Shame

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…

 

 

 

 

 

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The Most Adorable Way to Call Someone A Slut

I used to sing along to the Monkees “Cuddly Toy” when I was a little girl. It was not until years later that I realized that this song has got to be the most charming and adorable bit of slut shaming ever set to music.

It’s joined in the Monkees canon by loose-woman anthems “She Hangs Out” and “Star Collector,” all of which were sung by cute-as-a-button Davy Jones.  Interestingly, it also fell to Jones to make a song about a lack of commitment sound like a love song.

I wanna be free
Don’t say you love me, say you like me
But when I need you beside me
Stay close enough to guide me
Confide in me, whoa-oh-oh

I wanna hold your hand
Walk along the sand
Laughing in the sun
Always having fun
Doing all those things
Without any strings to tie me down
I wanna be free

In other words, if I’m understanding this right, he wants her to be there for him whenever he needs her, but when he’s not in the mood for her, she should respect his space and not try to tie him down, man.

When you’re a kid you learn by rote in school. You recite the Pledge of Allegiance even though you don’t know what the word “allegiance” means. The idea is that the refrain will lodge in your brain and become part of your thoughts.

When I sang along to these tunes was I assimilating their messages? If you are too promiscuous you can’t expect to be loved and if you’re a serious person you will be there for a man when he needs you, but not pressure him too much to return the favor.

 

Pressure of Concealment

If you don’t already, I recommend following Lit Hub. Today they featured an interview with Dani Shapiro in which the author muses on whether or not she would have written her memoir if she’d had the instant gratification of social media at the time.

Most interesting to me was her theory on the origin of powerful writing:

Dani Shapiro: “Adrienne Rich once said that it is that which is under the pressure of concealment that explodes into poetry. So if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and sharing there, there’s no pressure of concealment. And I think good memoir comes out of that place, it comes out of it can’t be said, it can’t be said, it can’t be said, so now I want to try to say it.”

Adrienne Rich’s observation struck me as another version of Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Does the pressure of concealment fuel all art? Probably not, but it can be a powerful engine.

Work, Debt and Identity

There is an interview today on The Atlantic with Allison J. Pugh, author of The Tumbleweed Society.  Pugh has written about the toll job insecurity takes on a person’s relationships and sense of identity.

“The work ethic, and all the different ways in which people define that, is a really powerful way in which people define themselves as honorable in our society,” Pugh said. “What that does is it makes involuntary job loss all the more painful. Because it’s not just about interruptions to your income.. it’s also chipping away at how we think of ourselves—as honorable people, as people who can stand up as full citizens in our social world and say, ‘I belong here. I’m a contributing member. I work hard.'”

One of the main themes in the novel Identity Theft, and one that has not been commented on much in reviews, is the central character’s struggle with identity as she faces the loss of her career. Maybe it does not come up much because when a character is female we’re primed to think her central conflict is related to romantic love and the main question the novel will try to solve is whether or not she will find love or a sense of her own attractiveness by the end.

Candi’s main struggle, though, is her sense that she is not valuable. That her particular skills, being a good, reliable worker, do not mean anything. This is tied more to her financial problems than body image issues. When people experience poverty they usually feel ashamed, and a natural result of this is that they tend to retreat from friendships.

As Robert Walker, professor of social policy at Oxford University, wrote in his book The Shame of Poverty:

With economic development and growing individualization, social status has increasingly come to be associated with achievement, rather than with ascribed characteristics such as age, birth right, and gender. Most recently, wealth, expenditure and consumption have emerged as the predominant measures of personal success…Psychologists demonstrate that people experiencing shame not only feel small and humiliated, they are likely to experience social isolation which is either forced up on them, a form of exile, or chosen by them so as to avoid the possibility of public shaming. They are also prone to feelings of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and even suicide.

…the sense of shame is likely also to be prolonged because most people in poverty will generally already be doing as much as they can to escape from poverty…People in poverty lack the resources necessary to reciprocate, to support wives and husbands, to bring up children or even, adopting the language of stigma, to be fully human. Moreover, should they fail to appreciate the degree of their inadequacy and the depth of their degradation, society takes it upon itself to shame them into changing their ways or, with similar intent, to stigmatize them, thereby reinforcing the social divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and often actively discriminating against them, ‘the poor.’

…Respondents in all seven national settings sought to avoid the possibilities of shaming by stopping going out with friends or inviting people home to eat…. The change was usually justified as a measure to reduce cost, but it also meant that they were less likely to be placed in a position in which they would subsequently need to reciprocate in ways that they could not afford…Avoiding social life meant avoiding shame, but also resulted in a decline in the number of people that would be available to assist in the event of a crisis, thereby adding to the vulnerability of life in poverty.

One of the fascinating things in the interview with Pugh is that she found that when people lose a job through downsizing or layoffs, they tend to blame themselves. Apparently we are so invested in the mythos that we live in a world where hard work and merit are rewarded, we would rather blame ourselves than give up on that notion.

“But it’s like they’ve given up on this other huge thing,” Pugh said, “which is: Do employers owe any kind of loyalty to their employees? That’s not a conversation that we have anymore.”

In Identity Theft, it is only at the end, when Candi has been laid low by the events of the story, that she thinks to pose this very question. (Albeit in different words.)

Is society entirely impersonal? Do we owe nothing to one another?

It is the constantly re-enforced shame that comes in the form of calls from creditors and her social isolation that makes Candi vulnerable to Ethan’s game. Because her social world has contracted to posts on Facebook, the only relationship she is going to find is one that comes right to her. And the one that happens to fall in her lap is so magical it has the power to soothe all of her feelings of being useless and not a full member of society. Being courted by a rock star is the only thing, really, with the power to overcome all of her vulnerability and insecurity. So it becomes central to her sense of self.

I recommend The Atlantic article. I think it is important for the narrative about insecure employment, debt and wage stagnation to be broadened to include all of its impacts on relationships, culture and society.

When Your Shame Becomes My Self-Expression

I’ve been reading a lot of articles of late on the subject of shaming. A new book is out by Jon Ronson called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.  Ronson spent the past three years traveling around the country and meeting with the targets of high profile shamings. As the description says, “The shamed are people like us – people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job.”

Today I read an article on the TED blog about Monica Lewinsky’s re-emergence as a spokesperson for those who are shamed online. Nadia Goodman wrote:

As TED’s social media editor, I have seen a lot of nasty comments. I’ve seen grown men and women deride a 14-year-old girl for her choice of dress. I’ve seen them say they’re revolted by a beautiful transgender woman. On every talk about race, I’ve seen a slew of racist comments. But none have ever been as bad as the comments we got when we published Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk, The Price of Shame. At least at first.

I learned through my Facebook feed that somehow I had missed an uproar over Trevor Noah’s old tweets.

Most of the articles I read about trolling, media shaming and viral online shaming campaigns make the same assumption, an assumption I believe is mistaken. People generally assume that we shame people who transgress in order to bring them back into line and to compel them to behave in socially agreeable ways, in much like the Puritans did when they put people in the stocks.

I don’t think this is actually what is happening. I came to this realization today while reading an old article I’d stored in my “to read” program. (I have about 180 pages of articles there and I thought it might be time to clear some out.)

The article was published in Insights by Stanford Business with the headline Why Seeking Common Ground Can Backfire.

Research shows that conversations between people seeking common ground can influence which ideas and people gain cultural prominence. The best baseball players don’t always get elected All-Stars. And the Nobel Prize doesn’t always go to the most deserving member of the scientific community. This, according to a pair of recent studies, is because such recognition can depend upon how well known an individual is rather than on merit alone. Moreover, because it’s human nature for people to try to find common ground when talking to others, simple everyday conversations could have the unfortunate side effect of blocking many of the best and most innovative ideas from the collective social consciousness…the more people are talked about, the larger a role they play in society — and the more they will subsequently get talked about. This creates a self-reinforcing ramping up of social prominence that is not necessarily deserved.

The researchers in the study referenced in this article found that when people were given the choice to speak with people they had not met before about baseball players who were well known, but were having mediocre seasons, or those who were not as well known but were having very good seasons, they invariably talked about the more famous players because they served as a common point of reference.

Well known people and their scandals serve as common conversational currency. We no longer read the same books. We do not share the same religious beliefs and the stories that are handed down through those traditions. We do not have a common store of mythological characters that we can use as common frames of reference for our ethical discussions. In fact, it often seems that all discussions of ethics and values only take place in a context of political polarization and a left/right team sport. So the fraternity brothers with their racist song become fictional characters that we can all use to discuss what we will stand for, what we want to be associated with, and what behavior is appropriate.

We are using these episodes, not to control the behavior of the perpetrators, but to define who we are either in support or opposition to the figure being shamed. Their “fat chick” tweets or extramarital affairs or offensive videos give us an opportunity to blog, to present ourselves on Facebook, to tweet our reactions and to generally exclaim what type of people we are. (In much the same way that a woman felt compelled to tell me at a book signing that she did not approve of the subject matter of my book. She didn’t say this to persuade me of anything but to define herself as the type of moral person who would not read such a book.) We care very little about the people we shame. They are not people we know, but stories we are told. We aren’t going to live with them, and their behavior will generally not affect us directly at all.

If you need proof of this hypothesis, watch this clip of Jon Ronson being interviewed on The Daily Show. In it, Ronson notes that most people give little thought to the people who have been shamed once the firestorm has passed.  If you do not want to watch the entire interview, go forward to about the 6:50 mark. Ronson says that when he asks people how the victim of a public shaming is now, years later they say “Oh, I’m sure she’s fine.” Often that is not true.

In this clip Monica Lewinsky makes a call for a cultural shift. I think a lot of people share her concern that our media culture seems to thrive on these types of vicarious morality tales with little regard for the consequences to the individuals involved. If your particular brand of bad behavior seems to strike a chord with the passions of the moment, you may become good copy.

Lewinsky talks about changing the narrative– her personal narrative. But perhaps we need more fictional narratives, more characters, folk tales, modern myths that we can hold in common and discuss and debate. We need common stories.

When the School Does the Shaming

ImageI don’t often post personal stories on this blog. I prefer to talk about ideas than to talk about myself. There was a story today, however, that brought an event from my past back into view.  According to Raw Story, a public school in Utah has photoshopped yearbook pictures of female students so they will be dressed more modestly. “There have been no reports of male students having their photos altered,” the article said. The action was in keeping with the school’s dress code, a school official said, “In that sense we can help kids better prepare for their future by knowing how to dress appropriately for things.”

How to dress appropriately for things…

There are not many days in my 45 years of life when I can recall exactly what I was wearing. There was the day I graduated from High School in a gold cap and gown, there was the poofy, shiny blue dress I wore to prom, and the sleeveless, floor-length gown I wore to my brother’s wedding, and then there was the outfit I was wearing in January 1991 when a school administrator called me to the office in the middle of a video editing class.

I was wearing a white turtleneck paired with a black skirt of a floaty layered material.  (I’ve never been much of a fashionista so excuse me that I do not have a better description of the fabric.) I wore nylons and a pair of black flats. My hair was styled, and held on top with a barrette with gold-colored baubles. I didn’t think of the outfit as particularly sexy or provocative. I was not on my way to seduce anyone or attract special attention. The pieces and accessories came from the clothing store where I worked part-time as a sales associate. I was heading there straight from school and my job required me to dress in the merchandise. I thought I was wearing something generally flattering, youthful and up-to-date but serious and respectable. That is how thought I was presenting myself, how I wanted to be seen by the world.

I should also point out that I was not in high school. I was a 22 year-old college graduate. After earning my B.A. in theater, and finding that the major theater corporations were not lining up to offer me jobs with great dental plans, I had decided to get some additional technical training in order to pursue a career in radio. It was a six-month course, if I remember correctly (there are so many details I remember much less clearly than what I was wearing that day). Most of the students entered the program straight from high school. The school catered more to these students than to adult students with college degrees. It took a stance similar to a high school– it felt it had to offer a certain amount of remedial education in behavior and how to present oneself professionally.  They had a dress code, and they explained in orientation, in a joking way, that if students came to class in something that was not up to code they would be “sweatsuited.” That is, they would be given a sweatsuit with the school logo on it to wear for the rest of the day.

I didn’t think anything of this. I was a shy kid. The sort who does not get much notice socially. I had graduated from my high school with commendation. I earned advance placement scores that allowed me to graduate from college early. My senior year of college I had worked five different part time jobs around my class schedule in order to pay for a post-college trip to the UK. (I traveled there on a student work visa.)  I had never been given any cause to think of myself as anything but respectable.

Not until that day.

I had no idea why the administrator was pulling me out of class. When I got to the office, she had a sweatsuit waiting for me. She told me that she had seen me on the video monitor (we were doing some news reading or something for the video class) and that my skirt was too short, not up to code, and I would have to wear the sweat pants or leave the building.

I felt my face go red and the tears welling up in my eyes. I did my best to fight them back. I became aware of my body, my physical presence, in a way I never had before. I was being judged sexually, and I had never intended to invite the administrator to look at me that way.  I felt humiliated, diminished and infantilized. She was telling me that I did not know how to dress myself, and that I was presenting myself as a slut. The way I was dressed was shaming the school.

I refused to go back to my classroom and face the stares and laughter of my peers in the scarlet letter of those sweat pants. I chose, instead, to give up my perfect attendance record and leave the building– to take my shameful self far from view.

I don’t know if the girl who found her yearbook image censored felt any of that; if the girl who donned her favorite tank top to look nice in her picture felt a twinge when she realized someone had viewed her as an object of lust and implied that she had intended to present herself that way all along.

The events I just recounted must have been no more than 10 minutes of my life. I am sure the administrator who was defending the dress code has no memory of it at all. I can’t say that this event changed my life’s trajectory. I finished the course, went on to work in radio (usually wearing jeans), and then to publish 15 books, tour the country with an international artist and to write for corporate CEOs and foreign heads of state. I have no reason to think of myself as anything but respectable. And yet, 23 years later, when I remember that moment, I can still feel the shame.