These are forms of male aggression that only women see. But even when men are afforded a front seat to harassment, they don’t always have the correct vantage point for recognizing the subtlety of its operation. Four years before the murders, I was sitting in a bar in Washington, D.C. with a male friend. Another young woman was alone at the bar when an older man scooted next to her. He was aggressive, wasted, and sitting too close, but she smiled curtly at his ramblings and laughed softly at his jokes as she patiently downed her drink. ‘Why is she humoring him?’ my friend asked me. ‘You would never do that.’ I was too embarrassed to say: ‘Because he looks scary’ and ‘I do it all the time.’
Women who have experienced this can recognize that placating these men is a rational choice, a form of self-defense to protect against setting off an aggressor. But to male bystanders, it often looks like a warm welcome, and that helps to shift blame in the public eye from the harasser and onto his target, who’s failed to respond with the type of masculine bravado that men more easily recognize.
There’s no point to a guy yelling, “Hey sexy baby” at me out of the passenger window of a car as it speeds past. Even if I was into creepy misogynists and wanted to give him my number, I couldn’t. The car didn’t even slow down. But that’s okay, because he wasn’t actually hitting on me. The point wasn’t to proposition me or chat me up. The only point was to remind me, and all women, that our bodies are his to stare at, assess, comment on, even touch. “Hey sexy baby” is the first part of a sentence that finishes, “this is your daily message from the patriarchy, reminding you that your body is public property”.
Women know that femininity is both punished and rewarded. We also know that acting more ‘masculine’ — being openly ambitious in the workplace, or ‘pushy’ or ‘brusque,’ or speaking directly — can carry both risk and reward. A few weeks ago, in response to an Atlantic cover story about how the “confidence gap” is holding women back in the workplaces, Jessica Valenti at The Guardian suggested that women refrain from negotiating salaries and asking for raises and promotions because they know it can have negative consequences. It’s not a ‘confidence gap’ that holds us back — or at least, it’s not only that — it’s an accurate reading of the reality. We know we’re supposed to ‘lean in,’ but we also know that doing so can have negative consequences, because leaning in isn’t feminine. Asking a direct question or speaking in a low voice isn’t feminine. Making declarative statements with no friendly, deferential, self-doubting question mark at the end, isn’t feminine. We know that in order to achieve what we want, we sometimes have to expend extra energy making sure that people aren’t uncomfortable with how we talk or dress or behave. We have to collude with the expectation that we should be feminine. But we will also be punished for that femininity. This is the impossibly fine lose-lose line we toe, and though women are, historically speaking, quite new to the workplace, we have been toeing this line for centuries.
i appreciate most of this piece—and overall, the point is an important one. i do, however, think it’s important to note that
Men who can’t cook, clean, or even do their own laundry are not “cute” and “in need of a woman to care for them”. They are spoiled brats so dependent on gender roles that they never bothered to learn the minimal skills to take care of themselves.