Please understand I respect and admire the frailer sex
And I honour them every bit as much as the next
– Jake Thackray, “On Again”
[With apologies to Dave, who probably wants to forget any of this ever happened. I’ll try to be brief.]
I was surprised by the post by Emma (or Chris) in reaction to Dave’s now-deleted “Beer Drinking Women Are Not Attractive” post. I was surprised, because I expected to agree wholeheartedly & generally feel that I was in the presence of someone who’d got it. Instead of which, I found phrases like “bit of a tangent” and “was it that bad?” bubbling up, followed closely by “well, maybe, but I wish she’d explain…”
If I have to explain why discriminating in this way is a very bad thing I think my head might actually explode. I could say a lot more on this topic. A LOT MORE.
OK, we’ll skip the explanation.
Anyway, I’ve sat with it & come to the conclusion that the person not getting it was probably me. Here’s the offending passage from Dave’s post:
There were several women drinking beer. Mostly, but not all, by the pint. Generally they didn’t actually register in the “drop dead gorgeous” category, more the “she looks interesting, I’d like to get to know her better” category. Indeed, there might be some sort of inferiority complex, perhaps even the fault of my Mum, that causes the “drop dead gorgeous” category to significantly overlap the “She’s a tart, thinks she’s God’s gift, would be hard work even if I did stand a chance, which is unlikely” category anyway.
Chris (or Emma) zeroed in on the third ‘category’, stressing how discriminatory it is to (mentally) affix labels like ‘would be hard work’ – let alone ‘tart’ – on the basis of appearance. Which is true. But I think when I first read it that particular passage didn’t seem too bad, for two reasons: firstly, it’s acknowledged in a hazy way that labelling women in this way is a problem; and secondly, there are plenty of social situations in which it’s normal to informally triage potential partners in this way into “interesting/attractive/out of my league”, and Dave could be describing one of those. (Never mind Dave’s marital status; we could just say that old mental habits die hard.)
What struck me today, reflecting on this, was that the problem of judging women on their appearance goes further than this scenario – or, to put it another way, that thinking in terms of this scenario is the problem. Look at the second category: “she looks interesting, I’d like to get to know her better”. Men: do you ever look around a group of men and think “he looks interesting, I’d like to get to know him better”, about every single one of them? Of course you don’t – even if they were all interesting blokes (and how could you tell?), why would you want all those new people in your life? (How many more friends do you need?) What you do is look around a group of men and think, “here I am in a group of men”; or “isn’t there anyone here I know?”; or “at least I’m not the youngest/oldest/beardiest person here”. You look around at the group, and you take it as a group of people. But for a group of women – even for the women in a mixed group – the paragraph quoted only has three possibilities: “I want to chat you up”, “I want to chat you up (but I’d be scared)” and “I don’t want to chat you up, definitely not, but I would like to get to know you“. (As men so often do, when they meet women who interest them, in a purely platonic way. I’m sure it happens all the time.)
The underlying assumption – and I really don’t think I’m overthinking this – is that a woman in public is always on show. If you’re good-looking and well turned-out you’ll attract attention, although some of it will be negative (“thinks she’s God’s gift” etc); and if you’re not, then… you’ll attract attention (“she looks interesting”, etc). The option of just being somebody in a group of other somebodies isn’t on the table; that is, the option of just going places and doing stuff, like an ordinary person, and minding your own business until you happen to get talking to somebody else.
I feel a bit bad to be banging on about Dave’s post, not only because he’s taken it down but also because it was thoughtfully written and well-meant; it was nothing like as bad as Ding‘s wilfully obtuse sexism, in other words, and by rights deserved to get nothing like as much flak. But there’s a way of stepping back from prejudice which isn’t really stepping back at all. Like the polite racism I remember from the 1970s, dressed up in genteel phrases like “our coloured brethren”, or the courtly sexism mocked by Jake Thackray, Dave’s post didn’t put as much distance between him and the sexist attitudes he was criticising as it may have seemed to. If you say (in so many words) “I don’t judge women by their appearance – I prefer women who look interesting” then you are judging women by their appearance; in effect, you’re only seeing women by their appearance. And I don’t want to worry you, chaps, but there are a lot of women out there; that’s an awful lot of people not to be seeing properly.