He says, “I like your friend, but she’s a real cunt.”
We are standing outside of a “trendy” bar in Nashville. There are drinks named after David Lynch films and most of the patrons are young, well-dressed “hip” types. This is ten minutes from a major hospital and university.
It’s probably okay, right? I mean, I’m not Liz Lemon. People who aren’t sexists say cunt all the time ‘in jest’ and I’ve never had a problem with it before. Still, there is something about the way he says it that is a problem, or seems to indicate one.
I ask him what he means. He explains that she doesn’t have manners, that, he guesses, this is probably because girls who aren’t from here don’t have manners. He shrugs and walks back inside the bar.
When Neha comes out of the bathroom, I recount this to her. Driving away, we laugh at first but quickly decide that we are a bit offended. She reveals that earlier he called me a rich bitch. Maybe we deserve it. Maybe we should have dressed less formally or spoken only to each other. Maybe, she suggests, we just don’t come off as “nice girls.”
2. On things that are dead.
Freud uses the term Post Festum. Meaning: “late to the feast.”
I believe this is a metaphor involving the last supper: “the big one” at least as feasts are concerned. I don’t recall specifically what [Freud] means by it, and it doesn’t matter too much here, but this is a term I think of often, and one I find useful as a touchstone for many of our beliefs, fears, and ways or relating to culture and subculture. Another word for this is “belatedness”.
The idea would be that among us (and no one can even definitively say who that is. It might be “generation y,” “x” or “xy,” or everyone that has been born since the 80s or Watergate or the second world war) there is an anxiety of arriving too late to any single cultural movement to be among the true believers. This is particularly felt in terms of social resistance. How many times do we hear that “Punk rock is dead” or point out the ridiculous, delusional “old fools” of remaining hippies? It is even commonly said that all drug culture and drugs themselves have been rendered impure: both literally polluted and attributed to impoverished, “trashy” poles of society rather than associated with social or cultural progress. We are told that people used to sit in sparse, pleasant apartments in the Village shooting heroin, snorting cocaine, or smoking weed. Whereas, now, it is more of a junkie slumped under a bridge, or that terrible girl you went to high school with keying blow at a music festival or asking you if you’re pumped that 4/20 is on a Saturday this year.
Whether drugs are good or bad — whether anything is good or bad, or cool, is besides the point; among twenty-somethings, there is a distinct nostalgia for a time we “missed out on,” a time when subcultures were uncorrupted and subversive in a way that is no longer possible. It is increasingly uncool to self-identify as part of any subculture. This has been written about incessantly, as have the variant and disputed responses: namely ironic and hyper-sincere attitudes. Are those hipsters a bunch of misanthropes compensating for a bygone countercultural experience or have they created their own with this very attitude, or its opposite? This may be an interesting question but it is not one I feel the need to answer right now.
I am more interested in relaying something a bit different, something that happened to me just recently, and unexpectedly, I suddenly was prompted to identify with what I had long assumed was an irrelevant countercultural movement, something so passé it had not only integrated into mainstream popular culture, but further, spent most of its time “these days” incarnate as horrible caricatures of its own, once noble, but now, quite frankly obsolete purpose. I am talking, of course, about Feminism.
I know I am a good person, but I’m not sure whether or not I qualify as a “nice girl.” I spend time considering goodness and value kind sentiments and actions in others. I try to see the best in people and relate to them even if we are different in many ways.
I think it is important to stand up for yourself and your beliefs and defend other people who are victim to unkind or unfair behavior, even when it makes a situation uncomfortable. Like, anyone, I have my lapses, but I think I do a pretty good job of adhering to this moral code (or whatever it is) that I’ve constructed. I believe my friend Neha to be a nice person for similar reasons.
A condition of being good is that it should always be possible for you to be morally destroyed by something that you couldn’t prevent. To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, things that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the ethical life: It is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed. Trust is based on being more like a plant than like a jewel — something fragile but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility. – Martha Nussbaum
So, being good entails purpose. According to this view, as you go through the world, you should always be considering purpose: acknowledging that your actions and encounters reflect not merely individual impulses but a larger sense of moral value. Goodness is a way to describe a form of humility implicit in living a life in which more than the self is considered — though, as Nussbaum reminds us, committing to an ethical life also renders human beings vulnerable to immeasurable pain. This is why being good is difficult and many people are not particularly good or good at all. The horrific ends met by the heroes of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy enforce the full magnitude of sacrifice that can be necessary for good to be maintained. A sacrifice this immense is, for the most part, not required of us, but its documentation is a reminder of the linked ongoing effort in which we are implicated: in other words, the nature of “our humanity” and the sophisticated, noble purposes of the struggle in which we, too, can and should participate.
The next day, my friend and I are at a small gathering. It is almost ostentatiously pleasant. The couple that owns the house is pouring wine and using an ice cream maker. We are standing in the kitchen. I am not even a bit drunk.
“The guy from the other night” is there. Though we have slept together in the past, I am not bothered that he has brought a female friend with whom he has an ongoing sexual relationship. Her company is enjoyable, and I do not have a possessive attitude about casual encounters of this kind. They seem to have a relationship of far greater duration than ‘ours’: one I take to be somewhat romantic, which I never wanted or entertained as a possibility for myself. His female friend is intelligent and interesting: we speak about drug experiences momentarily and joke about the immanence of the New Year.
“He” seems edgy, though. At first, I think, maybe it is uncomfortable for him to be so close to both of us. Maybe he thinks I am wounded. I try to be polite and clear about my intentions. I want everyone to feel comfortable and have a nice time.
But soon he begins speaking flamboyantly, criticizing someone’s social decorum and air of judgment. He is being incredibly irritating and pushy, and even though I try to ignore this at first, I think of the other night outside the bar and am compelled to say something. I think it’s a bit hypocritical, I say, to accuse other people of bad manners given that he deemed someone he didn’t know “a cunt” the day before. There is a pause that indicates tension. I don’t mind when the female friend turns away and makes a face signaling the immanent awkward encounter. As I have said before, I think it is important to stand up for yourself and others. Neha is standing beside me and inches in.
He moves towards us and lowers his voice to a threatening whisper. “This is my best friend’s house, so we’re not going to have any trouble here.” He says, continuing. Geez. I think. “But the two of you need to zip your little mouths until you drive back to your parent’s house.” I look at Neha in disbelief. She laughs nervously. I recall the previous evening when he told us about spray-painting someone’s eyes for hitting on his ex-girlfriend and feel slightly physically threatened.
“Did that just happen?” She asks. I nod. “I just didn’t think people said things like that.”
In my car, I begin to sob. I am not sure exactly why.
I feel scared and small. Too, the fact that I once slept with this person, this misogynistic Podunk creep makes me want to vomit. Maybe too it is because I realize how, clouded by my loneliness, I could have betrayed myself in the past in similar ways.
I am a talkative person. A chatterbox is not always well received and, throughout my life, I have certainly annoyed people and engaged in disagreements that might have been avoided by speaking more prudently. But I have never felt scared to speak up before, or thought that it would incite physical violence.
Ironically, trying to describe this experience, speech seems inadequate. There are no good words to use to convey the way I was looked at, and trying to find them only brings up melodramatic ones. I will try to be as direct as I can: He looked at me like I was doing something I shouldn’t be. Like I was there for some other reason than to speak, and was some other kind of thing than I thought I was and needed to be put in my place: as girl who he had casually fucked. I was to behave either submissively or display quiet admiration. My place was not to give him sass, or speak for myself at all.
Partly, this is funny because I have always identified my “place” as related to language. I have been a bookworm for my entire life, and, until college, felt largely alienated from most of my peers because of it. Even though I was eager to get drunk or stoned at high school parties, I spent many of them wandering strange houses in some state of intoxication, looking through the bookshelves of whichever one of my classmates’ parents was out of town that weekend.
Even when I lost my virginity at eighteen, it was to a boy I first liked because he shared my enthusiasm for Virginia Woolf and was a similarly loquacious social anomaly with a broad and bizarre vocabulary.
This is to say that there have been many times in my life in which it would have been far easier to be the kind of girl who spoke scarcely or flirtatiously and felt at ease with the opposite sex without being engaged in banter or discussion. Though I have encountered many girls that I perceived this way and even secretly envied them, I have never thought myself capable of being among them. I am just too self-aware, too incapable of small talk or polite silence, too compelled to say the wrong things.
So it was not merely disrespectful, but incredibly strange and even surreal to be treated and spoken to in a manner that expressed no awareness of what I have always considered to be my identity on such an obvious level that it acted as a social hindrance.
7. A Dead Horse
I crossed paths with my share of self-proclaimed feminists during my first two years attending a small, “quirky” liberal arts school, and, for the most part, I either deliberately avoided or mocked them.
“We shave our legs all the time,” a freshman year hall mate once revealed to me after what I can only imagine was a particularly compelling session of her Introduction to Gender Studies course, “but have you ever thought about how it’s just this thing we do for men? We could just stop.”
Unsatisfied by the wealth of standard departmental offerings, these were girls who filled out extensive paperwork and stood before numerous committees in order to pursue flimsy “gender studies” concentrations that culminated in papers about latent sexism in Disney movies or worse, inflicted their revelatory worldviews on the rest of us with massive art installations detailing their thoughts about their own bodies.
I wasn’t any kind of militant loner or anti-everything girl. It just seemed unnecessary to identify chiefly as oppressed by some grand narrative of femininity at a school in which banjo-touting vegans exponentially outnumbered designer handbags and I felt far more embarrassed to admit to wanting to use an elliptical machine than flashing an unshaved leg.
What was said left a bad taste in my mouth. A few days later he made a comment on my Facebook insinuating that I was “easy.” I wish he had said something more overt and terrible. I wish he had told me women are to be seen and not heard, or pulled out the knife he had once touched my back with to indicate flirtation.
But he didn’t, so I am left only with the inexorable frustration of being looked at and spoken to and offended by this chauvinistic dirt bag in a manner I cannot fully do justice to using language, and the fear that by trying to do so I will only come off as overwrought or dramatic, falling further into the very same disturbing stereotypes of young women that I am trying to overcome by articulating them.
In that moment though, as trite as it may sound, I realized that feminism cannot be dead, because, as long as there are people like this, people like “him” and the networks of those seemingly more reasonable, pacifying types surrounding “him” who excuse inexcusable behavior, dismiss harassment, ignore misogynistic comments, and treat chauvinistic attitudes with levity, the survival of feminism is not only crucial, but ethically required of us as a culture.
I am a human but I am also a feminist. I am a feminist because not being a feminist is not merely a circumstantial choice or preference: it is a moral flaw. I know this now. I don’t listen to riot grrl music or practice particularly esoteric sexual behavior. I wear dresses everyday and am compelled to learn how to dance. I try to feel pretty almost all of the time, and part of me always believes that if I lose fifteen pounds I will be, not only a more beautiful, but also a happier person.
But that isn’t everything. I am damn smart and I am pursuing noble purposes: not merely through my actions, but through the use of language. And I refuse to be relegated to an object, sexual conquest or measured in the terms of a gendered stereotype.
I will humbly accept being told to cross my legs and embarrassingly hide my slip if it is showing, but I will not be told when I can speak for myself or accept being scared off by the implication of a physical threat. If you want to call me a cunt or a slut, a little girl or anything else, go ahead, but don’t tell me when or how I am allowed to respond.
If you want to “put me in my place,” let me save you the trouble. I know I am a young woman. I know exactly whom I have and haven’t slept with. I know how much money my parents make and every house I have lived. I know each of the countless experiences and pains that have shaped me, and I am always moving through and between them. You can clumsily try to pin me down with a word or a cluster concept and watch as I slip through it.
I am not the kind of thing to be placed. I am not a screw or a lost part or a volume to categorize and shelve. I am a feminist, but I am more than that. I am no less or other than a human subject: this mind and the strange vessel of the body that houses it.