2008-01-07

Women are...

As the figure of speech goes, the circumstances conspired against me. In less than a 36 hours' timespan past weekend I have been exposed (or rather exposed myself) to three quite different male comments on women, which made me experience a gamut of emotions running from outrage and frustration to feeling vindicated and empowered.
  • Myra Breckinridge, a 1970's satire based on a Gore Vidal novel I did not read;

  • "The women issue" chapter in Tom Peters' Re-Imagine book I finally took up again after finishing Feynman's memoir and a few other books;

  • La città delle donne, a 1980 Federico Fellini film that sat on the shelf until there was nothing else left to watch and the alternative was to return it to Netflix unseen.

In that order.

You see that I did not plan for this. But as I said before, the circumstances...

The funny thing is that the piece that made an honest attempt at advocating women's interests--Peters' "hear the women roar"--was the one that caused me to interrupt myself with all sorts of outraged exclamations while reading it.

To give the author credit, it did not happen until well into the chapter, as I was mostly silently nodding my head in agreement while Peters brought women's accounts of being ignored or dismissed in the marketplace, be it as decision-makers, professionals, or even customers.

I have a few stories of my own that went very similar to what the women shared with Peters, so let me give you an example. Once I was in a furniture store with a male friend who was helping me by driving me around town back in the days when I had just moved to the States and did not have a car. A male salesperson swoops down on us, and after an obligatory inquiry as to how I am doing this fine Saturday afternoon he proceeds to ignore me completely, only addressing my male friend, who after a while says, "Listen man, the lady's doing the buying, I'm just helping her get around." Needless to say, I did not buy anything in that store that day.

Another time, I arrived at a posh conference hotel, stood in line at the check-in for ten minutes with everybody else, finally approached the counter, only to be asked by the clerk--without a greeting, mind you--"Is that your husband?" with a motion to the gentleman who was in line behind me. My comment that I am one of those extravagant women traveling without a male escort went unappreciated. Oh, and I got no apology either.

I could continue, but you must be bored, O my gentle reader. So onward!

Reading through the variations on the same theme in Peters' book, I felt at first that there must be hope, if a "management guru" recognizes that something must be wrong with a marketplace that dismisses and ignores a huge customer demographic, just because they do not have a penis! Well, he did not quite put it this way, but that was the gist of it.

And then Peters went on to present his ideas of how this can be remedied, and why it makes economic sense. "We should do this, and we should do that," he'd say, and something began to feel wrong. The feeling of something phoney going on got stronger as I realized, that I (or any woman for that matter) was not part of the "we."

And then I slammed my fist down on the page and literally screamed: "So am I supposed to feel all warm and fuzzy in my ovaries while you are mentally jerking off to how great you are for preaching about the poor huddled women's plight to your actual audience, a bunch of men?"

Having reached my respectable age, I probably should get used and not get all upset about this sort of thing, but somehow I can't.
I felt betrayed.

Compared to the above experience, Myra Breckinridge, with its irreverence towards traditional gender roles almost seemed liberating, never mind that it was an all in all mediocre movie.

La città delle donne -- may cineastic deities forgive my mentioning it on the same page as Myra Breckinridge -- made a worthy ending to the unintended exploration of male's perception and ideals of women.

Picturing scores of women across the spectrum running from whores to madonnas, and from femmes fatales to homely housewives, plus everything inbetween, I felt that Fellini did not even attempt to make a value statement on what he saw and felt towards them, beyond utter confusion and insecurity.

And in a way, seeing this confessed chauvinist say "I don't know what women are anymore, I give up," felt strangely appeasing. The more I think about why it did, the more I realize that no matter how grotesque and sometimes demeaning Fellini's portrayals of women are (in this and other movies), his acknowledgement of inability to fit them all neatly into a simple scheme leaves room for recognition of their (and mine) individuality.

And that is sometimes all one can ask for.