I’m a Feminist but My Subconscious is Still Sexist
Read this or forget I said anything. Sorry.
Last week, my sister and I were waiting for a movie to start when a raised voice halted our conversation. “Can you guys alllllll move down two seats?” A woman was shouting across the row ahead of us. Her face was stoic, her finger was pointing. “There is an open seat there and an open seat over there, and the two of us would like to sit next to each other right here. Thanks so much.” She was talking at an appropriate volume actually — not shouting — and still, the moment felt outright scandalous. I looked at my sister and a flash of horror passed between us. The gall of this woman!
At her urging and to my surprise, nearly 20 people gathered their things and shuffled one space to the right, mumbling under their breath. Of course, one space was not what she’d asked, so she stage-directed accordingly and another shuffle ensued. “Oh don’t worry,” she said coyly to her date, “I’m not shy.” They settled into their newly vacant seats, his face struck dumb and her’s showing no sign of giving a shit.
It only took another second for our horror to transform into something else: unfettered deference. This woman was incredible. Fuck single vacant spots between groups that make it harder for everyone to find a pair of seats. Fuck every time I’ve been in the same position as her and swallowed my irritation for the sake of preserving…what? My likability? Everyone’s time? The only energy truly expelled at her behest was by those of us who equated her reasonable confrontation with the incendiary goading of a drunken brawl.
The emotional arc of my reaction felt familiar. One of the more challenging parts of being a woman for me has been the sometimes appalling way my beliefs juxtapose against the way I’ve been conditioned to think and behave. I’m nearly a decade into this feminist gig and I still subvert myself and my gender constantly. That initial flash of horror is a perfect example. I have no doubt it was one of several shitty things my brain knee-jerked into thinking that day. I’m like the failed feminist Alice in Wonderland: undermining myself as many as six times before breakfast.
I can scarcely tell a story without cutting myself off for fear that I’m boring or that talking too much is a particularly annoying trait when embodied by a woman. I’ll prioritize a man’s feeling over my own. I’ll be snarky and judgmental towards others and myself. I’ll refuse thanks I deserve. I’ll apologize for being sad. I’ll apologize when someone runs into me. I’ll apologize for almost anything. A few weeks ago I put off asking two — not 20 — dudes in my airplane row to let me out to the bathroom, despite my bladder being in physical pain for an hour.
How can I be as aware of gendered injustice as I am and still so often lose to my own instincts? How can I stay confident in my convictions when so many of them still spring from conditioning despite my best efforts? I think the answer is that empowerment isn’t in the perfect harmony of belief and action, but rather the glacial and messy osmosis of the two. Learning, in some sense, means admitting we were once wrong, so perhaps we can find solace in the sometimes contradictive process of becoming the women we want to be.
Or, I don’t know, just a thought! Please disregard if I’m wrong.