Thursday, June 12, 2008

Serenity now! Entitlement, Sexism, Racism...and Carrie


(Warning: "Sex and the City" spoiler included)

Yesterday I finally got around to reading the latest issue of Newsweek and Ramin Setoodeh's article "Sexism in the City," which suggests that criticism of the blockbuster movie is largely sexist. As evidence, Setoodeh ( a male) points to the movie's lackluster reviews that seem in disproportion to its box office haul and to what appears to be a rogue effort by male reviewers on IMDB to give "Sex" an artificially low rating. The writer wraps the article up with the media narrative du jour: "See, this is the sexism that Hillary Clinton was talking about!"

Speaking of which, it's tempting to draw the parallel between the "Sex" haters and the Hillary haters. Ms. Clinton argued that sexism took down her campaign. No way, taunt the Obamaniacs. Fine. But we can all imagine a lunch between Hillary and Carrie, perhaps at a diner somewhere on Manhattan's Upper West Side. What would they talk about? Were the guys who held up the "Iron My Shirt!" signs for Hillary the same ones who voted Sarah Jessica Parker the unsexiest woman alive? And were they the ones who refused to vote for Hillary at all? Carrie once said, "Man may have discovered fire, but women discovered how to play with it." And long ago Hillary said, "I'm not some little woman standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette." She was more like Carrie: too big for that.

I was a huge fan of "Sex and the City," the HBO series, but the big screen flick? Meh! Good, not great. It was nice to see the gang again, but the movie illustrated why you can't go backwards in life. When "Sex" debuted in 1998, I was single and 20-something in a big city and it was fun to watch single, carefree women, who lived in a bigger city with bigger apartments, cooler jobs, more money, better shoes and more sex with hotter guys. It was fun fantasy. By contrast, the 2008 big screen version was a little too much "Marital problems in the city" for me--not so fun, frivolous or carefree. It was an hour too long. The broad humor (including diarrhea and bikini waxing jokes) seemed out of place. And it reminded me of why the "Sex" series finale so pissed me off: No smart woman wants to marry the commitment-phobe who strung her along for a decade, cheating, marrying and divorcing someone else, and ultimately when he finally gets back around to said "smart" woman--leaving her at the altar. And no best girlfriend worth her salt would ever support such madness.

But my thoughts on "Sex and the City," the big screen version, are not the point. Newsweek's article using the film's reviews as evidence of the direness of sexism today made my bullshit meter clang like firehouse alarm, and this isn't the first time since January that I have found myself scratching my head at gender violations the media and mainstream feminists tell me I am to be outraged about. Once again, I am left wondering why there is such a disconnect between the equality I want and the equality some of my sisters want, such a gap between their outrage and my outrage.

I've been toying with the idea in my head that part of the schism relates to entitlement and differing expectations. As a black woman in America, facing race as a primary barrier to navigate, I am used to being "other," used to being underestimated, used to being ignored and dismissed, used to people saying ridiculously biased things, used to my culture not being understood, used to not being validated, used to being thought of as "less than." I have no expectation that any of these fruits of race bias will go away soon. I'll just succeed in spite of them.

This is a white supremacist culture. Race bias is pervasive, if not always overt or even intentional. We simply all learn (every American) that white = normal = good. It will take a long time before Americans as individuals are purged of this bias. In the meantime, those of us committed to anti-racism must work to take away the institutional and legal barriers that block people of color from life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yes, we need to work on hearts and minds, too, but even as we stand poised to elect the first black President of the United States, experience tells me that:
...Most white movie reviewers are not going to "get" the popularity and big box office returns of Tyler Perry's Madea movies (not sure I get it either)

...Some white people that I encounter are going to instinctively reach to touch my natural hair without my permission

...If I ever return to the corporate realm, some white person will no doubt mistake me for an administrative assistant rather than an executive

...White people will continue to praise me for being "so articulate" and not "even sounding black."

...There will always be white people that feel the need to bring up civil rights issues, hip hop or "black things" whenever they talk to me

...The behaviors of black people, like...oh...say...the giving of "dap," will be exoticized and scrutinized and dissected into the ground

These things are annoyances--the dull aches of modern racism. I'm not saying they don't matter--they do--but the major aches matter more. I'm more concerned with making sure that my stepson's former classmates back on the majority black Southside of Chicago get the same high-quality education he is now getting in a majority white suburb in Central Indiana; or that young black women like Mildred Beaubrun don't have to die because men feel entitled to their bodies; or that black women get the health care they need to lower our higher-than-average mortality and disease rates; or that my brothers and sisters in places like Haiti are provided the same chances for immigration as people in other parts of the Western world. These things are important; that a white acquaintance of mine occasionally uses "nappy" as synonym for "unkempt" is low on the list of priorities. (Yes, I do check it when I hear it.)
I think being black in America has given me a certain level of serenity. You know the Serenity Prayer?

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

A warrior has to pick her battles and when you turn every annoyance into a grave injustice--you use up power that should be devoted to the war. If I, as a black woman, raged at every instance of race bias, I would be a very angry woman, indeed.

In this country and every other one, people cling to their groups. They favor what they know. Prejudice exists. It will always exist in some form or another. It is part of the human condition. If not race or gender, the prejudice will be about something else. I know that I will encounter it. I navigate around it the best I know how.

But many recent articles about the 2008 Democratic primary, even those written by feminists, express SHOCK that sexism is pervasive in America and outrage at even the most tenuous example of gender bias. There is an entitlement I find in the writing of second wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and Erica Jong and Linda Hirshman. They are entitled to what they want, when they want it.They are entitled to always have their efforts and needs exalted. They are entitled to always be validated. They are entitled to never encounter bias--minor or major.

The sexism revealed by Hillary Clinton's run for the White House did not shock me. As a woman, I expect to encounter sexism. I understand this is a male supremacist culture. Gender bias is pervasive, if not always overt or even intentional. We simply all learn (every American) that male = smart, powerful, competent leader. It will take a long time before Americans as individuals are purged of this bias. In the meantime, those of us committed to women's equality must work to take away the institutional and legal barriers that block women from life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In my mind, that means ensuring that women have control over their right to (and right not to) reproduce; that the wage gap is closed between genders (and races); that good childcare becomes available to all women; that women are safe from rape and violence; that good black men don't become so extinct that heterosexual black women can't find husbands; that girls--no matter where they live--have access to good educations and are accepted in any field they choose to pursue.

There will always be some jackass who thinks it is cute to yell, "Iron my shirt." Most men are never going to "get" a movie centered on female friendships and expensive shoes. The "shrill, nagging wife" meme will be around probably as long as men have wives. Some guys will continue to smarmily call women "sweetie" on the job. And the division of labor in your average American household will likely continue to be less than a desirable 50/50. These are the dull aches of being a woman. And they aren't going away soon.

Perhaps the schism between American mainstream feminists and feminists of color comes down to the different ways we move in the world and the different burdens we carry. Maybe the Steinems and Ferraros and Clintons, used to a certain amount of privilege, feel entitled to a life free of dull aches, while the hooks and the Walkers and the Braziles know such a life doesn't exist.

Should feminists of color lend our mainstream sisters some serenity? Or has pervasive racism lowered our expectations so that we fail to fight for what we deserve?

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