So I went to this super epic camping party this weekend. (Just an hour from home, too -- I love discovering new adventures right in my own backyard.) There were burgers, guitars, and beautiful harmonies. I was just about to debut my new song, "Expats Are Expats for a Reason," when one of the trip organizers made an announcement:
We were to gather around the fire for group storytime. And during this storytime, I realized that if you're a feminist guy or a male ally or whatever... you kind of just can't win.
Here's what happened:
So the guy announces that it's storytime. Everyone gathers, and the announcer appoints one of his buddies to tell the first story. It's about the time he broke his leg and almost had to be helicoptered out of a wilderness area. Everyone laughed -- it was funny.
Immediately after, one of his buddies launched into another funny graphic injury story.
A short pause, then another guy told a story.
After that story, there was a longer pause -- turns out, it's kind of hard to recall, organize and prioritize every interesting event of your life and tell it in front of a crowd of friends and strangers.
I had a couple I was considering -- some funny (grandma's funeral), some profound (life lessons from pickup basketball), some just weird (the time I sailed with the Russian mob).
I had just opened my mouth, and the words were just about to come out, when the announcer guy... I'd say "interrupted," but I technically wasn't speaking yet, so that wouldn't be a fair characterization. Rather, he said,
"Any females want to... lean in?"
At which point, two things happened:
1) I closed my mouth. I'd wanted to tell a story when it was my choice to tell the story -- not when some 23-year-old told me I had to "lean in." I'd wanted to tell a story when I was a person who'd decided to tell a story -- not some "female" other who was only speaking because a man had invited me to.
2) I finally understood why so many feminists find the term "female" annoying or offensive. Like, female whats? Dogs? Insects? Humans?
If he'd just said "females" when he meant "female humans" or "women," I might not have noticed. I mean, I would have noticed. I notice things like when people say "try and" when they mean "try to," when they say "positive reinforcement" when they really mean "negative reinforcement," or when they say "Lao" instead of "Laos." But the whole condescending othering he'd just done... a little harder to overlook.
Like, what? Men are the default storytellers? And women can only share stories when men tell them to? Women (or females or whatever) think they should be seen but not heard?
Did he seriously think I was incapable of using my big girl words without his patronizing invitation to "lean in"? Was he also planning to wipe my butt for me later?
And, like, look. Anyone who knows me knows I'm not one to jump on the "I'm insulted" train. I'm much more likely to be pursued by that train...
After all, I'm the author of such masterpieces as:
But just because I think it's ridiculous (not rediculous) to get offended by things like facts and objectivity... doesn't mean I'm unwilling to examine language and interpersonal dynamics. And, as I wrote in For the Love of God, STOP Asking People if They're Okay:
All of human interaction can be graphed on an X-Y axis, where X is communion (actions that show caring and bring us closer to others) and Y is agency (actions that establish power or authority. During social interactions, the behavior of one person invites complementary behavior from the other person -- or else there is tension in their system. If I do/say something that is high in agency, the complementary response will be low in agency -- we can't both be the authority. Meanwhile, if I do something high in communion, the complementary response would also be high in communion -- we like people who like us, and it hurts to be rejected.
Where would you say telling women to "lean in" falls on this graph?
Probably right next to changing the baby's diaper.
That said... it wasn't something I was going to get worked up about. Like, it was an obnoxious thing to have said... but what if the guy hadn't said anything? And the next story, and the one after, had been told by males?
Then, most likely, you'd've had at least one female (cricket? dolphin?) complaining that he had manterrupted the campfire for a mansplain-y circle-jerk storytime, and none of the women were given a chance to speak. (If mansplaining is a recurring problem in your life, check out Here's How I Stopped My Mainsplainer From Mansplaining.)
So, basically, though his intentions were good, there may just be no way for him to win.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't, right?
No good deed goes unpunished?
Well... maybe. Before I started writing this post, I asked two males, "Where do I go with this? I want to share this story... but I don't have a 'so what' or really any actionable advice."
They... didn't have much to add.
Male One suggested that I remind readers to think about what they're saying before they say it? I guess that's a good, though obvious, point. Saying, "Oh my gosh -- Cheryl has the funniest story about meeting Michael J. Fox!" sounds a lot different from, "Any females want to... lean in?"
Male Two simply agreed that sometimes he feels like either way, he's wrong. He added that this conversation reminds him of a Calvin and Hobbes comic:
On further reflection, I decided that perhaps one way to gauge whether what you're about to say is empowering or infantilizing is to replace "females" with "women"... and then to replace "women" with "black people."
Can you imagine how weird it would sound if the guy had asked, "Any black people want to... #BlackLivesMatter?"
But something like, "Josie! You rushed a sorority! You must have a story about that!" (or, to use a professional-like example, "Josie, you have a strong background in math. What do you think?") sounds... more acceptable, right?
Here's another piece of "so what?" for males -- and then I'll give my two-cents for the women.
Human interactions and social skills are complicated. We spend our entire childhoods and early adulthoods trying to master them, and the rest of our lives refining them. It is messy, and you are going to make mistakes.
But this is not a reason to turn into a whiny little manchild who says things like, "It's like you can't even look at a woman without being accused of being sexist!" Other phrases to scratch from your adult vocabulary:
If you find yourself dwelling on such thoughts and feeling like a victim all the time... that is probably your real problem. You're a grown-ass man who refuses to self-reflect or take accountability. If a woman found you creepy... don't you think there's a chance you might have done something creepy? And if multiple women found you creepy, don't you think there's a pretty decent chance you are the one doing something wrong?
If women are responding super negatively when you ask them out, it's probably because you're asking them out in a way that is weird or gross. Be respectful of their boundaries. Don't touch people you don't know. Things like that.
Finally, if you walk around in this world feeling wronged by women all the time, chances are you're a real bummer to be around -- and you probably don't exactly exude warmth and confidence.
So, sure. Our society is going through a thing right now, and no one knows exactly how to act or what to say. We are all going to make mistakes. All you can do... is try to learn from them. Do your best. What else can you do? Pout about it?
That said, here's my advice for women:
99% of the time, there is no reason to get upset about perceived slights and microaggressions.
Like, what the guy said was definitely cringe-y and benevolently sexist. But his intentions were clearly good. Why jump down his throat or "call him out" on it? For me, in this story, it wasn't worth saying anything. I don't know the guy and might never talk to him again.
But say he were a close friend or someone I expected to have future encounters with. Instead of getting upset, I could simply say something like, "Hey, I'm not mad, because I know you meant well. But FYI, it definitely came across as infantilizing when you told the 'females' to lean in."
Because, hey. We're suppose to #LeanInTogether or something, right?
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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