Language

The Christmas Spirit

evening public ledger dec 24 1921This 1921 news story, which I found posted on a blog called Strange Company, reminded me of something odd that happened this Christmas, which I hadn’t planned on mentioning. Frankly, I’m not sure I come out so great in this tale.

I woke up on Christmas morning and as is my habit when I first get up, I quickly checked my various communications media, my e-mail, Facebook and twitter feeds. I noted with passing interest that the topic of the day seemed to be that the president had made some claim about bringing back the phrase “Merry Christmas” and this inevitably had people declaring which side of the culture wars they were on.

In the comments on one post was something from a man (I assume) with an American flag image for his picture. For whatever reason, before I headed off to enjoy the time with my family, I responded to what I thought was an a-historical appeal to tradition by pointing out that the Puritans had outlawed the practice of Christmas in the early days. Not that it matters, but my point was that we Americans have never been entirely unified in our traditions around Christmas or anything else. (The whole “War on Christmas” thing is not really about history or tradition, but about declaring what segment of society ought to be treated as the default “real Americans” now.)

By now I was enjoying a house full of kids, parents, stockings and sweets. I noticed the notification when I took my phone out to snap a picture of the cousins in their Christmas light necklaces. This elicited three responses with far more capital letters than I thought necessary.  The general themes were that America was founded as a Christian nation and that I was an ignorant fool.  His replies made it clear that it was not the specific tradition of saying “Merry Christmas” but the notion of America as Christian that was important to him.

There is something about someone condescending to you that is hard to ignore, as much as you ought to. So I responded. I pointed out that I knew a fair amount about history and that I didn’t agree with his premise, but that it was Christmas and that I had family commitments and didn’t want to spend the day arguing about what text should be on the banners in shopping malls. I wished the stranger a “Merry Christmas.” I expected that we would agree to disagree.

The next time I took the phone out there was another condescending response beginning with LOL taunting me that the only reason I was leaving the discussion was that I knew he was right. He was determined to have the last word.

In spite of myself, as the kids tried to plunk out Christmas carols on the piano, I found myself getting aggravated. “Are you arguing that we should have an official state religion?” I wanted to ask.

But I stopped myself. We had driven 14 hours to be with our extended family for Christmas. Christmas is one day a year. Here we were together, and this annoying and senseless debate was intruding. What am I doing? What should I care if some person I don’t know or respect thinks he bested me? It’s Christmas!  I should never have commented to begin with. I deleted my original tweet and all the replies and blocked the stranger so there would be no temptation whatsoever to get drawn back in.

Isn’t it ironic (don’t you think?) that someone felt so strongly about keeping the “Merry Christmas” in Christmas that he was willing to spend Christmas day arguing with strangers about it?

 

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Pronoun Trouble: Women…They

I have been experimenting with a different style of writing about women. Some time ago it struck me that when women speak about women we almost always use the word “they” to describe the group.

The reason we do this, I believe, is to take on the voice of an impartial observer. To say “women…they” is to say that I, for the purposes of this discussion, am not part of that group. I’m impartial. Now, I admit, men may also use a “men…they” construction to indicate that they are speaking about men in a collective abstract that doesn’t necessarily include the speaker as an individual. Yet, somehow, it feels different to me when women say “women… they.”

In doing so women make women “other” and reinforce the idea of maleness (or non-femaleness) as the default. People in the abstract are not women. Women are “they.” When I noticed this, I made a conscious choice to start writing “women…we” in these instances to see how it feels.

So far I am not sure that either construction is ideal. “Women…we” has a nice feel of solidarity, which can be powerful when speaking on women’s issues, but feels less empowering when you don’t want to individually be assumed to share the traits of all people of your gender. There is a risk of seeming to speak on behalf of women as a whole. On the other hand, not assuming that people are male unless they are differentiated as women…them… feels very good to me.

What do you think? Discuss.

 

“Me Too” Stories and Thoughts on “Vulnerability”

The “Me Too” campaign is about abuses of power in the workplace, but it brought an episode from my past to mind.

In France they have a word for a man who takes sexual pleasure in rubbing against people in public places. He’s called a frotteur. I didn’t know that when I was sixteen.

I was an exchange student in high school. I lived in a village outside of Paris. It was a short train ride and a metro line or two to get to my favorite place, an English-language bookstore on the Rue de Rivoli. I often went into the city on my own, and bought Smash Hits Magazine to look at pictures of Simon Le Bon and INXS.

One day I was in the metro, riding back to the train station, when a man took the handrail beside my seat. He stood close, and it seemed odd because the car was not that crowded. There was someone in the seat beside me, and I inched closer to him to make room for the standing stranger. As the car began to move, I felt him rubbing against me. My first thought was that it was the motion of the train that was causing him to bump me, and I scooted closer to my neighbor’s lap. The man in the aisle continued to rub against me, and I soon realized it had nothing to do with the motion of the train. He moved in waves, emphasizing the motion of his pelvis. I had never had sex, but I understood the motion was sexual. I curled inward towards the man on my other side, catching a glimpse of the stranger out of the corner of my eye. He had a sickening, satisfied grin on his face.

My stop was a ways down the line, but as soon as the car stopped moving I bolted for the door and ran to another line. I didn’t know where I was going– just away. As the next train arrived at the platform, the man came around the corner. I got onto one of the cars, hoping he had not seen me, but he followed, still grinning. I took a seat and began to cry. The man looked at me, surprised. He seems to have believed that I was enjoying his game. When he saw my tears, thankfully, he got off the train and left me to find my way back to my route in peace.

I never told anyone about the incident, but not for the reasons you might think. It was shocking, upsetting and gross but I did not feel humiliated or ashamed. I knew the pervert was the one with the problem, not me. I was just taking my train home. The reason I kept it secret was that I was afraid that if I told anyone I would not be allowed to go to the city by myself any more, which was something I liked doing.  I was afraid that because I had been treated in an abusive manner I would lose my freedom.

“In our society, we socialize women to be aware of threats, especially from strangers,” wrote Sally Raskoff in the Everyday Sociology blog. “Girls are kept closer than boys when they are playing outside. Women don’t tend to go out alone at night, and there are a host of other protective behaviors that constrain what they do on a daily basis. We are taught these things to stay safe. In general, men don’t learn these things and they don’t grow up thinking about how safe they are at any given moment.”

How often have we heard the expression “vulnerable women and children.”  We’re trained to think of ourselves as at risk, and that it is our primary duty to stay safe.

When we are victims, we are often blamed for not doing enough to protect ourselves. Why were you in that neighborhood? Why did you go with him after midnight? Why were you wearing that dress?

I once told a boyfriend about an unwanted advance I had received after having a couple of drinks with some friends and he said, “You silly girl.” (I didn’t stay with him long.)

These questions are posed by people who want to believe that if they do the right things violence will never happen to them. Avoid drinking with male friends. Avoid drinking. Avoid going out on your own. Avoid being out at night.

School authorities think they have to train girls to dress modestly. Girls are vulnerable and boys cannot be controlled.

Jennifer Drew had this to say on the British feminist site The F Word:

There is a buzzword circulating the legal, media and societal systems, and it is being used to deflect attention away from male accountability and responsibility for men’s violence against women and girls. What is this word? Why ‘vulnerability’, and we increasingly hear this word being used by judges when sentencing men convicted of raping or murdering women and girls. Prosecution council too depicts female victims of male violence as ‘vulnerable’ creatures. The media, politicians and society in general are all claiming acts of male violence are ones perpetrated upon vulnerable women or girls. But rarely have I heard or read male victims of male portrayed as vulnerable victims…women survivors of male violence are victims of the crimes these misogynist males commit. Therein lies the difference – not powerless victims but victims of crimes men commit against them…

This is something different from how we treat men and risk. If, for example, a young man decided to take a year off after high school and drive around South America on his own, he would be taking a risk. If something bad happened to him on that trip, it would be seen as unfortunate, maybe tragic, but it would be much less likely that he would be asked in an accusatory tone “Well, why did you go to that South American village anyway?”

Young men are encouraged to go on adventures, and the stories of some of their foolhardy and ill-fated adventures become dramas. Women, on the other hand, in the same period of life when men are being encouraged to take risks and experience the world, are constantly reminded of our vulnerability. The orientation at my college dorm was almost entirely about not getting raped.

This is all a great advantage to men when it comes to careers and life experience. They work on fishing trawlers, hitchhike across Europe, go mountain climbing. They have great stories to tell and our culture values them as more interesting people. They’re the subject of most of our fiction. They’re who we think of when we imagine people who do things.

You may be interested to learn that men are more likely than women to be victims in every category except for sexual assault. So you could say that with the exception of one particular category of violence, men are more vulnerable than women.

Sally Raskoff analyzed the threat of sexual violence and she concluded:

…Adult males are much more likely to be raped or assaulted by strangers while women’s threat comes primarily from their intimate partners. Considering this data, do we socialize men and women appropriately?

If we socialize girls and women to suspect strangers and people outside their families, does that work effectively to protect them since most of the real threat comes from people they know?

If we socialize boys and men to assume they are safe from outside threats, are they adequately prepared to protect themselves in childhood and adolescence from people they know and from strangers when they are adults?

 

I kept my secret. I’m sorry that I felt I had to stay silent to protect my own freedom, but I am glad that I didn’t miss out on more afternoons in Paris.

To Throw Oneself, Continued

seductionI decided to test my theory that “to throw oneself at” is a gendered phrase– that a woman can “throw herself at” a man, but a man is rarely said to “throw himself at” a woman.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes the phrase “to throw oneself at” and it defines it as referring to a woman:

to throw oneself or be thrown at (a man), of a woman, to put herself or be put designedly in the way of, so as to invite the attention of; to throw oneself into the arms of, to become the wife or mistress of.

Here are some of the early appearances:

1789 H. More Lett. (1925) 127 The women all threw themselves at his head.

1871 E. A. Freeman Hist. Norman Conquest IV. xviii. 231 Their wives were throwing themselves into the arms of other men.

1891 Besant in J. M. Dixon Dict. Idiomatic Eng. Phrases (1891) 336 As for the girls, Claire, they just throw themselves at a man.

So women have been flinging themselves for a while.

When I did a search on Google Books of “threw herself at,” of the ten snippets that appeared, six used “threw herself” in the sense of making a sexual or romantic advance on a man. When I did a search of “threw himself at” none of the snippets used the phrase in that way.

I don’t have the means at my disposal to be as scientific as Blatt, but given the limits of my research, I think I can confirm my hypothesis for the purposes of this blog.

I mentioned in my previous post that she “threw herself at him” has a different connotation and feeling than he “made a pass at her.” A pass seems to be a sport metaphor. You throw the ball, and the other person can catch it or drop it.

As for the origin of “make a pass at” in this sense, The OED didn’t have a lot to say, only noting that it is an Americanism and quoting Dorothy Parker’s famous “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” from 1925 as its first use in print.

This was probably not the first use of the phrase, Parker assumed her readers would know what she meant. It is interesting, however, that a man making a pass at a woman was, in its first recorded appearance in print, presented as desirable.

Men don’t welcome having a woman “throw herself” at him. In the examples in my limited and unscientific sample of Google books, it is most often used by a man as an excuse to his wife in order to minimize his responsibility in an affair. Inherent in the notion of “throwing oneself” is that it is at least undignified and humorous, if not outright shameful and humiliating. It is not worthy of a woman to “put herself designedly in the way of” a man. If she does, it is really not the man’s fault if he yields to the temptation, and anyway the woman is no threat because she is obviously not the kind of woman he would want to have a relationship with. Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses, but Girls who make passes are embarrassing asses.

Cue up a chorus of The Monkees Cuddly Toy…

 

 

 

 

 

“Making a Pass” vs. “Throwing Oneself At”

I’ve been reading Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt. The book takes a statistician’s view of literature. One of the chapters was on gender difference. There are a number of common words that computer analysis can use to determine whether a text was written by a man or a woman.  For whatever reason (Blatt does not hazard a guess) male writers use “this” more often than female writers, and women use “because” more often than men.

Blatt discovered, not surprisingly, “that in books by female authors, men and women are described at close to equal rates. Yet male authors include women less than half as often as they write about men… Classic literature by men is about men by a quantifiable and overwhelming margin. Classic literature by women is about women more than men, but it’s within a short distance of an even split.”

Blatt went further, examining the words that authors use when describing characters of different genders. An interesting example was the word “scream.”

In the top 100 classic literature books, a form of scream appears after the word he or she a total of 158 times… “If we look at all the instances where male writers used the word scream, it is used twice as often after she than he. In other words, male writers make their female characters scream more often than their male characters. But that’s not enough to say that male authors have gone rogue. For if you look at the use of scream by female authors, the result holds at an almost identical rate. In other words, female writers also make their female characters scream more often than their male characters.”

Male characters do not scream. They shout.

Below are the top five words, like screamed, that are used most often in classic literature to describe women over men. Words Most Likely to Be Found as “She _________” as Opposed to “He _________” 1. Shivered 2. Wept 3. Murmured 4. Screamed 5. Married And here are the top five words, like grinned, that are used most often in classic literature to describe men over women. Words Most Likely to Be Found as “He _________” as Opposed to “She _________” 1. Muttered 2. Grinned 3. Shouted 4. Chuckled 5. Killed Women murmur yet men mutter. Men shout; women scream. Women neither grin nor chuckle, but smile is more likely to follow she. Each of these trends holds across recent popular and literary fiction…

And then there is interrupted.

It’s not the most common word in any writer’s works, but especially in classic literature it is used much more commonly in reference to female characters when the author is male.

I don’t have access to Blatt’s computer programs but I have a couple of phrases I would like to test. The expression “making a pass at” versus “to throw oneself at someone.”

Both expressions connote someone who is making a sexual advance toward someone else. To throw oneself is more degrading than to make a pass, and it carries a greater connotation that the object is not interested– although either a pass or throwing oneself at someone could end with either rejection or sex. If you were to run the numbers, I have a strong suspicion that they would show that “throwing oneself” is something attributed to women and “making a pass” is more often attributed to men. I suspect that an analysis of how these two phrases are used could be quite revealing.

Dawn Crush Thing Revisited: The Incidental Dear Lord of the Oscar Wilde’s Destruction

Ah Google Translate.

If you do not understand the title, see Dawn Crush Thing.

So I came across a Turkish article on Lord Alfred Douglas, and not speaking Turkish, I put it through a computer translation. I still don’t know what the article says (I assume it is not flattering about Douglas). In any case, it gave me a chuckle. Here are some highlights:

The Incidental Dear Lord of the Oscar Wilde’s Destruction: Lord Alfred Douglas…
 
The oxford spree is an extravagant lover who has not been able to draw into his lungs, but who has written poems that he can write, but that can come out of the excitement of a new teenager.
In the end, don’t we, all of us, write the things that we can write?
In the years when she was with Wilde, she responded by writing bluntly letters to Wilde in repellents, even after three months’ abandonment, Wilde in traveled to Europe by traveling through Europe as corpses. When Wilde again refused, he took pride in his feet…
In fairness, they are quite nice feet.
feet

[He] did not care about the waste of wildlife in the beginning because he is not a very savage in Wilde, but it is a mind-boggling figure that can do the accounting of expenses. Bosie is extravagant, the pleasure that his father lived – and the blessedness of the eyes of abundance, and he has not satisfied himself with the least, always asking for more... Wilde loves this poet who eats as much as a bird but feeds on the conversation.

Apparently birds eat more in Turkey than in England.

Bosie disturbs Wilde. Wilde comes out Bosie when she concentrates on writing the game in her office. They drink a coffee first. Bosie, jaws for two hours. then goes to lunch. Say a day like this. Wilde can only write when the ideal husband’s second and third curtains are separated from Bosie. He will not even finish the game, he writes two more games. Bosie, Wilde’s weakness.

This last one, I think, might go down well at a poetry slam somewhere. Say a day like this. Indeed. Say.

 

“Individuals of a Better Station in Life”

Working on Oscar’s Ghost over the past few years, I’ve had occasion to give some thought to social class. In Oscar Wilde’s England, social class was spoken of quite openly and the lines were not supposed to be crossed. Much of the circumstantial evidence that convicted Wilde rested on the idea that there was no legitimate reason for a man of his station to socialize with grooms and valets. (There is a nice scene in the movie Wilde where the audience in the courtroom gasps when an attorney brings up the working class professions of some of Wilde’s companions.)

A medical professional who examined Wilde in prison wrote in his report that the prisoner “practised the most disgusting and odious of criminal offences with others of his own sex and that too not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

Crossing class lines was suspicious. We often read passages like this with a little snicker, feeling a tad smug about how much wiser we are today. But are we? Or have we just changed the way we talk about social class?

There is a television commercial I’ve been seeing a lot lately. It is for an online dating service and one of the featured women says that she went with the service because you have to pay to be on it, and that proves that the men are serious about a relationship.

Of course, it is a luxury to be able to spend money on a service, especially one that has free variants available. So seeking out men who are willing to pay for the service is not only about “seriousness” it is about weeding out the poor. “Professional” is a euphemism we use these days rather than saying “people of my class” as Lord Alfred Douglas would have.

I would call this kind of language “coded” but that is not quite right. To speak in code is to be aware that you are conveying a hidden meaning. Most of the time when we use this particular kind of code we are keeping the class ramifications secret even from ourselves. I don’t believe that the dating service customer believed she was using code when she said “serious.” She believed she meant “serious” not “of my social class.” But the idea she has of a serious person includes certain social class markers.

Another example of this, a slightly more conscious one, is found in the romantic comedy “The Holiday.” I was so struck by something I heard on the commentary track that I ended up writing it into my novel Identity Theft.

Movies like this had always been a guilty pleasure for Candi. They were formulaic and fluffy, an insult to her intelligence, and yet who could resist the idea that we live in a world were perfect romance is possible? You run away from life, trade homes with another woman in an exotic faraway city, and no sooner have you unpacked than someone who looks like Jude Law knocks on your door and wants to make love to you. And wouldn’t you know, it turns out that he is secretly a family man and totally the marrying kind. Candi suspected that these kinds of movies did to her brain what a diet of Twinkies would do to her body, and yet she couldn’t get enough of them.

In the commentary track, the film’s writer and director was explaining her costuming choices. It was important, she said, that Jude Law’s character was wearing a tie when he knocked on that door. Otherwise, she believed, audiences would not relate to Cameron Diaz’s character. They would think she was a slut. Good girls only have anonymous sex with boys in white collar jobs.

In other words, the definition of a slut is a woman who has sex “not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

We’ve come a long way, baby.