Bess Sadler: library geek

This post fulfills my Ada Lovelace Day pledge.

I met Bess in 2007, when the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries took place near her old hometown. Bess is a geek’s geek, fantastic company, and a role model for me and for everyone.

Bess’s undergrad degree—one of them, anyway—is in Information Systems, putting her in pretty rarefied company. If that’s not enough, she’s done plenty of open-source development, most recently as project lead for the open-source Blacklight library catalog. I would say that Bess subscribes to my beat-things-with-rocks philosophy, except that Bess actually knows what she’s doing, and gets it right without resorting to rocks.

She also works hard to bring the benefits of open-source software to the developing world, as tireless worker for and promoter of Electronic Information for Libraries—Free and Open Source Software. Many first-world open-source advocates talk a great game about open-source saving the world. Bess? Bess is making it happen.

And a personal note…

Bess took me under her wing at JCDL, alerting me to the best coffee-and-dessert joint in town. As we sat enjoying some serious dessert, she hazarded that she might, possibly, know about a good comic shop in the area, and would I be interested in checking it out?

See, you never know how even a relatively geeky woman is going to respond to that. Maybe she’s a comics geek. In all likelihood she isn’t, and she’ll think comics are for guys… and fairly skeevy guys at that. Sometimes that impression is based on sad experience, too. Fortunately, I love me some good sequential art, so she and I dropped by and recommended each other some favorites and had a grand old time.

I’ve been admiring her ever since.

Bess’s blog is Solvitur ambulando. I don’t see how on earth she has time to keep up a blog, but I’m glad she does.

Edited to add: More of the Bess-love from eIFL.

Names and naming

Ursula K. LeGuin’s magic system in her Earthsea novels is predicated on names and naming. If you know the so-called “true name” of a thing, you can use your power on it, you know something about it that lets your power work on it. (The name without the power is useless, as demonstrated by Ged after his struggle with death, and Tehanu before she comes into her power.)

At one juncture, in the context of bodies of water, LeGuin points out that names are relative; we all have many, and part of what names do is draw borders around us. But whose borders? We are named individually and as classes of people and things; also, we are named because of the use we are to a mage, or a dragon. (Does an individual rabbit have a name? To a mage, they are all kebbo: a mass plural, or at best an adjective, masquerading as a singular noun. Does dragonspeech even have plurals?) Our names rub up against the names of groups we belong in, and the perspective of the mages who give and teach and remember names.

Naming is power. Using names is power. Remember that.

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life—only a few of them, before you ask, profane. Aside from my own given name’s usage, what I’m called is fundamentally not under my control. Even with my own name I don’t always win; if you look in the ASIST conference-schedule index, you’ll see that I’m listed as “Dorothea (Dorothy) Salo” because of a panel-moderator error, even though my name is not and has never been Dorothy. (Nor is it “Dorthea,” or “Doretha,” or any of the other various manglings. “Dorothea.” Please. If you don’t have eight letters in it, you’re spelling it wrong.)

Oh, I try to guide. I very deliberately pick phrases like “conversion peasant” and “repository rat,” because my stance toward the world is generally one of captatio benevolentiae. But there’s only so much I can do. Not very much at all, really.

Often I am surprised by what I’m called, nominally or adjectivally. I still remember the shock of “wait, what?” when a high-school acquaintance called me “sophisticated.” It was just miles, miles away from anything I would ever have thought of myself. Or when an OEBPS working-group colleague told me in all seriousness that I was a software engineer specializing in workflows. Oh, hell no. I just make stuff work, when I can. Software engineers are people with fancy degrees and advanced skills in math and logic and programming who get paid a lot of money because they’re valuable.

Last night a professional colleague called me a “social epistemographer.” Well, that’s a new one—I had to look it up just to think about it! It doesn’t feel like a name I can comfortably inhabit. Like software engineers, social epistemographers have a context, and that context isn’t the one I live in. I may do social epistemography. I may even do software engineering now and then (though I have significant reservations about that one). That doesn’t entitle me to the name. Naming is power, but it isn’t infinite power.

The names I get aren’t always benign. The mean stuff tends to be just as askew from the truth as the nice stuff. I’ve seen my anger and confusion about graduate school and academia called bitterness. Resentful, okay, yes, but bitter? I’ve been called crazy, and not in nice ways. I have been crazy, but I’m mostly not. “Intimidating” is one I hear with more frequency than I’d like. CavLec is substantially to blame there, as I’m quite a bit meaner here than in more social contexts; the rest of it is physical presence, which there’s little I can do about at this late date.

Another colleague pointed out to me this morning that one reason for the first-initials-last-name practice that drives me (as a librarian who would like a little more authority control in her life) around the bend: female scientists can avoid having their work automatically dismissed by male scientists when they go by initials rather than name.

Ouch. Cage match, librarian self and feminist self, tickets on sale outside. This is a real problem—just ask female orchestral instrumentalists—and for an individual female scientist, using initials helps solve the problem. It’s a “go along to get along” strategy, though, and any such strategy has an unfortunate externality: it divides and defeats the universe of female scientists, because it lets the men go blithely on ignoring and undervaluing those they can quickly identify as female by their names.

When I replied to my colleague that using full names may destabilize the implicit sexism of the current system, she answered, in toto, “Some women just want to do science, not be martyrs.”

I get that. I do. I just wanna be a geek, some days; I don’t want to be a martyr either. I don’t have the privilege of martyrless geekdom, and my name shows why. Not because anything particularly pernicious is attached to my name insofar as it identifies me—but a lot of pernicious stuff is attached to it, stuff that I can’t do anything about, insofar as it identifies that I belong to the class of women. Context, again. My name, in some contexts, is harmful to me; it gives powerful others a way and a social license to hurt, exclude, and demean me.

It’s frustrating. I loathe that particular externality. Not only does it mean I both am and look more isolated than need be, it’s at the root of some of the rhetorical tricks I hate like poison, the “I don’t see sexism!” trick, also known as “I’m doing fine; what’s your problem?” Not to mention the “If you’d just stop kicking up a fuss, we’d all be fine, including you” trick.

I’m fond of my name, for all its polysyllabicity and the spelling difficulty it causes others. I guess when it comes down to it, I’m willing to live with a little martyrdom to keep my name. I shouldn’t have to choose, though—and neither should anybody else.

Even here

I’m fat, graying, scarred, unfashionable, generally homely as the proverbial mud fence. It bothers me less and less these days, and today I was reminded why.

At break, I met another DSpace admin, who will remain anonymous in this post for reasons that will shortly become obvious. Unlike me, she is young and conventionally quite attractive. She introduced herself to me, and we talked DSpace geekery for a bit before she said in a low voice, “I was glad to see another woman in the room. There was this guy from [locale deleted] behind me who was going on and on about taking me out, and you helped me escape him.”

In other words, some creepwad came on to her. At a PROFESSIONAL CONFERENCE.

For future reference, I am always available as a haven for folks in like case. I give off plenty enough ugly vibes (never mind “tall and hefty and imposing-looking” vibes) to make these wankers piss off.

I don’t know who the perp was. I don’t want to know (though if I find out, he should worry). Right now I just want to tell him, loudly and publicly, that he needs to cut that crap out NOW. No woman should have to “escape” people in a professional setting. EVER.

And yet it happens. Not to me, because I’m old and fat and ugly and married. But it happens. And it shouldn’t. And when the hell is it going to damned well stop?

Do dwarves default male?

(No major spoilers for Discworld books in this post. Extremely minor ones if you don’t know about Cheery Littlebottom and Carrot Ironfoundersson.)

I used to hate the Discworld character Cheery Littlebottom. She annoyed the daylights out of me: a character who didn’t have to behave like a girl who nonetheless wanted to. Dresses, makeup, the whole silly act. Why on earth would anyone…?

Finally I got it. I got what Pratchett was driving at. And it’s so beautifully subversive and clever that I just have to share.

Cheery is a dwarf. Pratchett’s dwarves are a takeoff on the famous note in Tolkien about dwarf women being rare, bearded, and almost impossible to distinguish from male dwarves. Dwarf biological gender in Discworld is so difficult to distinguish in normal interaction that even the dwarves usually aren’t sure who’s which.

A one-gender society could conceivably be behaviorally indiscriminate; all members would say and do things that in gendered societies are associated with different genders. (LeGuin hints at this in some of her Earthsea tales, when male mages who have grown up in all-male Roke do “women’s work” quite naturally, because they’re used to it and don’t realize or don’t care that outside Roke work roles are gendered.) They wouldn’t care about how humans gender behavior; why should they? Nobody needs to know whether the dwarf swinging the axe or rocking the baby is male or female. Dress could also straddle the divide; why not?

But Pratchett doesn’t do that. From a human point of view, dwarf society is exclusively behaviorally male. Dwarves wear their beards proudly, swing axes and throw waybread (a riff on Tolkien’s cram, of course) at the least provocation, ponder gold and mine for it, swagger and brawl and wear lots of spiky metal and generally act in ways that code them male. The only time you see a Pratchett dwarf doing something coded feminine is when Pratchett can make a joke out of the contrast between the male presentation and the feminine social position—e.g. dwarf barmaids.

Check it out, though! Dwarf maleness isn’t what they biologically are, because a lot of dwarves are biologically female! Dwarf maleness is what they do, how they act, and it isn’t just humans who code dwarves male—it’s dwarves themselves; they call each other “he” and “him” and insist that gendered folk like humans do likewise.

Feminist scholars have a phrase for this: “gender as performance.” It’s a viciously hard thing to get people to agree happens, since folks are so invested in the idea that biology determines gender-specific behavior. But Pratchett slips performativity in like medicine in candy. It’s beautiful. My hat’s off to the guy.

Just to reinforce the point, Pratchett highlights the performativity of dwarvishness in the person of Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson. Biologically, Carrot is human; he’s six feet tall and beardless, and was born of (biologically and culturally) human parents. Culturally, he’s a dwarf; he was raised by dwarves, self-identifies as a dwarf, and is accepted by dwarves as a dwarf (though some humans do roll their eyes a bit). Dwarvishness: it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.

And along comes Cheery Littlebottom, who is a dwarf. And biologically female. And decides that she wants to perform femaleness as well as inhabiting it. Do the dwarves accept this, seeing as how they have a one-gender society that is theoretically not limited in its behavior by gender?

Do they hell. They decide that their male-normativity is so important to them that anyone who doesn’t perform maleness threatens the entire dwarvish way of being. Cheery’s behavior causes a huge furor among the dwarves. Some of them (notably, the “deep dwarves” depicted as the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes dwarvishness) consider her non-dwarf. To her credit, she keeps doing what she does, and (minor spoiler) eventually the more cosmopolitan parts of dwarf society learn to cope with their feminine outliers.

If you’re not seeing parallels with the whole Honorary Guy thing, well, what’s wrong with you? Programming cultures, geek cultures, gaming cultures, many other online cultures—they’re theoretically ungendered, but they behave male, and any behavior that codes feminine is automatically suspect—even coming from a bio-guy.

As I suggested in my honorary-guy post, any attempt to question male-normativity in one of these groups automatically codes feminine, and is considered a threat to the group identity itself. The perp gets smacked down hard, if not kicked out altogether. How else to explain why a guy got jumped on for questioning a sexist headline? A little while ago in one of my comics blogs I saw an exactly parallel scenario commented on (and I wish I could find the darn link again!). I daresay most of my readers can dredge up more examples.

Pratchett doesn’t sugarcoat Cheery, and I applaud him for it. There is no mass dwarf regendering in Discworld, though a few brave dwarves do follow Cheery’s example. There is no vanishing of dwarf prejudice. What I love most about Cheery, actually, is that she is herself far from free of prejudice, and there’s more to her than her gender-performative rebellion. She feels whole and real, insofar as a secondary fantasy character can, and she doesn’t offer any easy answers.

There aren’t any easy answers, after all. But at least Pratchett helps frame the right questions.

Sexism and group formation

I got Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment out of the library again, because it’s a book I like with a message I needed just about now. I don’t know how many women in male fields (and no, that’s not a spoiler; it’s clacksed from the very first page, and the title is a dead giveaway too) Pratchett talked to before writing this one. Perhaps no one out of his ordinary acquaintance; the man has a gift for hitting bullseyes about human interaction.

A (minorly spoilery) passage that hit me this read-through:

He looked innocent, so possibly he didn’t understand the raging argument that had just broken out in Polly’s head. A credit to the women of your country. We’re proud of you. Somehow those words locked you away, put you in your place, patted you on the head and dismissed you with a sweetie. On the other hand, you had to start somewhere…

Part of the annoyance of being feminist is having these arguments with myself all the damn time. It’s such an energy drain. Do I call this one out? Did that person mean what was just said, or was it just a brain-fart? If I dig in my heels and howl, am I going to create more heat than light? Will anybody back me up? Why, for heaven’s sake, did that make me so angry? I’m a grownup, and it’s not like I haven’t heard worse before. Why can’t I just let stuff go? How much trouble am I willing to get into over this? Honestly, how much?

Meredith used the word “subtle” to characterize sexism in systems librarianship. I’m going to use the word “insidious” instead, and try to explain why. “Subtle” carries the connotation “intentional” to me, and I don’t believe that’s warranted. I don’t know a single librarian of either gender capable of even thinking anything like that absurd Forbes article (which from me gets no linklove, nuh-uh, no way).

And when I cut loose on CavLec finally, I didn’t get a pile-on in return the way Bess did. Well, I sort of did, actually; I spent a solid month and more answering email with my teeth lacerating my tongue to shreds. But the pile-on wasn’t an outpouring of blatant insult. It was an outpouring of “hey, um, WTF just happened?”

Insidious. The word implies invisible destruction of trust, which to me is just right. I started out, as I think many women of my age started out, honestly trusting that the worst of the struggle for gender equality was over, and that I could and should expect to be treated with courtesy and respect wherever I went. Not because I was a woman, not in spite of being a woman—but just because. Because it had finally been acknowledged that women are, you know, people and stuff.

When you think about it, against the tapestry of history? That’s an amazing trust. The wonder isn’t that it gets broken in some women. The wonder is it’s left intact as often as it is—and not just out of blindness, wilful or otherwise.

The reduction of women’s contributions to sniffed-at footnotes that annoys Pratchett’s Polly is only one insidious way to damage women’s trust in basic fairness. The one I most recently ran into boils down to honorary guyness (and I use the word “guy” rather than “man” intentionally). A woman can be an honorary guy, sure, with all the perquisites and privileges pertaining to that status—as long as she never lets anything disturb the guy façade.

It’s good to be an honorary guy, don’t get me wrong. Guys are fun to be around. Guys know stuff. Guys help out other guys. Guys trust other guys. And in my experience, they don’t treat honorary guys any differently from how they treat regular guys. It’s really great to be an honorary guy.

The only problem is that part of the way that guys distinguish themselves from not-guys is by contrasting themselves with women. Women are the not-guys. It’s an incredibly insidious set-up. When a guy cracks a pr0n joke, he honestly doesn’t have anything against women; he’s just affirming his guyness. Other guys take it so, and don’t think twice about it. It never occurs to the guys that these boundaries are artificial, that there’s nothing intrinsic to women that makes them not-guys, that there are better ways (e.g. group purpose, mutual support) to define a group and the desired characteristics of group members. And since that never occurs to them, pr0n jokes and the like get baked deep into group culture.

Honorary guys, now—some can see the guyness-affirmation for what it is to the guys and let it go. I know some honorary guys who do precisely that. Maybe their trust in fairness remains intact (after all, as honorary guys they’re being treated well); maybe it doesn’t. Maybe some of them come around to the guy point of view, despising women who haven’t become honorary guys. I’ve never quite dared ask.

I’m not that kind of honorary guy, I’m afraid. I’ve paid for it, and I expect I shall again. But at least y’all get to watch me talk through it all.

Mark, then, what happens to temporarily honorary guys who have trouble accepting the typical guy style of group-membership claim. Every guyness-affirmation from every guy erodes their trust, in that specific guy, in the group, in men, in fairness. My $DEITY, do they think about me like that? Heavens, that was disgusting and uncalled-for—do they know how they sound? If they know, do they care? How do these people treat their mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, female bosses, female co-workers? Do they laugh at them behind their backs? Do they laugh at me behind mine? If so, what am I doing here? Do I really belong, or am I just the mascot, just the dartboard, just the token?

Insidious. Let me tell you, insidious. Not least because the guys have no intention of causing these reactions, and no idea they’re doing it. I haven’t even touched the question of fear for one’s bodily and professional integrity, but in the worst cases, it’s real. If I’m in a hotel bar with these guys at a conference, am I even safe? If these guys have power, am I toast if I tick them off? Even though most guys would be outright horrified that any woman, especially an honorary guy they honestly like, would distrust them so.

Now mark what happens when a guy, honorary or not, assails the definition of not-guys as women by asking for the pr0n jokes to stop, please, and now would be nice. Every guy in the place has suddenly had his guyness, his group membership, even the very existence of and justification for the group, called into question. Of course the result is unconsidered defensiveness. How could it be anything else?

And that defensiveness is a serious, sometimes fatal, blow to the honorary guy’s trust in the victory over sexism. Not only will guys crack pr0n jokes, they’ll defend the practice, bemoan losing it as a diminution of group culture; I’ve seen ’em do it. Even though (here’s the insidious bit) it’s not really pr0n jokes they’re defending; it’s group cohesion. And when honorary guys have no more trust left? Well, I’m Exhibit A. Come to your own conclusions.

The story doesn’t end there. Groups blow up, feelings are hurt all ’round, everybody yells and screams, friendships are broken, people are blacklisted, nobody understands WTF just happened, the guys suddenly wonder if they trust honorary guys and if they should, and it all sucks amazingly. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, bled (metaphorically) all over it, wish like you wouldn’t believe that things had been different.

Meredith’s comments have a deeply troubling variation on the honorary-guy scenario; it isn’t only “guys” who use this group-cohesion method, and it isn’t only women who are shoved into the not-us group. I saw this same scenario brought up on a different library blog (I forget which, or I’d look it up); the female techie librarian targeted had the courage to dispute the homophobia with “And if I am [lesbian]?” Good for her. I hope her co-workers felt all due shame.

In addition to the homophobia, though, I want to call out the anti-techism in that anecdote, even though as an outrage it pales in comparison. How many librarians are defining librarianship as intrinsically analog? (Shortly after I was hired, I heard a librarian at MPOW angrily insisting that MPOW needed to hire “real librarians.” I wasn’t sure what she meant by the term, but I got the message loud and clear that she didn’t mean me. Was scary at the time, I admit.) How do we change that group definition without threatening those librarians’ self-concept?

I’m not saying anything here that a passel of sociologists haven’t said better than I ever could. That’s the funny thing about all this. It’s not hard to read about these things. There’s lots out there that would help us break these counterproductive patterns of group formation within our profession and in the larger world. We’re librarians. Why do we not read, why do we not research, when patterns like these damage us?

I have suggestions for worthwhile reading, but this post is too long already. You could do worse, though, than start with Monstrous Regiment.

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.

The sickening grunch

In hopes of salvaging something useful out of yesterday’s fiasco, I’m going to talk about the cloud over “sexy.”

Should define my terms first. I am talking about the social construction of female sexual attractiveness and femininity here. I am not talking about individual women’s public expression of sexuality. That understood (it is understood, right?), let me tell a story or two about “sexy.”

Funny thing about the outfit that sicked the two street-corner bozos onto me. A few years earlier, back at Indiana, I was wearing it, walking through the parking lot of the main campus library with a group of—classmates, I think it was. Yes, we were coming from a research-methods-and-resources session. Anyway, I was talking with another young woman about Irish monastic penitentials or something like that when a couple of guys in a big ol’ car started the wolf-whistle-leer-and-comment-suggestively bit, with particular reference to my breasts.

There it was—the sickening grunch as I landed involuntarily back in my body—and not my entire body, either, but specific parts of it. The conversation was ruined. I felt uncomfortable for being targeted. My conversation partner felt uncomfortable on my behalf, and I think a little devalued as well; being targeted is no fun, but being ignored is no fun too, in its way. Sensing that devaluation, I said something about how it was only because of my clothes; if I had dressed the way my conversation partner had (sweatshirt and jeans), I would have passed unnoticed.

Which was probably true. It didn’t make either of us feel any better, I don’t think. Nor did it help us repair our shattered conversation. We weren’t two students any longer; we weren’t two minds looking for common thoughts. We were two bodies. Bodies don’t talk about Irish penitentials.

Note carefully, by the way, that I wasn’t the only woman in that incident to feel the sickening grunch. The woman I was talking with did, too. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if other women walking near us did as well, to a somewhat lesser extent; I have certainly felt grunched when women near me were the overt grunchees. Judging one woman that way turns every woman in earshot into a body.

(In passing, let me mourn the loss of what had been my favorite outfit. It’s a nice one. I was, and am, very fond of it. I’m sad that I don’t feel comfortable in it any more, that it’s languished unworn in my closet for years now. It’s just a white tank top and a handmade openwork lace blouse from Mitla, Mexico over a broomstick skirt whose dominant colors are white, purple, and the same sky-blue as the lace.)

About the same time, my role-playing group switched from a Robotech campaign to a heavily-munchkinified Dungeons and Dragons campaign. I rolled up a gnome illusionist named Fechan. I intended her to be short, squat, frumpy, grumpy—but boy howdy, could she ever sling magic.

It is said, usually by people who want an excuse to laugh at gamers, that gamers use games to try to inhabit the ideals that they themselves fall pitifully short of. Said ideals are usually thought to be shallow, Muscleboy or Superbabe. Well, there’s a grain of truth there—not a few gamers are hunting ideals. I was. I wanted Fechan to earn regard with intelligence and skill. I wanted her to be so secure in her abilities that her ugliness wasn’t even a question, never mind a problem. She was meant to be so good at what she did that sheer ability outshone everything else about her.

And then the (male, natch) GM insisted that Fechan have god-level charisma (only he didn’t like the Charisma stat, so he went ahead and called it “comeliness”).


Not even in a game, an explicitly unreal world, could I get away from the ironclad expectation that women have a place on the sexiness continuum.

I ran with it. I really did. I turned Fechan from a fairy-tale witch into a little china doll. I subverted the living daylights out of the situation, and Fechan became one of my all-time best characters. But from the day I first played her to the day I wrote my last bit of fluff about her (long after the campaign ended), the hallmark of her personality was her utter disregard for her own beauty. It was as close as that GM allowed me to get to my ideal.

This same GM was driving me and two other participants (one male, one female; the female participant was the GM’s girlfriend) somewhere early in the school year when the talk veered to new acquaintances. The other guy in the car mentioned a young Asian woman he’d just met.

“Fuckable?” asked the GM, utterly out of the blue.

“Yeah, I would say so. Not, like, gorgeous or anything, but fuckable,” said the other guy.


Multiple experiences of the sickening grunch—not just once, not just twice, but over and over again, as grunchee and as witness—is what makes it so damned hard to take when “sexy” and similar social constructions of femininity haul my body unceremoniously into the conversation when it is utterly irrelevant to what’s going on. And whether I want it to be or not. I don’t control the conversation about my body. I can’t, except perhaps by throwing temper tantrums on the scale of yesterday’s.

Not even on the Internet, where nobody’s supposed to know or care that I’m a dog. All the folks waxing rhapsodic about escaping their bodies on the ’net are men. Without exception (that I’ve found, anyway), women who write on the topic are less rhapsodic, more troubled. They know they can be grunched, driven involuntarily back into the sexual parts of their bodies from what is supposed to be a realm of the mind and spirit. What woman on the ’net hasn’t been?

Much is made of women’s hatred of their bodies, and rightly so. My own track record in this regard is not sterling, Mung knows. I don’t know that I’ve often heard it said, though, that the damage is not just due to impossible standards of attractiveness—it’s due to not being able to escape one’s body, attractive or no. Not being able to escape being judged by one’s body. Not being able to escape being aware of one’s body and how other people react to it.

Yet for me, that inability to escape my body is far more troubling than the actual judgments of others regarding it. Yeah, I’m nobody’s pinup, so what? If that fact could remain unregarded, firmly in the background of my conversations, of my blog, of my work, of my walks down the street, I’d be happy. But it can’t, because the world around me refuses to let it.

As I told Mike in email this morning, I have a couple of Peruvian coworkers who are justifiably wog-boggled by race checkoff boxes on American employment forms and whathaveyou. They just don’t think of race in those terms, and find it borderline insulting to be forced to check off a box when they feel (correctly, IMO) that the whole basis for judgment is ludicrous.

That’s where I am on “sexy,” sometimes even on “female.” I don’t like the checkboxes available; I don’t really want to be judged on that axis at all. Yet I can’t get away from it, any more than my coworkers can escape American concepts of race (since they don’t want to leave).

Makes it hard for men, I know it does. Hard for women trying to reclaim “sexy” for their own purposes, too. What is, say, Gretchen Pirillo supposed to think of me? That I’m jealous? That I hate her because she’s beautiful? I’m not, and I don’t. It’s just that how she constructs herself involuntarily (involuntarily; I want to stress that) makes me vulnerable to judgment on a standard I don’t want any part of.

I don’t have an answer to all this, and after yesterday it would be highly presumptuous of me to get all prescriptivist on folks anyway. All I’m trying to do is offer some data points to explain why I and a lot of other women have a hair trigger when it comes to the word “sexy.”