Monday, January 24, 2011


We're now into the second week of classes, and time is a precious commodity! The reading of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is going slowly; Stein's style is dense. It doesn't feel complex or confusing to read, but I find myself crawling through the pages, so "dense" is the only descriptor I can think of. It's like wading through caramel: delicious, but a serious ritardando compared to Lady Chatterley's and especially Goblin Market.

So we're going to take a break and look at two articles from The Atlantic. The first is called The Hazards of Duke and discusses the "thesis" of a Duke University student named Karen Owen, who slept with 13 Duke athletes and then created a dense PowerPoint with her observations. Her exploits are what we think of as the typically extreme college hook-up, styled after the techniques of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell author Tucker Max; their impetus was the worst possible kind of one-night stand--short, rude, unfulfilling.

I think the article isn't focused enough to be easily discussed, but the snippets of feminist discourse throughout did catch my eye. As Karen's project progressed it seemed to expand beyond just sex acts into favors; she was described as a fraternity's "ideal pledge," I assume by virtue of her complete submission to the boorish athletes she selected. The following quote stood out to me:
"If what we are seeing in Karen Owen is the realization of female sexual power, [...] What rotten luck that the first true daughter of sex-positive feminism would have an erotic proclivity for serving every kind of male need, no matter how mundane or humiliating, that she would so eagerly turn herself from sex mate to soccer mom, depending on what was wanted from her."
There's a long legacy of female power being subversive, behind the scenes; we have phrases like "Behind every great man, there is a great woman," and a favorite from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, "The man may be the head [of the family], but the woman is the neck." In that way, Karen's behavior is not so unfamiliar--but her kowtowing seems purposeless. What is the result of it? Nothing is preserved but gender roles, and nothing is changed but her reputation. We've been to these dark sexual places with Duke University before (remember the 2006 rape charges levied against three members of the lacrosse team?), so nothing is exposed. I don't understand her motivations.

The article argues that Karen is playing out an old story with her escapades: that she is trying to get revenge on the man (Subject 2 of her study) who took advantage of her, and her shame is manifesting itself in repetition of the humiliation. How does this sort of thing begin? In our liberation from curfews and segregated education and our practice of constantly striving to appear at our most [sexually] attractive, women, the article says, "have ended up with the protections of neither the patriarchy nor those old-school, man-hating radical feminists."

I long to live in a world where women don't need to be protected, but I believe it can only come with a radical change in perception and shift to gender-neutrality. Biologically speaking, women tend to be smaller and have less muscle mass than men, especially in the upper body. This will not change without some kind of physical catalyst and centuries of evolution. To counteract this disparity of actual, quantifiable strength, emphasis must be placed from birth on gender-neutrality. Dolls can't be bought for girls because they are girly, and trucks can't be bought for boys because they are boyish. The decor and toys surrounding a child can't be preemptively arranged or purchased, but only procured after discerning a positive reaction to it from the child. Language and attitudes would have to be closely monitored for leanings; a parent couldn't say "boys don't cry" or "girls don't yell."

Those are just some examples. It's unrealistic, however nice it might be to live in a world where from birth we define ourselves. For it to occur, an entire generation of childbearing adults would have to rigidly check themselves against unwittingly assigning gender, and for full realization, all previous generations would have to die out. Popular media would have to be completely retooled, etc. etc, etc. I believe that is the only way to keep women safe: if men never generalized women as weak, if women never generalized men as strong, protection wouldn't be required.

Unfortunately, I will probably never live to see a world in which I don't have to prove myself to a male population.*
"In [the past], we relied on our own good judgment to keep us safe, but also—and this is the terrible, unchanging fact about being female—on the mercy of the men around us."
Tomorrow, Hard Core.

*I'm obviously speaking in huge generalities. I have many close male friends from whom I have never lacked respect.

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