For several years in my twenties I shared a rambling, roach-infested but otherwise quite desirable apartment in New York City near Columbia University. There were three people in residence at any given time, and though we were usually all women there were also a handful of male roommates. Periodically someone would move out and the remaining roommate and I would advertise for a replacement by stapling fliers onto telephone poles around the neighborhood. Competition was tough — the bedroom most often up for grabs rented for less than $500 — and we often set aside a day during which candidates would file in for interviews like actors on a casting call.
There was one applicant in particular I’ll never forget. The year was 1995 or so, and the remaining roommate and I were both in graduate school and working any number of side hustles to pay the rent. I was registered with a number of temp agencies and routinely blew off my campus job to do secretarial work in midtown offices, which paid twice as much. We probably interviewed a dozen candidates that day, most of them students, or struggling artists, or people in entry level jobs; people a lot like us. One man who came was different, though. Balding and slightly stoop-shouldered, he was probably in his thirties, but my roommate and I perceived him as dodderingly old. Eager to sell himself, he had a proposition for us.
“How about you girls do the cooking if I pay for the food?” he asked.
My roommate and I were afraid to even glance in the other’s direction lest we make eye contact and collapse into fits of laughter.
Suffice it to say we were not offended. We were in fact worried about offending him. Was this because we were too blind to our own oppression to fully register his chauvinism? Hardly. It was because his chauvinism utterly disempowered him. He stood before us as a pathetic creature, a human-shaped dust bunny being swept, before our very eyes, into the trash bin of history. This had nothing to do, by the way, with being an adult in his thirties and needing to live with roommates (there is nothing remarkable about this in New York City). It was because his cluelessness rendered his attitudes and opinions irrelevant. He was totally not our problem.
His chauvinism utterly disempowered him.
If this had happened in 2015 rather than 1995, I suppose my roommate and I might have reacted differently. Maybe one of us would have made a beeline to her laptop and composed a rage-filled Tumblr post replete with hashtags like #FuckWhiteMen and #SmashThePatriarchy. Maybe we would have given our guest a steely reprimand, bid him adieu, and then retreated to the kitchen to pour vodka into our Male Tears coffee mugs. Surely, we would have been talking about it for days to anyone within earshot. After all, this was no mere microagression but sexist piggery in its purest form, as literal and broad as something out of Mad Men.
As it was, Mad Men was decades away from appearing on our television screens. More importantly, decades had passed since this sort of behavior would have been commonplace, at least in our circles. Which is maybe why my roommate and I were essentially unfazed by it. We may have been caught off guard, but it was more like bumping into a relic of the past, and made us appreciate the present that much more.
Of course, we’d heard this sort of thing before, mostly from our second wave feminist mothers recounting what life had been like before the women’s movement. As I think about this now, it occurs to me that our mothers would surely have been enraged at the idea of cooking for a male roommate. Put the whole scenario in 1975 and it might look something like a pre-internet version of the 2015 scenario; there would be lecturing and fist-shaking. There would be heavy emotional processing at a political action group.
Our mothers’ mandate would have been to root out this kind of chauvinism and set history on a better course. In 1995, our mandate was to laugh it out of the room. Our mothers had yelled, but we would snort. Men like these weren’t threats to us. They were embarrassments to themselves. Their aggressions were neither personal nor political. They were just moronic.
This seems to me an entirely natural response to boorish male behavior. As strange as it may sound to say this in today’s climate, the concept of male privilege was largely alien to me at that time. From my earliest memories, the general vibe around boys was that they were inferior to girls. Boys couldn’t sit still in class, couldn’t read as well as girls, got in trouble more often, matured later and, even then, never really seemed to catch up. Insofar as teachers called on boys more often than on girls in elementary school, my impression was always that the teachers were so grateful that any boy had anything to say that they called on them out of desperation. This was of course a product of my own blinkered upbringing. From an early age, I’d gravitated (or been pushed by my parents; there was always a fine line between my interests and theirs) toward arts-oriented, female-dominated pursuits like theater and orchestra. Boys here either existed on the sidelines or, in the case of high school theater, were in such short supply that merely showing up for an audition was enough to get a boy cast in a leading male part.
This pattern continued as I went to a female-dominated, liberal arts college and then worked in the female-dominated publishing business. My first job was at a fashion and beauty magazine and though I scoffed at the essential shallowness of the enterprise, many of the women were absolute killers, sharks swimming in raging seas of haute couture and chemical facial peels. There were men sprinkled here and there, yet even the physical posture of these men suggested they lived perennially under the thumbs of women, like moss beneath toadstools. The women were buying their own apartments, trading their own stocks, and out-earning their boyfriends and husbands. They also screamed and threw things. They connived, they berated, they mistreated their subordinates. There may have been more men than women at the very top of this food chain, but their presence felt almost symbolic, as if they were artist’s renderings that just happened to be walking around in the world instead of confined to picture frames.
After that job, I went to a graduate school program where women not only outnumbered men but could be so ruthless in their critiques of certain men that, as in elementary school, the professors sometimes seemed to be favoring those men out of pity. Sure, a handful of my male classmates were the kind of patronizing, blowhard types that would now be referred to as mansplainers. There were more than a handful of men in the publishing and media business — a world in which I was extremely eager to make my mark — that were more than happy to lord their influence over anyone they could, especially young women who could be taken out to lunches that, halfway through, began to feel strangely like dates. Beyond that, of course, there would always be men you crossed the street to avoid, men you didn’t give your number to, and (for plenty of reasons, all of them having to do with the animalistic opportunism of some men), men not to leave your drink unattended with in a bar.
But feeling the need to take such precautions seemed to me a very different thing from feeling that men had power over me. If anything, the precautions were further proof of the ways in which the animal nature of men made men a lesser primate. Men like the would-be roommate that wanted to buy the food if we did the cooking, were on the verge of extinction. There was no need to make a fuss about them. As far as I could see, they’d be gone soon enough.
As was frequently the case in my twenties, I couldn’t see very far past the confines of my social bubble. While I was rolling my eyes at the pretentious ramblings of insecure dudes in my writing workshop, my good friend Eileen was in downtown Manhattan, at a Wall Street investment bank, cleaning semen off of her desk. One morning in 1995 she arrived at work and discovered that someone had jerked off all over her work station. She knew who’d done it. She also knew there was almost certainly video footage proving so, though when she went to security and reported that her desk had been “vandalized,” she was told that no such tape existed. She didn’t bother reporting it to a supervisor or anyone in Human Resources. In fact, she says she’s not even sure this company had a Human Resources department.
“The guy was a high producing stock trader,” she told me. “No one was going to touch him.”
“He was a paranoid guy,” Eileen told me on the phone more than 20 years after the incident. “He was in over his head, constantly thinking he was going to lose money. He probably had a crush on me. He never approached me directly or talked to me. My guess is that he had some repressed thing.”
I asked if she reported the incident to a manager or some authoritative body.
“I didn’t report it,” she said. “If you’re going to report that kind of thing you know you’re risking your job. Not to mention your future jobs. No one wants to be known as ‘the woman whose desk got jacked off on.’”
Several things occurred to me during my conversation with Eileen. The first was that the girl power bubble in which I’ve spent my career is perhaps not the most useful perch from which to make pronouncements about the death of the patriarchy. The exultant image of Melanie Griffith riding the Staten Island ferry to corporate triumph in the 1988 film Working Girl may be permanently tattooed on my emotional memory card (and in a very good way), but the truth is that Wall Street was and is a hostile place for women — much more so than I’d realized. The desk incident may have been the most egregious of the indignities Eileen endured, but there were also drunken boob grabs at parties and raucous (also drunken) parties where Eileen was publicly berated as though the subject of a roast.
While I was rolling my eyes at the insecure dudes in my writing workshop, my good friend Eileen was on Wall Street, cleaning semen off of her desk.
“It would start out as teasing me for being a prude, being a goody two-shoes,” she recalls about the roasting, “but it would quickly escalate into outright hostility.”
Aside from being forced to reckon with my naiveté, what really struck me about our conversation is the way Eileen talked about her... what should we call him? Second-degree assailant? Vandal? Walking biohazard? She spoke of him almost with an air of pity. He was paranoid, in over his head, repressed in his feelings for her and/or women in general. There was no talk of rape culture or toxic masculinity. Not once did she say she felt unsafe. She was quick to point out that, even though she was the only woman in her department who wasn’t a secretary, she by and large felt supported by her male colleagues. She worked in research, “where all the geeks were,” she told me. “They were kinder and had more camaraderie.” When she brought a coworker over to her desk to show him what had happened, the coworker registered sympathy with a roll of the eyes.
“He said something like ‘ugh, that’s bad,’” she recalled, laughing. “He found me a new chair. He wasn’t exactly part of the male bravado thing there. He said ‘just switch chairs and move on.’”
Just switch chairs and move on. That sounds like a reaction gif in the making, perhaps a 2.0 version of that omnipresent “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. Except it’s not the kind of sentiment that gains a lot of traction in this era of performed outrage. Talking with Eileen, I couldn’t help but think of Fearless Girl, the bronze statue that appeared in Manhattan’s financial district in the spring of 2017. Depicting a spunky looking, ponytailed little girl with her hands placed defiantly on her hips, the statue was commissioned by an investment firm and placed in Bowling Green in front of the famous 7,000-pound Charging Bull sculpture.
Instantly, that statue became a repository for every possible iteration of feminist and capitalist critique — not to mention art commentary. Since it had been installed overnight just before International Women’s Day (not that this holiday is observed by your average passerby) the surface level message was one of female resistance to male authoritarianism. But despite the investment firm’s statement that the statue represented “the power of women in leadership,” naysayers almost immediately began pointing out that the company employed very few female executives (and furthermore had been in the headlines recently after settling a fraud lawsuit) and that Fearless Girl amounted to nothing more than a conciliatory distraction device.
More controversy burbled up from there. Some adult women didn’t like that their achievements were being represented by a child. In yet another wrinkle, the artist that created Charging Bull complained that the new visual narrative suggested that Fearless Girl was facing down the bull and that this subverted the meaning of his statue. The bull was supposed to connote the vigor of an upward-trending bull market, he said, and not the bullying nature of men.
There was also this: days after Fearless Girl went up, a young man in a suit, a prototypical looking Wall Street bro, was caught in a photo rubbing up against the statue simulating a sex act. Naturally, the image went viral, and, naturally, an avalanche of outrage came along for the ride. “Man in Suit Humping Fearless Girl Statue Is Why We Need Feminism,” was the Huffington Post headline. My Twitter feed was a chorus singing in unison: Another day in rape culture; It just never stops; As if we needed more evidence that the world hates women.
The perpetrator’s face was blurry in the photo, but he seemed easily identifiable nonetheless. In anticipatory schadenfreude, I kept waiting for his name to be made public, and for his incarceration in the digital stockade to begin. Amazingly, it never did. Meanwhile, I actually started to wonder if the whole incident wasn’t in some ways another day in rape culture resistance. The offending bro (who according to bystanders, had been hanging off the bull statue with his buddies moments earlier) managed to defile Fearless Girl for only a few seconds before horrified bystanders shouted him off. Then he was forced into hiding by the angry internet mob. Not only was he punished for his crime, he kept the feminist conversation’s volume on high for another day — or three. Is this evidence that the world hates women? Or just further proof of the infantile, psychologically impotent nature of Wall Street bros? Would an equally accurate headline have been “Outrage at Man In Suit Humping Fearless Girl Statue Is Why Feminism Is Winning?”
Here’s another possible headline: “Man in Suit Humping Fearless Girl Statue Is 2017 Version of Man Ejaculating On Woman’s Desk in 1994 And The Fact That He Was Shamed Instead of Ignored Is Why Feminism Is Winning.”
Eileen told me that if something like the desk incident had happened today, she probably would have taken photos. But of course that was in the days before smartphones effectively became extensions of people’s hands. Besides, even if she had been able to take photos and march into HR and somehow get the guy fired by noon, this would have done little to save her from the fate of being forever known as “the woman whose desk got jacked off on.” As it happens, years later, at another job, Eileen experienced sexual harassment and did attempt to report it. She retained a lawyer (a woman, incidentally) and was told she had no evidence and therefore no case. She emphasizes that as much of a minefield as that work environment was it still had nothing on Wall Street. She also says she wouldn’t trade the Wall Street experience for anything.
“I’m glad I did it,” Eileen told me. “All the stuff that happened to me, it’s all life experience. It has value, even if it was miserable at the time. That said, if it were my daughter in that situation I’d tell her to get the fuck out of there.”
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years thinking about where I went wrong versus where I was perhaps done wrong. It can be difficult to separate the two under any circumstances. But when you find yourself getting divorced and stepping squarely into middle age amid a cultural referendum on the treatment and value of women, you can’t help but make a case study of yourself. Women are so aggrieved right now, I’d think to myself while walking my dog along the streets of the city I’d fled to when my marriage ended. What are my grievances? What have been the times in my life where male privilege has blocked my way?
Maybe it’s my natural temperament (and maybe this is proof that my temperament is fundamentally narcissistic), but there’s no one I’d rather blame for my misfortunes than myself. In a pinch, I’ll blame the whims of the universe, but for the most part I’ll never pass up an opportunity for self-admonition. This is especially true when it comes to grievances against men and male privilege, which I take a special delight in quashing in favor of my own accountability. It’s almost as if blaming myself strips the men of their power by rendering them too insignificant to even gripe about.
During the first few years of my post-divorced life I spent a lot of time observing what had changed over the decade or so since I’d last been single. A decade isn’t so long in the big picture, but this particular decade — 2005 to 2015 — had brought enough changes to make it feel like three. Back in 2005, most polling showed less than a quarter of women identifying as feminists. A common refrain was, “I’m not a feminist, but ____.”
Maybe it’s my natural temperament but there’s no one I’d rather blame for my misfortunes than myself.
By 2015, feminism, at least the word feminism, was a mass-market brand. Ever since Beyoncé stepped out in front of that giant lit-up “FEMINIST” sign at the Video Music Awards in 2014, the word — along with its partner word, badass — had become ubiquitous.
When badass feminism broke off into tributaries like #KillAllMen and internet-driven “awareness campaigns” around societal afflictions like women being catcalled on the streets, and office thermostats being set too low for women (“air conditioning is another big sexist plot” a much-discussed Washington Post article in 2015 declared with funny-not-funny impudence), it seemed like the way to be fashion forward was to declare men the enemy.
Here’s the problem with that sort of sentiment: it may purport to diminish male power, but in my view it only bolsters it. It hands men power they simply don’t have, or at least don’t deserve. It follows the logic of “punching up” in comedy, which goes that it’s okay to make fun of someone who intrinsically holds more power than you. It’s why it’s culturally acceptable to skewer a celebrity or a politician or even a random rich person but not a normal private citizen (I guess unless that citizen has a lot of Twitter followers.) But when women apply this logic to men, bathing in their tears and shooing off their every utterance as mansplaining, they actually achieve the opposite of what they intended. They effectively put men on pedestals those men might not have been on to begin with. They lift them up in order to knock them down.
A homeless man whistling at a young woman as she goes off to her fancy internship every morning is not exactly a foot soldier for the patriarchy.
Of course, fourth-wave feminism is forever armed with countless examples of the ways that men have power over women: physically, economically, and legislatively (though that one’s changing). What they don’t seem to see, however, are the countless ways that women frequently have power over men: in the use of sex as a tool for manipulation, in parenting dynamics, in the ability nowadays to shut down a conversation by citing male privilege and dramatically dropping the mic. What they seem unwilling to confront are the countless ways that power dynamics shift among all kinds of people all the time. For all their thinking about theories of intersectionality among oppressed groups, they seem to have difficulty understanding why a homeless man whistling at a young woman as she goes off to her fancy internship every morning is not exactly a foot soldier for the patriarchy.
Yes, it sucks to be a woman sometimes. Until very recently, it usually sucked a whole lot more to be a woman than to be a man. But there have always been ways in which it can suck to be a man, too. It can suck to be a person walking the earth in your own sensitive, sunburned, sweating, sagging skin. As George Carlin said, “Men are from earth; women are from earth. Deal with it.”
But we don’t deal with it. That’s because, in some circles, dealing with it means accepting it and accepting it means being complicit in structural misogyny and so on. And the funny thing about that is that in assigning men undue power by seeing sexist injustices where there aren’t any, it’s all too easy to overlook other, very real injustices.
One night I was riding the subway home, the train rattling through the Upper West Side and Harlem toward the Bronx. It was probably around 10:30 or 11 p.m., that hour when New York City starts to burble with a kind of tired, tipsy energy that, depending on where you are in life, either tells you it’s time to go to bed or it’s time to get the party started. The subway car wasn’t empty, but it was hardly full. Two young men, probably in their twenties, sat across from me talking animatedly about something related to the arts, maybe theater or classical music. A gaggle of drunk-seeming young women, probably also in their late teens or early twenties, sat across from me a little further down in the car. Their skirts were short and their makeup was streaked and they were laughing and talking in that several-decibels-too-loud way that young women are particularly good at. Something about their level of enthusiasm suggested they were not from the city but perhaps tourists or, more likely, suburbanites in town for someone’s birthday or bridal shower.
At one point a man who was clearly either intoxicated, mentally ill, or both (I’d bet my savings on both) got on the train and commenced with those flailing around maneuvers that you often see in intoxicated, mentally ill people on the subway. He approached riders randomly, asking for money but also trying to engage them in conversation. When he got to me he began complimenting me, telling me I was pretty and remarking on my blond hair. I did the thing I usually do with this sort of person, which is to acknowledge them in a good humored sort of way in order to break the tension but not engage them any further. The man seemed angry that I wouldn’t talk to him so he set upon the group of girls, who, unlike me, seemed amused by him and invited him to sit down with them.
For several stops, the girls playfully teased the man and he teased them back. I couldn’t help but pick up on a certain voyeurism on their part. They were white and appeared to be middle class and the man was black and probably homeless and mentally impaired. I got the sense that they were taking delight in his exoticism as well as pride in their willingness to let him sit with them. Other riders looked up from time to time, some rolling their eyes and some registering mild amusement. When the man finally got up to exit the train, he made a big show of telling the girls to have a great and beautiful night and the girls, in turn, waved their arms and blew kisses at him.
I was sitting near the door, reading a magazine article on my iPhone (an article about poverty and mental illness, ironically). As he passed me, the man stopped, leaned down right in my face and shouted, “now you have a fucked up night!”
He raised his hand as if about to slap me. I raised both of my hands as if to surrender. He didn’t touch me. “Okay, okay,” I said. “I hear you.”
“Bitch!” he shouted again as he got off the train.
I was actually laughing a little. The phrase “have a fucked up night” struck me as sort of brilliant. The man had startled me, but not frightened me. I hadn’t felt threatened at all. He was wiry and unsteady on his feet. If he’d attacked me, there were plenty of people around who could have — and surely would have — come to my rescue.
The young men directly across from me sat there looking horrified.
“I am so sorry,” one of them said.
I said something to signal that I was fine. I said something like “Weird, right?” Or “that’s a new one!”
When I lived in New York 20 years earlier, when this sort of thing happened all the time, all the passengers would have just shaken their heads and immediately forgotten about it. These men, however, were visibly upset.
“I’m just so sorry you had to go through that,” the other one said.
“Well, what are you gonna do?” I said, turning back to my iPhone article.
“No, I’m really sorry,” he said again.
“It’s just so wrong,” said the other man.
I realized then, that this wasn’t a display of concern but of guilt. I looked at the men again. They had scruffy beards, longish hair, pale-ish complexions. They spoke with that highly articulated cadence you often hear in people in the performing arts, especially theater people. I knew nothing about them, of course (they could have been computer programmers, for all I knew) but a quick flash of my imagination projected onto them recent liberal arts degrees with the full complement of intersectional doctrine. Despite looking like the kind of guys who might have been picked on in high school, they had grown into men who believed themselves to be oppressors. They had grown into men whose response to a crazy homeless guy calling a woman a bitch and telling her to have a fucked up night was to apologize on behalf of the entire patriarchy.
But it wasn’t the patriarchy that had yelled in my face. It was the mental health system, the homelessness problem, the drug war, the whole wounded city and wounded world. This wasn’t systemic misogyny. It was life in the big city. Except life in the city has changed dramatically since I had been the age of these young men. If this had been 20 years ago, that subway car would have been near empty at that time of night, especially as it passed Columbia University and approached Harlem. There would have been three crazy homeless guys in every subway car at all times. There would likely have been people on that car with knives or guns, or on crack. The idea that giggling white girls from the suburbs would have been there at all, let alone invited a panhandler to sit down with them, would have been unthinkable.
Despite looking like the kind of guys who might have been picked on in high school, they had grown into men who believed themselves to be oppressors.
The men went back to their conversation. They seemed a little baffled, maybe even disappointed, by my nonchalance. There had been so many things in play in that moment the man yelled in my face; class, race, gender, the changing economy of the city, the naïve hubris of a certain kind of white suburban girl, the low spark of smugness you see in a certain kind of aging person who clings to their toughness because they’ve lost hold of their youth. All of these things pushed and pulled against each other in a great mass of friction. The encounter played out on multiple planes, yet had been reduced to misogyny because those two scruffy-faced men had been educated about sexism in a way that handed them power they didn’t have. They then used that supposed power to apologize for something they didn’t do. In the process, they literally — and quite inadvertently — patronized me. How funny, I thought. How unfortunate.