Recently, at the end of a long series of complex discussions, the guy who was leading (who is maybe 10 years older than me) came up to me and said “you are very smart!” He said it with a look of sort of amazement on his face and I believe he meant it as a compliment but I had a hard time imagining him saying the same thing to a 50-year-old man. Like the vast majority of the people I work with, I am smart but I frequently get this comment and it always pisses me off. I feel perhaps I am not exuding the kind of authority that might transform smart to wise. I would rather people be interested in the content of what I’m talking about than patting me on the head like a talking horse. Is “smart” a backhanded compliment, or am I being too sensitive?
Answer: Fucking smart question. Just kidding. It’s so subtle hey, the patriarchy…PATRIARCHY! Let’s all just take a deep breath and scream it at the top of our lungs Yaaaaaaaaa PATRIARCHY!
Let me be clear. PATRIARCHY hurts both men and women and is complicated.Being aware of the patriarchy doesn’t make us man haters. It doesn’t make us unfeminine militants. It’s simply the truth. Like, “my foot has a bunionette on it” is also the truth. Sometimes the truth is annoying as fuck; but it’s right there, in plain sight when I look for it. So, let’s get over feeling nervous about using the word. If it offends or instigates reaction in you – that’s because it’s powerful and alive so let’s dig a bit deeper shall we.
Here are the clues I can pull from your question that prove that this guy is using the privilege of PATRIARCHY by calling you “smart.”
#1. You are right; he would not say that to another man. Can you imagine? “Well done Blaine (high 5) you are really smart!” Not. Going. To. Happen. Because you are right (again), it’s demeaning and weird to point out the obvious in people. When we respect someone, we don’t highlight what is naturally assumed.
#2. Your spidey senses were activated. Why don’t we give these senses more credit? Instead we ask am I being too high mai? Am I being too sensitive?” Because you are so “smart” you know when you smell shit, you know when someone is lying, you know when you are being placated, you have always known since you were a little girl…but…
#3. You don’t feel free to challenge him in the moment. A powerful, adult, educated feminist was stopped dead in her tracks by a benign off the cuff compliment. Hmmmm. Weird. This, again, is the insidious grip of PATRIARCHY.
I have to stop the rant for a minute and say- if I were reading this right now, I may secretly think “fucking 90’s feminist, enough with the rage already, have we not moved on? I’m bored of womanifestos and the Indigo Girls are grandma’s…”and then I’d have to consider that this thought too is part of… PATRIARCHY.
Women are also a part of PATRIARCHY. Sometimes we may be even more damaging because we are so personal with our self-hatred. I recently posted:
…which was meant to be a poke at what our culture limits feminism to; (sex trade workers, men, and topless bunnies are usually not welcome) and I was onslaught with hate mail from feminist women. Not a single man commented on the post but the women attacked me in full force. It hurts when we turn against each other while fighting the same battle. But once again, I have to remember, the women are not shaming me intentionally- it’s because of our complete immersion and complicity in PATRIARCHY.
What can we do about the insidious trap of PATRIARCHY:
#1. We can start using the word more. Stop being scared of being called “an angry feminist.” Stop caring about “rocking the boat” and when we see PATRIARCHY point it out.
#2. This doesn’t have to be aggressive or mean. Could you imagine yourself stopping him right in the moment he called you smart and asking pleasantly “why would you think otherwise?” To me, this is the same as stopping racism when we see it. Saying no to it. Publically. In the moment. Yes, it’s fucking uncomfortable, yes, it means you are calling attention to yourself but this is your job as a woman- for women- to stand up and speak up when you see/feel inequality (especially when it’s subtle and tricky in group settings).
#3. Who fucking cares if it’s disruptive or embarrassing. The more we do it; the less it becomes so. The more we do it, the more other people will do it too. Begin. Now.
#4. You doing this inspires ALL people to stand up when their spidey senses are activated. It also asks ALL people to really think about what they are saying before they say it.
#5. Get over the fear of hurting feelings. We are NOT blaming men. We simply want to be considered equal in every way and we will assume men want that for women too unless shown otherwise.This man probably doesn’t want to sound like an ignorant prick. If he’s in anyway cool or intelligent he will check his ego and appreciate the gracious note. *Side story- just the other day I got schooled by a friend for saying something dumb. I said “…in First Nations culture…” and she was like “there are a LOT of First Nations cultures out there dude, and we are all very different, so you are totally off base with the mass generalization, who precisely are you talking about?” and I was like “ohhhhhh shit, here I am, trying to be all fucking cool citing “First Nations trivia” and she got me- in public”. And it was embarrassing and I thanked her and I will again. Thanks Quelemia. It’s a gift when someone gives you the chance to learn and grow.
#6. I recently read about how important wrath is in the book Dakini Power by Michaela Haas (which is fucking awesome.) The Buddhist nun interviewed made a distinction between anger and wrath explaining that anger is painful and muddy and messy, but wrath is clean and true. When you feel wronged. Speak your wrath. Be Clear. Move on.
#7. Finally, when you do speak up- be aware of backlash comments such as “what’s the big deal? And “are you taking this a little too seriously?” and don’t let this phase you. This again is PATRIARCHY talking through someone. It’s easy to be relaxed and want to stay that way when you are part of the comfortable majority.
It would be great if this was everybody’s job, it would be amazing if someone else stood up for you in that group and mentioned how weird the comment was, it’s frustrating to fight your own battles but it is our job to start raising our expectations, it’s your job to respect your spideys and speak your wisdom.
PATRIARCHY is right here.
You are not being “over- sensitive.”
You are wrathful about the ridiculousness of it all.
We all are.
*Another awesome book about contemporary feminism and patriarchy is How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. I just bought 5 of these necklaces for my friends from her website.