In my last post we discussed everyday sexism, both the concept and the website.
Today we talk about Fucking Egregious Sexism: the moments that are so outrageous, they stick with you for years as your most salient representations of the actual practice of sexism.
Whether these instances stick because they scare you, anger you, make you feel small or stupid, or in any case alter how you act or think about yourself – Fucking Egregious Sexism is something all women encounter from time to time, and though we’ve mostly learned (wrongly) to accommodate/overlook everyday sexism, Fucking Egregious Sexism is where you just sit back and go, “Whoa. Seriously? Did that just really happen? In the 21st century? Seriously?”
Now, working in white-male-saturated Hollywood, I could immediately rattle off at least five (ten) (twenty) of these incidents – easy – but as the light bill must still be paid, I’ll be keeping those under wraps in order to remain employable.
(As I always tell my mother: Just you wait for my memoir, lady.)
Thus, this story is non-business related… and one of the only reasons I’m telling you about it at all is because it changed how I saw myself (see the previous post), as well as forcing me to admit that the way I’d been handling this type of Fucking Egregious Sexism wasn’t proactive, as I’d fooled myself into believing; it was reactive, and meant only to protect myself from further danger/damage.
In other words, I wasn’t really standing up for myself – I was only fending off something potentially worse.
And I want to be better than that.
Stronger than that.
And maybe sharing this story with my readers will help me feel as though I’m accountable not only to myself, but to others, as well.
* * *
Two weeks ago, I went to lunch with a male friend.
We were sitting in a booth, eating hamburgers and chatting, when an elderly man walked by. Just after passing us, this man suddenly stopped, about-faced, then wrapped his gnarled hand around my forearm, saying, “You know these things don’t wash off, young lady.”
I have prominent tattoos, so I’ve grown used to hearing this kind of thing from the white-haired set: both men and women who seem to feel utterly entitled to inform me what a terrible mistake I’ve made. (I’ve even had women shake their heads and tsk-tsk me about not being “marriageable” anymore. As if I’ve somehow been sucked into a Jane Austen novel and can’t embroider or play the pianoforte well enough.) Though over the course of two decades I’ve become much more tolerant of this behavior, the smartass in me (which is, okay, about 98% of me) always wants to snap back, “And you’ve gotten so wrinkled! Why did you do that to yourself? Goddamn you look ancient!”
But having grown up in the Deep South, I was taught to always be polite to my elders.
Even when they’re complete assholes.
So, “Yeah,” I laughed, removing my arm from this man’s unasked-for and unwanted grasp, on the pretense of reaching for my napkin. “I’ve heard soap and water just doesn’t cut it.”
Without even consciously knowing why, my laughter-as-a-defense-shield had just been deployed, and I found myself thinking, Go sit down, you judgmental old man. I don’t want to get into this. And what “this” was wasn’t even clear to me yet; I just felt criticized and uncomfortable and knew that I wanted this exchange to end. Even his invasion of my personal space – him, a total stranger, grabbing me without asking – hadn’t set off my Big Alarms, but I think it was because he was old, and like I said, I didn’t feel consciously threatened. Only annoyed.
“What does this one mean? What language is this?” the old man asked, replacing his hand on my left arm, swiping his finger across the tattoo in the crook of my elbow. Meantime he’d shuffled in even nearer to me, and leaned over the booth so close that had I wanted to kiss him, all I would’ve had to do was turn my head.
I swayed away from him enough to avoid touching him – but not enough to seem rude. (And why? There’s a great line in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”: “The fear of offending is stronger than the fear of pain.” I can tell you from experience that this “fear of offending” is inculcated in women from the time they’re young. It’s partly why the term “good girl” is so loaded.)
“It’s English,” I answered patiently. “It says ‘Buddha Time.’”
“‘Buddha Time’? What the hell does that mean?”
I smiled through gritted teeth. “It means that everything comes in its own time. You can’t make something come faster than it’s going to, and you can’t make something go slower than it’s going to.”
“Hmph,” replied the old man, unimpressed, his finger still brushing across my skin, back and forth. “Maybe I should get that tattooed on my ass.”
It took maybe a half-second for this remark to wend its way from my ears to my brain, but once it landed, my eyes flicked up to my friend’s as if to ask, Did you just hear that?
And my friend’s face said, Yeah! What the fuck?
“Sure,” the old man continued. “I could get ‘Buddha’ on one cheek, and ‘Time’ on the other cheek, and then I could do this—”
He stood upright, turned his back, then mimed pulling his pants down to moon me.
Literally, his ass was eight inches from my face. I could see pinpoint stains of some unknown origin splashed across the seat of his blue polyester pants.
And what did I do? Big strong feminist that I am?
Not because I thought it was funny. To be perfectly honest, I felt like spewing burger.
I laughed because that’s what I do when my Big Alarms start ringing. I laugh to protect myself, to ward off The Bad. I laugh so the other person won’t lash out at me. I laugh because the only other alternatives are to either start fighting or run away. And here I was stuck in a booth with an old man’s blue polyester ass looming over me like a vulture.
Realistically, what was I going to do? Scream “Ass!” and knock him over?
The old man turned around again and leered, “You know, if I was forty years younger…”
You’d what? I thought, suddenly furious. If you were forty years younger, you’d what? You’d fuck me? You’d turn me over your knee? You’d forbid me to get tattooed? You wouldn’t date me if I had them? Awww, sadpanda, what a huge fucking loss YOU GIANT CREEPER.
“Well thank god you’re not,” I said, a small concession to my seething.
And then laughed again.
What a wimp.
“I hope you know,” he went on, “a lot of men don’t like that kind of thing.”
Asshole, asshole, asshole.
I said, “Well, lucky for me, my fiancé does.”
“Oh! Is this him?” the old man backed up a step and pointed at my friend, causing my friend and I to crack up in earnest. He and I are known for our epic insult-slinging contests, not for being touchy-feely.
“Uh, no,” I answered. “This is my friend, —-.”
And then the Big Alarms started blaring.
Because after being told that my male companion was not my fiancé — in other words, that I was even geographically single — the old man got even closer to me. His arm crept around the back of the booth behind me, his other hand landed on the table, he leaned his chest forward, and suddenly I was surrounded. The only way he could’ve gotten any closer was to sit directly on my face.
“Reeeeeallly?” asked the old man, sounding delighted. “Then maybe I could get your tattoo in my bathing-suit place.”
He made a clicking noise with his tongue.
And I thought, Okay. This is not good.
“Hey, is this old man bothering you?” came a voice from over my friend’s shoulder.
I looked up, thinking, Oh thank fucking god. Someone’s come to drag this old sleazebucket back to The Sex Offenders’ Rest Home.
“This is my son,” said the old man, his voice tinged with both irritation and regret. Whether it was because the guy was his son, or because his son was interrupting his molesting me, I couldn’t tell.
“Are you bothering this pretty lady?” the son, clearly a surfer in his early 40’s, asked his father.
“Her tattoo says ‘Buddha Time,’” answered the old man. “I’m going to get it tattooed in my bathing-suit place.”
“‘Buddha Time’?” asked the son. “What are you talking about? There’s no Buddha in the Torah! Besides, you’re Jewish — you can’t get tattooed! Go sit down, wouldja?”
As the son brought their food toward his father, the old man grumbled something about his son spoiling his “fun,” then slid into the booth directly behind me.
My friend watched him sit down, then rolled his eyes and murmured, “Greeeaaaat.”
At which I laughed.
But honestly this time, as I thought my troubles were over.
I had no idea.
* * *
I want to take a second here to say that I did not need nor want rescuing. Had I had my shit together enough and simply reacted the same way I felt, this nonsense would’ve been over the second the old man grabbed my arm. I would’ve told him — okay, let’s be frank — I would’ve asked him — to stop touching me (fuck, I would’ve even said “please” — you can take the girl out of the Deep South, but…) — then he would’ve gotten pissy — most men do when rebuffed, I find — maybe called me a “bitch” — and he would’ve left me the hell alone. But I didn’t do any of that. I retreated into my learned-helplessness mode — laugh! laugh, laugh laugh! your sliminess is so funny! — so as not to offend him, and let him get away with everything that came after.
My male friend asked me later if there was something he “should’ve” done during the previous — and the next — section of this story, and I told him what I’m telling you:
If I had wanted help, I would have asked for it. As it was, I felt as though I was “handling” things at the time — poorly, I’ll admit now — and I would have interpreted any attempt to “rescue” me as a rather insulting sign that I couldn’t deal with the situation myself — and I would’ve resented it. Would him stepping in have changed how everything went down? I’m sure it would have. But I wouldn’t have learned the lesson that I did, now would I?
I think good, feminist men often get screwed in this kind of deal: they know what’s happening is jacked, they want to help, but they truly trust and believe in their female companions’ ability to take care of themselves, and don’t want to act like the stereotypical White Knight rushing in to save the ditzball damsel. Because truthfully? I think they know that we — or at least I — find that almost as offensive as sticking your blue polyester ass in my face.
So to my friend, and to all good, feminist men out there: when this sort of thing happens, I think the best recourse may be simply to ask your female companion if she wants (not “needs” — “wants”) any help removing the thorn in her side. It preserves her choice, her agency, and lets her know she’s not alone in thinking this thorn is actually a massive douchenozzle. Sometimes just knowing you’re not alone can give you the strength to do what you should’ve done in the first place.
* * *
Now where were we?
Oh, right. After the son had corralled his father (albeit a little too close for my comfort, but at least he wasn’t leering at me and saying “bathing-suit place” anymore), my friend and I finished our meal. We stayed in the booth yammering for a while, as we rarely get to see each other, and in fact, yammered so long, the old man and his son finished their meal before my friend and I even got up.
“You wanna see something?”
No, I do not want to see ANYTHING from you, Grandpa Creeper.
The son was taking their trash to the can, and meanwhile the old man had resumed his position standing next to our booth, leaning over me, his crotch at eye-level.
“I got a tattoo, too, you know. You wanna see it?”
And had I learned anything from the previous encounter?
Had I at least gathered enough guts to say, “No! That’s enough! Go away!”
Yes, I finally had. And that’s exactly what I did.
I waved my hand at him and said, “No. I don’t want to see anything. That’s enough.”
“Aw, c’mon,” wheedled the old man. “I got a tattoo. You wanna see it?”
“No. I’m done. I’m finished. It’s over. We’re done.”
And that’s when the old man gestured at his crotch — like I said, this couldn’t have been eight inches from my face — and crowed, “It’s my tattoo! A one-eyed snake! Look!”
“Oh my god,” I shook my head, while my friend stared at me like, How are you not punching this guy in his shriveled old nads?
Thing was, inside my head I was mulling that very idea, when the son came up and said, “Dad! Quit doing that! Get outta here! She doesn’t want to see that!”
And this was the point where I considered, Hey, maybe the old guy has Alzheimer’s or something. Maybe he’s not a creeper. Maybe his frontal lobe — the part that controls impulsivity and decision-making and the knowledge between right and wrong — is just moth-eaten or plaque-covered and I’ve been hating him this whole time for something he can’t control.
Even though I didn’t quite believe it, ’cause the old man sure seemed to have all his marbles — he wasn’t confused or inarticulate or full of rage or violent or yelling, the way people with Alzehimer’s sometimes are. He seemed just like your garden-variety sexist-pig sicko, getting his kicks by touching women without asking and thrusting his ass and junk in a woman’s face and talking about his one-eyed snake.
But whatever. Either way I was over it. And apparently so was the son. He told the old man to go wait for him by the car, and with a few more crotch-pointings and cacklings of “One-eyed snake!”, the old man eventually left…
…only to wind up standing outside the restaurant window right next to our table, where he continued to crotch-point and yell, “One-eyed snake! Wanna see it? Huh?”
The son apologized for his dad, and finally — FINALLY — waved him off to the car, which threw me back on the side of well-maybe-it-is-Alzheimer’s — until the son started asking me about my tattoos.
I felt a vague mix of dread and deja-vu as I explained what a few of my tattoos meant, when apropos of nothing, the son said, “Yeah, I used to have a nipple ring.”
The dread/deja-vu thing started hitting a little harder, like hurricane waves up against a seawall, as the son went on: “It was great for the ladies. They liked to pull on it and bite it, and I loved it, boy, that was great, but I just didn’t like the way it chafed against my t-shirts.”
You know those moments that are, like, six years long in your head, but only a couple seconds on the outside?
Yeah. That happened.
All at once I started visualizing this guy’s whole life. Thinking, Well how else is a boy raised by Grandpa Creeper gonna turn out? What must that childhood have been like? What must that old man have taught his son about women? About respect? Did he ever even put those two words in a sentence together?
And on the outside I heard myself answer, almost like a robot, “I have a bellybutton ring and it doesn’t bother me like that at all.”
While on the inside I was screaming at myself, WHY ARE YOU EVEN TALKING? SHUT UP! SHUT UP! AND WHY ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT YOUR BELLY RING FOR JESUS CHRIST’S SAKE? DON’T TALK ABOUT YOUR BODY! DON’T EVEN MAKE HIM THINK ABOUT YOUR BODY! DON’T TELL HIM ANYTHING ABOUT YOURSELF! YOU’RE ASKING FOR IT! YOU’RE ASKING FOR IT!
(Looking back, I think that may be the moment I regret most in the whole debacle. Telling myself I was “asking for it”. It makes me sad to think that I could internalize such bullshit so concretely.)
Which is when the son noticed my nose ring.
“Oh, you have a nose ring, too, huh?”
No, you dumbass, I’m just holding it for a friend.
“Oh, let me tell you,” the son grinned, “if you and I had sex, I’d grab ahold of that thing with my teeth and just–” he made growling sounds — grrrrr rrrrr! — tossed his head back as if he were yanking on it, “and you would mooooaaann.”
I couldn’t even bring myself to look at my friend.
By then I was wondering, Does he think I bring this on myself? That I attract these weirdos? That something I’m doing just draws these freaks in and then allows them to do this to me?
And suddenly a light went off in my head.
This is not my fault.
These sickos? These freaks?
This is not my fault.
Fuck nipple-ring guy, fuck his creepy father, fuck all these fucking fuckwad fuckers. FUCK IT.
“Go away,” I told the son. “Get out of here. Go. I’m not listening to you anymore. Get out. Get out!”
I was laughing as I said it.
* * *
And I was still laughing as I yelled it, when the son stopped in the exact same place outside the restaurant, in front of the window next to my friend and I, miming having sex with me while biting and yanking on my nose ring, growling the whole time.
I could hear him.
“GO! GO! LEAVE! GET OUT OF HERE! GO AWAY” I yelled.
* * *
I’m not laughing anymore.