the show, so that if Peggy Ruth-Anne showed up I would know to start listening.)

Fundamentally, though, redefining pretty is not my fight. I want to be ugly and not have it matter. I want my sexual attractiveness to remain a private affair between myself and my sex partner, rather than being speculated upon by every person who so much as passes me on the street or wants to toss my blog a quick compliment. I want “bonita” and “fea” alike paired with “estar,” not “ser,” and even when the pairing is “estar bonita” I want the reaction to be fleeting and tacit, not character-defining and public.

I want to be like Mary Renault’s Simonides in The Praise Singer, who says:

Nowadays, friends and fellow poets will talk of my ugliness as easily as of my clothes. Mostly it is done as a kind of courtesy, meaning that I can afford it; and I take it so. Sometimes malice creeps in, but envy does not hurt a man like scorn.

That’s what I want. Permission to be plain, even in my own eyes. That, to me, is the self-acceptance that Burningbird wants to instill in me over coffee. (Hot chocolate okay, Bb? I’ve never been a coffee drinker, but I make a mean pot of Castilian hot chocolate.) Insisting that I’m pretty isn’t acceptance; it’s denial.

Now, this isn’t to say that I care for Themistocles and his ilk. (Plutarch says that Themistocles once twitted Simonides over a poem critical of Corinth, since Simonides dared to be a prominent citizen despite his ugliness. How dare an ugly man criticize a great and beautiful city?) Yet Themistocles’s insult is just as scotched if Simonides along with everyone around him doesn’t care about his ugliness, if Simonides can hold up his talent and say “This is enough,” as it is if Simonides or his helpful compatriots redefine away his ugliness.

“As easily as of my clothes.” Yes, that’s it (pace the importance of clothing in this luxury-mad culture). My physical attractiveness, or lack thereof, should be no more important, and receive no more comment, than my choice of socks. Yet it does receive comment because it is important—to Andrea, to Mike, to Bb, to Halley, to my college GM, to the bozos who exuded a sense of physical and sexual threat because they liked the way I looked in a broomstick skirt (and that, Andrea, is what was scary enough to stir my husband into threatening back, and to relegate that outfit to the closet), to everyone.

That is the cage. That is what being grunched is about. Being grunched isn’t being judged physically with disapproval. It’s being judged physically at all, particularly when such judgment is grotesquely out of place and unnecessary. That is the cage, and I want out of it. I am unutterably sick and tired of being grunched.

Go back and read what I’ve written this past week, please, and see if that isn’t what jumps out at you. It jumps out at me, but then I wrote it and I understand myself. Clearly, I haven’t been getting the message across to others as well as I’d like. I hope this entry into the discussion does a bit better.