By Lydia Shiel, Staff Columnist
I come from a place where people are Methodist if they aren’t Southern Baptist. The wealthy kids aren’t actually wealthy: their dads are in the Coast Guard or they own farms or they work on the monster truck Grave Digger. Actually, some of their dads used to work for Blackwater. I didn’t necessarily resent any of this growing up, but it did give me a lot of pause. I hated saying “yes sir” so much and I hated the way so many parents seemed to frown at interracial relationships or God forbid, queer ones. It sent chills down my spine when I heard the n-word coming from the mouth of a white guy in a Carhartt, even though no one had expressly told me that was wrong. And truthfully, I didn’t quite know what to make of the older guy who loudly told his friends I was “being coy” when I wouldn’t go into the church’s bathroom with him during youth group, or the one who laughed while he drove with his knee and set a reminder in his phone for December 11, 2014: the date of my eighteenth birthday.
My life would stop feeling like it didn’t pass the Bechdel test.
So my conversion was complete: I was ready to escape, at least for a while. Like many of the rural North Carolinian kids out there (hey y’all), I viewed Chapel Hill as some sort of progressive Arcadia when I was applying to colleges. This accursed, gerrymandering state’s land of milk and honey. I would come here and I would frolick with all the other marginalized southern libs. We would read the Huffington Post around a crackling fire, braiding each others’ armpit hair while we snacked on tiny chocolates shaped like donkeys–or maybe even hammers and sickles. There would be no white supremacy, no religious nationalism gone wrong, and not to be radical or anything but there would be a lot of women talking to each other about the issues impacting them. My life would stop feeling like it didn’t pass the Bechdel test.
And honestly, that’s kind of what my UNC looks like. I could create a Facebook event right now, and if I invited the right people, my backyard would become home to that actual bonfire. I acknowledge that this campus is politically diverse–has a real, functioning group of College Republicans–and that a lot of the people who keep it running probably don’t hold the social beliefs that bother me. With deep regret, I also acknowledge that a progressive campus is not necessarily one devoid of sexual assault and the occasional racist comment. But right now I’m sitting in a cafe with my sweet, pole-dancing friend who just read me a passage from “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and I feel enriched. I feel fulfilled by moments like these that, in my experience, have only come out of friendships with progressive women. They are moments I did not have any concept of back home.
Most of my white, female-identifying friends at UNC were confused when white women voted for Trump. I wasn’t. A friend actually yelled at me over my cynicism. I’m thrilled to live in the progressive pocket of North Carolina that I do now, but most of this state and this country look more like my hometown than Chapel Hill. Most of the white women who made it out to the polls sound more like the women from my hometown, and trust me when I say they weren’t ready for a woman–or even another Democrat–in office. Where I come from, people had just spent eight years saying “he’s not really black” and “he hates this country,” and for them, it just wasn’t time.
Most of my white, female-identifying friends at UNC were confused when white women voted for Trump. I wasn’t.
My mother is a pious, conservative woman with a few complicating characteristics. She disagrees with the Republicans on gun rights, she believes women are superior to men, and she can enjoy herself at a drag show. She is the breadwinner in our household and she believes we “ladies” have all the power in the world. Isn’t that nice? I felt empowered, hearing those things while I was growing up. She’s a big part of the reason I call myself a feminist today. She helped me believe in myself; she helped me see the world as a place where I could thrive just like my brother could. But if I dare use the F-word to describe anything she says or does, she just smiles then sighs at my leftist convictions. I’m sure a lot of your moms do the same. For many of them, the label “Feminist” doesn’t connote anything they want to be associated with.
When I went to the Women’s March in Raleigh last year, my mom was furious. She sent me a think piece about the victim complex we young feminists apparently carry around with us. It was one of those archaic-sounding pieces somehow written by a beautiful 20-year-old lifestyler blogger that reminded American women how good they have it when compared with women facing genocide or starvation or a culture of sex slavery (notably ignoring the US’s massive human trafficking industry). It basically asked us all to pipe down, get back in our lanes, and resume worship of the Trifecta: God, Consumerism, and the NFL. My email rebuttal was thorough, informed, and a little bit too raw for my well-intentioned mother. The kind of senseless aggression you can only muster for a woman who very lovingly raised you and meant no harm by her words. After that she resigned to loving me through my whining sectarianism. So with this year’s round of Women’s Marches, I felt compelled to check back in. I wanted to see if her views have shifted. Perhaps she had come around.
My email rebuttal was thorough, informed, and a little bit too raw for my well-intentioned mother.
When I brought up #MeToo and the Women’s March, she asked if I’d heard about Natalie Portman. I hadn’t yet. Apparently, the first piece of fan mail Natalie Portman received at thirteen years old was a detailed rape fantasy penned by a grown man. Then, her local radio station aired a countdown to her eighteenth birthday. My mom reminded me of that older guy who had set a reminder in his phone for my eighteenth. She reminded me of my horrible uncle who used to lust aloud over his daughter’s friends’ bodies while they sunbathed by the pool. She mentioned the time at Taco Bell in third grade when a grown man had run his hand through my friend Morgan’s hair and my stepfather yelled until the guy left. Maybe my mom’s mind was changing. Maybe she was finally noticing these things!
But then I thought back to when the Access Hollywood tape had come out. She went into a lot of detail that evening, listing things I hadn’t known. She had been stalked before. She had been harassed almost every day she went to work in her 80s office job. Men at work had kissed her on the mouth without her consent–frequently. Sometimes, in other settings, men had shown her their penises with absolutely no prompt. Men talked like Trump in the Access Hollywood tape right in front of her. She surprised me when she said “It’s not just guys being guys. It’s inexcusable.” It was a promising moment, but she followed with, “There’s a lot of bad in the world, and we can fight for hundreds of years, but nothing will change.” My heart sunk.
It was a promising moment, but she followed with, “There’s a lot of bad in the world, and we can fight for hundreds of years, but nothing will change.”
I come back to the present moment, to my mom’s lamentations over toxic male behavior. Lamentations so acute, so similar to my own. So, are you a feminist now? Has #MeToo done it?
No. She sees our fervor as a loss of stoicism. According to my mother, young women in her sphere knew how to navigate “bad dates” and use their voices. She doesn’t love to admit it now, but in the moment she and her friends wondered why Anita Hill hadn’t just put Clarence Thomas in his place. According to my mom, women should stand up for themselves without putting all of the responsibility on society. For a lot of women her age, all of the noise we’re making is just that: noise. We live in a man’s world, and we shouldn’t call too much attention to ourselves. We are expecting too much if we think men will ever stop catcalling us (which, by the way Lydia, can be a compliment– let them look, not touch). If we want to go back to real strength, we’ll remember what our mothers taught us and what they want for us still: we have to be able to take care of ourselves, and we have to accept the world around us.
I don’t know what to make of this. Of course I will continue drawing attention to the injustice I see. Obviously I want to keep fighting to change the society I live in, because I believe we can make a better world. The kind of place where everyone gets to confront their internalized misogyny and everyone gets to be heard: something of a progressive Arcadia.
Whether we’re silent or we’re screaming, whether we fall to the left or the right, it is not because we have lived especially different lives.
It is attainable. Louis C.K. is ruined, so it’s attainable. Right? My mom’s voice seems to tug back at me, Wrong. There are generations and generations of American women out there that have been abused, raped and beaten–who still feel there is no reason to speak up in this world controlled by men. They see it as a choice: you can call attention to your oppression, or you can be a strong woman. And while I fundamentally disagree with this statement, I am struck that I recognize these cynical, pragmatic ideas as the roots of some of my core values.
Whether we’re silent or we’re screaming, whether we fall to the left or the right, it is not because we have lived especially different lives. Women who reject feminism have not miraculously escaped the leers, the groping, the fear and the shame. Nobody has.