Here’s a true story: I’m at an industry cocktail party. I see an acquaintance enter. Let’s call her Sally. She’s dressed in a tight, black mini-dress, stiletto heels and full make up. She’s wearing a long, shiny necklace with a pendant. As she approaches, I can’t help but notice that the pendant strategically finds its natural resting place just above her generous cleavage.
We’re glad to see each other. As we exchange pleasantries, I catch sight of a man I know and beckon him to join us. Let’s call him Ben. It’s good to see Ben. It’s been awhile. He approaches. I introduce him to Sally and for an awkward moment his eyes linger on her pendant/cleavage area. He stutters, “I…I like your necklace.” And Sally, not missing the true source of his admiration, abruptly shifts, and admonishes Ben with, “Hey, my eyes are up here!” He’s duly shamed, taken aback, even flustered. Sally excuses herself and makes a quick escape to another party-goer. Ben looks at me like he’s been slapped in the face and mutters “She’s crazy.”
What just happened? My first reaction was to feel badly for Ben. I know him. He’s a good guy with feminist leanings. He simply looked where Sally, with the pendant and cleavage, directed him to look, and then was chastised unfairly for it.
But I’ve learned to question my first reactions, mostly because sexism runs so deeply through all male-female encounters to the point of near invisibility.
So let’s break it down. Let’s imagine Sally as she prepares for this party. Sally lives, like all women, in a world where male values dominate. She knows that there can be no inconsequential dressing for a woman. Every dress decision, particularly for a public event, has consequences, signaling all sorts of assumptions. So she made decisions designed to enhance her appearance. She agreed — even if she didn’t know she agreed — to eroticize herself. But there’s a catch. Or rather, an interior conflict. Being attractive is good but being slutty is not so good. She gains status from male attention but loses it if that male attention doesn’t respect her. It’s a tricky balancing act that creates interior conflict.
Okay, so what about Ben? How does he prepare for the party? Does anyone believe he put as much thought into his dress prep as Sally? I imagine his biggest decision was deciding which sports jacket to wear, that is, if he owned more than one. Maybe he polished his shoes. Done. Ben’s dress decisions carry much less weight. There’s no erotic statement implicit in his dress choices. There’s no interior conflict for Ben that revolves around eroticizing himself.
So my second reaction to witnessing this encounter involves considering the world Sally lives in. It’s a world in which she agrees to eroticize herself while on guard that that doesn’t spill over into being disrespected. That’s a helluva lot of pretzeling. It could make anyone appear crazy.
When men call women crazy, I suspect what’s really happened is that they have been momentarily jerked into the female realm. It’s a place where interior conflict resides and frequently expresses itself in all sorts of ways. Men don’t live in this realm. And since collective thinking doesn’t include the demands of female pretzeling, most men barely ever have to acknowledge its existence. This kind of conflict doesn’t touch them so when they’re yanked into it, it’s completely understandable that it would feel ‘crazy.’ But all that occurred was that he got a taste of the conflict within which she lives.
When Ben calls Sally crazy, he gets to sink into that comfy, culturally-accepted place where he doesn’t have to consider her reality. It’s as old as the ages for a man to characterize a ‘difficult’ woman as crazy. He stands in a thousand years of entitlement. And every time this kind of scenario is repeated, there’s a rebuke to her humanity. Because we all know that crazy people don’t have standing. Crazy people needn’t be believed or even listened to.
This is a story about how well-intentioned men and women get it wrong. Ben and Sally found themselves fumbling through an unpleasant, ugly moment, players in an already-set drama not of their own making. If there’s any fault, it lies in our collective agreement about reality as a place that excludes female interiority.
Gay Walch is the author, most recently, of the play The End of Sex (Or What’s Wrong With Mom)