Thursday, May 29, 2014

Understanding Feminism

For the past couple of years the concept of feminism has really caught my attention for one reason or another. PAX's booth babe policy, the "fake geek girls" discussion, and Anita Sarkeesian's Feminist Frequency all got me thinking about the problem of gender inequality.

And then the tragedy this past weekend brought it all to a climax. Or, at least, I hope so. While there are certainly men out there who are getting very defensive in the wake of the murders or, worse, people who are blaming women for it, I'm hopeful that more men than ever have been shocked into self-reflection on how they've contributed to this culture. If so, great! It's just sad that it took a tragedy like this to bring about such reflection.

Not that I'm any better.

I'm fortunate in the fact that I was raised around strong women: women who were unique and proud, many of which had better and better-paying jobs than their men, if they were in a relationship. Many were the de facto heads of their households.

So, I've always respected women as people. At least I can say that. The idea that people could see women as lesser than men was foreign to me, so I never really noticed it as a cultural reality. I may have even denied it; I didn't see it around me, therefore it probably didn't really exist. But, much like the racism I didn't believe existed, it was indeed all around me. I simply refused to acknowledge it.

When I was a kid the definition of feminism as I understood it was the idea that women were superior to men. As a boy, and as someone who believed in equality, I railed against the concept: feminism was bad because it was against equality. And so on.

I'm still not sure if I simply misunderstood the concept or if I was taught wrong. Most likely, I was exposed to a caricature of a "feminist" and drew conclusions from that.

Having made up my mind about it, I don't think I really thought about gender inequality for years.

In high school, I started going out with girls somehow. I was a shy kid who occasionally developed crushes, but pretty much never acted upon them. Yet I ended up with three girlfriends in the span of three years. Through it all I learned bitterness, distrust, and shame.

After that was a string of rejections. For the most part I could shrug them off: they didn't know me, and if they weren't interested in getting to know me then that was their loss. I would sometimes get bitter, but never for long, and generally not publicly.

And then I was rejected by someone I felt I knew well. My ego couldn't accept the fact that I'd be rejected by someone who actually knew me, regardless of extenuating circumstances. There was never any bitterness, just a twisted sense of entitlement: I was strong, I was smart, I was kind... how could I be rejected?

I ended up asking her several times, and while in the end I still consider her a friend, there's a cloud of tension between us. That I would put someone through that is one of my greatest regrets, and has been since even before I connected my actions to a culture of men who feel entitled to affection.

In the years since, I've heard story after story about the things women go through on a daily basis. As someone in the video game industry, it comes up with depressing regularity. The process was familiar: hear a story, get defensive about it, mull it over for a while, hear another one, get defensive, etc.

"That's not me," I'd think. "That's other guys, I would never do that."

The problem for me was twofold:

First, yes, that was me to some extent. I harassed someone. I contributed to the problem.

Second, it's kind of sick to hear about someone else's tragedy and immediately think about how it affects you.

That's what getting defensive like that means, in the end: "Don't look at me! I'm not a part of the problem!" Yeah, well, maybe you're not, but that's not the point. It's not about you. The point is that there's a problem, and we need to figure out a solution.

So, I try to not get defensive anymore. I try to see the big picture, and I try to see the small ways I can help.

Gender inequality exists. The way women are viewed in our culture is messed up. It's going to take the work of both men and women to fix the problem and close the gap. That's what feminism is about.

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