This week I watched the television show The Bachelor.
I’d never seen an entire episode before.
This week I also had the opportunity to see the new movie about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
It is a long time since I was made to recall all the small and large harmful behaviors that were normal for women in our society just a few decades ago. I experienced a shiver of recognition at the depiction of Justice Ginsberg trying to navigate through continuous male behaviors designed to keep her firmly in her expected place.
My daughter called them micro-aggressions. But my feeling is that these behaviors were so ingrained in our culture and our general belief of acceptable actions that they didn’t constitute aggressions at all. I think they were truly believed to simply be good manners. In the movie, when the character playing the dean of the law school referred to the male students as scholars and the few female students as ladies, it is just the way it was.
Everybody knew that.
Even when it felt bad.
I remember sitting in a graduate level class while studying for my Ph.D. where the ten students of the class were given the opportunity to participate in a conference call with a knowledgeable expert. Our professor went around the table to introduce us to the person on the phone by giving our names and a brief introduction. I was introduced as Mindy, who was married to a doctor.
I don’t think he meant any harm in the introduction, but I do know that it felt terrible.
I ran into the same professor the following year on campus while I was wearing a particularly hideous and large shirt on my way to class.
He greeted me more warmly than he had while I was his student and happily congratulated me on being pregnant.
Except of course I wasn’t pregnant.
Obviously, these encounters impacted the way I felt about my educational experience. I still remember feeling belittled twenty-five years later.
Any behavior which serves to place an individual in a predetermined slot can be scarring.
I truly believe these incidents would not happen today. And that’s good. That’s really good.
I was button-holed and placed in a predetermined spot while being told to smile and look pretty. I experienced it subtly the entire time I was growing up. Not that I was denied the opportunity to try new activities outside my assigned gender role, but it never even occurred to me that it was possible.
I understand the importance of freedom to be who we are.
But while we are freely being ourselves we also have to be aware of behaviors that place others in the position we were forced as women to inhabit for so long.
The women on The Bachelor seem to have crossed that boundary. They ogled the man serving as the bachelor. They greeted him lasciviously. They teased him about his sexual status and made overtures that I imagine most women would have labeled as offensive.
I guess this is a form of freedom. As women we have broken enough boundaries to behave in any manner we want.
But do we have to celebrate freedom by choosing to adopt the manners of previously piggish men?
Are we not smart enough to determine our own role models instead of using denounced former male behaviors as a pattern for our own female behavior?
It was never okay for men to behave like this. It was demeaning and de-legitimizing.
I hated being defined in a certain way by that professor.
The Bachelor seems to support women defining men in that same limiting manner.
Freedom to be ourselves is an important right. Only we can decide how we use our freedom to act and be.
Let’s be better than this.