Feminism and Dumb College Kids

My now-wife and I in the student newspaper office, ca. 1999.

My now-wife and I in the student newspaper office, ca. 1999. Photo by Trevor Anthony.

I was editor-in-chief of my college newspaper for my senior year. It was a weekly paper, serving a tiny liberal arts school, but it was a ton of work, and generally pretty rewarding.

Early in that year, we had an opinion article come in from an enthusiastic, slightly awkward, impossibly young-seeming freshman girl; I’m going to call her “Abby” (I legitimately have no memory of her name, not that I’d use it if I had). I remember it was riddled with typos and muddled sentences, and I helped to fix those, but paid little attention to the content — it was opinion, so couldn’t Abby say basically whatever she wanted to? I also had an opinion-section editor I trusted with this sort of thing. And at a school that size, you kind of have to take what you can get. Wouldn’t running this be better than a giant opinion-article-shaped white space? I don’t know if I thought even that much about it, but if I had, that would’ve been my thinking.

And as it turned out, the piece was awful. Truly, disastrously, unconscionably poor. This would’ve been the early fall of 2000, and enthusiastic Abby had written an article enthusiastically endorsing Reform Party candidate (and enthusiastic racist, misogynist and xenophobe) Pat Buchanan for president. And it endorsed all the most horrible things Buchanan had said; I don’t remember the specifics now, and he’s said so many horrible things since that you’ll have a hell of a time finding them, but I believe there was one about abortion being like slavery, there was something else compared to Hitler, and there was, of course, a whole lot to be said about those damned illegals. I think there was a condemnation of homosexuality, too, but I can’t remember.

This wasn’t a simple matter of someone assuming an unpopular political position at a hippy-dippy West Coast liberal arts school (it certainly was that, but that’s a big part of why small-liberal-arts-college newspapers exist); it was a column that had overtly offended, in one way or another, very nearly everyone in the school. Nowadays, being smarter than a college kid, I’d have chosen the white space instead, or ugly comp ads for various student organizations, or I’d have written a ten-minute editorial on why ‘N Sync was better than 98 Degrees and Backstreet. Something. Anything but that piece.

The fallout was huge, for a school that size and a paper nobody usually cared much about. People wrote letters. There was an emergency meeting of some kind with professors and assistant deans. I somehow escaped the fate I feel like I probably deserved (or any repercussions at all, really, save some discomfort), but she was, for a while, the laughingstock of the school.

Long story short (long story entirely skipped, actually, because I never really knew it):

By the end of that year, Abby had discovered she was a lesbian — immersed in what seemed from a distance like an awesome, loving, serious relationship with a fellow freshman — and something between a Marxist and an anarchist. I’d love to say she went on to teach yoga and take vegan cooking classes and tutor immigrant children in San Francisco or Portland and never had another day of trouble in her life, but I have absolutely no clue what happened to her after that year; the point is, she became an entirely different (and certainly happier, kinder, and far more comfortable-with-herself) person. That’s the kind of thing that happens. College kids are stupid, and most of them eventually get smarter; sooner or later, almost all of them become themselves.

And that’s a long-winded way of saying I can’t get as upset as I thought I was going to about this: NOLD: Feminism Hurts Modern-Day Relationships. It got some wider attention and became kind of a big internet deal on Friday. It’s written by a college senior named Zach Nold, for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s daily paper, and it starts like this:

Feminism has met its goals and women are now equal with men as they should be.

Yes, he really said that, and no, there were no commas, and the rest of the article is exactly as incoherent as you’d expect anything that started with a preposition that ridiculous to be. It seems that his evidence that men and women are equal now (it’s so hard to even freaking type that) is total number of jobs, with no mention of income or any of the non-employment-opportunity based ways in which men continue to dominate women. Because men and women are equal, Nold says, feminists continuing to be feminists are doing so with the goal of becoming more than equal, of “pushing men off the platform,” and are “ruining modern relationships.”

It’s pure shit, all the way through. I guess the one saving grace is that it’s almost completely incoherent shit; I assume if he’d been more capable of saying what he really meant, it’d really piss you off. Jezebel was really pissed off anyway, understandably.

I was all set to rip into him too, but it turns out I can’t (or not any more than I just did), because Abby.

Now, Nold is a senior, not a freshman, and there can be massive differences between 18 and 21 or 22. And it’s not just one misguided piece, like Abby’s; here’s one that says poor people shouldn’t get to vote, and Jezebel found some pretty disgusting tweets. He’s clearly pretty set in his ways, and those ways are pretty terrifying.

He’s also a college kid, though, and college kids are stupid. I was stupid at that age (in softer but not altogether different ways). People change all the time, and completely; that’s a big part of what I think college, and the few years after college, are for. Considering that — remembering Abby — I’m not comfortable condemning this kid for writing a crap article he’s completely unqualified to write and of which he will probably be completely ashamed in a year or five (and with Abby, of course, it was a few months). I mean, even Limbaugh would struggle a bit to get away with this sort of drivel; this is the stuff of awful websites hidden away in the mildewy corners of the internet where men complain about how women are sluts because they (the men) had a spouse who wouldn’t deal with their abuse anymore, or because women seem to them to be willing to sleep with everyone but those men, that sort of thing (if you want to just hate everyone forever, google “misandry” and scroll down past the Wikipedia and dictionary entries). He might turn out to be one of Those Guys, but I’m not going to assume he is now. Too young, too dumb. It’s a problem that he’s a senior English major who writes this poorly, I suppose, maybe that can’t be fixed, but he’s still got time to figure out the bigger things (that’s pretty much a life-long deal, not that he’s not much farther behind right now than most).

I’d rather ask a few different questions. Like: why are newspapers still doing point/counterpoints (the article by the young woman representing the inarguably correct side can be found here; it’s pretty solid)? They work only when both writers firmly, legitimately believe their side of things and both sides can be competently argued with a straight face — I’m sure the first was met here, the second clearly was not. (They also work if the publication is The Onion, which is just another way of saying that serious point/counterpoints are almost always stupid.)

Second: the Nebraskan is a daily serving a school with ten times the enrollment of my alma mater. Shouldn’t they have a faculty adviser who (if he or she glances at these things and is even halfway competent) might have noticed, even if multiple layers of student-editors didn’t, that a point/counterpoint wherein the white conservative dude argues that feminism is over forever probably isn’t a great idea?

Third, maybe most important: does everything need to be online? I suppose it does, but if so, does it need to be quite so freely available? These are not journalists; they’re college students, and with maybe five or six exceptions a year nationwide, they’re not capable of saying anything that educates or informs or even really interests anyone beyond the students, faculty and alumni of their own schools. Slap a password on that thing, at least. There’s no likely benefit to having this stuff out there in the larger world, and there’s a lot of potential harm to the dumb kid who, let’s say, writes a terrible and senseless “opinion” article that gets picked up by Jezebel.

We weren’t on the internet in 2000, or barely (it wasn’t searchable; I think it all went up in PDF-like format on the student government site). Make it five or ten years later, and Abby, briefly the laughingstock of the school, may have become the laughingstock of the whole internet; that itself may have forced her in a different direction, stifled all that awesome growth she experienced almost immediately thereafter, changed the whole course of her life.

It’s important to address horrible, laughable-on-their-face ideas like the ones that show up in Nold’s article. I just don’t know how I feel about making the school’s issue the entire internet’s issue, and I know I don’t like taking it all out on the kid himself.

On the Multitudinous Beauties of Women

BOAWIntroductory note: Hi! My very dear and since-basically-forever friend August McLaughlin is hosting, for the second consecutive year, a thing called The Beauty of a Woman Blogfest, and I’ve decided to finally inaugurate this blog by taking part. It’s an odd topic for the first public non-sports writing in six years or so from a straight-dude lawyer and baseball writer, but that was kind of the point — get out of my comfort zone and just write a thing. If you’re interested in more about who I am (and what this blog is likely to be about), look here.

Here are five things I know are true:

  1. There’s a problem with the way women are presented in certain segments of popular media. Film, TV series, commercials, the internet, whatever. A very clear suggestion persists, somehow, in 2013 — and can be found in large parts of each of those places — that a woman’s value is in her face, her body, her capacity to make men happy in one way or another.
  2. This attitude seems to have a correlation with the active mistreatment of women, well beyond the passive diminution of the entire half (well, 51%) of a species that flows naturally from our behaving as though they exist primarily to make things more pleasant for the other half (well, 49%). This is where a lot of harassment and assault and rape comes from.
  3. That passive diminution is plenty harmful on its own. This is where a lot of self-loathing and self-harm and resentment and eating disorders come from.
  4. It should go without saying that in fact, women on the whole are at least as capable as are men on the whole when it comes to thinking, feeling, explaining or doing things. In my experience, most women are better at most of those things than most men are.
  5. But: women can be damned sexy. I find that most women are attractive in one form or another, but also find that some are more physically or visually attractive to me than others are, generally based on characteristics the taking notice of which our society likes to think of as shallow, base, piggish — and the very same ones, basically, that our society glorifies in 1. above.

The biggest gender-related problem we have right now is probably some better-worded combination of items one through four. Once you’ve identified and started wrestling with that problem, though, a secondary issue — and one I think a lot of very intelligent and progressive people really struggle with — emerges: how to reconcile number five with those other four.

Once, I struggled with this a lot. I’m not proud, but the truth is that I’m a solidly, maybe overwhelmingly heterosexual male. I love women, and I mean that in every way. I love the way they look, I love the way they smell, I love their curves and their hair and their relative smallness. I love sex with a woman, I love lingering for just a moment (usually just a moment) on the idea of sex with a woman, and I love looking at a woman — certain women more than others, of course, distinguished, by and large, by characteristics that have nothing whatsoever to do with their talent for songwriting or carpentry, their contributions to medical science, or their capacity to love their fellow humans. Sometimes women are just reeeeaaal purty, in essence, and sometimes I think that’s really awesome. I like pretty smiling faces. I like legs. I like boobs.

And the biggest step I’ve taken as a person over the last year or two, the one thing that’s taken me farther along than anything else on this ceaseless trek toward becoming a happy, well-adjusted, comfortable-in-my-own-skin sort of human being, is the realization that that’s totally fine, that my noticing those things (and thinking they’re really awesome) doesn’t by itself conflict with my deeply-held feminism, doesn’t make me a pig or a neanderthal or an adolescent or a freak. I like what I like because the chemicals in my brain work in a certain way, because the Creator or series of accidents that brought me into being made me in exactly that way, and that’s as it should be. People were made to appreciate all kinds of things in each other. Hetero women appreciate men in the same way, even if they tend not to think about it quite so much (or it’s not quite as socially appropriate for them to acknowledge it). Our faces and bodies have developed as they have in large part for the purpose of being attractive to other people. You’re supposed to notice shit like that.

I’ve always been this way (or since like age eleven), and finally becoming more or less okay with that has been incredibly freeing. Sure, my coarser impulses make me do things (to myself) I wish I wouldn’t — like watch every single episode of Two Broke Girls, for instance, one of the worst and most cringe-inducing shows on television, solely to watch the wonderful Kat Dennings do things in high definition — but the impulses themselves are just a (relatively small) part of who I am, which is not entirely different from who everybody else is, and that’s cool.

Where I think the confusion comes in — and this is an essential companion to the liberating realization above — is here: those things you and I have, those preferences, the likes and dislikes, the “interests,” come with certain responsibilities. The responsibilities can all be summed up this way: these things are totally our own issues, and absolutely no one else’s. Nothing wrong with being a bit superficial (everyone is) or with noticing those things (everyone does), but there’s a lot wrong with “noticing” them in a way that makes another person feel uncomfortable or less human, with expecting another person to strive to fit some ideal you’ve cooked up in your own brain, with treating your own idea of beauty as the single definition thereof, with faulting anyone for not living up to those ideas (or for not attempting to), with patronizing media figures or outlets or types that attempt to impose similar ideals on women (or men), with valuing those features above or to the exclusion of qualities like wisdom, competence, wit, creativity and compassion; with, more generally, anything that fails to recognize at all times that all other people are people, not little collections of lips and butts and eyes and waistlines and so forth.

When Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself; / (I am large–I contain multitudes),” he probably meant a lot of things (he did contain multitudes, after all), but one, certainly, was that he was capable of holding many different thoughts — even contradictory thoughts — and of being many different things — even contradictory things — all at once. Everyone is, which I suppose is what has made “Song of Myself” a classic poem, and not a long-lost diary entry or something.

Women can be both beautiful outside (pretty gorgeous alluring sexy: in your eyes, in someone’s) and beautiful in (brilliant generous creative thoughtful and valuable in any of hundreds of other ways), or either or (rarely enough) neither. It’s a great mistake to conflate the two, which is essentially what our culture does when we tie a woman’s value to her ability to approximate some preset physical ideal. It’s a not altogether dissimilar mistake, though, to treat them as mutually exclusive, as we do when we equate any appreciation at all of one’s personal concept of superficial beauty with a demeaning attitude toward women — or as can be seen in things like the Olivia-Munn-on-TheDailyShow backlash. I used to be able to appreciate what I see as Jenny McCarthy’s physical beauty, but I really wish she’d stop trying to kill our children; can’t say I’ve ever lost myself staring at Hillary Clinton, but I think that what I know of her is pretty damn beautiful. While I’m on the subject, my wife of nearly twelve years is beautiful in every way, and getting more beautiful all the time (d’awww, but it’s true).

Just about everyone is beautiful in more than one way, I think. We contain multitudes. 

Whether you’ve had similar experiences or think I’m totally full of it, I’d be happy to hear from you below. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll check back again sometime.