Saturday, June 02, 2007


Treating women as equals

Natasha, at Pacific Views pointed me to an item by Carnacki in Daily Kos, which in turn pointed me to a commentary by Joss Whedon. It's more about how our society treats women.

Carnacki's entry starts with pole-vaulter Allison Stokke, and her tribulations with having her photo, along with lewd commentary and such, posted all over the Internet. He does a segue into Mr Whedon's comments about Dua Khalil, a woman who was stoned and kicked to death in an “honour killing”, as if there could be honour in that.

Joss Whedon goes from the the “honour killing” to a general comment about how our society values women less than men in many ways:

Women’s inferiority — in fact, their malevolence — is as ingrained in American popular culture as it is anywhere they’re sporting burkhas. I find it in movies, I hear it in the jokes of colleagues, I see it plastered on billboards, and not just the ones for horror movies.
Carnacki concurs, linking the two situations, that of Allison Stokke and Dua Khalil, back together:
It seems a far cry from a pole vaulter to the death of a teenage girl in Iraq. It's not. The sexual objectification of Stokke and the murder of Khalil are both symptoms of the same problem: men don't treat women as equals.
Please read what these guys have to say; I can't possibly write about those topics as well as they did.

Reading their general comments, though, reminded me of an incident from about a year ago, something that happened one day last summer when I was having lunch by myself. A married couple who both work at the same office, let's call them Jane and Bob, were having lunch at the next table. When they were nearly finished eating, two men walked by, and one of them, “Mike”, told Jane that he needed a word with her. She decided she'd finished her lunch and started to leave, first telling Bob that she needed to stop at the ATM for some money. Bob offered to give her some instead, asking, “How much do you need?” She said thanks, but she'll just stop at the machine. Mike bantered, “How come you didn't ask me that question, Bob?” Bob bantered back, “Oh, no, my mama didn't raise any stupid children!”, a common American expression.

Mike continued the banter with one more comment: “Ah, no sisters in your family, then?” At which point, he laughed heartily and walked away to talk with Jane.

The “joke” really bothered me. I didn't (and don't) think it's funny. I did (and do) think it shows that, while Mike is obviously willing to work with women, it's mostly because he has to, and he likely doesn't take them very seriously. Yes, one can say that it was just a joke and he doesn't really think that women are stupid, but I don't buy that: “jokes” like that come from inside and betray thoughts that one keeps below the surface but that are present nonetheless.

And at the time I thought I should say something. But to whom? Should I have shouted at Mike as he was walking away? Should I have said something to Bob? Maybe that, maybe in a sort of confidential way, “Say, Bob, Mike really shouldn't be talking like that.” But surely Bob already knows it. Would Bob then say something to Mike? Would it do any good? Or maybe I should have found who Mike's manager is, or talked to someone in HR. That always seems excessive, but maybe it's the only thing that'll work. On the other hand, I'd always prefer for people to bring their complaints to me, directly, first, so shouldn't I do the same?

After thinking about it for a few minutes I wound up deciding just to leave it. I didn't say anything.

But I did tell some friends (who shook their heads about it, but downplayed its importance, mostly). And it's still bothering me enough to write about it here (no, I'm not losing sleep over it, but you know what I mean). It's bothering me because I think we enable that sort of thing by tolerating it. I believe that, overall, changing what people say — and, more to the point, changing what we accept people saying — does, with enough time, change what people think.

If I had it to do again, I would say something. I probably would call out to Mike and tell him that things like that aren't funny, and that I do find them disturbing. What came next would depend upon his response. But I wouldn't just leave it.


Dr. Momentum said...

It wasn't clear whether you knew the people or not; if I knew the people I might feel inclined to say something.

I wonder how much of this is left-over fourth-grade playground "girls have cooties" BS. I mean, really, that has to be the most dopey, unfunny, bland sexist joke I've ever heard. It's pathetic. That doesn't excuse it, but it does make one wonder what the hell the point is. Because unless they have some sort of running inside joke going on, the joke makes Mike really sounds both ignorant and lacking in cleverness. And that couldn't have been his intention.

Barry Leiba said...

I know them superficially — enough to know that "Mike" wasn't making an inside joke, but that that's the way he banters, and that he really did think he was being funny (and that Bob and Jane are not like that)... but not enough to normally consider approaching them with criticism.

But I think there are some things one should approach strangers with (while considering personal safety, of course, which wasn't an issue here), to say explicitly that that's not what we accept 'round here.

I don't think it's the same as the "cooties" thing. That's childish unease with girls. This is exerting power over women. If I saw a man fondling a woman at the bus stop, and she obviously wanted him to stop and he wouldn't... I would intevene. That's bullying. This is verbal bullying, and it's bad even if there's no "target" directly present.

Ed said...

Barry, there is a yawning chasm between ogling a female athelete and beating and stoning a girl to death. Making them morally equivalent trivializes the death.

And yeah, Mike is an asshole. Something tells me that there aren't any women being subjected to him on a personal level though.

Barry Leiba said...

Ed, yes, there is; absolutely. It was Carnacki who linked them, and he didn't say they're morally equivalent — he said that they're symptoms of the same problem.

Janeen said...

They may not be morally equivalent, but they are along the same continuum, a continuum that women have to deal with constantly. I suggest everybody read what Twisty has to say on these two subjects, here
and here.

jdauie said...

In the third paragraph, Joss Whedon is referenced as "Josh Whedon".

Barry Leiba said...

jdauie: Thanks; I've corrected the typo/braino.

Miss Profe said...

Activism happens in small ways, and one person at a time. We need to speak up when one's gut tells us we should. It takes lots of courage; many good people often remain silent when they otherwise should speak up and out against ignorant statements.