On Identifying as a Feminist

[Snark Warning]

It’s fashionable these days to align yourself with virtually every feminist cause but to shun the label “feminist.” It’s not “cool,” people protest. We don’t want to be associated with those mannish lesbians. We don’t want to ruin people’s fun. We don’t hate men. Blahblahblah.

Okay, here’s the thing. There is no identity out there, no label or group, that doesn’t have some negative stereotypes associated with it. Unless you’ve decided to forgo all labels entirely, you’re singling out feminism for some very special treatment if you refuse to call yourself a feminist, feminist beliefs notwithstanding.

For instance, if I tell people I’m agnostic, they may assume that I just don’t have the guts to pick a viewpoint. If I tell them I’m atheist, they may assume that I’m selfish, inflexible, and intolerant. If I tell them I’m Jewish, they may assume that I’m privileged and cliquey.

Or, they may not.

I’ve identified as all three of these things at one point or another, fully aware of the negative connotations that they sometimes have. But did I hesitate to call myself these terms? No!

Some liberals are whiny and naive, but I still consider myself a liberal. Some Israelis are harsh and uncompromising, but I proudly tell people where I’m from. Some Northwestern students are snobby, but I never hesitate to tell people where I go to school. Some psychologists are annoying and try to psychoanalyze you, but–guess what–I’m still going to become a psychologist, and I’m still going to tell people what I do.

If someone judges you based on one word that you use to describe yourself, that person is probably an idiot. It’s not your responsibility to ensure that no idiot out there ever misjudges you, because what idiots do is misjudge people.

To say, “Yes, this word describes me perfectly but I’m not going to use it lest anyone judge me idiotically,” is letting those people win. Because, unsurprisingly, the people who will still have the courage to call themselves feminists will be the radical ones. Love them or hate them, they don’t represent the majority of people who hold feminist views.

In other words, when you disassociate from an identity that describes you just because you don’t want to be associated with some of the people who share that identity, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Feminists are not all alike, just as atheists, Jews, Muslims, Christians, vegetarians, liberals, conservatives, Israelis, Americans, Democrats, and Republicans are not all alike. You can’t understand a person in their entirety just by knowing that they belong to one of these groups.

I am a feminist. I am not identical to every other feminist you have ever met, studied, or heard about. If I tell you that I am a feminist and your response is to smirk, roll your eyes, or ask me if I hate all men, then I’m probably going to consider you an idiot. Why? Because you haven’t bothered to take me seriously. You haven’t learned about my beliefs, but you’ve already decided that learning about them is a waste of your time. Because you’ve disagreed with me without knowing what you’re even disagreeing with. That’s idiotic.

If you actually learn about what I believe and then decide that you disagree, that’s fair. But that’s completely different. And don’t worry, I won’t think you’re an idiot.

As for people like my younger self, who refused to call herself a feminist for fear of ridicule, I only have this tiny suggestion–stop fearing people’s judgment so much. They can’t do anything to you. They come and go. Your beliefs are the core of your character and, although they may change with time, they will always matter to you. They will always matter more than some idiot who sneers at you and asks if you’ve burned your bra yet.

Dating Dangerously

Three weeks before my senior prom, I asked my best friend to be my date. I was sure he had feelings for me and I wanted him to know that I returned them, and that I hoped that things would go farther. Awesome! I thought. Asking people out is so easy!

Not so fast. At first, my best friend said, “Maybe. I’ll have to think about it.” Three days later, his maybe morphed into a no. I was, needless to say, extremely confused.

Traditional dating wisdom would attribute this unfortunate turn of events to one of only two possible causes: One, that my friend had simply lost interest in me; and two, that he still liked me but just didn’t want to go to prom with me for whatever reason. In the first case, there was obviously nothing I could do and I should just move on–okay. Makes sense. In the second, well, obviously my friend is a sissy who doesn’t have the guts to act on his feelings, and therefore I should just move on because he would clearly make a crappy boyfriend anyway.

Well, I immediately threw out both of these explanations and decided to ask my friend why he said no. Turns out that he’d been worried that, as I’d recently ended a relationship, our going to prom together would look bad. I respectfully disagreed. To this day, I still don’t understand what was going through my friend’s mind, but he soon changed it and decided to take me to prom after all.

And in fact, we soon started dating seriously and continued to do so for nearly two years, at which point we broke up and remained best friends.

The point of this lengthy and seemingly unnecessary foray into my personal life is this: I would’ve missed out on a hell of a lot if I’d just done things according to tradition. Because according to tradition, first of all, I should never have asked my friend out to begin with. After all, if a guy doesn’t ask a girl out himself, clearly he’s either not interested or, again, a sissy. Second, when I received the answer “no,” I should’ve realized that my friend was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Just Not Interested.

And then, not only would I have spent my senior prom awkwardly taking pictures of my girlfriends and their dates, but I would also have foregone nearly two years of a serious, loving relationship.

The truth is, scripts and stereotypes make dating simpler. Rather than actually having to figure out how the other person feels–or, you know, ask them–you can just rely on a mental flowchart to help you. He didn’t offer to pay? He either lacks manners or just isn’t that interested. She invited you into her apartment? She wants to have sex.

Dating scripts also make it much easier to negotiate a timeline. (FYI, if you don’t know what I mean by “scripts,” here’s an unfortunately crappy wiki page about this sociological term.) A guy once said to me, “So, this is our third date. When are we going to kiss?” As if my kissability expires after the third date. Although people undeniably differ in how slowly or quickly they like to go, the very idea that things should progress according to a set schedule makes it easier for people to pick potential partners. If someone takes less time than you to be ready for something, then clearly they’re “easy” and you shouldn’t bother with them. If they take more time than you, then clearly they’re “prudish” and…you shouldn’t bother with them.

I met a guy once who all but bragged to me about how he was once seeing a girl, and the first time they made out, he tried to take her shirt off. According to his account, she “totally freaked out”–that is, not only did she decline to let him remove her shirt, but she also apparently didn’t do this in a nice enough way. Leaving aside the issue of the woman’s possible lack of manners, this guy decided that she wasn’t right for him purely because she wasn’t ready to remove her shirt and he was. In fact, even though she wanted to see him again after that, he ignored her calls without any further explanation.

And that was much easier than asking her to tell him how she felt, or simply apologizing and waiting for her to remove her own shirt when she was ready to. Was it possible that the girl was really unable to satisfy his needs, and that he’d do well to move on? Sure. But he didn’t ask. Perhaps her reaction was due to memories of a painful past experience, or maybe he pulled on her shirt too hard and startled her, or maybe she suddenly remembered that she’d worn her ugliest bra that day. It could be anything, and not all of those possibilities necessarily involve her being unsuitable girlfriend material.

Traditional gender roles and dating practices are also restrictive when it comes to men’s behavior. As a girl, I’ve grown up hearing entire lists of how men who wish to date me ought to behave. They should always offer to pay, and they should always walk me back to my apartment after a date, even if it adds half an hour to their walk home. They should be willing to spend time with me any evening I want, and they should always help me with homework, take me grocery shopping if they have a car, carry my bags, move my furniture, fix my computer, buy me gifts, and initiate everything sexual without any reassurances from me. And, of course, they wouldn’t be even remotely interested in seeing any other girl. Only me.

So imagine my surprise when I started dating and encountered the following paradox: plenty of guys wanted to date me, and they seemed quite interested. Hell, sometimes they even wrote me love letters. But, for some reason, none of them were willing to do everything on that list of perfect boyfriend behaviors. They’d ask me to text them when I got home safely rather than offering to walk me back. They’d tell me that they had plans with friends on Saturday night, but could maybe hang out on Sunday. When we ordered food, they’d quietly let me pay for my own stuff, which I gladly did. Sometimes, to my initial chagrin, they even admitted that I wasn’t the only girl they were interested in.

Of course, there were two possibilities. Either, as traditional wisdom would indicate, these guys don’t “really” like me that much, or traditional wisdom is simply wrong.

Luckily for my love life, I decided that the truth lay in the latter.

But that makes it a bit more difficult, doesn’t it? I can’t rely on these clear-cut categories to figure out who’s really interested and who’s just passing the time. If there’s something I’d like a potential partner to do for me, I have to actually ask rather than assume that they’re just going to do it.

If I truly believed that a guy has to be a paragon of masculinity in order to be an acceptable boyfriend for me, making decisions about dating would be easier, because I’d just ditch all the guys who didn’t fit that mold. But of course, in the long term, I’d only end up ditching my own chances to find someone who’s right for me.

Conventional dating scripts are being challenged all the time, but they still cling to life in the form of movies, TV shows, Cosmo, and many other bits of culture. They also continue to drive the actions and desires of many people, albeit not of me and the people I hang out with.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that they make things so deceptively easy. Dating outside of the conventions seems riskier, scarier.

But in reality, it’s not. There’s so much joy and freedom in writing your own rules, or forgetting rules altogether. It opens up the possibility of meeting someone who likes to play by the same rules, or lack thereof, as you do.

Why I Don't Like "How I Met Your Mother"

Everybody seems to be obsessed with the CBS show How I Met Your Mother, so I decided to give it a try. I watched a few episodes, which I enjoyed to some extent. However, I soon found myself completely unwilling to keep going.

The reason for my premature abandonment of the show is one of the main characters, Barney Stinson. Widely considered the star of the show and the reason for its popularity, Barney is the consummate womanizer (or douchebag, for those who prefer the vernacular). His entire raison d’être seems to be to sleep with as many attractive women as possible, forgetting their names afterward.

Despite his superficiality, Barney isn’t a flat character, and he does have many other traits–many of which I can appreciate much more than the womanizing. But there’s a huge part of me that simply cannot be amused by a guy who treats women like shit. It’s just not funny to me.

Maybe in another century or two, the idea of a man who tricks women into sleeping with them only to discard them at the earliest opportunity will truly be hilarious, because our cultural scripts for dating and sex will have evolved. People who only want casual sex will be able to openly pursue it without being labeled “sluts” or “players,” and people who want serious relationships will be able to simply avoid getting involved with those who don’t.

In such a society, Barney’s ludicrous schemes to get women into bed with him might seem like a charming relic of another time. But today, I don’t see what’s so funny. People who lie, deceit, or otherwise pressure others for sex are all too common, and my own life has been affected by them, as have the lives of virtually all of my female friends. Barney’s stories might be several orders of magnitude more ridiculous than anything you’d hear in real life (see this for examples), but they’re still based on the idea that lying for sex is okay.

Barney’s character has been so successful that he’s even “authored” two books, The Bro Code and The Playbook, that regurgitate the same type of humor that the show does. Of course, I don’t believe that anybody would actually take these books seriously (although I might be wrong). The problem isn’t that people take this seriously; it’s that they find tired stereotypes about men and women so funny.

Indeed, Barney’s victims/partners are usually portrayed as helpless, dumb girls who are so mesmerized by an attractive, well-off man in a suit that they buy all of his bullshit. But in the real world, of which HIMYM‘s creators are certainly aware, women are rarely so one-dimensional.

Now, I’m sure that there are nevertheless many great things about HIMYM, so I’m not going to condemn the show in general. There’s a reason I titled this post “Why I Don’t Like HIMYM,” and not why you shouldn’t either. But I do think that the question of why we think it’s so fucking hilarious when men manipulate and exploit women* is one that you should ask yourself if you enjoy the show.

I don’t necessarily think that any womanizing male character ruins a television show. For instance, Community‘s Jeff Winger is also known for manipulating women (and people in general). However, Jeff is a much more complex character than Barney is, and he starts to change from the very first few episodes. Barney, on the other hand, seems to remain essentially the same throughout the show’s seven-and-counting seasons, despite a few attempts at actual relationships. Notably, even when he wants something serious with a woman, he still sees no problem with tricking her in order to get it.

No matter how unrealistic and ridiculous these situations are, I just can’t laugh at them. Maybe someday when I’m happily married, I’ll be able to. But not while I’m still surrounded by metaphorical Barneys.

*I am quite aware that women are most certainly capable of and often do exploit men as well. However, since this show is about a (male) womanizer, I’m confining this discussion to that.

Why Are Adults So Negative?

[Snark Warning, TMI Warning]

No, really, that’s a legitimate question. Why are people older than me–even by just a few years–so eager to put down all of my hopes and dreams?

Let me give a few nonspecific examples of Things Older People Have Said recently to me:

  • “You know, guys really don’t go for complex women.” (Women like me, that is, in the context of that conversation.)
  • “Oh, trust me, by the time you have a job, you’re not going to care about making a difference. It’ll just be about how you hate your boss and can’t wait to go home by the end of the day.”
  • “You’re never going to be successful if you don’t learn how to be pushy.”
  • “It’s going to be even harder to make friends after college, you know.”
  • “You’re gonna go for a PhD? You do realize how much work that is, right?”
  • “Psychologists don’t make that much money. You should try to get an MD instead.”

Perhaps you Well-Meaning Adults are all under the impression that I have excessively high expectations and need a Dose of Healthy Realism to prevent myself from getting disappointed later on. Perhaps you just don’t realize what weight your words can carry for someone who is younger and looking for someone to help them find their way.

Well, this might be news to you, but I have a mental disorder that basically means that my expectations are already unhealthily low. That’s what depression does. It robs you of all the hope and optimism you used to have. Every bit of genuine excitement that I have for the future is something I’ve worked very, very hard to muster up. And guess what you’re doing. You’re taking it away from me.

People. My disorder does a perfectly fine job of putting me down all on its own. It really doesn’t need any help from you. I don’t need to be reminded of how hard it’s going to be to make friends, get a job, find a partner. Trust me, I’ve been over this in my mind over and over and over again Many, many sleepless nights. I’ve been over it until I’ve cried my head off and wanted to kill myself. Really. I do not need your help.

You know what, I appreciate that maybe your life didn’t turn out the way you wanted. And that sucks. I’m sorry you have a shit job, I’m sorry  you have an awful time meeting people and dating. If you’d like, feel free to tell me about that. Or go tell a therapist. Or whatever. But your experiences do not give you the right to take my hope away from me. Especially when you’re some measly three or four years older! Jesus Christ! You’re still finding your own way. You’re not dead yet. At least wait till you get your own kids before you start dispensing your Divine Wisdom to someone else.

I’m seriously considering kicking these people out of my life, because as much as I’ve always believed that friendship with people older than me is important and extremely valuable, I can’t have these people making me feel crappy all the time.

Why does this happen? I think we have a cultural stereotype of young adults as exceedingly cocky, optimistic, and entitled. Well, guys, you know what they say about people who assume. First of all, as I’m pretty sure everyone I’m acquainted with knows, I’m not even from this country. Take everything you know about “American Young Adults” and toss it the fuck out, because I grew up with a different cultural background, one in which humbleness and realism are prized qualities.

Second, even supposing I were the most typical American girl you can imagine, you should still quit it with the damn stereotypes already. Everyone has their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Some people come from broken families. Some people grew up poor. Some people have a disability, maybe one you can’t see. Some people read a ton of books when they were kids. Some people grew up being bullied in school. Some people have depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, a substance abuse disorder, autism or Asperger’s, or some other condition. Some people are just plain different!

So throw out those silly magazine articles about “Today’s Entitled Bratty Self-righteous Cocky Inept Stupid Young Adults” and see what’s right in front of you. Some of us are just trying to get by. Some of us are just trying to scrounge up every last shred of hope we have and keep on living. Just because I’m young doesn’t mean I think it’s all rainbows and butterflies ahead. I work hard to keep my chin up. Don’t you dare take that away from me.

Coming Home

[TMI Warning]

This weekend I went home to Ohio, where my family lives. I hadn’t been home since winter vacation (I spent spring break in New York) so the time seemed ripe for a visit.

The drive was spectacular in that unspectacular way. I took the Megabus, sat on the upper level, and spent whatever time I didn’t spend sleeping looking out the window at the Midwestern landscape. I watched as it changed from the industrial utilitarianism of Chicago and northwestern Indiana to the vast fields, punctuated by lonely farmhouses and islands of fluffy deciduous trees, that I grew up with.

When I got to Ohio, I was stunned by how green it was. Green trees, fields, and shrubs stretched in every direction. I was reminded of how I felt three years ago, when I came home from a summer in Israel–I felt like I’d never seen so much of one color in my life.

Coming home has a certain routine. I greet my family, especially my little brother and sister, whose screams of “Mashaaaaa!” (my Russian name) are always followed very closely by screams of “iPaaaaaaaad!” (my iPad is possibly their favorite thing about me). Then I go through the house and take an inventory of everything that has changed since I was last there. My sister has a new car seat, a much bigger one. There are new drawings and school projects and children’s books lying around. My dad has been cleaning out the little closet under the stairs.

My room, though, is just as I left it, more of a museum than a space where someone actually lives. Every time I’m home, I make changes to it, because that’s the only way I can continue to believe that someone actually inhabits it. Usually I box up some relics of my old life and put them in the closet. This time was no exception.

Yet it’s impossible to avoid the reminders of the fact that I don’t belong here anymore. The first thing my dad said upon seeing me was that my outfit (leggings, boots, and a long, non-revealing top–de rigueur in Chicago) was an “outrage.” He repeated this point several times, saying that just because I could wear something in Chicago doesn’t mean I can wear it in Ohio. Then he said I look like a slut.

This was far from the first time I’ve felt this way here. Come to think of it, I’ve always felt painfully out of place in this little suburb. I was one of very few foreign-born students in my high school, and one of even fewer Jews. I didn’t know anyone else who had ever visited Israel, let alone lived there. I looked different, dressed different, talked and acted different.

I was the subject of much speculation and well-meaning humor. I’ve been called such epithets as “commu-Jew,” “Russian spy,” and “weird Jewish Russian flute player.” I’ve been asked all sorts of naive questions; ranging from the innocent, such as, “Have you ever tried wearing your hair straight?” (Yes, I have. It’s ugly. I am Jewish and my hair is meant to be curly) and “Which church do you go to?” (Um, actually, I don’t go to any church); to the simply ridiculous, such as, “Do they have cars in Israel?” (Yes, Israel has come a long way since biblical times).

(Or, as an addendum–do I like bagels? Do I like vodka? Do I party a lot? How much can I drink? How much can my parents drink? Do my parents belong to the Russian mafia? Are they spies? Political refugees? Do they keep nukes in the basement? Will my dad beat up any guy I bring home? And while we’re at it, why didn’t the Jews accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah?)

I also found myself struggling to explain my developing identity to those around me. Whenever I tried to tell my friends about my life in Israel, I was generally met with blank stares, because many of the people I knew had never even traveled outside of the United States, and some had never even left Ohio or the Midwest. When discussing my travel plans, I usually encountered dumbfounded confusion as to why I would ever want to go to “that place,” since American media tends to portray Israel as a war-torn wasteland. One friend’s mom, a well-meaning woman who treated me like family, asked me to consider not going to Israel anymore because, and I quote, “We want you to be safe with us.”

Everything I’ve mentioned above, I generally took in stride, often even with a laugh. But sometimes the ignorance drifted subtly (or not-so-subtly) into prejudice. A boy in my third-grade class called me a “stupid Jew” (an experience now shared, sadly, by my nine-year-old brother). When a high school friend jokingly insulted me and I got a bit defensive, he smugly suggested that perhaps my defensiveness has to do with my Israeli nationality. Somewhat more disturbingly, a close friend in high school began to tell me once that her mom considers me egotistical–here I wondered, How? She’s hardly even talked to me–but then my friend inserted the explanatory qualifier–because I’m Jewish.

Oh, okay then. Makes perfect sense now.

Whether harmless and funny or crude and prejudiced, the way people interpreted and responded to me when I lived in Ohio could only have told me one thing–you don’t belong here.

Chicago is a different story. People mostly couldn’t care less which country my passport comes from or which type of religious congregation I attend (or, in fact, whether or not I attend one at all, which by the way, I don’t). When I tell friends about my time in Israel, they say “That’s really cool” and tell me about studying in Argentina or traveling through China. Although prejudice of various sorts still exists, even here, I don’t know which is rarer–someone deciding that I’m “egotistical” because of my ethnicity, or feeling like enough of a smart-ass to tell me that their mother thinks so. For the first time in my life, I’ve met people my own age who share  bits and pieces of my culture, and my identity has become even stronger because of it.

And yet…and yet. How I love coming back to Ohio. I miss the greenness and simplicity of it, the friendliness of the people, the lack of noise and traffic. Sometimes I even miss the prevalence of lawn gnomes and pickup trucks. I love escaping the pace of the city, and the police sirens screaming past my window at all hours of day and night. And the girls in heels and sunglasses looking down their noses at me, and the men who try to say things to me on the street.

In Ohio I don’t have to feel bad that my shoes are from eBay and my perfume is from T.J. Maxx–because so is everyone else’s. Even the extra pounds on my body seem to melt away when I’m home, because the “fashionable” waifishness I encounter every two steps at Northwestern is, needless to say, very rare back home.

In Ohio, in other words, I’m a big fish in a small pond.

I used to hate Ohio and especially Beavercreek, the suburb where I lived. They represented everything I hated about the United States–the stifling conservatism, the ethnocentricity, and, on a less serious note, the complete and utter lack of things to do. But over time I’ve grown to appreciate this leafy town. It is, in its own small-minded way, comforting, familiar, and serene.

I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world I’m coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they’ve forgiven my mistakes
I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world that I’m coming