What it feels like when someone tells you to “just sit there and not speak”

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-Andre Le Toit (Koos Kombuis), ‘Tipp-Ex-Sonate’

Ever since I (re-)started my cardio routine one year ago, I have – miraculously – become more Zen and Namaste about things in general.

In the grand scheme of personal growth, this can only be a good thing.

yoga_zen

In case you’re recoiling in horror at the thought of Jen having become a Gillian Michaels-quoting, juice bar-hopping, Lululemon-wearing gym bunny, I can confirm that I would still pick a cosy library corner over a Protein Shake-fortified-ego-filled space any day. So, no, I’ve not changed.

But after 12 months of junking out on cardio workouts, I can personally attest to the fact that endorphins really are the happy drug: they supercharge your mind and work wonders on your state of being like no other human activity. Take it from someone for whom sweating used to be anathema.

These days, I can’t seem to go without breaking a sweat (not counting the stress-/heat-related kind) for more than two days, whether it be on a Schwinn bike, a treadmill or a yoga mat.

spinning-class_wumo

What it looks like to be a spinning enthusiast

Like all things in life, however, there are moments when my newly fostered Zen Namastedom escapes me, when I can’t help but let the outside world tick me off and I lose my shit because of annoying things that other people say or do.

 

This,  in fact, relates to a recent experience at work: For the first time in a (relatively) long time, I felt real, fuming anger because of something someone had said to me.

Or perhaps indignation is a more accurate word. Yes, indignant. For the first time in a long time –

I.

Felt.

Indignant.

Getting these words off my chest here feels cathartic, even though I’m now way past that peak when all I wanted to do was to block out the world with my Skullcandy Beats and a 2Pac, Kanye and Fetty Wap mix tape.

hip-hop_mix-tape

That’s Kanye’s ‘College Dropout’ bear in the middle

‘cus man was your home girl pissed.

And why was home girl so pissed?

Because of a remark made by a male co-worker; a remark which, upon extensive reflection, I can only describe as chauvinistic, arrogant and cripplingly – almost hilariously – lacking in self-awareness.

As for whether or not I’m making mountains out of molehills, being a hypersensitive bitch, or just plain right – you, dear reader, can be the judge.

samuel-beckett_not-i_thetragedian

Samuel Beckett, ‘Not I’

 

Introducing Put Her On Mute: A Play (2016)

ACT I SCENE 1

Characters: Jen, Male Co-worker No. 1, Male Co-worker no. 2

[The 3 characters walk out of a meeting room in an office building]

MALE CO-WORKER NO. 1: In the meeting just now, you really should have sat there and let me and [insert name of Male Co-worker No. 2] talk. I mean, why did you have to butt in? I would have had the situation handled exactly the way I wanted it had you not asked those people all your questions and ruined my ‘game plan’. Ugh…

[10 minutes later]

It’s okay Jen, you’re still a baby – let this be an experience. But tell me, what have we learnt todaaayyy?

[Exit]

END OF ACT I SCENE I

Funnily enough, the fact that the ‘scene’ ends like this is what pisses me off most about the whole thing, because had I called my co-worker out on the unreason and disrespect of his comment right there and then, this ‘scene’ wouldn’t have concluded like an episode straight out of The Patriarchal Monologues.

vag-convo

Instead, my immediate feeling at that point was guilt – for having been an inconvenient ‘blot’ on some imaginary male-orchestrated ‘script’, and my reflex response was to apologise – for no other reason than having taken part, spoken up and asked questions in a professional meeting.

So, thinking that I’d take the higher road and avoid confrontation (because pacifying male egos is obviously more important than standing up for your own rights), I said sorry for having opened my mouth because what I should have done instead was keep my clam shells air-fucking-ziplock-tight and pull the sit still look pretty stunt off like a life-sized matryoshka doll.

matryoshka

EH –

#earthtoJen #whereartthouJen #dafuq #???!

In hindsight, I was too taken aback by his remark to take immediate offence. No guy, not even my own father, who is prone to displaying patriarchal tendencies from time to time, has ever told me to just ‘sit there and not speak’, not even when my dad and I used to have volcanic arguments about my pre-teen lippiness.

andy-warhol_lips-talking

Andy Warhol, ‘Lips’ (1950s)

You can imagine my surprise at that moment, then.

What strikes me as odd, though, is how I didn’t think much of my co-worker’s comments until I got home later that night, when I replayed them in my head and reflected on the situation from a more clear-headed remove.

Once I realised how ridiculous it was that I had apologised for simply having spoken when I was in my total right to do so, I felt disappointed, baffled and angry with myself –

Disappointed because I didn’t have the huevos to call my co-worker out on his chauvinistic BS; baffled because I couldn’t believe how anyone could be so outright disrespectful of a woman’s voice in a cosmopolitan workplace; angry because, well, my disappointment and bafflement didn’t actually hit me until a while after the incident.

huevos_urban-dict

It’s not a pleasant feeling, coming to terms with the fact that you’ve been verbally shat on with testosterone-fuelled idiocy after an honest day’s labour.

It’s shit, yeah.

What’s even shitter is knowing that you didn’t do anything about it.

 

It’s not just a man’s world: You mean to tell me that Plath and McEwan didn’t co-write Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars?!

As I’ve observed in the past, it seems that my daily reading has this uncanny habit of mirroring itself in my daily living. The plot, characters and descriptions I come across in books somehow always find a parallel in the incidents I encounter in reality, the people I interact with, and the sightings I spot whenever I’m out and about.

This experience of being on the receiving end of patriarchal condescension is no different. In fact, as I thought about Male Co-worker No. 1’s comments that night, I was reminded of two echoing moments in Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010) and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), both of which I had read and enjoyed earlier this month. #commuterlyfe

Among many themes, the books explore the reality of gender relations in the professional realm, but what I find most interesting is how similar their understanding of casual chauvinism is, despite being separated by half a century.

plath_mcewan_with-spouses

Plath and McEwan with their spouses – both marriages ended on sour notes

 

Reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: Get married, be happy?

plath_bell-jarPlath’s Bell Jar is pretty much a feminist manifesto served up in a Prozac pill, with its overcast of gloom and doom stretching over 200 pages, and by the time you’re done reading it you either feel like shit or feel like the whole world’s just shit. It’s basically the transatlantic mirror text to Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own, but pitched at a more lyrical, more polemical, more Hollywoodesque – more American – register.

As those familiar with Plath’s personal history would expect, this author had scores of beef to settle with men (her husband Ted Hughes cheated on her multiple times and her dad allegedly abused her as a kid), and this novella was a key outlet for her to do this.

At one point, the semi-autobiographical protagonist Esther Greenwood comments on an op-ed in The Reader’s Digest, which argues for marriage as the panacea to reconciling emotional differences between the two sexes:

…in an article my mother cut out of the Reader’s Digest and mailed to me at college… written by a married woman lawyer with children and called ‘In Defence of Chastity’, [its] main point… was that a man’s world is different from a woman’s world and a man’s emotions are different from a woman’s emotions and only marriage can bring the two worlds and the two different sets of emotions together properly…

hemingway_sun-also-rises-cover_drinkingdiaries

Note the macho motifs on this cover…

Curiously enough, Plath’s use of the polysyndeton here – stringing together a succession of ‘ands’ – first struck me as a stylistic inheritance from Ernest Hemingway, who famously loved peppering his writing with scores of conjunctions.

 

Of course, Hemingway was also famous for being obsessed with ‘Alpha’ masculinity, as reflected in The Sun Also Rises when Jake the protagonist loses his balls (literally) in WWI. It’s ironic, then, that a literary feminist should subconsciously (or maybe not?) adopt the favourite trope of a patriarchal lineage.

 

I wonder if my observation would make Plath turn in her grave.

The excerpt continues:

This woman lawyer said the best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even if they weren’t pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex. Of course they would try to persuade a girl to have sex and say they would marry her later, but as soon as she gave in, they would lose all respect for her and start saying that if she did that with them she would do that with other men and they would end up making her life miserable.

The woman finished her article by saying better be safe than sorry and besides, there was no sure way of not getting stuck with a baby and then you’d really be in a pickle.

Now the one thing this article didn’t seem to me to consider was how a girl felt.

(p. 76-77, Faber & Faber 50th Anniversary edition)

Having to live in an era when this sort of viewpoint was run-of-the-mill, it’s small wonder that a proto-feminist like Plath eventually killed herself by sticking her head in the oven.

plath-suicide_news-article_guardian

Reading Ian McEwan’s Solar: DANGER – Douchebags Ahead / Around

What is likely to make Plath turn in her grave, though, are real-life counterparts of Ian McEwan’s protagonist in Solar, his 2010 novel – Michael Beard.

ian-mcewan_solarBeard is a liar, a cheat and a Nobel-prize winning physicist with sixty years behind him, six divorces to count and anything but a six pack (i.e. a beer belly to boot). Given how irredeemably unlikeable he comes across in the book, I’d like to think that Beard is more a caricature of the man every woman loves to hate than a realist approximation of the ‘Genius professor’ type.

Basically, apart from being really, really, really good at Physics and research (in Physics), this guy doesn’t have much else going for him. He has neither a moral compass (he steals ideas from junior researchers) nor an empathetic streak (he regularly cheats on his wife), nor enough self-awareness to realise that he lacks both morals and empathy.

Despite this, what he doesn’t lack are women who willingly throw themselves at him, some out of admiration for his social status, others out of a sadomasochistic maternal instinct to ‘change him for the better’; of course, all of them eventually find out that the man they so love is a gone case.

The extent to which this man lacks self-awareness is hilarious, as when he makes insensitive comments about women without knowing that he sounds like an insensitive dumbass.

At one point in the book, Beard takes questions from journalists at a high-profile press conference, where all goes well, until this happens:

A woman from a mid-market tabloid asked a question, [which was] routine, something of an old chestnut, and Beard replied, as he thought, blandly.

It was true, women were under-represented in physics and always had been. The problem had often been discussed, and… certainly his committee would be looking at it again to see if there were new ways of encouraging more girls into the subject. He believed there were no longer any institutional barriers or prejudices. There were other branches of science where women were well represented, and some where they predominated.

And then, because he was boring himself, he added that it might have to be accepted one day that a ceiling had been reached. Although there were many gifted women physicists, it was at least conceivable that they would always remain in a minority, albeit a substantial one, in this particular field. There might always be more men than women who wanted to work in physics. There was a consensus in cognitive psychology, based on a wide range of experimental work, that in statistical terms the brains of men and women were significantly different.

This was emphatically not a question of gender superiority, nor was it a matter of social conditioning, though of course it played a reinforcing role. These were widely observed innate differences in cognitive ability…

The journalist who had asked the question was nodding numbly. Behind her, someone else was starting to ask an unrelated question. The morning would have passed into oblivion like any other had not at that moment the professor of science studies suddenly stood, blushing pink, squared her papers against the table with a loud rap and announced to the room, “Before I go outside to be sick, and I mean violently sick because of what I’ve just heard, I wish to announce my resignation from Professor Beard’s committee.”

She strode away towards the door, amid a din of voices and of chairs pushed back across the parquet as the journalists leaped to their feet.

(p. 184-185, Vintage edition)

…aaand shit hits the fan for Professor Beard, who then gets skinned by an avalanche of unforgiving tabloid headlines portraying him as a sexist douche.

Interestingly, Beard’s comment echoes the voice of Plath’s Reader’s Digest author. Pretty much everything about men and women – their “worlds”, “emotions” and “brains” – are just different, is essentially what both the woman lawyer and Beard have pointed out.

I suppose there is a grain of truth to this, but where their argument becomes problematic is when they use different gender inclinations as the reason for why women must or must not do something.

male-female_brain_ellebeaver

Sure, there are biological limitations as to what a woman can do, but just because men’s brains are like waffles and women’s brains are like Spag Bol doesn’t mean that women are necessarily less able physicists, or that just because men have external sex organs and women have internal ones, the onus should fall on the woman to guard her chastity against men, because it’s ‘just easier that way’.

Because, well, you know what some men are like.

spag-bol_waffles

Partitioned minds vs. Interconnected minds

As a McEwan fan, I’d like to think that the author is largely sympathetic to the woman’s cause. But judging by the professor of science studies’ melodramatic walkout and her hyperbolic comment about being “violently sick” after hearing Beard’s pseudo-scientific gender analysis, I feel that McEwan is poking fun at female academics for being hypersensitive bra-burners who just need to take a chill pill.

To be fair, he’s not all wrong, at least on this point: no man, least of all a man like Beard, is worth throwing up or tasting bile for.

 

I suspect, though, that modern workplaces isn’t lacking in douche bags like Beard. And this, sadly, is worth throwing up some bile for.

I hate to admit it, but I never confronted my co-worker after the incident about his disrespectful comment, thinking I’d let it pass ‘this time’.

I’m actually still a bit mad at myself for this.

Unlike my usual posts, then, I won’t be able to end this one on a positive note, because I haven’t come to a hopeful conclusion about gender power balance in the work place. Hopefully, I will in the near future.

men-women-difference-comic

So instead, I’ll sign off with a wish, and that is to make damn sure that going forward, I never let anyone tell me that I “should just sit there and not speak – especially not by some testosterone-drugged dude whose gender respect radar is still stuck in some 1950s Mad Men revivalist fantasy shit.

don-draper_bandt

Even Don Draper agrees.

Namaste.

 

[Photo credits: hiphoplead, bandt, drinkingdiaries, UrbanDict, Guardian, Telegraph, rapgenius, lauraprins, englishbookgeorgia, elle beaver, saintheron, wumo, Judith Wright Centre]

 

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2 thoughts on “What it feels like when someone tells you to “just sit there and not speak”

  1. I find it very interesting that you pointed out something I’ve been curious about for a long time – why is it that our first response to chauvinistic displays are shame and the need to apologize?

    You had every right to speak and yet, you needed to remove yourself from the situation and think about it before realizing that you shouldn’t have apologized.

    Is apologizing so deeply ingrained in womanhood, from prioritizing male voices and constantly questioning whether we, women, are in the right to say something? How come it’s possible that our thoughts and speeches are far more exposed to constant critique and cross-examination than men’s?

    I’m sorry that this has happened to you but I’m glad you realized that it wasn’t your problem, but the society’s. Amazing piece, along with Plath comparisons! I’ll definitely be sharing this!🙂

    Like

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