I still don’t know why Sallie and I bothered to go to that party in the forest slope above Aspen. The people were all older than us and dull in a distinguished way, old enough that we, at forty-ish, passed as the occasion’s young ladies. The house was great — if you like Ralph Lauren-style chalets — a rugged luxury cabin at 9,000 feet complete with elk antlers, lots of kilims, and a wood-burning stove. We were preparing to leave, when our host said, “No, stay a little longer so I can talk to you.” He was an imposing man who’d made a lot of money.
He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his authentically grainy wood table and said to me, “So? I hear you’ve written a couple of books.”
I replied, “Several, actually.”
He said, in the way you encourage your friend’s 7-year-old to describe flute practice, “And what are they about?”
They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West,” my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.
He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?”
So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book — with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.
Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said — like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr. Pelen’s class on Chaucer — “gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” Still, there are these other men, too. So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, “That’s her book.” Or tried to interrupt him anyway.
But he just continued on his way. She had to say, “That’s her book” three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless — for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing, and we’ve never really stopped.
Every man I know seems to feel like the woman here was being really mean because the guy was probably just deaf, or trying to engage her, or something. Every woman I’ve talked to seems to feel like something just like this has happened to her. In the past week.
God knows, I feel like it has happened to me. The author cites powerful men doing this, but I am not bothered too much when powerful men do this. I figure powerful old men get to do what they want. When I’m old, I’m going to pretend to be deaf and blackmail people and it’s going to be “wacky”, so I give old people a lot of leeway.
You know what bothers me? When you, say, bring over Citizen Kane to watch with a bunch of your contemporaries or people younger than you. There’s always one guy, who, 20 minutes in, will declare “yeah, this is a good movie. See the dialogue. See how they made that work?” As though he directed the movie. As though we were all waiting for him to confirm that it met his standards and he will point out that dialogue as though he made it up in his head. At which point my own head always literally explodes, which is why I have to hurtle around the room, blind, trying to find my lips so I can reply “it’s Citizen Kane, you fucking moron. No one needed you to tell them it was good.”
Often, I’m forced to use puppets.
This is irritating for a few reasons. It implies whoever is saying it knows the entire world of movies, and, more, that their opinion is the only one that matters. Moreover, it implies that, up until now, this movie’s goodness was up for debate, but, no more. Now, perhaps you can pull this off if you are Robert Osborne. But often this person is 22, sleeping on futon, and not a filmmaker. And they’re sitting there pontificating, which makes it seem as though history was waiting for futon-kid’s judgement. As though, now, at long last, Orson Welles can finally rest in peace.
This is a problem because, while some people will realize this is insane, other people will take this totally seriously if he says it with enough gravitas. Other people will begin to say “yeah, [futon-kid] really knows a lot about movies.”
Look, I’m bringing up this instance partly because I have got to stop hanging out with liberal arts majors. But partly, also, because this does seem to happen with a great variety of people, and isn’t just a problem if you are going to some very swanky dinner parties in Aspen. This can be a pretty universal problem. And it effects aspects of life much more serious than just being pretentious about books and movies.
To be fair, I think both men and women can be unbelievably arrogant. I think being unbelievably arrogant is not just a male trait. But I do think women are forced to hide it better, earlier.
Because if a woman said that “yeah, Citizen Kane is a pretty good movie” ten men in the room would immediately jump on “how she was an idiot.” They’d joke about it. They wouldn’t like, just vivisect her, but it would be said.
Women don’t do that to men, as a rule. It’s kind of mean. Or we’re told it’s kind of mean. And I do think there’s an element of men being trained to let their opinions be heard. That’s seen as an admirable thing, not a mean thing. It goes back to the old saying that “when a man is an asshole, he gets a promotion, when a woman politely requests a promotion, she’s a bitch.” A man will not suffer socially for telling people they’re idiots in the way a woman could. It will just be seen, as often as not, as men being men and joking around.
It is certainly more polite – and it will certainly make people think you are nicer – if you sit back, as the woman in the Salon piece did, and not say very much. But! BUT! We can’t really keep sitting back and letting people explain things. Because the things people are explaining right now are that your uterus has magical powers. This is not the time to sit back politely and let arrogant dolts say whatever they want to say and then laugh about it in private with your friends.
Honestly, I think your only recourse is to become funny. There are certainly men who live in a bubble of arrogance so deep that women’s voices and opinions can register only as a gentle buzzing outside. Humor is a very pointy sword when it comes to puncturing that bubble. Good jokes are heard by people of both genders.
I mean, Margaret Atwood did once say that that “men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them.” But if you take out the terribly inequitable nature of responses, there, making people laugh is the strongest response you can have.
And weirdly, it still registers as charming more often than “just being a bitch.” Everyone likes to think of themselves as someone who can take a joke. If you make a joke that illustrates how ridiculous the situation is, or even a joke about them (provided it’s really funny) then they will look ridiculous. And it will not happen again.
Maybe the answer is to stop telling women to be polite, or, conversely, to shout loudly because “being shouty is all we have” but to tell women that we all need to become stand-up comedians. All of us. We need to be able to deliver jokes to diffuse these situations. We need to be able to come up with responses so witty and pointed that people cannot help hearing them. Men have been doing this for ages, but then, people have been doing this for ages. Dorothy Parker did it. Phyllis Diller did it. It’s being done all the time.
And that is why it is worth cultivating a sense of humor, even if men don’t care whether or not you’re funny.
And don’t worry. Your uterus has ways of making this happen. Until it does, stealing a few lines from Dorothy Parker isn’t a bad start.