There are times in my life and my work where I have the sense I’m fighting fog. Like somehow I’ve just lost a game I didn’t know I was in. Where I become aware that I’m feeling angry and somehow disadvantaged and I can’t quite work out how or where it has come from… where the rules of engagement seem to suggest everything is fine and normal and good – but my instinct is all is not right and I have an urge to kick back and bite…..
So when David D’Souza wrote his blog last Sunday on Sexy Women of HR– I found myself profoundly, almost comically angry… and I mean properly, arrestingly – WTF angry….. but I couldn’t quite find the words for or understand why.
And I’ve sat quietly with a question of what “that” sense of anger was…. and then a lot less quietly when I talked to David about the blog, my response, others’ responses… (In a highly emotional, pointy way after too much wine… Sadly my courage sometimes needs to be Dutch.)
Having processed it, what it comes down to, mostly, is this. There was something about the tone of the piece that made me furious.
“THAT’S SEXIST, WE AREN’T JUST OBJECTS (I hear some of you cry because you like feeling offended – and particularly on social media where we can be offended all the time by everything).”
“I liked Baywatch. Baywatch was brilliant and officially one of the most watched TV shows in history. Whilst part of the attraction was (doubtlessly) the depth of character portrayal and complex, multilayered narrative – I have a feeling that some of the pull was the range of very attractive blondes with wonderful chests on display.”
It’s not that what was written was or wasn’t sexist (I certainly don’t believe David is sexist. I know him well, hold him in very high regard and I know he has been rocked by the reactions he’s faced. He has subsequently written more about his reasons and approach to the blog here) While the blog appeared to make points about attractiveness and intelligence that were way off what I believe to be so, there was, perhaps, some truth in what was being said. I could bring in counter points about Beauty Myths and ask what happens if we unpick “attractiveness”? Does that mean if you are of a certain “look” you are not attractive? Are non-white women and men limited in a majority white culture where the notions of “attractive” may be skewed? There is much I could say… but that wasn’t the source of my reaction ( the fuel, but not the flame)
It’s just that tone – that jocular nature that suggests this is all a jolly ruse. That thing of: “well you just like to be offended, what does it matter if we objectify because it’s popular”. Something along the lines of “I’m simply saying what others are thinking” “I don’t SERIOUSLY think this, I’m just poking and being provocative” (as someone darkly said this week – “Sometimes? There is a reason people aren’t saying it.” In other words sometimes by amplifying certain thinking, we perpetuate or encourage it… or, as seems to have happened, there is much chatter about the fact that what is written is offensive, which somehow removes the focus from what the offence is.)
It makes me uneasy….
Let me try to be clearer….
Perhaps the pull of Baywatch was the attractive blondes. It just pisses me off that it is OK to reduce someone to a hair colour. Male or female. And just how deep that acceptance that this is OK actually goes, culturally and organisationally
“I didn’t realise he was having a go at me until one of the American’s at our table starting ripping into him for calling me stupid and that that wasn’t very nice.”
To be living in a reality where it is even POSSIBLE that someone as bright and driven as Amanda didn’t notice the put-down speaks to something subtle and insidious. It speaks to a phenomena where someone gets stung so many times, they become immune to the stinging sensation – even though the sting still carries poison… that stuff messes up your perception of the world and your ability to function well in it.
At this point, I think it’s worth looking at the work of Laura Bates and team on the Everyday Sexism Project – which captures many of the daily stings faced by women ( and men on behalf of women). And because I try to be an equal thinker, it’s also worth having a look at the excellent content on The Good Men Project – which counters notions that all men are X. Browse and think.
Oh, hold on, I was being angry – my reaction last week took me back to being in my early 20’s. In an meeting with the male Ops managers I was attending as a newbie HR pro. I can’t remember the exact words now, or how many times during that meeting I was told something alone the lines of “after you’ve finished painting my nails or whatever it is you do in HR, you can bring down the absence figures.” Etc. I do remember being told my recruitment seemingly meant more men were willing to come to the HR office – what was unsaid but alluded to was this was not because of anything I brought professionally, intellectually or practically.
At the time I was angry and slighted. I went out into the Car Park and took deep, shaky breaths. I talked to my manager. His view was “It’s harmless, really, they are only joking. This is the reality of working here. Better toughen up and get used to it”. Something felt wrong, though. Over time, I found mechanisms to work around it. Some of those mechanisms involved me not showing my full intelligence or ability. I’m not proud of that.
There is a lot bound up in these interactions – in the instances of Amanda’s or my experience, the blonde/ female thing runs… but in other instances, that feeling powerless/ not even noticing the insult could just as easily be a good looking/ male thing. Or a race thing. Or a disabled thing, or a sexuality thing. Or a North/South thing. Or a Rich/ Poor thing.
And here is the conundrum that I found myself facing last Sunday – one I hadn’t really felt so strongly for a long time, and I wonder if this is something more universal that people encounter when fog-fighting – The question emerges: How do I respond?
If I argue – I run the risk of seeming humourless. A bit of a sour puss. Someone with an unreasonable chip on my shoulder. Oh for God’s sake, It’s a joke, we are kidding… come on fuchsiablue, get with the lightness.
If I say nothing, I’m left angry but with no where to go with it…I’m cross and feeling silenced.
If I say something like “yes, I get the joke, how funny”.. I hate myself for playing into something that I fundamentally can’t find amusing
If I show just HOW cross I feel, then folk might be shocked, or look at me funny, or whisper in corners.. heaven forbid, I might become the Angry Consultant.
If I raise it, I could be accused of overreacting, being overly sensitive….
So no action feels right, but nor does inaction…. Damn that Fog.
My choice, these days, is to sit with the feeling – to hang out with it and play it out through talking, writing, paying attention. Only then do I find a means to express myself back better…. I used to just get really cross, but was then unable to articulate my point well, and then I’d cry from frustration, then I’d be annoyed at my weakness and so it cycled. This is where my interest in dialogue is forged from – a deep need and want for people to be able to speak up and out with greater clarity about what is true for them – palatable or otherwise.
I don’t think feeling angry was wholly and solely about a sense of female oppression – though some of the rhetoric was of the ilk I have heard for a life time and it makes me exhausted – but I do think my response was grounded in a powerlessness and feeling of fighting foggy power systems that I am lucky enough to so rarely encounter these days…
I guess what I’m trying to say is, as the jokes and the fog clear, I really notice the stings now.