I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to be a man from women. Gloria Steinem, influential feminist, critic and stepmother to Christian Bale once wrote that “the first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.” Being an adult has been, for me, a conscious process of unlearning and deprogramming myself from the morals and standards by which I was brought up and confront the internalized sexism and racism I was born into. We are born into this.
I remember the first time a friend pointed out that my “gentle ribbing” of Asian stereotypes was racist. I was a teenager, and the kind of racism I knew was Birth of a Nation or Crash. Racism was overt and shocking, like having a cannon fired at you or Hollywood celebrities of various ethnicities scream their prejudices at each other for two hours. I couldn’t grasp how low-simmering our prejudices can be or that a simple slanty-eyed gesture could be a cute joke to some and not to others.
When I told my mother she couldn’t refer to Asians as “Orientals” because of its place in neo-colonial history, she protested, “But you can call a rug Oriental!” I reminded her that rugs aren’t people. She was silent. Edward Said had failed us again.
Systemic abuse is buried in the language around us, the very communication that gives structure to society, and it’s so pervasive we often don’t recognize it. We get defensive when we’re told our words are rooted in ableism or histories of malice. When we’re told where our words come from, it’s like hearing that your food is made of horses or only some parts are meat. It’s like something is being taken away from us.
In my own life, this issue has been particularly coming up around the word “crazy” and it’s specific employment as a tool against women. We all know someone who has stories about a “crazy ex-girlfriend” or “that crazy chick” they went on a date with once who was so needy. She asked when he was going to see her again, called her the next day and insisted on being treated with respect. Occasionally you’ve been the “crazy ex-girlfriend.” I have.
I broke up with my ex in 2008. I found out he had been cheating on me when I saw a text message on the phone we shared. (I hadn’t gotten the memo yet you needed one of those, and I was holding out. Boo hiss, technology!) I had a complete and total meltdown on the spot, because I just found out that the guy I thought I would domestic-partner, civil-union or whatever-happened-to-be-legal-in-our-state-at-that-time didn’t love me like I loved him. It was a few days before Christmas.
I spent all of Christmas crying and eating really old Girl Scout cookies while watching Once, and I figured this was normal and healthy. This was wallowing, and it’s part of the process to help you get through it. However, I couldn’t get over the breakup, and I couldn’t move on from him. I thought about him all the time whether that was in class as I tried to pay attention to whatever we were learning or when I snuck off to masturbate in the bathroom and cry more. It was a dark time.
I did a lot of ridiculous things like cry on the train or start bothering homeless people about my problems. I once told a guy on the train I didn’t think I could ever love again. He didn’t speak English. I cried in the produce section of a Dominick’s grocery store in Chicago, because I always thought lettuce would be the nicest vegetable to cry next to. I turned out to be more of a cucumber person, although the squash looked mighty comforting.
Luckily, I wasn’t caught Female While Breaking Up (FWBU), and nothing about my behavior was considered irrational. My friends and I turned it into a running joke, a “Look, I’m So Sad!” I even used it to get laid, because we think the Sad Guy is attractive. We want to fix him and make him better. But I remembered my father telling me about his Crazy Exes, which included my mother, and the girls who went “nuts” when they couldn’t be around him anymore.
What made my “nuttiness” okay? Why, when I told my story in an essay, thank me for sharing my pain instead of invalidating my struggle? Why could my father so easily put all of the blame from his breakups on other people?
I often hear men tell stories of their crazy exes and rarely do I hear traces of empathy for the pain they endured or the emotional struggle that breakups or relationships entail. As people, we are so expected to internalize and distrust our feelings that letting them show is considered an act of transgression. For women, it violates an expectation they stay normal, calm and collected or maintain the ladylike behavior of doing whatever it is that men want.
The problem with “crazy” is that it acts as a catch-all term to completely neutralize women’s feelings. It tells us that to expect someone to call back is irrational and to do anything other than allow your partner to have their way is unfathomable, the rhetorical equivalent of a shock collar. When we find out the cool girl, the one who pretends to go along, has feelings, it’s not that she’s a human who can’t be expected to be an emotional Barbie. She must be unstable.
I don’t like this argument because it first implies that mental illness is bad or undesirable. As someone who has battled depression for most of their life, I know that some people deal with serious distress in their lives, but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss them for it. I always wonder, “Huh, if she were crazy, would dumping on her be okay?” No, it should make you more empathetic. Why is the simple act of compassion toward those who feel thing differently than we do so difficult?
However, popular thinking on mental health has been used to discredit the perspectives of women for centuries whether that’s the hysteria of the 19th century (whose roots comes from the Greek hystera, meaning uterus) or the PMS of the 20th and 21st. When Hillary ran for president in 2008, a number of my friends claimed they wouldn’t vote for her because of her lady hormones. Around that time of the month, she couldn’t be trusted. Hillary might nuke the world.
We do this to women in a million ways every day, whenever we silence women through patronizing them, tell them to keep their voice down, inform them about what about their appearance is appropriate or “remind” them of where their place is. We send the message that they don’t get to decide what to do with their body, reproductive health or mind — as fields like math are too “complex and intricate for the female brain.” It must be more attuned to needlepoint and three-hours of unquestioned blowjobs without complaint, amirite?
We need to stop taking women’s power away from them, pushing them to the side and telling them that they can speak with our words, using the narrative voice of novelists or the scripts of male filmmakers. We need to listen when women recognize a system of patriarchy for what it is or have empathy when the only grievances they can show is through passive-aggression. When you’ve been told your opinion doesn’t matter, how else are you going to express it than through non-verbal suggestion?
Yashar Ali referred to it as “gaslighting,” telling women they are crazy when they are not and rendering them “emotionally mute,” but I think the problem goes further than that. It’s not just that we consider women’s emotions crazy. It’s not just that women hate other women and that Mean Girls didn’t fix our problems. It’s a society that views women as invisible and interchangeable, like a population of Pussycat Dolls. If a man doesn’t like one, she’s discarded. She must be crazy. She must be the problem. He can just get another.
If you’ve ever seen an episode of Sex and the City, you know that this is believed to be the case. Men have an infinite supply of available women throughout their thirties; they know they power dynamic eventually favors them. We believe that women are an infinite resource, and there will always be more. However, a man is special and irreplaceable. Men are told this from the moment they begin Kindergarten. They can grow up to be anything, including the president. Men are a precious commodity. They have the power here, and misogyny is about keeping that power.
When I was a kid, my father used to tell me jokes about blondes, brunettes and redheads, about women who could only be distinguished by their hair. One was a little different. In one, three men were trapped together on an island. All three of them were blonds. They discovered a magic lamp, with a genie inside. The first blonde asked to be three times as intelligent. The genie gave him brown hair. The second asked to be twice as smart. The genie made him a ginger. (Be still, mine heart.)
However, by the time the genie got to the last one, the man was confused. He knew he couldn’t be three times as smart. He couldn’t be twice as smart. So he asked to be three times dumber. The genie made him into a woman.
I told that joke once in front of my fifth grade honors class — because we were doing a unit on humor. Almost our entire class was comprised of girls, and none of them laughed. My friend, Amy, just stared at me and flatly asked, “What?” I looked at my professor for approval. What had I done wrong? My dad and his friends loved that joke. She told me that you have to know your audience. It was the first time I’d ever been made aware of what my language says to other people and that our systems of communication might be as broken as our politics.
We can accept that we can save these kinds of jokes for private — to denigrate the perspectives and intelligence of women when they aren’t around — or expect better, creating communities and future generations that work to get it right. When I have kids, I won’t be teaching them that joke, and when they break up with their exes, I won’t accept “crazy” as a reason. We all need to start realizing that we have a responsibility to others and that our actions mean something to other people.
I’m still unlearning everything I was taught about women. In the meantime, the greatest gift I can give them is simply to listen.