After one rather hideous encounter on a recent flight from San Diego to New York, I had to write about it.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” He asks in a less-than friendly tone into the narrow gap between the seats in front of me.
“Not really,” I whisper back, hoping not to wake the sleeping passenger next to me. I turn off the flashlight on my phone and grope around to find what I’m looking for, the power outlet for my iPad, to no avail.
I briefly try again, stubbornly refusing to be beat by the plug, only to receive yet another sarcastic comment about my lack of night vision. Rather than risk another between-the-seats confrontation, I surrender and sip my wine.
“You know, I’m really not a dick,” he says to me. “It’s just . . . your flashlight was bouncing off my window and created glare.”
Never mind that he could’ve closed his shade for a minute so I could find the stupid outlet that seemed to elude me. Or that the inconvenience of my flashlight coming from the seat behind him, not next to him, mind you, was hindering his enjoyment of that incredibly riveting movie, London Has Fallen. (I watched that one day because it was free on demand. When a movie is free and stars Gerard Butler, you know it’s not going to be good).
Alas, I decided it wasn’t worth my effort or the prospect of a third attempt on his part to shame me for bothering him. I convinced myself it was better that I give up rather than wake most of the passengers who appeared asleep. I settled for the movie being played on the overhead screen, which ended up being a very delightful and touching movie about a woman coming to terms with widowhood and being on her own.
Unfortunately, the fact that I didn’t smile or validate his dickless statement only furthered his cause. When he returned from the lavatory, after his second vodka-whatever, he looked at me and motioned with his finger to listen to him. Clearly he didn’t seem to mind interrupting my movie.
“I swear I wasn’t being a dick. You understand that, right?”
I stare back at him, incredulous that this is really happening. In my experience when someone says, “I don’t mean to be a bitch but . . .” or “I don’t mean to be a dick but . . .”, they’re expressing on a subconscious level that their behavior actually is entirely bitchy or dick-ish, however you want to describe it. My mental conversation with this man went something like, “While you’re saying you don’t mean to be a dick, you’re acknowledging that your behavior is entirely dickish but you’re trying to sound self-deprecating enough so I don’t call you out for it. It’s the guise of the weak, the one who lacks self-respect, and I see through it all.”
I get it. Deep down this man is that insecure that he can’t deal with the fact that someone out there recognizes what a dick he is. So he points it out first, but it’s far from an apology. His statement was a mere validation of what was obvious to me when he was telling the man across from him about his house in Southampton and his numerous accomplishments and homes and retirement fund—oh and not to mention slipping into his elementary Italian just to impress this other guy before the plane even took off.
Had he actually apologized for his rudeness or condescending manner I would’ve accepted it. But he never offered it. Not once in his selfish need to take up my time did he actually say he was “sorry.” Rather his statement about not being any of the things he knew his behavior and words would lead to me to think about him was merely an effort to get me to excuse it all. In that moment, I realized I was being mansplained. And the hideous converse of this was that I understood so clearly in that moment that not only did he expect me to believe him, and in him, but also to doubt my perception of him. It was a clear and obvious attempt to manipulate the situation: “oh gee, I didn’t mean it that way” and therefore any reaction on my part to the contrary would be wrong. I would be wrong.
And really, how gross is that? Had my husband been sitting in my seat or next to me, the man wouldn’t have addressed me or my husband in the same way. Hell, he probably would’ve offered to help him while bragging about his enormous IRA or 401(k). Nevertheless he was speaking to me that way, and while I wanted to reply, I didn’t. I looked at him, hoping my silence would indicate how his attempt to garner some empathy wasn’t working.
“Do you hear me?’
I couldn’t believe he said that. “I’m not a dick” was bad enough. The condescending “Do you hear me?” was enough to make me want to throw my wine at him, but I didn’t want to waste it. Eventually I nodded and said, “I hear you.” Because I do hear him. I hear his words, his stupid excuse for intolerance, for believing that he’s entitled to his comfort at my expense and for attempting to elicit my acceptance of his non-apology and feeling he deserved it.
This brief exchange crystallized why I consider myself a feminist. So long as men like him feel entitled to excuse their dickish behavior and flip it to make the problem ours and not theirs, we need to uphold feminism as a platform for equality. Because it’s precisely about how important all lives are, and it is unacceptable for anyone to shame a person for seeing the truth. That’s the lie, and has been this whole time—that the truth we know at the core of our beings is wrong. We’ve been taught by twisted words and the power of those who hold it, who exercise it—often men in this case—that they know better. That’s called patriarchy, and as a feminist and someone who is so over it, all that needs to be said in response is: “I hear you, but I do not accept you and your non-apologies and weak explanations that are meant to cast me in a bad light. Your need to convince me of how right you are is not appropriate, and I reject your attempt to shame me.”
But you’re right, your behavior was dick-ish, but you’re not a dick. The reality is that you are just a subject of patriarchy as we all are, and being a white male of a certain age and economic bracket makes you think you’re entitled to the takedown of one petite Asian woman seated behind you if you so choose. That’s how patriarchy works. It divides us by economic class, by race, by gender and makes us fall into roles, where you get to assert some socially perceived significance over me and I’m supposed to be okay with that. The reality is that patriarchy isn’t here anymore. It only exists when we buy into those divisions. But like love, it cannot exist where it is not allowed. And in my reality, there is no divide, no patriarchy. We just are.
So I’m the petite Asian woman seated behind you, and you are the truly unpleasant person who’s had his way a lot in this lifetime. It’s time you show me the same respect you expect from me. Maybe then you will no longer be locked into your role in this patriarchy. Although since you’ve probably had a good run of it, it may be difficult for you. In the end, it’s your call. But just realize that you will find more of my kind, those women who see through your façade, who will no longer buy the lie we’ve been fed, so it will probably make your role more difficult and your “I’m not a dick” excuse will be ignored and fail miserably. You will be rendered obsolete. In the end, you can choose to be a dick or not, and I will choose to accept you or not. It will make me no better or worse than you. We’ll just be different.
Does a half-naked man make you curious?
While feminists have long decried the negative effects of the male gaze, whereby literature, film, television and other artistic media are singularly produced to appeal to a heterosexual male demographic, I’m starting to see a trend toward its hazardous converse, the female gaze. In the recent Ghostbusters reboot (whose girl power message I totally appreciate), it made me uncomfortable to see how Kristen Wiig’s character, Erin Gilbert, drools over and objectifies the hot and sexy but truly moronic receptionist, Kevin, played by Chris Hemsworth. Even though his dumb but cute parts in the movie garnered a few laughs, I couldn’t help but think that if the roles had been reversed and the receptionist had been cast as a woman, many women would have found the role highly offensive.
It concerns me that as Hollywood and the media seek to pander more and more to the female audience, they will end up promoting the female gaze as an antidote to the male gaze, but this swing of the pendulum won’t ultimately serve our interests as women.
The female gaze has long persisted in the Romance genre. This myopic lens through which many female Romance writers create their MCs (Romance speak for male characters) serves to objectify the opposite sex and establishes in female readers false notions about what the ideal man should be, whether hot, wealthy, brooding, military, rogue or tattooed. I call this phenomenon “Recreating Adam”.
Sadly, by Recreating Adam, Romance writers are guilty of doing exactly what the male-dominated media does, that is to objectify, thereby reinforcing the patriarchal standards that distort both male and female roles and keep them locked in a sexist game.
You don’t need to look far to find evidence of this. Half-naked (or mostly naked) men grace the covers of a substantial majority of Romance novels, both in traditional print and ebook format. Placing a hot guy on the cover is designed to invite the female reader in with his bedroom eyes or feral scowl, if she even sees his face since a six-pack is usually enough to grab her attention. However, these covers also have the perhaps subconscious effect of placing the man at the center of the romantic relationship where the reader is inclined to care more about him than the female character. In fact, I often find in reviews that what predominantly determines the female reader’s opinion about the Romance story is the likability or desirability of the MC who rarely, if ever, reflects any kind of normal or even realistic person.
By Recreating Adam, Romance writers are shaping the perception of what it means to embody masculine energy. At the extreme, masculinity is exclusive, violent, domineering, and emotionally stunted — think Christian Grey, although look at pretty much any Romance book and you’ll see that the majority of MC’s all posses at least one or more of these attributes. Upholding these types of characters as an ideal man puts men in a difficult position of either living up to or defying a set of expectations.
The standards set by these largely one-dimensional, unrealistically gorgeous, ripped, wealthy, strong and virile men are not true ideals that make for a well-rounded being or life partner.
These characters fail to come even close to realizing the potential of what it means to be self-actualized individuals. And while this may be acceptable to those who deem Romance fluff or escapist trash, I truly believe that such depictions of men and women are hurting the potential for real relationships. Dating sites, millennial blogs, and magazine articles continue the endless cycle of What’s Wrong with Me or What’s Wrong With Him?,which doesn’t lead to any real self-assessment. But for all the back and forth, few, if any, are taking a critical look at the stories we’re consuming as a society and questioning how they influence, however subconsciously, the way in which men and women perceive one another.
Feminism is fundamentally about equality. Therefore, placing men in objectified roles as a way to show women in power is not ultimately going to empower women. Instead, if we want women to be elevated within societies around the world, we must also elevate men. By this, I don’t mean putting them above women in terms of stature, but rather giving them the space to be more than what they’ve been allowed to under patriarchy. This means subjecting men to a different standard, one where their emotional and psychological maturity matters more than whether or not they can maintain a six-pack, play hero or make a seven figure salary.
We must destroy the view that men are somehow superior, but we cannot do this simply by asserting our superiority.
What we need is a new Recreation of Adam in which men are actually portrayed equal to their counterparts (whether male or female) and where the power dynamics are more balanced. We need fewer MC’s who are Navy SEALS or Alpha assholes and to have more fictional “book boyfriends” (as many Romance readers like to call them) who reflect the attributes of men that we most need in our society, namely men who are present, supportive, gentle and encouraging and most of all men who respect themselves.
As much as we must fight to change the male gaze, we must be equally committed to stop perpetuating the female gaze, which can be just as insidious.
Narrowly defining what it means to be male in this world based on superficial qualities sets us back. We need to allow our fictional male characters, as well as men in the real world, to inhabit those internal, caretaking spaces we’ve been expected to fill under patriarchy just as we aim to inhabit the external, public spaces of leadership and social revolution. Men must be encouraged to cultivate these sensibilities with our support because, as women, we understand what it means to have been pigeon-holed into societal roles.
This begins with writing a new story for both men and women, one in which both are whole and complete, where their existence does not depend on the other but is entirely interdependent. Radical transformation of this world that does little to truly honor women or men is well overdue. As authors, one way to effect positive change is for us to write it.
Fiction takes us to those deep places that reside in our subconscious where we find our deepest fantasies, as well as those core beliefs that form the foundation of our perception of reality. Romance writers have incredible power to influence change because Romance books capitalize on emotion. Regrettably, far too many have only managed to do the opposite by playing off stereotypes of male and female roles, thus supporting repressive, and sexist patriarchal beliefs. It’s time to see beyond the bare chests, ripped muscles, and wavy hair and to stop imbuing men with our narrow ideas of them but instead allow them to express themselves in a balanced way. If it’s what we want for ourselves as women, we must allow them to do the same in these fictional stories as well as in reality.