by Meg Thompson
During the lead up to the 2008 presidential election, when I was an English Instructor in western Missouri, a student said to me, shaking his head, “A woman and a black man. Can’t we just have a normal person run for office?”
I don’t remember how I responded, perhaps because I fainted. Back then, barely a semester out of graduate school, my approach to handling the delicate issues of race and gender veered toward melodrama. Today, when met with similar rhetorical questions, it is not uncommon to find me crouching in front of the student’s desk like I am taking an order at Chili’s, nodding, probing with my little questions: Why do you think that? After class, we would go to the university coffeeshop so we could chat one-on-one, more in-depth.
Now, in 2016, that black man is getting ready to finish his second term and that woman has the democratic nomination in her grasp. My female students come to my office, which is now in rural Oklahoma where I teach, and tell me in hushed tones that they aren’t feminists, but they believe women should be given equal treatment.
“That means you’re a feminist,” I say.
What have we done to make our youth so hesitant — no, it’s more than that — so, repulsed by the very idea of feminism that they won’t accept the label when they believe in its ideals? And why do they hate Hillary Clinton?
Teaching in Oklahoma, one quickly develops a sense of the narratives that inform the daily lives, the work ethics, and belief structures of the people who live there. Be strong, work hard. The students worship their parents and grandparents. They say they admire the strength of their mothers, and I know they do, but it is clear how comforting some of them find gender roles. In a way, the students here are softer, more emotional, than students I’ve taught elsewhere. Once, when I asked a class what the purpose of college is, a male student looked up at me and whispered, “To find our soulmate.”
When I look at my students, what I see mostly in their faces is a subtle unease. It it there right beneath the surface. I teach a lot of first-generation, non-traditional (an abhorrent term, but I don’t know what else to use) college students. They have families and jobs, whole other worlds they are desperately trying to hold together while they finish their degrees. I know, at the bottom of their list, beneath getting dinner on the table and helping their kids do homework before they tend to their own, is the advancement of equal rights.
I used to let it go. I used to push it to the back of my mind and just concentrate on helping them pass Comp I. But I don’t do that anymore. We literally cannot afford it.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker, television critic Emily Nussbaum wrote, “It’s happened again and again to the new wave of female TV creators, the Tinas and Mindys and Lenas, whose fans want role models as well as artists — a demand that many female comics embrace but that’s rarely required of men.” Recall with me the backlash Lena Dunham experienced when we got annoyed all of the girls on Girls were white and not the now-expected blend of diversity as seen on DiGiorinio pizza commericals. I’m not arguing diversity doesn’t matter, because it does, of course, but we need to view diversity with a more critical eye and not just plop one non-white person into the mix. Nussbaum points out that Louis C.K., who is currently enjoying a successful television show, “doesn’t owe his fans anything except comedy.”
We can’t put all the pressure on women to fix our problems. We all have to shoulder the burden.
A way to begin is to stop with the mixed messages we repeatedly send, especially to young women but also young men. Focus on your studies, we say, but make sure you get married, sometime, in the near future, when you’re still young, but not too young. Have a baby, but wait, just not too long. Get a job, a good job, so you can take care of yourself, but don’t work too hard and develop stress-related illnesses; just make sure you can support your family, and yourself, especially if your spouse dies. We can’t keep putting women under the most hypocritical of microscopes, demanding they are thin but not too thin, assertive but not bitchy, strong but not overwhelming.
No wonder my students reject the feminist title. There is so much pressure on the word. At times I almost find myself rejecting it. Just when I think I am all caught up, I’ll read one more article telling me how wrong we have it. As a feminist it is easy to feel like no matter what you do you are letting someone down.
Perhaps the cruelest part of this whole issue is the way women are expected to behave in the face of rampant inequality. We are allowed to get angry, but we can’t be profane. And if we get shrill, God help us. This is doubly complicating given that part of the illogical argument as to why women don’t make as much money as men is that we don’t try hard enough, don’t ask for raises, don’t demand it.
So what are we supposed to do? I like to start by telling my students we did not, in fact, start the fire. And while it has been burning for a really long time, we totally had nothing to do with that. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t fight it. Then we watch the Billy Joel video. Then they ask me who Billy Joel is. Then they make fun of me because I’m old. Then I tell them they don’t really know what love is because they’ve never given someone a mix tape. Okay, some of that doesn’t happen. But the point remains: that song is amazing.
In all seriousness, though, my gender portion of the semester goes much more swimmingly when I tell my male students it isn’t their fault. It is all of our fault.
The focus of Nussbaum’s article is Amy Schumer. Her show, Inside Amy Schumer, is so spot-on, articulate, brilliant, and hilarious, everytime I watch it, I’m on my knees a la Andy Dufresne upon breaking out of prison in The Shawshank Redemption, shouting “Finally! FINALLY!” One sketch revolves around a women’s convention. A panel of women sit on a stage. Throughout their discussion, the women consistently start talking by saying “Sorry” for no reason. When Schumer, at the end of the panel, holds her hands out for a cup of coffee being passed to her, the hot coffee spills on one of the other women and burns her legs off. As the woman writhes on the floor, trying to clean up her own blood and innards, she repeatedly screams “I’m sorry!” The other women repeat it as well until it becomes an absurd, robotic mantra.
I laughed uncontrollably when I watched the sketch. The next morning I found myself sitting in the lobby of my doctor’s office, patiently waiting to be called in. After an hour and a half, I worked up the nerve to approach the window.
“I’m sorry,” I began, “But I’ve been waiting a really long time…”
You could argue this example is fairly innocuous, but I was still apologizing when I had done nothing wrong.
If we want all of us to move forward as a society, we need to stop being so damn nice about it.
Meg Thompson is a writer and mother living in Cleveland, Ohio. A finalist for this year’s Key West Literary Seminar Emerging Writer Awards, her work can be found at Best of the Net 2015, DIAGRAM, Sundog Lit, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She tweets sparingly but precisely at @DianaCopenhagen and blogs at sleepingforzero.blogspot.com