I want to scream. I am smushed into a hotel bed, shoving greasy french fries down my throat as I watch Jeff Sessions evade question after question and use the phrase “cannot recall” so many times I’m surprised when he says anything else. This kind of moment does not lack familiarity: the bubbling of frustration acidic and gruesome in my chest, eyes closing, the rhythmic ache of an exhausted cycle I know by heart now.
I have taught myself how to go through these little sparks of seemingly unbearable fear. I have taught myself how to stop being a collapsible little thing in these moments, to get through it. Here is a situation we all know, as Americans: a mediocre old white man is allowed to do whatever he wants without consequence, and he has his comrades in on it, a vicious brotherhood so painted in harmless camaraderie that its insidiousness is often lost on us.
A woman has the utter audacity to question him– to ask important, incisive questions, to cross-examine this man like any good lawyer would– and these same men jump to his defense, calling the woman out on her “hysteria,” to “let him speak.” I want to snap apart. Kamala Harris is from my state. Her eyes, sharp, unaffected by the disbelief I feel now, cut straight into me and I don’t want to do her the disservice of looking away. I can see her debating with herself internally– to fight back, to release all of that discontent with the way these men are acting towards her, and be called “crazy” yet again, or to purse her lips and try to breathe.
To be a woman in such an important, scrutinized public position cannot be easy. To constantly compose oneself for the cameras, to have to be polished and unaffected every day in order to be taken somewhat seriously by your male colleagues, that is a job you have to love. How can she be so utterly collected after something like that, not even the first time they’ve treated her like that on TV? How can she hold it all together? I know what the answer is: she has to. Women know this kind of choice all too well.
I ask myself where all this anger comes from. The surreptitious lash of crude tongues, beating into me, bruising and tearing with every whistle, every male body pressed against me when I never gave it permission to be there, the way 50-year-old men stare at my chest when I have the audacity not to wear a bra to flatten my human nipples under a T-shirt. How I am told I will “make a great mother someday,” how all women say they don’t want kids “but I’ll change my mind” instead of simply accepting my response as valid.
God forbid a teenage girl come across as too angry, too bitter and jaded and fiercely cranky already, at 17. I try to shape my rage into humor, sarcasm, brush things off because I am the “Cool Girl” and cool girls are tougher than what they have to endure, over and over. But I’m not a cool girl. I’m a resentful, angered one with a perpetual crack down my spine because the word “no” tastes unfamiliar in my mouth. Mine is a culture so chemically, fundamentally altered that no is not in the female jargon– it must be learned, must be reintegrated into our vocabularies as a word we are allowed to own.
I have to coerce my lips into smiling, stiffened and nauseous, against the currents of older men commenting on how “pretty” or “developed” I am. It is a compliment. Don’t be so oversensitive. It wasn’t meant in that way. To feel like a statue purely designed for male consumption and male gazing can get a bit uncomfortable, sorry.
I am subjected to the long stares that unnerve me, stares that probably are just greedy, arrogant men trying to see what they want, but stares that make me question whether I should get up and leave and call for help or not. It’s increasingly hard to differentiate between the terrible and the good intentions. A kind compliment, or a dangerous remark that leaves me feeling sick to my stomach. How I have grown so much taller, or how I am now in possession of actual breasts that they feel free to examine with abandon.
I have to perform my activism, sometimes, which is disheartening, because to feel obligated to do something I truly, intensely love is a crushing experience. To be the self-assured, unperturbed, eloquent feminist ready to take on any fight at any moment with grace and wit is a role I may have pushed upon myself, and still, it is impossible to fulfill constantly.
It is difficult to be the token advocate for feminism when the political becomes personal; when teenage boys tell me that rape culture “doesn’t exist,” that the majority of women who “cry rape” really just regret decisions that they made, that it’s not rape if she’s drunk, that I don’t have to be so “angry” all the time, that catcalling is a compliment, that feminists victimize themselves, that I hate all men and they are not one of “those men.” It is exhausting because it becomes routine, familiar, second nature. I have heard all of it and I still am unable to form a coherent, adequate response.
If I am to be a good advocate, I feel as if through feeling my own scattered, nervous emotions, to let myself feel all of that fear and rage, not just to talk about it as if I am detached from it but really soak in it, I am giving up.
I feel personally inadequate, like a failure to the cause, to all women because of this inability to do what I have– and consequently everyone else– designated as “my job.” Yet how am I supposed to respond to words that are so beyond comprehension, to people who have clearly never consciously experienced or noticed misogyny and have no desire to see its presence, to people who try to rationalize and intellectualize these things that are inherently emotional and traumatic? There is a person under here, under the activism and power and ambition, under the revolutionary spirit, and I am also a member of the group I’m fighting for.
I am also experiencing the s— that all of us do. I’m not immune to it because now I have ways to speak up and fight back. It is not a feminist’s duty to police the entire world, to make sure that men are behaving and to hold ourselves accountable for telling them off. Here’s what we forget so often: it isn’t our responsibility. We can educate and discuss and advocate, of course, but to keep all the boys in check is assuming a responsibility they actually have to themselves.
Men must embody feminism themselves eventually, without the persistence and reminders of a woman. Men must live in a world where misogyny is no longer the norm and becomes unacceptable, where they call each other out rather than rely upon us women to do it.
I can’t quantify misogyny. You can look at all the horrific sexual violence statistics, or really, violence against women in general, but those kinds of detached, disconnected numbers don’t usually make anyone empathize or get it. That’s the problem. It should be enough. But these statistics are criticized constantly, men search for any and all reasons to discredit them and anti-sexual violence organizations because it terrifies and unsettles them that yes, someone of their gender, someone they might know, someone like them, is capable of doing something so horrific. It cannot be true, they think. It’s ludicrous. Hyperbolic. Absurd. Women know better. We wish it was an exaggeration. I desperately wish I was really being a “drama queen” when I talk about the need for feminism, but I’m not. Women do not “complain” for attention. We “complain” because we are sick of all of this. We are tired of being told to suck it up and to get used to it, to stop resisting the grotesque norms thrust upon us. Why should we live this way? Why should we be passive?
To make our feminism smaller, to adorn it in softness and humor and to make it palatable, is self-defeating. We can’t pretend our experiences are less insidious and vile than they really are. I am guilty of trying to cater my own feminism to the people around me, to lessen its seriousness and severity in order to get people to respect me. I understand now that if I am brutal, if I am unsparing, I myself become equated with anger, unreasonableness, and most of all, am accused of being “crazy.”
It grows tough to tiptoe around the ugliest truths. This gnarled, disorienting ravine of expected trauma called being a girl is not pretty by any circumstances. I love and admire women, I am one. And yes, humor can be our way through all of that darkness and hurting, understandably necessary. How can we ensure that through all the easy, digestible female empowerment we can also all understand that there is a very insidious, dark side to this that we must also address?
We need to find a way to make feminism both accessible and unequivocally honest. Deeply embedded, systemic contradictions exist within the feminist movement; intersectionality is still secondary to the more popularized version of highly exclusive “feminism.” The word “intersectional” should not even need to be tacked on before “feminism” to ensure its inclusivity. It’s just not feminism if it’s not intersectional, because unfortunately, we live in a world where racism, homophobia, classism, transphobia and all of these systems of prejudice are very much alive and thriving. To ignore that or dismiss it for the sake of getting affluent, famous white women to join the movement only further prolongs the progress we need to make.
That’s why I created an organization and platform called Project Femme. I want teenage girls to have an open outlet to vocalize the injustice that happens around us and that is embedded so pervasively in our culture as well as our perceptions of ourselves. How does that kind of self-doubt contribute to our politics? This fundamental lack of empowerment and simple agency over our lives is the starting point, the groundwork for gender inequity, that led to a cabinet of only men making life-or-death decisions about women’s health without even reading the legislation.
Female rage is not the anomalous “hysteria” most of us may think it is– we are taught to believe that the second a woman is angry, she is being ridiculous and illogical. I am so very tired of sugarcoating the anger and resentment, of keeping it all locked in there tight and sturdy, but I am not letting it all spill out at once. I do not want to hurt anyone else. I just want to stop pretending that what women face is okay, or tolerable enough, at least. I want to stop pretending that even as an activist, I am okay all of the time, because things affect me, try as I might to dispel their trails. Things linger for days, months or years, even, if they are bad enough. The internal experience of misogyny cannot be extracted from the political side; they merge and mesh inextricably.
Can we look at ourselves in the mirror and not feel afraid sometimes, of what kind of brokenness and anger we can feel? Do our feelings not ever feel far too big for us to carry and live with? I want to be able to persevere, to endure, because I am hyper-aware of how good I have it, how privileged I truly am, to have a home and a family and be able to get a good education and everything else in my life.
I want to pretend that I can coexist with the mess of being female and 17 without losing it. My privilege does not, however, negate the way this country treats me, or women. To be aware of my privilege is necessary, to understand it and not feel guilty but rather feel it must be dismantled.
I do not want to speak over those who experience things I cannot comprehend and never will. I also don’t want to stop fighting back, though, or calling people out, speaking up and attempting to alter a society that so desperately wishes to remain stagnant in its inequality. Let us feel all of these things, to feel lucky and loved and also hated by our country and threatened and angry, all at once.
The paradoxes can coexist if we let ourselves recognize all of them, and how they complicate one another. Let the rage be spoken and heard, let yourself feel it and not feel guilty or afraid. Feel energized. We want people to listen, but even more so, we need people to understand why we’re in this movement in the first place. How a lifetime of repression, enforced self-hatred, self-disgust, envy, fear and submission can affect a person. Our “victimhood” does not by any means define us, but it is not a part of ourselves we should conceal or disregard.