By Erica Little-Herron
“How are women treated worse than men?” my fifteen-year-old brother-in-law challenges me in an arrogant tone.
I stare at him.
Up until this point in our conversation, we have been good naturedly shouting back and forth, debating God and religion and science; I always have a swift, concise answer on my tongue for any of his comments, and I am as calm as a Hindu cow. He is fifteen; he is lighting matches to see which one will ignite me, which of his many thoughts are unique, brilliant, and young enough to startle me out of the rut that my slight advantage/disadvantage of age and experience has placed me in.
This is familiar to me – looking at this boy is like looking into some sort of time-warp mirror image of myself and conversing with it. This is immensely fun. I recognize his intelligent rebel-saint spirit, questioning all things while unknowingly questioning none of his own presuppositions, busily defining the parameters of his belief system instead of the wide open spaces which are too humbling to look upon. I respect him. I laugh at him.
Most of all I recognize that beautiful and exasperating element found amongst the best of every generation of young people: a fresh, angry wisdom devoid of knowledge and the naiveté that allows them to believe that they can turn the world on its head… the element that does enable them to turn the world on its head. Later in life, in the face of what sometimes appear to be a dark and overwhelming reality, most of us are forced to choose between being crushed by despair or offering up that youthful element, that wondrous gift of stupidity, as a sacrificial lamb. Most of us go on to live in mediocrity, punctuated now and again, if we are fortunate, by an occasional resurgence of that childlike vigor. But the best of us remained so oblivious to reality, so incapable (due to some deficit of normal reasoning) of measuring reality’s weight and severity in proportion to ourselves, that we went blindly on about our work of changing the world; these are our Mother Teresa’s, these are Einstein’s, these our Martin Luther King’s. I don’t know which I am; whatever it is, I want to be better.
Oh, I am not so full of myself that I think his opinions will never align with mine as he “evolves.” That isn’t the point. It is the pattern in which he learns that makes us kindred spirits.
But this question of his has broken the mirror wherein I could see my once-self and he, unknowingly, could see his future-self. The question is sincere and sarcastic; he is truly blind to it, to the experience of my kind. It hurts, and I begin immediately to grieve. He and I… we are not alike. I have seen things that he has not – not because I am older, and therefore not things which he will someday encounter. We are not separated by time. No, we are separated because I am a woman. He will never tread where I have. Perhaps that is his great fortune, and therefore I should be happy. But I am not at this moment. I am angry.
I am dumbfounded. In response to his question, so many valid responses come up in my throat that they collide and become a blockage that fills my entire abdomen; I do not know which of the many answers takes precedence and so some sort of inarticulate noise emanates from my mouth as I appear to fumble. He gets a triumphant look upon his face, even as I start throwing facts at him. It’s too late; he saw my hesitancy, and so he thinks he’s won.
But he soon senses that the argument has gotten personal, and so he loses his equilibrium and his eloquence. He has begun to say homophobic things, then racist things, all without realizing that they classify as such. Within minutes he has stomped off in that unique teenager maneuver that involves talking as you’re running away so as to get the last word; it does not matter if the opponent hears, nor does it matter if your words are coherent, so long as they are the last ones. He has made no concessions, and I wish that it didn’t matter.
Oh, I do so wish that it didn’t matter. But it does. Someday he will not be a gangly, crackly-voiced teenage boy who everyone can shrug off. Someday he will be a husband, a father, a coworker, a boss. And he is one of those strangely blended leader conformists. He will have influence over others. Unless something changes, he will become one of those angry, defensive white-wealthy-heterosexual-male victims ranting at the minorities squatting miserably in dingy alleys, blaming them for his superiority. He will hurt people – he will hurt women like me. Not with his fists, but perhaps in equally damaging ways.
Perhaps not even just in the future; after all, Lord knows that when I was that age the flippant word of a popular, handsome young man in class was like the manna of God to me and other girls, and it held clues to how to please boys, something we all wanted desperately to do. Every comment counted. “Sandra is such a slut in that dress. I would tap that.” We would catalogue these away in our confusing mental checklist of things we were supposed to be and not be. Some of the things those boys said when I was a girl still retain their sting.
Maybe he’ll grow out of it. But then I despair… how many ever do?
I lay awake that night, trying not to care. He would love to think I stayed awake pondering his words, and so I try to turn them off. They won’t. I am angry.
What can I do? What can I say? Will anything penetrate deep enough? I fantasize about having $2000 to offer him… he is short and slight of build, and I am good with makeup. Although masculine looking, he could make an equally pretty girl. Perhaps if I could use his greed and adventurousness to convince him to pretend to be a woman in public for just two days, he would get it. They’ve done it with racists and with fatphobics, and it worked like magic. I am so desperate and so helpless that I am seriously considering it while failing entirely to see the humor in the plan. I revel in the ludicrousness of it for a few minutes before dismissing it.
We would go to a restaurant, and he would see either the predatory looks from older men or the dismissive ones (depending on how pretty I was able to make him) as we went to our table. We would order pancakes, and then he might shift a little uncomfortably when disapproving glances were thrown his way as he ordered the sausage, hashbrowns, pancakes, eggs & bacon. He would realize when he mumbled “Thanks” that it didn’t come out as magnanimously as it did when he was a boy; he would have to raise his pitch higher, smile brighter, and make it, “Thank you very much!” When he asked for butter, he couldn’t say, “Can we get some butter over here?” – a statement more than a question. He’d have to use the right hesitant inflection, that same high tone: “Um… excuse me… oh, sorry to bother you, but could we get a little butter please? Thanks so much! Sorry.”
I’d make him go to the mechanic or to a car dealership with his brother (my husband) to pretend to buy a car for himself or to get his own car fixed. He would watch as the salesman looked past him to his brother; how the mechanic would talk over the top of his head in grave, serious tones, occasionally throwing him consolatory, patronizing little smiles to let him know he wasn’t entirely out of the loop, then go right back to conversing with his brother; he would have to ask a question, and the mechanic would slow his speech down, smile, and call him “Darlin’”, only barely disguising that he believes himself to be talking to the equivalent of a toddler or a very smart dog.
Doors might be opened for him; he would feel that strange combination of smallness, unreasonable gratitude, awkwardness, and prestige, then he would throw back his shoulders in an attempt to shrug it off.
I might even make him be a transfer student at a school far from home for a few hours. I would make him raise his hand in science class and give a long-winded, hyper-intelligent answer to the instructor’s question, with lots of big words. He would look around to find his classmates staring at him as if he has demonstrated his ability to pop his shoulder out of joint – that stare that is impressed but censoring. A tiny snicker in the back of the class. The teacher would say “Um... yes… yes, that’s right…” After class as he walked down the hall he would notice the boys looking at him in an appraisal that was both hostile and complimentative in a way that would make him feel threatened and shy in the pit of his belly.
I wonder if he would see something different in the ads he’d encounter all day. Would he, even a little, question why that cleaning product was marketed solely to women? Would he wonder why men in the ads could silly or strong or active or ugly or imposing – and women were only beautiful? Would he wonder why that cologne commercial showed an average joe getting jumped by ten teenage playboy bunny look-alikes, but there was no perfume commercial with an average jane getting jumped by ten teenage playgirl centerfold look-alikes? Would he identify with “us” for a few moments, or continue to be one of “them”?
Of course he wouldn’t be raped or molested. He would not have to try to climb the corporate ladder, to convince somebody he did indeed have the same skills as his male colleague, so he really deserves a promotion too. He would not bear a child. He probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to be called a whore or a bitch, to have both his “purity” and his “sexiness” tied to his worth. He wouldn’t have to experience what it was like to be restricted to go no place beyond his own yard alone at night in the city because there are dangerous men out there who think he’s got something they want. In all actuality, no one would comment that he was “awfully opinionated” or ask him if he was a feminist when he thought he was just having a casual conversation.
But maybe the little things would filter in. And it is the little things, the little things you become completely unaware of over time but that nevertheless mold you, cut you, screw you over as you’re just going about living your life. You find the joy in it, of course… the nail polish, the hip swing, being able to cry at random whenever you want, holding friends with your best friend without being called a homosexual. You have to find the pride and tune out the daily subjugation, or you would implode like so many girls who cut themselves, who starve themselves, who drown themselves in drugs and alcohol and passionless sex… or in a whole bottle of pills. No, you lift up your chin and find redemption in the gender that limits you, and you survive. You might spend too much time being an airhead, a vacuum of any kind of intense thought, but that’s okay. It doesn’t hurt as much. The better you are at denial, the better you are at happiness. And besides, you don’t want to be a downer around your friends.
I drop the cross dressing idea. It’s stupid, and I know it.
I’m in the Vagina Monologues. I have the best part. It is relatively brief; I will stand there for five minutes, talking. I am a Bosnian gang rape victim. I will reach into the darkest part of myself and take out something real; I will not play pretend with this character. I will rage and I will weep and I will shatter into a thousand pieces on a stage in front of hundreds of people and show them the blood in my gut.
I will make sure my brother-in-law is there. It’s my last attempt, and I am holding that little golden thread of hope that it’s not too late, that that beautiful, exasperating element of youth is still mercurial, that it has not yet settled. Maybe he won’t ask any questions with obvious answers afterward. Maybe he won’t have to light matches anymore. Maybe he’ll look at me afterward with an expression of dawning. God, I hope so. I shall miss my talks with the mirror.