I’ve been thinking about writing this for the last week or so, since I started noticing a stridence in me concerning the absurd amount of casual misogyny there is in my culture – in the press, in the media, in advertising, (in friends), you name it.
I spend quite a lot of time at the moment feeling like a stroppy teenager, in spite of being 50. Fair enough, I’m going through a hormone-and-transition-induced second adolescence/puberty, and being a stroppy teen comes with the territory of trying to figure out who the hell you suddenly are in the face of all this change in you, and others’ reactions to it. And teenagers often become politically strident because they’re starting to get their first firsthand glimpses of the more global iniquities built into the adulthood they’re being expected to participate in.
One of the reasons why I love the fifth Harry Potter book so much is that Harry is 15 in it, and spends the entire book being pissed off at everyone. With plenty of good reason – but it felt to me that there was this beautiful acknowledgement of the shift from childhood to adolescence and that duelling awareness of powerfulness and powerlessness that it raises up in you. I love Harry so much for his frustration with everything.
So yes, all that, but now back to me and my discomfort (stop putting it off… I was just setting the scene, see… I know, but get on with it… okay.)
I’m going to try to write as objectively as I can about something I have very subjective feelings about, and that’s the Demon P-Word. There’s this word that gets used an awful lot these days in discussion of gender, race, sexuality, ability, and so on and that word is privilege. I had at first planned to see whether I could write this whole blog-thing without actually using that word, because it has become so loaded with connotation that, ironically, it’s very hard to maintain objective discourse whilst using it. But then I felt that my discomfort with the word demands that I not try to dodge this. I’m actually quite scared, sitting here, contemplating writing My Position On Privilege™.
I’ll start by taking a stab at defining it. In the specific way it gets used currently in political discourse, I think this: Privilege is any advantage you don’t know you have, because you’ve never been without it.
Why I’m uncomfortable with a lot of the use of this term I’ve come across lately is that it appears to be wielded as a kind of trump card during any debate, in order to declare another person’s views or opinions invalid, and I find that creepy and underhand. I think you can only declare someone’s opinions or views invalid by explaining why they’re wrong – not by declaring that person inherently invalid due to their different life experience.
So I’ve made my Statement Of Position there, and in making it, I’ve actually decided I’m going to avoid writing that word for the rest of this blog-thing (because it’s so loaded, and not just for me), and use instead the word advantage. I think advantage is a both more transparent and less elitist way of saying the same thing, because the P-Word is historically loaded with a connotation of class, wealth, position, stuff like that, and drips with personal prejudice for that reason – it’s impossible not to use it to some extent as an insult.
And now after a brief pause to do something else, I feel obliged ask myself: Or is it just you imagining this? And no, I’m pretty confident that a lot of the time, there’s covert or overt bile in people’s use of the P-Word against others. It’s like they’re saying “You won the advantage game, so you lose the argument. End of story.” And that’s nonsense.
Just to be very, very clear: I am in no way questioning the existence of advantage, just the use of the P-Word as a lazy means to “win” a debate – and I sometimes see it used well and as part of a cogent explanation too.
Blah, blah. What all this is meant to be about, now that I’ve got all that out of the way, is that I’ve noticed myself of late becoming this strident feminist teenager, posting outrageous examples of casual misogyny on facebook as I encounter them either online, or just in the course of daily life.
And what this has drawn my uncomfortable attention to is the fact that I’m like this now, two years into a male-to-female gender transition… and I wasn’t like this before. It’s all relative, of course – I was aware to some extent of all this kind of crap going on out there, but it didn’t affect me personally in the way it does now that I finally have my permission to be a woman. And this leads me to the uncomfortable conclusion that yes, I lived with an advantage for the whole time I was “passing” as a man, an advantage that I’m no longer living with, and that’s why this stuff pisses me off now in a way that it didn’t before.
My main excuse for taking so long to realise this seems reasonable to me, now that I think about it. You see, as I began transitioning, I spent a lot more time online and in the company of people having these kinds of discussions and debates around gender and advantage and suchlike, and I think that this abuse of the P-Word I wrote about earlier led me to shun the idea that I did actually have an advantage due to not growing up as a woman, because it kept being couched in a “therefore we can pretend you and your views do not exist” kind of way. Even a lot of people who use the P-Word out there are now fed up with the P-Wars, a kind of Top Trumps card game in which people seem to be working out who wins a debate not on the basis of who makes the best reasoning case, but on the basis of who was the most oppressed and least advantaged.
Well, now that I’ve got here, I just want to acknowledge out loud that yes, there is that difference between being a cis woman and being a trans woman; the difference that by not growing up as a woman in this culture, you don’t get first-hand experience of casual misogyny until you live as a woman. And since this endemic misogyny is a painful thing to live with, when it’s clearly directed at me myself, I can only imagine what it would be like to grow up with that your entire life.
Of course, my ability to imagine this is helped a lot by all the negativity and prejudice that was directed at me myself while I was growing up, for being Jewish, gender-nonconforming, queer, smart, short-sighted, having (as a kid) buck teeth, and then through being abused and so on – so I know what it’s like, I just can’t know it directly.
And knowing and acknowledging this difference, I’m filled with a sad compassion for women, whoever we are, and however we arrive at womanhood. That’s all I really wanted to say. My culture is much improved compared to when I was growing up, but this stuff is still going on all the time. I’d really love there to be a point in the future where women could grow up never encountering this except in history lessons.