This post was triggered by Melissa McEwan's post, "That's My Boy," at Shakesville. Forgive me if I've told this story before because it is one that I replay far too many times in my head, trying to find an ending that allows me to reconcile realistically the actual ending with one that doesn't have me hating the people in question.
The summer that I turned 20, my father said that women were like shoes. "You have your fancy dress shoes that you wear out on special occasions," he proclaimed, "and you have your sneakers that you kick around the house in."
Technically, he was not saying this to me. Mr. Fred, our neighbor, had come over with his son "Little" Fred, and they were milling about the living room with my two brothers. If I'm remembering correctly, the day was Father's Day, and the two dads were teasing the older two boys, asking if they had any reason to celebrate the day.
"No way," said my brother.
"Thank god, no," said Little Fred.
"Yeah," said Mr. Fred, "you gotta be careful."
Now, the conversation could have turned toward safe sex, and the man's shared responsibility in birth control; or it could have just dropped. Instead, it went on to advice about women, and how women will "trap you," all with an implied pride that their sons were out "getting some."
At that point, my father issued his proclamation about women as shoes. All of the other men laughed and heartily agreed, adding that they liked the sneakers better because the dress shoes were too "high maintenance." One even bragged, "I have nothing but sneakers." Notice the plural. They all congratulated one another on being such hound dogs.
I was in the living room with them, stretching my calves out on the edge of the fireplace hearth, getting ready to go for a run. My mother was in the kitchen, which wasn't really entirely separate from the living room. So, it wasn't as if they were in the locker room metaphorically measuring dicks -- not that that scenario would make their statements any better. They were in the presence of women, women with whom three of them lived, throughout these exchanges.
I protested. "You can't be serious," I said. They all agreed that they were. "That ridiculous," I said.
"But it's a reality," my dad said.
"Well, what about your wives?" I asked, being as how my mom was standing right there.
"Sometimes you find a woman who can be both sneakers and dress shoes," Mr. Fred and my dad agreed.
I looked to my mom to see how she reacted, if she was going to say anything. She just shrugged, but not in the "this is too stupid to dignify with a response" way. She shrugged in a world weary way, one that said, "I've given up fighting this shit and just take it."
"What about me, then?" I asked. "What if some guy treated me like the sneakers?" I knew what they meant by "sneakers." I had seen the way my brother acted towards the women he fucked and cast off, without telling them, of course. They would call and call and call. If he decided that he was bored enough to talk to them, he would barely veil his contempt, telling them that they were just "fish," or worse.
When I refused to go out on a date with a boy who had asked, or wouldn't go on a second date with a guy, or spurned some boy's near-stalker attention, I was told that I was being cruel and a bitch. That word was used, "a bitch." The same was not being said to my brother. When I asked my dad to talk to my brother about his behavior, to explain to my brother that some girls fall in love and that he should avoid those girls if he just wanted some no-frills sex, my dad said, "That's not your brother's problem. If the girls are stupid enough to think he loves or respects them because he has sex with them, then they deserve what they get."
Despite that, I honestly expected my dad to stand up for me. I actually believed that he might see the flaws in his logic if I brought it home to me, to some guy treating me like a blow-up doll, or shoes. I forgot that this was the same man who, when I was 14 and having a very dark depressive episode, told me that I needed to "get up off the couch, go have fun, and let guys play with my tits." Maybe he said "boobs" instead of "tits;" but that was not the point. Aside from experiencing eight types of squick, I felt as if he was telling me that the way out of depression was to make my body available to boys. That my body was not mine, but theirs. On top of that, it wasn't as if I was a boy-crazy teenager or had a boyfriend or even wanted a boyfriend. What he said was wrong.
I also forgot that this was the man who told me that girls who were raped on dates were asking for it. In fact, that was how I first learned what rape was. One of my parents was sitting on a jury for a statutory rape case when I was 11 or12. I wanted to know what that meant. They told me that a young girl would seduce a man, then regret it the next morning and have the man arrested for rape.
I forgot that this was the man who, when I got angry at my brothers for cheering a rapist on during a rape scene in a movie, told me that it was no big deal. It was a very big deal to me, since I had nearly been raped on a date just a few months earlier. I never told my parents about it. I was sure they would not be sympathetic. My mother might be, but she wouldn't be open with her sympathy for the same reason that her shrug conveyed he acceptance of a life with men who held her in contempt for being female.
That last point, the overall contempt for my mother and I for being female, I thought I could change. I thought it was something that could be changed because I think I actually bought the line about all of their appalling sexist behavior really being in jest. I thought that I could do something to make that change by turning this stupid shoe analogy back on my father by invoking his sympathy for me.
"What about me, then," I asked. "What if some guy treated me like the sneakers?"
"I'd feel sorry for you," he said, "but I'd understand him."
In that moment, I knew that my father did not respect me. After 2 decades of similar incidents, I finally realized that by simple fact of 2 X chromosomes, I was never going to be a full person to him. My brothers would go through the world as men, while I was supposed to go through the world for men. Men were full people, and I was not. What's more, I was supposed to embrace that role, and any rejection of it was a problem with me, not with the world.
Several years later, my brother told our ditto-head cousin that the reason I was so "into" feminism was because a boyfriend in college had treated me badly. "In college?" I said. "Oh, it began way before that, and he was part of the process." My family still thinks I will get over feminism, especially if I start dating a guy, preferably a conservative guy with traditional notions of gender.
It's a crushing experience, having to love your oppressor, knowing that he doesn't mean to be cruel, knowing that he loves you, but he just cannot accept you as a full person. But you grow up, and the damage becomes yours to fix, and you fix it however you can. You can be in their presence and give the shrug that says "this is too stupid to acknowledge" when they display their misogyny.
Then, you get nephews. Sweet, interesting, little boys who could grow up to be sweet, interesting grown men. Could. They think that you are kinda cool too, because they are little boys and have no real frame of reference. Then, you see their fathers (your brothers) and their grandfather, praising them for grabbing women's breast, teaching them to say the most disgusting sexists words, and telling them that if they whine or cry (as small children do) that they are being "girls" and being a "girl" is bad. You see that, and you see these sweet little boys are being taught to hate you.
You know that this same process is going on in a million houses with a million little boys, too young to know the difference. They will grow up and marry women who give the shrug of capitulation to sexism and raise more misogynists. That is how misogyny is taught and learned; and it is an ugly, soul-killing sight.