I am only presenting my perspective here; while I’ve had conversations with others who disagree with me, I’ll let them speak for themselves if they wish to do so (nicely, of course).
I don’t know what rock I’ve been hiding under, but I’ve recently become aware of a brilliant person named Brianna Wu. She’s Head of Development at Giant Spacekat and is a huge advocate for women working in tech. Last week she gave an excellent talk, Nine ways to stop hurting and start helping women in tech, at AltConf. I nodded and made noises of agreement throughout her entire presentation but her eighth point, The absence of privilege is not oppression, really hit home with me (The embed should start at about 24 minutes in, but I really encourage everyone to watch the whole thing.). (Note that there’s some colorful language in the video if you’re offended by such things or have impressionable children within earshot.)
It’s almost exactly the thing I was trying to communicate in a Twitter debate/argument (Is there a word for a conversation somewhere between these two?) (hereafter referred to, over-dramatically, as “the Incident”) I had the night before with Scott Simpson, a stand-up comedian. Without getting into it too much, four of my favorite podcasters (Marco Arment, Casey Liss, and John Siracusa from ATP and John Gruber from The Talk Show) did a live show together during Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference. It was everything you’d expect from Apple-centric tech podcasters: geeky observations and speculation about what’s to come. One of the podcasters gave a shout-out to a 10-year-old listener he had who’d recently been injured in a sporting accident.
Then Scott came on stage to entertain the crowd after the podcasters were done with the tech part of the show. He made it through his first bit, then said something like, “That kid is going to get so much puss!” (Slightly paraphrasing here.)
I physically recoiled, waited a beat, then asked Justin to check the chat room to see if anyone had commented. I thought I’d misheard, but I hadn’t; other people noted it, too. Like any good geek, I immediately took to the Internet and Tweeted my disappointment. The Incident itself really wasn’t very interesting. Scott was understandably defensive (facing criticism immediately after a performance is not a fun thing) and I was unable to communicate my point effectively given the limitations of Twitter.
However, I’ve now had a week and a half to consider my reaction. Why was my initial revulsion so strong and why was a single word at the crux of it? (When I told the story to a friend she immediately said, “Wait, how old was the kid he was talking about?” I don’t know why that wasn’t my reaction.) I’ve been able to identify three reasons: equality, language, and context all matter.
If the shout-out had been directed toward a girl, I doubt that Scott would have commented that she would get “so much dick” as a result of the mention. In our culture, males who have a lot of sex are admired (stud), while girls who have a lot of sex are persecuted (slut).
I’m a writer in both my professional and personal lives. Therefore, I know that picking one word over another can have a huge effect how well my point is understood. I’m probably hyper-aware of the impact simply because writing is such a large part of my identity, but we’re all taught from a young age that words have power. “Don’t call your brother that name!” and “What did you just say to me?” are common refrains in households the world over. The way we choose to talk to others can make or break both personal and professional relationships. Most people don’t have to even think about it because social niceties are so ingrained in the way we think.
“Puss” and “pussy” are derogatory, vulgar words we use to talk about women (or words we use to call men weak). They do not convey a sense of respect or even basic courtesy toward women. They are generally used to demean people.
The reason I was listening to the live Talk Show/ATP mashup was because I enjoy listening to these four people talk about technology. Furthermore, Marco, Casey, Siracusa, and Gruber have all spoken up about the inequality women in technology face. They don’t make a show of including women in their podcasts and blogs, but they certainly don’t exclude us. It’s like a magic fairy land where gender doesn’t matter. I wasn’t listening to the live stream because I wanted to hear stand-up comedy.
This is the crux of my reaction, I think. As a female who works in technology and who is generally geeky, I am always on the lookout for misogynistic comments. I am surrounded by them every day, so it’s not even about constant vigilance–it’s a passive skill I’ve developed to help me make it through each day. This time, I let my guard down and quickly felt unwelcome and unwanted. Had I been listening as a fan of stand-up comedy or without my rose-colored glasses, I wouldn’t have been nearly as upset by Scott’s word choice.
Twitter was a little weird for a few days after the Incident. I was reminded that I am a straight white woman and therefore have nothing to complain about. People helpfully informed me that I could have just stopped listening to the show. A couple of people agreed with my perspective. A friend of Scott’s called me and we had a really interesting conversation about our differing viewpoints on the subject.
I’m a shrug-it-off kind of person: “No big deal. I can see where they were coming from.”
It’s getting harder and harder to let these things go, though. It is, as Brianna also says in the AltConf talk, death by a thousand cuts. Sure, that person was just trying to get a point across by that sexist remark. That person didn’t mean their racist comment. That person’s not homophobic, they just don’t realize the impact of their slur.
For me, these remarks and acts have added up, been exposed to radiation, and mutated into a giant elephant in the room I can no longer ignore.
Expect more from me soon (This is either a threat or a promise, depending upon your perspective.).