Failing to Fawn: How early experiences shaped my ‘fight’ reflex

An interesting article ran across my eyes this afternoon: “The Cowardice of White Women”, by . It discusses the tendency of white women to want to fit in, to receive our power secondhand from white men, and to ingratiate and adapt in order to survive, and how that learned behavior often makes us poor allies to WOC. I found it fascinating, because while I understand that point of view, it is very far from my lived experiences.

The part that struck me was this:

I have little access to my fight mechanism, because as a middle class white child I was brought up to kowtow to power or be outcast. Conflict or confrontation with those higher up the social scale than I risked rejection, abandonment and ignominy.

This was not the lesson I learned. Maybe it was the lesson the world was trying to teach me, but it was not what I synthesized.

I’ve always been a weirdo. I was a strange kid, but in a sort of a cute way (or so my parents assure me). I grew into a strange pre-teen and teenager, and at that point, idiosyncrasies of personality become less adorable and more a reason to get shoved into lockers. I developed quite early (hit my full height at age 12 and was a heavy B-edging-into-C cup by the same time), I had horrific acne for several years, I had no idea how to dress fashionably, I was intelligent and too proud to hide it, and I was obsessively into geeky things like Star Wars and role-playing games before the stigma against them had softened. As a result of all that, middle school was, quite frankly, hell.

I was a privileged child and no mistake: white, upper-middle-class, access to good education and a comfortable life. But I never felt that urge Leontiades talks about, to fawn in the hopes of fitting in, of getting a share of the power, possibly because it was made abundantly clear to me from the start that that was never going to be an option for me. Within that privileged sphere, during my formative pre-teen and early-teen years, I was so far at the bottom of the social power ladder that I knew it was useless to even try to reach for higher rungs. Fawning wasn’t going to do me any good no matter how much belly I exposed. Rejection and ostracization were just… givens.

So, instead, I chose fight. I snapped back. I unleashed verbal tirades, much good that it did me. It almost never worked, but I could at least console myself with the knowledge that I hadn’t rolled over and taken the abuse. I banded together with other kids who got picked on for similar reasons, and we made ourselves a tribe — and a tribe that I defended ferociously. (I am, as I have ever been, a pack animal at heart). I diverted bullies’ attention from my friends onto me. What I learned early on was that ignoring the bullies didn’t make them stop, no matter what people of a conciliatory nature might tell you. When you’re wearing a half-dozen targets, jerks are going to take aim at them no matter how small you try to make yourself.

I’m not sure I’ve consciously realized just how much that has shaped my somewhat pugnacious tendencies over the years. I did not learn to fawn; I learned that I might as well fight.

Would it have been different if I’d been prettier, more popular? Would I have learned the lesson of fawning, or is that temerity an intrinsic part of my personality? It’s hard to know. I hope that’s who I am at my core, but we’re all shaped by our experiences. If life had been easier for me during my most impressionable years, would I be more complacent? Assimilation is an adaptive trait; so is resistance.

resistanceisnotfutile

It took me many, many years to learn the lessons of “don’t read the comments” and “someone will always be wrong on the internet”, and let’s face it, I still backslide a few times a year and end up in vicious textual quarrels. But I’ve also had a few experiences that let me know that my response is fight in real life, too. I am someone who steps in. Between my friends and the guy that won’t stop following us down the street, between the lady in hijab on the subway and the jackass braying racial slurs, between a woman and the man who wants to hit her, between the drunk guy and the car he’s trying to get into the driver’s seat of. I confront. I don’t let things slide. I cannot just stand by and watch something terrible happen.

This probably sounds self-congratulatory, and maybe it is, a bit. I like knowing that, yes, I am someone with the courage of my convictions. I also know that I had and still have a lot of work to do. I internalized a lot of misogyny in the “not like other girls” sort of way — again, a defense mechanism. I was never going to look like them, so it felt safer to reject entirely being like them. It felt good to try and raise myself up by putting them down. That was a rough lesson to un-learn. I also know for damn sure that I grew up marinated in the particular form of racism that gestates in white folk who want to think of themselves as liberal and “good”: embracing “colorblindness” — and wondering why POCs can’t just do the same and “get over it”. Another lesson I had to unlearn, and still one I have to check myself on from time to time. So not fawning certainly didn’t make me flawless. It did, though, shape a lot of who I am.

Another thing the article touches on is how fawning ties in to couple privilege and how that affects working women.

In more modern times Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In advised finding a husband who believed in equality because the most successful women have a supportive man. But murky undertones marred the superficially feminist message. Because whilst a supportive man was helpful, more helpful still was having a man at all: the most successful women in the business world, she said, are married. Western countries confer couple privilege in the form of tax breaks, social lubrication and respectability. Single women without children are stigmatized, single women with children face more stigma and an even slimmer possibility of rising in the workplace without adequate or any childcare – a truth that even Sheryl, as rich as she was, had to find out the hard way. Social stigma, guilt and shame abound but in each case the conclusion is the same. Without a man, your survival will be far more difficult. Find one, keep him or be damned.

I think of ways boys and men (whether I was dating them or not, whether they professed to love me or not) have described me since the age of thirteen — difficult, high-maintenance, headstrong, independent, bitchy, scary-smart, terrifying, indomitable — and I wonder if failing to learn the lesson of fawning is also the reason I’m still femme sole.

fergusmarried

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Hell, I don’t know. I like living alone and being in charge of my own life, but I also wish I had more constant companionship than an LDR affords me. I’m proud of my ability to pay for and take care of myself, but I also get tired of the choices and sacrifices that can mean I have to make. As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to my independence. And it would absolutely be easier to be a writer if I had a spouse to rely on financially. That’s just a fact. An annoying, regressive-feeling fact.

I don’t know that I have any particular point I could use to put a button on this post, but that article got me thinking about the ripples in my life now caused by pebbles thrown twenty years ago.

Rooms of Our Own

I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit lately about writing communities — and particularly about those which are composed entirely or primarily of women (and, in many cases, transgender individuals and enbies).

As someone who was supposed to debut in 2017 and is now debuting in 2018, I belong to a few different groups of debut authors. None of them have any kind of gender requirement for entry, but all are primarily composed of women. In these groups, a joyous spirit of mutual admiration and celebration dominates. The gender split seems largely true, as well, for the writing community in the Twitter-verse. I don’t think it’s quite as pronounced there — these particular FB groups seem to run about 90-10, whereas the participants on hashtag games, I’d probably put more at 70-30 — but it’s still extant. And, on the whole, in the Twitter writing community, women seem more likely to favorite and RT each other, more likely to turn a single tweet into a discussion. I’d be incredibly interested to see a sort of connection map to visualize that: I suspect that the womenfolk would have more connections and more extensively interconnected networks than the men.

Recently, a new member joined one of the FB groups — a member who happened to be male. Without ever having contributed to group discussion or helping to promote the other members, he began posting several items a day to promote himself. There was an air of assumption — and an obliviousness to how the group operates. Certainly there was no sense of contribution, no indication that he would be lifting others up as he expected to be lifted. It was… jarring. Didn’t he know how we behave? What would make him think that behavior was okay? Didn’t he realize how rude, ham-handed, presumptuous that was?

The thing of it is, though, I’ve just gotten used to the delightful nature of these particular groups. Some other groups I belong to but rarely spend time in are much larger and have a much higher percentage of male participants. These are places where promotion is a self-driven free-for-all, not a cooperative game. There is no expectation of mutual exchange. They tend to be un- or lightly-moderated.

I don’t spend as much time in they because the conversations tend to be unnecessarily combative. Threads get started that can only be described as “shit-stirring”, and a lot of time they’re retreading the same tired topics. (The one that really makes me want to light my hair on fire is “Do you really have to be a reader to be writer?”, which rolls around every few weeks. The answer is yes, and it’s not even a question in the groups that are populated with more pros than amateurs). Blanket assertions get made. A lot of opinions get stated as inviolable fact. Condescension rains down. As a result, these groups aren’t a lot of fun to be in; I confess, I’m really only in them out of a desire to make my name as Seen as possible pre-launch.

Is it always the male members starting trouble in these groups? No. But 9 times out of 10, yeah.

KYDL4799[1]

This is, of course, not to denigrate the guys I know who are lovely and supportive and generous. The smaller, cooperative FB groups have some excellent menfolk who have participated in conversations, organized promotions, and celebrated everyone’s successes. The Twitterverse has dudes who not only engage in conversations sensibly and respectfully, but who will step in when they see some other dude being a jerk and set their bros straight.

But then, they don’t need me to point that out. They know I’m not talking about them (don’t y’all?). Take the Sirens conference, for example. Last year I think there were all of three cis men there. Those guys were totally welcome, and the best part was, not a one of them abused that. They all understood that they place they were in was not for them. It was not designed with them in mind. Quite the opposite, in fact. They all understood that they were guests in a non-male-focused space, and they all behaved like polite guests ought to. They didn’t monopolize conversations. They didn’t mansplain. They listened. Sometimes they asked questions. But they never tried to assert themselves over others. And it was awesome. Towards the end of the con, several different women commented something to the effect of “Wow. I just realized I went four days without hearing the words ‘Well, actually’.” The relief was palpable.

20170701_001105566_iOS

Anyway — This recent incident got me thinking: Why do these female-dominated groups have such a tendency towards compassionate discourse, willing cooperation, and enthusiastic cross-promotion?

The one possible answer of “Women are naturally more sociable/compassionate/cooperative” would take a lot of unpacking, positing theories of evolutionary psychology against the massive weight of cultural norms and societal conditioning. A worthy exploration, perhaps, for someone with a more scientific brain than my own.

But I also think there’s an aspect of: Female authors behave like this because we have to.

What I’m talking about, really, isn’t the behavior of any individual man as much as the gender disparity in these groups. Far fewer men seem to feel the need to congregate in such a tight-knit fashion, where mutual advocacy is either an explicit or unspoken component of the group. Many, many women do, because we have to. Our publishing survival depends on it.

Male authors are still more likely than female authors to get the heavy marketing arm behind them. They’re more likely to land reviews from major publications. Male-heavy genres (“literary” fiction, thrillers, academic nonfiction) are treated, on the whole, as “worthier” than female-heavy genres (romance, historical fiction, creative nonfiction, the bulk of YA). I’ve talked about these pervasive schisms before. In SFF, despite how many women are writing in it — talented women, writing innovative and visionary novels — it’s still largely perceived as a male genre. Male authors are still the ones pointed to as the giants, the gold standard. Men still get the bulk of the attention.

 

Women don’t have the advantages that men — particularly straight white men — benefit from. So we band together. We aggressively affirm each other. We give each other the lift that the industry doesn’t always provide. Helping each other becomes sort of like herd immunity — we all become more visible by connecting with each other, and the more visible we are, the less easily we can be dismissed.

Moanahighfive

And we can feel safe with each other. We can vent. We can admit ignorance and ask questions. We can be self-deprecating! A vulnerability it’s straight-up dangerous to expose in most male-dominated writing groups. For this, if nothing else, I’m glad we can carve out these spaces for ourselves, decide which male colleagues get invited in, and decide who plays nice enough to stay.

I love these spaces. They’re cozy. But at the same time, part of me wishes they weren’t so necessary, and another part really hates the feeling of surfacing from them.

Figures in History: Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

Mary_Sydney_HerbertLady Mary Herbert, nee Sidney, was one of the foremost minds of Elizabethan England. More literary works in the period are dedicated to her than to any other woman, save only the Queen. She wrote and translated herself, and was perhaps the first female playwright in England; though her plays were never performed, one likely served as inspiration for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. When her brother, Philip Sidney, a famous courtier and poet, died in the war in the Netherlands, Oxford and Cambridge published elegies to him and refused to let her contribute — so she basically thumbed her nose at them, marched herself to a printer, and published them herself — in addition to completing Philip’s last great work and publishing it as “The Countress of Pembroke’s Arcadia”.

Lady Mary was part of a family of extraordinary women. Her mother, Mary Sidney, was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth during her early reign, and in fact nursed the queen through smallpox in 1562. The queen survived, but Mary Sidney was badly scarred and never really appeared in public again. (The queen was less than gracious about this). Mary Herbert was also the aunt of the later English poet Lady Mary Wroth.

IMG_6716

Me at Ludlow, geeking out over imagining my heroine running around this castle as a little girl

Mary grew up at Ludlow Castle (the ruins of which I was lucky enough to visit this summer), most often inseparably in the company of her sister Ambrosia. Their mother reportedly dressed them alike, and when Ambrosia died young, Mary was very greatly affected by the loss. To help her in her grief (and perhaps finally feeling a bit of pity for her erstwhile friend Mary Sidney), Queen Elizabeth suggested that young Mary come to court. Not long afterwards, her uncle Leicester (yes, that Leicester) arranged a marriage for Lady Mary with the much-older Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. He probably had about thirty years on her, but this actually seemed to work out quite well for them. His first two wives had left him with no children, and then Mary popped out four in five years. He was so delighted with her over this that thereafter, he pretty much gave her whatever she wanted. Invite over poets and writers for readings? Sure. Write your own play and want your friends to come over and read it? No problem. Custom-made laboratory so that you can have botanists and chemists come work and study just because it interests you? Go right ahead.

We don’t have any letters or diaries that speak to the personal nature of their relationship, but those details suggest to me that Henry Herbert was utterly besotted with his clever young wife. When he died, his will left her a truly enormous sum of money on the stipulation that she not remarry — and she never did.

That brings me to really the only scandal anyone ever came up with surrounding the Countess of Pembroke. Truly, she was beloved at just an absurd level. The royal court of Elizabethan England was, at best, a petty and back-biting place, and at worst, downright cutthroat. Yet almost no one has anything bad to say about Mary. She was considered beautiful, gracious, talented, witty, and virtuous. The only teensy tiny little blot on that near perfect record is an implication that she might have started having an affair with a doctor sometime after 1600 — by which point she would have been in her 40s, past childbearing, and probably she would’ve married him if it hadn’t been for the loss of income that would’ve entailed. It’s also possible that the scandal-lite was being pushed by one of her own sons (who did not live up to their mother’s virtuous reputation) who wanted to force her to remarry so that they’d have more cash on hand.

Ultimately, her reputation in her own day is summed up in her epitaph:

Underneath this sable hearse,
Lies the subject of all verse,
Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother.
Death, ere thou hast slain another
Fair and learned and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.

If a female English-speaking writer were looking for a patron saint, you could do far worse than Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.