By now most people have heard about George Sodini and his misogynist violence that took the lives of three women. It’s hard to form a coherent and measured response in the face of such a despicable act, but I’ll try the best I can.
What these murders really brought home to me is that misogyny and sexism can never be benign. The everyday prejudice we hear from acquaintances, friends and even family is usually couched in jokes and not meant to be offensive or even mean-spirited. I have officially stopped giving a shit if you didn’t mean it “that way.” Low-level sexism is discursive violence and as much as we’d like to separate simples jokes from the actions of someone like Sodini, it’s never that easy. A culture that’s willing to establish a socially acceptable level of misogyny is the same one that produces a person like him. The idea that he’s some crazy guy who got access to weapons and did some crazy stuff as crazies are wont to do is like writing off the birthers as a bunch of foil-hat wearing loons; of course they’re wrong and lack certain critical thinking faculties, but they’re also racists and they didn’t come up with white supremacy on their own. Sodini’s murders are the realization of what’s always been under the surface: culturally accepted hatred of women.
I was lucky enough earlier today to see the exhibit “Elles@CentrePompidou” which is a really fantastic collection of modern and contemporary feminist art. In the couple hours I was there I didn’t make it off that floor. What really struck me besides the joy of watching small children look with wonder and confusion at intense depictions of nudity, was the kind of violence depicted in so much of the art. Sometimes it’s easy to think of sexism as a kind of cage in the Betty Friedan model, keeping women boxed into stereotypes and roles, and it certainly is that. But what came across much more in the art was a perception of terribly violent misogyny. One video installation was a naked woman from the neck down swinging a hula-hoop made of barbed wire around her hips. Another looked like a Rauschenberg riddled with bullet holes. What comes across isn’t a stoic quiet desperation, but assault and murder. Ideas of male supremacy are ultimately ideas of gruesome violence and it took some brilliant artists to remind me of that.
Another reaction I had – after calling someone out as describing women as “crazy” the day before – was that men don’t have to represent their gender, even if what they do points to serious problems in the way we think about men and women. Violence against women is largely a male problem, but very few people, at least within the media, reacted to these crimes by saying, “those men and their murderous sexism, when will it end?” Unlike the “why them bitches be crazy?” question, this one actually has some importance, but men only represent themselves. Sodini gets to be a crazy individual instead of standing for a culture of sexist brutality that really does affect the way all people relate to each other. I’m not sure out of the feminist blogosphere how much this is being connected to systematic factors, but I’m sure it’s not enough.
I also want to post Ta-Nehisi Coates’s short piece on the topic because I think he does a fantastic job rejecting Sodini’s idea of himself. Sodini left an online paper(less) trail of blog posts in which he complained about not being able to get women because he was a “nice guy.” Coates with the smackdown:
Usually mean that the women they like, don’t like them. From Sodini:
Women just don’t like me. There are 30 million desirable women in the US (my estimate) and I cannot find one. Not one of them finds me attractive.
This is almost certainly false. But it’s the self-indulgent, self-pitying aspect of “nice guys” the world over. Leaving aside the fact that people who call themselves “nice guys” are often assholes, the “girls don’t like me” notion has deep resonance, especially given the inroads made by nerdism.
I’m thinking of Freaks and Geeks, where the geeks lament that they can’t get laid. But what they really mean is that they can’t get laid by cheerleaders. I’m thinking of rappers who swear no girls liked them until they got rich. But what they really mean is that the drug-dealers girlfriend types didn’t like them until the got rich. The worst part of the “nice guy” lament is that it attacks the shallowness of women, with it’s own implicit shallowness.
It isn’t a male thing, either. Mo’Nique made this movie whining about how no one thought overweight women were beautiful–but her ideal is this dude who’s built like a NFL cornerback.
I can cop to having used this whiney bullshit at some point in my life – to be fair it was middle school and all, but still. TNC is absolutely right to call it out, although I think I see it as a little more dangerous than he does does. Behind the complaint that “girls don’t like nice guys” is a generalized hatred for women. It’s a view of around half of humanity that sees them as shallow, dumb and frivolous. That isn’t just whining or frustration from some nerds, it’s an attitude toward women that is oppositional, that sees them as interchangeable objects to be conquered. It’s a “me vs. girls” mentality or even worse a “men vs. girls” mentality. It’s also an idea of entitlement, as if a banging-hot girlfriend was a prize men are allotted when they’re good enough instead of another human being with whom to have a relationship. A good indication of not getting it is not having any female friends. Dude, that’s not a problem with women en masse, it’s a problem with you.
Female friends brings me to my last point which is that interrogating misogyny and sexism within ourselves is a long process that requires a lot of support and lacks any sort of finish line. American men are socialized and taught to believe in crap like this, and the only way to combat it is continuous struggle. Only in the last couple of weeks have I realized what a large role feminism has started to play in my life and I want to thank all my friends (women, men and none of the above) for keeping me accountable. I slip all the time and to say my gender politics are anywhere near done developing would be flat wrong. I sometimes find myself when I’m just hanging with the guys falling into the same old traps, too much of my music is hateful and I let “bitch” slip through my teeth way too often. But all I can do is keep working at it and keeping spending my time with people who are willing to help. Thanks y’all.