I would say that in general, at any sort of party—but especially the ubiquitous college dance-or-talk-really-loudly-in-the-other-room party—the unspoken collective mission is to “maintain good vibes.” I have found that as a result, conversations at parties have to be a certain kind of innocuous: fun, engaging, maybe even argumentative, but always playful—never to the point where real talk is being had. I have always found this frustrating. The identities attached to our bodies, and all of their complex implications, do not just leave and float away once we enter a party. They are just as, if not more, vulnerable to intolerance and hate. The patriarchy goes to parties too.
I understand the importance of an appropriate time and space for things. In fact, usually conversation around issues of magnitude like gender or race or sexuality or [insert here] are best had in a facilitated “safe space.” But as we all have experienced before, sometimes someone slips in a comment in a conversation at a party that shocks and digs in the wrong way. And sometimes, the need to “create a safe space” keeps important conversations from happening with people who are probably not in need of a “safe space” in the first place.
What keeps people from having these conversations? In some situations, social customs—many of which are gendered—and the fear of breaking them. The politics of respectability in this society have created special rules for how women should express themselves in public and private: we are largely expected to be submissive in conversation, especially in conversation with men. I do not mean just that we are supposed to be quiet. We are also frequently expected to laugh at jokes instead of tell them and to comment on subjects of conversation instead of introduce them. Women who are aggressive—for lack of a better term—in social situations with men almost always face gendered critique or are desexualized as the “bro female friend.”
As a woman, I have been on the receiving end of the patronizing “calm down” for most of my life. It’s as if people have some radar listening for an increase in decibels or words per minute in my speech. And the moment the radar goes off, all of a sudden I am “emotional” and therefore “not rational” and therefore all that I have just said is moot. I am just going to say it: to expect me to talk calmly about the Steubenville rape case, especially with a few drinks in me, is a very lost cause. Such a tragedy deserves more than the usual five-second exchange that happens when someone brings up a touchy issue in a conversation and the other person is not game to discuss it. There’s either a blunt shift in tone, a departure from the conversation to “go get a drink”, or even more frequently, I have found, a laugh between the two people about the seriousness of the topic, followed by a hearty “oof, let’s not go there.”
A couple of weekends ago, I was at a really crowded party having a conversation with two people who I believe identify as straight, white, and male. The conversation dawdled around a weird string of topics from gun control to life as a freshman. I do not even remember exactly what I was saying, but I do remember doing most of the talking in the conversation. I felt comfortable and happy and didn’t give a fuck about how loud I was talking. One of the two guys stopped me all of a sudden and said, smiling a little coyly, “I think that you are really emasculating.” Immediately, my insides flexed with the fight-or-flight response. I went with the former of the two.
“What do you mean by that? Why do you say that?”
Then the other chimed in. “You are just really dominating in conversation. It’s pretty masculine.”
“What do you mean by masculine?”
“Like just really dominating socially. I mean it as a compliment,” said the first.
“But I’m just doing me. How does that affect your masculinity—how does that emasculate you?”
And then came the well-known dagger. They both replied with some sort of iteration of: “Calm down, I mean it as a compliment!”
I politely left the conversation and went outside for some air. I wasn’t even that angry or offended, per se. The strange thing is that what I felt, more than anything else, was confusion over whether I should be angry or offended by their statements. I remember sharing this experience with a couple of my friends. Their responses were interesting, and undeniably gendered.
A lot of my male friends agreed that they were complimenting me, one of them saying to me “You must have loved that.” A lot of my female friends were equally irritated and confused about their comments, unsettled about how they equated masculinity with domineering behavior, and by extension, femininity with weakness or submissiveness. They all pointed to the party setting as reason not to overthink the event.
But allow me to possibly overthink it. (After all, Hamlet should have said, “to problematize or not to problematize, that is the question”).
Notions of masculinity and femininity are difficult for me to swallow because they tend to characterize traits or types of behavior that I desperately want to keep separate from stereotypes of my gender. The two guys I was speaking to revealed how they saw outgoingness and outspokenness as masculine traits. It appears to me that they may have internalized centuries of culture and socialization that have placed men as the default controllers of public and private spaces. And so, they felt the need to comment on the fact that someone who is not male was behaving in ways that they saw to be controlling of the space at hand. I would not go as far to say that they were threatened—although they did admit that they were in some way “emasculated” by me. In fact, it appeared to me that they meant it as a compliment—as a way to flirt, even. I think they were trying to say how being seen as powerful is positive, and well, empowering. The implication of this is that being “masculine” is also positive. But do I want to be powerful if others perceive my powerful behavior as distinctly man-like? On the other hand, I cringe just as much when people tell me to embrace my status as “a powerful woooooman,” as if I was the leader of some complexly girly but high-powered Babysitter’s Club. In reality, any gendering of my behavior makes me anxious over the ability of my “genderless” ideas, actions, and creations to stand for themselves and be celebrated without the identity of the person who owns them all.
I very well could have been loud and domineering in the conversation. And they very well could have felt steamrolled as a result. By their gendering of such power dynamics—by turning “dominating” to “exercising masculinity” and “emasculating”—they have reinforced the hegemony of the white male patriarchy. Usually, it maintains power by remaining invisible, fully ingraining itself in the natural way of things that it is rarely identified and challenged. But interestingly enough, here were two straight white males rendering issues of masculinity visible in the middle of everyday conversation. In many ways, I am thankful that they decided to articulate their thoughts on my behavior, even though I found them problematically gendered. It is better than the alternative: for example, a person viewing the aggressive social behavior of another as an invitation or justification for unconsented sexual contact.
Whether we choose to discuss it or not, our internalized thoughts on gender will make themselves known, constantly manifesting in the way we dance or work or have sex with each other. People are always going to be communicating, just not always with the right terms and intentions. By silencing the discussion, rather than delving in, we reinforce gender stereotypes and the social dynamics they create. We need to be having more explicit conversations about gender and how it shapes our social expectations. In many situations, to be political is to be a killjoy. But by letting sexism slip away unaddressed, we only give it the opportunity to trickle back in some other form, moments later or at the next party or the one after that. The trick may be to figure out how to have that conversation anywhere—like with two guys I barely know, by a keg in a room full of people completely oblivious to the conversation I am having. But if they were to join us, what would they say? Could they say the very things I can only keep on the tip of my tongue? Or would we all talk at each other for a while and then split our separate ways, into the next room for dancing or outside for a cigarette or around and around inside our heads for a way to forget how uncomfortable we felt when he or she or they said that thing “that one time.”
–Kristy Choi, Politics Editor
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