Recently, I was introduced to an amazing feminist podcast in French: les couilles sur la table. This translates literally to "balls on the table". If you understand even the tiniest bit of French, I highly recommend check this podcast out:
I bring this up because during the latest episode: "Ce que la soumission féminine fait aux hommes" (What the feminine submission does to men) our journalist Victoire Tuaillon speaks with Manon Garcia, a philosopher and professor interested in female submissive behavior. I am not going to recap the entire episode (I highly recommend listening if you understand French - or if not, check out some of the writings available online, in English by Garcia such as "We are not born submissive, we become" (Original: "on ne nâit pas soumise, on le devient")) but in this podcast, Garcia speaks about submissiveness - the pop culture and media programming which has encouraged women to remain submissive in order to be suitable for a mate, or to be able to keep their jobs, or to avoid provoking violent, violative acts such as rape or abuse. Furthermore, she goes on to speak about what this does to men, particularly those men who don't necessarily prefer a submissive woman nor assuming the position of dominance.
What interested me during this episode in the context of privileged attitudes and behaviors is one moment when Garcia and Tuaillon begin digest a comment from Garcia that "ce n'est pas vrai qu'on est tous des être-humains." (It is not true that we are all human beings) and they begin to discuss the inherent male privilege implied in their capacity to deny their "maleness."
This is a response to the commentary of some men who say "But I am not a man, why do you force me to be a man? I am a human being." What this comment ignores is the fact that human beings are conditioned to see the "male figure" or "female figure" or more and more frequently the "queer figure" or "non-gender binary figure" from the outset and to make an immediate judgement based on that image and their associations to what the category means to them. Therefore, to make this comment requires denying a certain privilege that is inaccessible to others, which (the denial) is in and of itself, a privilege.
Just after listening to this podcast, I picked up a book loaned to me by the same friend, Sarah, who introduced me to the podcast: "Le Racisme est un Problème de Blancs" by Reni Eddo-Lodge, which is a translation from the English: "Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race." In the preface, she says "Although I analyze invisible whiteness and ponder its exclusionary nature often, I watch as an outsider. I understand that this isn't the case for most white people, who move through the world unaware of their own race until its dominance is called into question...In culture particularly, the positive affirmations of whiteness are so widespread that the average white person doesn't even notice them...to be white is to be human; to be white is to be universal. I only know this because I am not." (xvi-ii).
Tuaillon and Garcia argue that in order to reject being a man in lieu of saying "I am a human being," "it's necessary to be a man." What she means is, one must have the privilege of already being something in order to be able to reject that privilege. For a woman, this is not so. For a trans person, this is not so, with a small exception of those who are able to "fully transition" or to camouflage, but even then, there's the administrative and emotional hurdles to tackle, which can takes weeks, months, years, if ever.
Eddo-Lodge argues a similar point, albeit on the platform of race. In order for a white person to understand the structural racism in place, this person must first understand the privilege they have in being white, an inherent culturally reinforced privilege that they can never extend to a person of color, no matter how hard they try, which in turn creates an inequality on the playing field from the gate. Entering into a conversation about race with a person of color as a white person is not an even draw, regardless of how "anti-racist" you are. Furthermore, entering into a conversation about sex (the gender identity) with a woman as a man is not an even draw, regardless of how "feminist" or "humanist" you are.
Ruminating on this point, this lead me to a thought about the privilege of "acting as if." Realizing that the playing field is not an even one, I can't help but wonder what would happen if every person who feels that way was able to beat the culturally reinforced sexism and racism by beginning to act as if. By simply refusing, from somewhere very deep inside, to allow society to continue to perpetuate these violent and harmful lies by refusing to change our behavior on the basis of internalizing them. I realize that this, at the outset, seems simplistic and potentially even offensive. Please, let me try to explain.
Since listening to the podcast and starting Eddo-Lodge's book, I had my first two real-world encounters with French male sexism. On Thursday, after riding my bike for 45 minutes from Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines to Viroflay Rive Gauche, I was explaining to a man, who I know, but not very well that I was 10 minutes late to our rendez-vous because my Google Maps lost me in the forest and then my phone died, when he cut me off to say that "you should really avoid riding your bike right now because it's dark out and wintertime, anyways, you are a woman." (Mais, Audrey! Il faut eviter de y aller en vélo maintenant! Il fait toute sombre, il est l'hiver et...quand même tu es une femme).
I was so shocked when he said this that I actually think my jaw dropped. Coming from New Jersey and then Berlin, I'm just not used to hearing phrases like this. I'm not saying that America or Germany are better off, I'm sure there are those who would speak this way, but what I'm saying is I hadn't heard someone so blatantly imply that my womanness should prevent me from having the same liberties as a man. My eyes widened, the conversation stopped with a "merci, bonne soirée, au revoir!" (Thank you, good evening, see you next time).
I understand the very easy response to this: that this guy was just stating the obvious and that he was being considerate of me. That he was just worried about me. I understand that women are more likely to be attacked by men and less likely to be able to defend themselves, in general. However, what underlies what this man said to me is the idea that I do not have the same freedom as a man because society is messed up and that I should change my behavior to accommodate for it. His point of view is actually reinforcing systemic sexism, rather than challenging the society (which is what's actually messed up!). What this man could be doing rather than encouraging women to exercise less freedom is encouraging men to exercise more respect. If "caring: men like this spent more time promoting women's freedoms rather than locking the women safe and sound behind closed doors, perhaps we wouldn't have as many problems...perhaps.
The next morning, I received a call in response to a paper with my name, phone number, and a little paragraph about my experiences as a babysitter that I posted around the neighborhood where I live. It was not the response that I wanted. It was the guardian of the residence who was extremely concerned for my personal safety that I had done such a thing. He said "Why did you put a photo on there, that could draw attention to you." To which I replied, "Well, that's kind of the point."
At the end of 3 long minutes of listening to his "extreme concern," I ended the call by simply asking him whether or not he was requesting that I remove the papers because it goes against the rules of the residence. He said no. I said merci, bonne journée, au revoir (thnak you, have a good day, see you next time) and hung up. My partner who was present and listening to my end of the call was surprised at how little I responded to this man. I replied to my partner that, like Eddo-Lodge, I'm not going to wasting my time convincing men that they are sexist. In order for them to be able to realize this, they need to do some serious self reflection on their inherent male privileges first AND the ways in which their attitudes and more importantly, actions (including words) reinforce that privilege. Until then, merci, bonne soirée, au revoir.
Last night, I rode my bike home from Viroflay Rive Gauche to SQY like I do most nights, when the weather is good enough (by which I mean, it's not raining). Upon putting it back in the bike storage, I stopped to reattach one of the corners of one of my posts for babysitting near the mailboxes of the residence, which had started to come off. Despite wanting to take the train because "what if something does happen to me" and despite the panic I had when I had a text on my phone this morning from a number I didn't recognize calling me "honey" (a friend I had forgotten to properly save into contacts), I have decided to act as if. I have decided to act as if these constraining, controlling, paranoid comments, which come, by the way, 100% of the time from men, do not phase me. I am going to exercise my same liberties. I am going to act as if.
In the podcast, Tuaillon and Garcia digest the theories of Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote "Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) and Sartre, with whom Beauvoir is often associated. Sartre, the French existentialist known for his theories on the "anguish of freedom" believed that L’homme est condamné à être libre ("Man is condemned to be free) because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does." (Mittal). Garcia digests this by explaining" "At birth there are certain facts about us but we are born absolutely free and therefore it is in bad faith to act as if we are influenced by these facts about us." (à la naissance il y'a certaines faits à propos nous mais on est née absolutement libre donc c'est de la mauvaise fois de faire comme si on était influencer par ces faits à propos de nous. 12:45).
Beauvoir on the other hand disagrees strongly with this by saying that we cannot escape our gender or culture. Garcia explains, "On ne peut pas faire comme si on était pas juif On ne peut pas faire comme si on était pas noir. On ne peut pas faire comme si on était pas femme. Ça c'est de la mauvaise fois." (We cannot act as if we are not jewish...or black...or a woman. That is in bad faith."
Tuaillon continues on this point by saying..."Et donc on ne peut pas faire comme si on était pas homme. On ne peut pas faire comme si on était pas blanc. On ne peut pas faire comme si on était pas bourgeois." (And therefore, we cannot act as if we are not a man...or white...or bourgeois 13:32).
And Garcia brings it home by explaining. "C'est le privilege des hommes, des blancs, et des bourgeois de pouvoir se raconter qu'ils peuvent faire comme si" (It is the privilege of men, white people, and the bourgeoisie to be able to tell themselves that they can act as if" 13:38).
SO there it is. The privilege to act as if we are not. Without denying hundreds and even thousands of years of victimization but rather by accepting it, is it then possible for women, for people of color, for any underprivileged or minority group to act as if?
What would happen if, collectively, we refused to internalize white and/or male dominance by acting as if it didn't exist? by refusing to change our behavior, to hide ourselves, to keep our mouths shut, to accept jobs for less pay, to put up with abuse, to let someone else tell us we deserved it? Are we numerous enough? What would happen if - ? Citations:
Eddo-Lodge, Reni. "Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race." Preface. https://www.bloomsbury.com/au/why-im-no-longer-talking-to-white-people-about-race-9781408870570/
Mittal, Tarun. "To be is to be: Jean-Paul Sartre on existentialism and freedom." 06.21.2017. Your Story, 2018. https://yourstory.com/2017/06/jean-paul-sartre-philosophy-existentialism-freedom/
"Sartre : L’homme est condamné a être libre." La-Philosophie.com, 2018. https://la-philosophie.com/homme-condamne-etre-libre-sartre