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How Odd!

mmcewans Icon Posted by melissa mcewan

October 23rd, 2007

[Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five.]

Welcome to Part Six in my ongoing series, How Odd!, devoted to aggravated grumbling about the wire services’ insistence on trivializing women’s lives, actions, experiences, and issues by categorizing as “Odd News” stories about the mistreatment of women, or stories about women that aren’t “odd” in any way aside from the fact that there’s a women at their centers.

It’s usually Reuters that gets the blunt end of my ire on this subject, but today’s gems are care of the AP, which, in addition to stories about a boy who called 911 because his mom was drunk driving, offers a story about female inmates being sexually assaulted and another about a woman being kidnapped. Oh, the oddity!

Story #1: Flashing for candy a jailhouse no-no—”A former jailhouse officer in San Luis Obispo County was charged with flashing a female inmate and having others expose themselves in exchange for candy bars. … Prosecutor Steve Brown said the former County Jail officer allegedly offered the candy bars and would deliver notes to male inmates in exchange for female inmates flashing him.”

First of all, getting flashed by a man can be a terrifying experience for a woman, especially if she’s by herself and/or in an enclosed space. A prisoner is both. (At best, she’s got a cellmate who’s as powerless as she is.) At best, it’s embarrassing for the flashee. There’s nothing humorous about it—it’s a sex crime for a reason.

Secondly, when a person in a position of power wields that power to extort sexual favors, that’s not funny, either. That it was such small and comparatively worthless things as candy bars and basic communications with other prisoners the female inmates were compelled to expose themselves to receive doesn’t make it funny—that makes it tragic.

Even using the “rare” definition of odd as opposed to the “quirky/funny” definition, this story doesn’t pass muster. Women who find themselves with nothing of value but their bodies being exploited by some dimestore despot for his own amusement is hardly extraordinary. I know—because I read about it in the “odd news” all the time.

Story #2: Man kidnaps woman who rejected proposal—”A 60-year-old farmer was so determined to marry a 28-year-old estate worker in Malaysia he kidnapped her when she turned down his proposal, police said Monday. … ‘The family had initially agreed (to the marriage), but she did not want to go ahead with it. That angered him,’ K. Manoharan told The Associated Press. … Several hours later, the woman was released unharmed and the farmer surrendered to police, K. Manoharan said. ‘He changed his mind when he knew police were looking for him,’ he said.”

This story is not just odd, but very odd, because it’s not only about a woman being mistreated, but a woman of color being mistreated. In fact, it’s technically very, very odd, because it’s about a woman of color being mistreated in association with a non-western tradition, i.e. arranged marriage.

I don’t understand why I need to explain why a woman being kidnapped should not be filed under “odd news,” but, because I evidently do, here’s the lowdown (again): In recent months, I’ve read under the heading of “Odd News” stories about a man branding his wife with a hot iron, a man coercing his wife into having plastic surgery to look like his deceased first wife, wives/girlfriends/exes being held against their will in various “odd” places including a coffin, women being traded for “odd” objects or offered as reparations for “odd” transgressions, “odd” forms of abuse against women, and women doing notable things good and bad, that, while newsworthy, only seem to be “odd-worthy” because they were done by women, all reported alongside such frivolous fare as “Chocoholic squirrel steals treats from shop”.

This strikes me as one of those nuances of sexism that many men don’t notice or understand. To have women’s experiences like this trivialized as “Odd News” is just infuriating, in no small part because the constant positioning of humiliated women as the butt of jokes humiliates us all. This shit is important, and even as I say it, I know why it doesn’t seem like it is, or should be.

The thing is, the real cost of sexism to women is not in our paying a single emotional penny here for this insult and a single emotional penny there for that disgrace, but in the cumulative negative balance it leaves inside each of us. Even if we let this thing or that thing roll off of the thickened skins of our backs, we pay another penny each time; letting it roll off your back is just another way of saying keep your complaints to yourself, but it doesn’t change the reality that sexism takes its toll, whether one has the ill manners of mentioning the offense or not.

As I’ve said before, the word that comes to my mind when I try to explain how sexism affects me is history. And I don’t mean history in an academic sense, as in the history of the feminist movement, but as in my own history—a thousand threads of experience that come together to weave the fabric that I regard as my life. That history contains lots of wonderful and not wonderful things, related and unrelated things. Little things, things like seeing so many stories about the mistreatment of women culled under the heading of “Odd News,” prick at a particular thread as though it’s a guitar string, but instead of producing sound, it produces memory, memory of all the other times I have seen women or their stories belittled for others’ amusement, memory of all the times such degradation has been used to mask the need for helping women in real need of assistance, or even just in need of being regarded with some basic fucking dignity.

I don’t carry these memories with me because I want to. I carry them with me because they have left indelible prints upon me, affected my understanding of who I am to other people. I don’t want to be bothered when I notice things like the treatment of women in “Odd News” features. But it doesn’t matter what I want. To protect myself against this reaction is to deny my experience, to deny part of myself.

I write posts like this in the hope that they will speak to a man who has never had to think about what it means to be a woman in the world, who doesn’t understand what women are “still complaining about,” or wonders why we can’t just let pass without comment, without anger, a sexist t-shirt or a misogynist slur or our irritation at the way stories about women are presented in the news. But mostly, I write posts like this for other women, who see things like this every day, and feel it chipping away at them, and whose pain is assuaged only by knowing that other women share it. In other words, I write posts like this for me.

(Crossposted at Shakesville.)

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