Published in www.sulekha.com on 30th November, 1999
Sometime ago my husband and I were in Austin, Texas, the self-proclaimed live-music capital of the world, and also one of my favorite cities. We stopped at Ruta Maya Coffee house, it being known as the “kewl” place to hang out. Having had interesting musical experiences there before I hoped we would witness a memorable show. As we stood in line to get our coffees we realised today was poetry slam night. There was an impressive looking blonde spouting her poetry on stage, sounding like she was confidently making it up as she went along. Following her were two more pretty women (was it Women Only Poetry Slam night?) who poured similar tales and had similar styles. Of the few choice gems I remember, there was one that lamented that as a woman the poet should be able to have bright red luscious lips whether she was fat or thin, sagging or taut, old or young, tall or short, and that men should just deal with it and so on and so forth. Another gem was about the poet finding a man to love her for who she was whether she could dance or not, cook or not, etc, etc. A third I remember (at this point wondering if it was Women Who Have a Problem With Men Only Poetry Slam Night) was about the poet being allowed to wear blue satin pyjamas to bed, not red or marron ones, but baby blue ones, etc, etc. Jim and I half heartedly clapped for each poem, wondering if the next poem was going to be about something else other than targeting men or by someone else other than young white pretty women. We were disappointed and left in betweeen poems, practically running out.
As we walked to the car we discussed what we found so infuriating about the poems and the poets we had just heard (other than their aesthetic quality or lack of) of the poems. Jim’s contention was, for women to specifically blame men for their troubles was just as stupid as men regarding all women inferior. Not a single one of these women had the insight to look beyond the superficialities of their lives or their percieved realities and question the entire system within which men get away with what they do. Men who are jerks are so because they are allowed to be jerks. This is a result of the patriarchical society we live in. That all men are jerks and to be blamed for women’s problems is a shortsighted and wrongful accusation. It is like a black man blaming all white men, every single one, for racism, rather than attacking the system within which white superiority and black inferiority are allowed to exist. The way in which these women were fixated on men by simultaneously blaming and desiring them was an insult to the feminist movement.
My contention, I said to Jim, was that all these women talked about was men. It is as if women are not expected to have strong opinions on anything other than issues concerning mistreatment by men, societal expectations of women, and other aspects of sexism. Since sexism affects women that is all they are expected to talk about, and, as we sadly experienced, that is all they do tend to talk about. When there is a group of women on stage reciting their poems one expects a range of topics from oppression in general to sexist oppression of women, and perhaps to nature, war, poverty, social structures, family life, history, the future, religion, and an endless array of topics. Instead we hear only about how aweful men are to women and how all men want is the perfect wife who looks like a supermodel and cooks like Martha Stewart and how all we women want is a man who will love us with all our celebrated flaws. Let’s let men (specifially white men, because men of color will want to talk only about racist oppression) talk about those other interrelated issues of life that are important. That was the feeling I was getting listening to the women poets who received deafening and enthusiastic ovations for their poems.
I have a bumper sticker on my car that says “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”. I believe in that notion and unless women start behaving as if in addition to being women they are humans, feminism will always be considered a radical issue. If women involved themselves in discourses that touch upon all matters of life they would finally begin attacking the system of patriarchy which suggests that only men are capable of making intellectual decisions and controlling their own lives.
That said, I have to say that it is very important that we, women and men, point out specific instances of men committing crimes or simply discriminating against women. But just as important to realise and attack the context within which this takes place for we will never be able to improve the treatment of women until we change the system of patriarchical domination which the world functions in. It is imperative that women be worthy adversaries to men in public discourses that include other human issues. Simply behaving like human beings, I think, is one of the most effective ways in which women can demand to be treated as human beings.