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.