This is a guest post by Page Gramsci.
During a family vacation a few weeks ago, my brother-in-law was having a conversation with my father about a Bill Bryson book. He was extolling the virtues of Bryson’s ability to explain a complex subject when my father, apparently bored with discussion, changed topics suddenly.
“You know what someone should explain in a book which would make them tons of money?” he asked, pausing for dramatic effect while my sister and I, seated a few feet away at the kitchen counter and furtively trying to derail this interruption by remaining silent and refusing to provide the expected “What?” waited warily for his reply – “Someone should write a book explaining women to men.”
Silence and irritated blinking followed. In one of those split second decisions we make every day – those gambles about whether to intervene and speak up about something problematic we’ve heard, and thus risk exploding the space and soiling everyone’s mood or, instead, to just grumble deeply in one’s throat and let it slide for the sake of not having to deal with said explosion – I decided to try to register dissent in a frame that my father would find difficult to immediately dismiss; by pointing out that not all men think like he does.
“You should just ask Tim [my boyfriend,]” I replied. “He understands women perfectly.”
“I highly doubt that,” was my father’s initial response.
“Well it is not that difficult, you know.” I continued. “You just start with understanding people and then you’re pretty much done.”
Perhaps irritated by the snark that had creeped into my tone – “it’s only a matter of time before she starts talking like that,” I imagine most of my conservative family members think to themselves – Dad quickened his retort and heightened his own tone of derision.
“Just because he agrees with you does not mean that he understandings you” – a comment which is only made explicable by the back history of Tim and I spending endless hours in political conversation with my father, each of us alternatively trying different strategies to push him along to perspectives we share. Still, the assertion was still baffling, and my brain rapidly tried to untangle the logic that could have produced such a reply. Was he suggesting that my political positions are merely products of the logic of Tim, and although I concur with him on most major points of politics, the process by which I do so is still somehow mysterious? And why was he focusing on my political views as what I was referring to when I claimed Tim understands me? Was the concept of Tim also understanding my emotional needs and states so preposterous to father that he assumed, somewhere in his head, that I simply meant Tim understands my intellectual positions? Or was he simply feeling backed into a corner, an experience that reminded him of many two-against-one conversations with the pair of us that was his most immediate reference for our mutual understanding?
Unable to solve the riddle in a matter of mere seconds, I simply said, “I have no idea what that even means,” and went on to clarify, “there has never been a time when Tim was not understanding about my feelings or experiences and did not listen to me closely to make sure he was understanding me correctly.”
At this point, my father’s defensiveness somehow melted – perhaps because, aware as he is of the very happy state of my relationship, his pleasure at seeing his daughter well-treated overcame his desire to win an argument about gender normativity – and as he nodded sincerely he said, “That must be really nice, it really must be.”
“Indeed, it is,” I grinned, and, mercifully, the conversation came to an end. But although it was brief, the exchange was so packed with absurdity and mutual bewilderment that it highlighted, like perhaps few short exchanges ever do, the vast ocean that separates the way someone like my father – a conservative white male baby boomer – and someone like me – a thirty year old white feminist leftist – think about relationships between men and women.
Let’s back up for a second.
Growing up, there were only a few sitcoms that my Dad had on the TV on a regular basis, sure never to miss an episode – and none of these select few was more ubiquitous or rigorously followed than Married With Children. Now anyone who has ever seen even a single episode of this show will immediately grasp the narrative framework that drives the entire thing – poor old Al, not the most competent but otherwise likeable breadwinner, can’t get a break. Between his nagging wife, idiot son, and even more idiotic daughter – who is all beauty and no brains – he is a neglected prisoner in his own home who is underappreciated and continuously abused by his ungrateful dependents.
Relations between the sexes, then – especially between Al and his wife, Peggy, and the continuously falling apart marriage of their next-door neighbors – is one of more or less perpetual war. Sure, it rarely rises to the level of overt violence, but manipulation, deception, and humiliation are par the course. All of this, of course, is presented as what would be described by its defenders as good-old-fashioned teasing and family fun; har har har!, Peggy went and spent the last of the money on a good steak which she didn’t even bother to wait till Al came home to eat! Har har har!, Al’s idiot daughter is getting detention at school again for doing something which implies that she is kind of slutty! Har har har!, women!, you know – can’t live with them…
So this is what I grew up with on the television screen half the time (a reality which, I might add, my mother did not approve of, seeing as the show dealt with relatively mature subject matters). And I cannot say that I was critical of the content from the start – to the contrary, I rather enjoyed the show, although I was bothered by the fact that nothing ever went Al’s way, and he was always having such a hard time. I do remember, though, wondering why he was so cruel and dismissive to his wife – why he always seemed to assume the worst of her and, apparently, responded to sex with her as though it was a form of punishment she inflicted on him. But other than that, I did not give it much thought.
Fast-forward a good 15 to 20 years. Roll the montage of countless moments where I am seated or standing near my father, who has just made yet another gender normative joke that basically assumes that this model – this Married With Children perpetual war between the sexes framework – is universally recognized and, moreover, universally experienced. Cut to me, looking more confused and bored than angry or exasperated, refusing to respond with even a chuckle or any type of motion that would indicate agreement with the premise of the joke. Almost always, that’s where it ends – in silence. The disappointment my father feels for not having his joke acknowledged or enjoyed briefly fills the space between us, then dissipates as whatever topic we were previously discussing is once again given center stage. He never jostles me further to ask why I’m not laughing; he never gives me shit about being a humorless feminist or a politically correct liberal.
Yet I have to say, as thankful as I am in the moment that we don’t have to go there – because once substantive arguments with my father begin, you are investing at least an hour of your time and huge amounts of energy into dealing with all the emotions, baggage, and pent-up frustration that inevitably comes pouring out over the course of the discussion – in the long view, I somewhat wish he would. I would like, for once, for him to sincerely ask me, “Why aren’t you laughing?” I would like him to ask me this because I know exactly what I would say.
I would tell him that I’m not laughing because there is nothing to laugh about. I would tell him that any joke, all jokes, always depend on some kernel of a claim – however admittedly exaggerated – that its listeners recognize as a truth. In order to laugh, therefore, at a joke about how women talk a lot, or women are always out to kill their husbands, or how women are so irrationally emotional, I have to believe, on some level, that women actually have these qualities or do these things by virtue of being women and, especially, by virtue of being women in relationships with men. But I don’t. I don’t believe these things at all. So I don’t laugh, because there is nothing to laugh at. The logic of the joke is actually illogic; it makes no sense, so cannot possibly be funny.
It is important to emphasize how I experience these moments as more confusing than offensive. For sure, I obviously recognize the gender normative ideology being peddled in such jokes and, once my discombobulated brain finishes processing my initial befuddlement, I immediately proceed to an intellectual evaluation of the given sexist joke, which then adds anger into the mix. But that’s not my first, gut response – my first gut response is simply blank, blinking confusion, as though I’ve misheard the joke or missed the punch line. Because at the level of lived experience, I do not recognize these stereotypes my father rolls out as though they are as self-evident as the blueness of the sky. I don’t experience women as more irrationally emotional than men, I’ve never been in a relationship where I understood dynamics with my partner as based on gender-normative competiveness, and I’ve never chalked up my confusion about the motives or behavior of another person to a matter of essential gender difference. All of which is to say that I simply do not filter the normal messiness of human relationships through the model my father does. Thus while I am trained, and have trained myself, to intellectually recognize where he is coming from, in a personal sense I simply have no clue what the fuck he is talking about.
But here is where things get weird – because, to a significant degree, neither does my Dad. From this post thus far, you might be imagining that my parents’ marriage is at least a little strained – that there are frequent loud arguments and mutual bitching, that my mother can be unreasonable while my father is stubborn and emotionally guarded, that resentment is rife about who does the dishes, cleans the house, pays the bills, and looks after the cat. But, actually, this is not the case at all.
In real life – in the life to which my Dad apparently thinks his jokes refer but, in fact, hardly ever do – my parents have a pretty good relationship; a very good one, really. There is a pretty traditional division of labor, but it is not like my mother does all of the cooking or all of the housework, and each occupy their days contributing to the mutual project of the household. My parents like to hang out together; they like to go to lunch together, they always have dinner together. They love to travel together; my Mom once said that one way she thinks about a good relationship is one where you always feel like you would have more fun with the other person by your side. My Dad constantly talks about how intelligent mother is – in fact he gives his own intelligence too little credit in always contrasting her brains to his practical skills – and always diverts credit to mother for great Christmas gifts or thoughtful interventions whenever possible and appropriate. My Dad admires my mother and enjoys being around her, and my Mom admires my father and enjoys being around him. They don’t fight much; they work on projects together. It is a functional, good, and healthy relationship for both of them.
And yet, from the jokes my father tells, and the way he teases my mother, you would have no idea. Frequent are the jokes about mother trying to poison him; common are humorous jests about dealing with crazy, irrational women – despite the fact that my mother has far greater control over her emotions than my father does – and often are the allusions to the encroachment of masculine space by feminine activities. Indeed, if you had no other picture of their relationship other than the jokes my father tells, you would think that they never talk, frequently argue, and avoid each other’s company as much as possible.
So how to explain this disconnect between humor and reality? First, it is probably significant that my father has, of course, had relationships with other women in the past that did not go so smoothly. In fact I remember him pointing out to me once a scar on his arm – apparently a date, in her anger, put her cigarette out on his skin and out of stubborn resentment he refused to flinch or flick it away until it was completely put out. Obviously, we all compile frustrating and failed relationships with others in our youth (and beyond, of course) and although oppressed groups do often try to liberate themselves from the restraints of normativity by manipulating the stereotypes available to them, I think we can say with confidence that women were not particularly hyper-emotional, manipulative, and unstable back when my Dad was coming of age.
Yet this is where ideology – and in this case, the ideology of gender normativity and patriarchy – comes in to do some serious heavy lifting. No one experiences their experiences directly – the events, joys and frustrations of our lives are always filtered through ideas we have received or adopted (with various levels of consciousness about that process) that explain the meaning of those events to us. So if someone is raised in a culture which promulgates certain stereotypes about the behavior of women, certain experiences get explained in a certain way (what can I say, women are crazy!), and, moreover, which experiences are highlighted as important and typical and which are forgotten or downplayed as exceptions also depends on what narrative we are using to explain our lives and our social station. My father was born and raised in a pre-feminist, thoroughly patriarchal culture – by the time the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s really got rolling, gender normative assumptions were already deeply sunk into his head, and nostalgia for the good old days when all the flight attendants were young, beautiful women (really; he constantly makes references to this – which he also couches in the rhetoric of slight jests – and this is how, in fact, he met my mother) kicked in very quickly for him in response to women challenging these ideas. To him, feminism is still this scary, incomprehensible thing that led to girls getting angry at him for opening the door (also really; this is another example he has given me of how things were in the “good old days”) and gave women, moreover, another weapon to wield in the perpetual war of the sexes.
Yet again, his gut reaction to feminism bears scant resemblance to its actual impact in his life. For not only has he always had a respectful relationship with my mother, but he has two independently minded, ambitious daughters for whom he has always hoped nothing but the grandest accomplishments. True, he yearns for grandchildren like a crazy person, but, he would be horrified at the idea of either of us settling for a domestic life if what we really wanted was either something else or something more. That all of this is possible due to feminism seems to escape him – or, at least it escapes him when he is in coasting mode, responding to perceived threats and making lighthearted jokes without thinking critically about his assumptions or feeling in the mood to really unpack them.
And that, hilariously, illustrates the power of ideology. Ideology is not only a way of explaining our lives to ourselves; it is a way of both seeing and not seeing, of stories highlighted or neglected. And sometimes, the frames through which we understand our lives and our relationships are so powerful, we keep believing in those frames even when the evidence on the ground lends scant support to them – or, at the least, calls them into serious question.
And so Dad will always keep telling those jokes, and I will always keep ignoring them. It is genuinely hard for him to imagine that my boyfriend finds neither my emotional states or my personal needs either mysterious or irrational, just as it befuddles me that he can’t simply have a look around him and see how poorly his Married With Children version of relationships measures up against reality. Of course, I think I am right and he is wrong, insofar as I’m pretty damn sure the frames I am using are actually helping me to see things more clearly. Yet even that is perhaps not the most important thing I wish he could understand – for at the end of the day, what I think I most want him to know – and I am the most capable of communicating to him – is that these are the frames that nourish my best relationships, make possible my hopes and aspirations, and give me friends and partners who see me according to who I am and not according to who they assume I must be. All of which is just to say that, simply, these are the frames that have made me happy.