As I entered my parents’ home one evening, I was immediately greeted by the hearty tones of my father’s booming voice critiquing the contestants on one of his favorite game shows. “Stupido! Madonna, what a dumb!” I hear him belting out from downstairs. The language he employs is a variable amalgam of Italian, his mother tongue, and English. This is how I often describe my father’s parlance, for I always wince at the common phrase “broken English,” and I try to avoid it for three reasons: firstly, it implies that his language has been shattered or damaged in some way. Secondly, it grossly belies and causes one to greatly underestimate how intelligent he is. Thirdly, “broken English” has a pejorative connotation that undermines the endearing effect that the language has on the speaker’s loved ones as well as the ability to make them smile.
Following his boisterous voice down the stairs into the family room, I encountered an always quaint and familiar scene. My father, after a long and cold day, was nestled in his favorite chair beneath his sauna of blankets enjoying the popular game show Family Feud. I quietly took a seat in the family room and heard the ever charismatic host, Steve Harvey, asking the following question: “Name something that a woman would lie about on a first date.” Immediately after, one contestant beamed as she excitedly buzzed in with the number one answer, which was, of course, “her age.”
On hearing her response, my father slowly turned around in his chair to face me, which surprised me a bit as I didn’t realize that he had heard me come in. He looked at me pensively for a moment and said, “You have to explain me why the women in this country they can’t tell you how old they are.” His question caused me to smile to myself as I recalled my mother telling me of the various awkward encounters that resulted from my father innocently and unabashedly asking women their age many years ago when he had just transferred here from Italy. Indeed, my father meant no harm, for he didn’t understand (as he still doesn’t now) why anyone should be embarrassed to reveal how many years one has been alive.
I chuckled gently and shrugged my shoulders at what I believed to be a purely rhetorical question, but then, I noticed that he was still looking at me rather intently. Also, I saw that he had put the DVR on Pause, so obviously, he was waiting for an answer. I hesitated for a moment, for truthfully, I couldn’t come up with a logical response. After a pause, I cleared my throat and heard myself reply, “Well … here in America … sometimes women are made to feel … like we lose value as we get older.” I started at the sound of these words coming from my own mouth.
My father was quiet for a moment, and as I looked at his face, I could see his eyes narrowing slightly as if he were mulling over what I had said. He then took in a breath and made this cynical vocalization that I have been hearing him make for years: “Ppfffffftt.” The only way that I can describe this monosyllabic utterance would be by comparing it to the noise of gas being let out of a tire, “Ppfffffftt.” I have come to understand this to be his own blunt way of saying, “That’s so ridiculous!” He instantly turned around, took the DVR off of Pause, and continued to quietly watch his show.
As the show progressed, I heard the other contestants proceed to fire off their guesses, many of which were correct; a woman would lie about her weight, how many romantic relationships she’s had, how much money she makes, etc. Quite frankly, none of these responses were particularly shocking as many people would assume that a woman would lie about each of these things, always to make these numbers appear to be smaller than those of her male counterparts. As I listened to these contestants’ responses in this moment, though, I just couldn’t stop thinking about my father’s question, and I began to really reflect on the absurdity of this concept. Think about it: we live in a society that would indirectly tell a woman that she should be ashamed of the number of years that she has existed, the amount of space that her body mass is taking up on this Earth, the number of meaningful experiences or accomplishments that she has had in this lifetime, and the list goes on and on. Women are often instructed to keep their voices down, to avoid confrontation, and to avoid throwing their weight around, and in all of this, the message is very clear: women should strive to be as inconspicuous and unobtrusive as humanly possible. This is a hazardous message.
The acclaimed writer and speaker, Jean Kilbourne, who has spent much of her distinguished career examining the effects of the media, particularly advertising, on gender identity, has explored the ways in which the media perpetuates these harmful gender stereotypes. In her 2012 book, Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, Kilbourne discusses how, encoded in the rhetoric used by advertising and the media, there is a mode of speaking that, quite literally, belittles women: "‘We cut Judy down to size,’ says an ad for a health club. ‘Soon, you'll both be taking up less space,’ says an ad for a collapsible treadmill, referring both to the product and to the young woman exercising on it.’” According to Kilbourne, in utilizing this kind of verbiage that encourages women to be as unobtrusive and invisible as possible, it becomes much easier to strip them of their power.
Somehow, the notion that women should remain inconspicuous, and thusly, powerless, has always called to mind a line from Robert Browning’s poem "Andrea del Sarto" that I remember reading in college. The line reads simply, "Less is more.” The phrase frustrated me to no end when I first read it, for I just could not wrap my mind around what Browning was saying. Having never been a fan of the understated myself, to me, more has always been … well … more. Today, as I contemplate this platitude, I can’t help but notice how similar this concept is to our modern society’s ideology regarding women. In essence, women are being told that the less obtrusive and visible they make themselves, the more desirable they will be.
This issue has been on my mind quite a bit in recent days in light of the barrage of women that have come forth lately to speak out about the sexual harassment and assault that they have experienced at the hands of powerful men. In fact, the movement has gained so much momentum that Time magazine’s coveted title of “Person of the Year” for 2017 was awarded to the “Silence Breakers,” a group of famous, accomplished women who had all been victims of sexual harassment/assault and who encouraged all other victims to speak out by employing the simple hashtag “#MeToo” on social media. Although I was certainly elated and greatly encouraged by the women of this movement receiving this honor, I couldn’t help but be disheartened by the level of vitriol and hatred for which these women immediately became a target.
Each day it seems as though I’ve been deeply disconcerted by the animus that has been directed at the alleged victims of sexual harassment/assault simply because they dared to use their voices to speak up about this issue. These women were met by vicious rancor at all angles. Just recently, Republican Representative from Illinois, Rodney Davis, even made a statement that he believes that, with all of the women coming forward as of late, some businesses “… may just take a shortcut and not hire women as a way to avoid these issues.” On first hearing his statement, I must admit that I instantly thought that this was simply an unpopular, fringe opinion by a far-right government official; however, just a brief glance over the comments sections of a few online articles on this topic quickly refuted this theory. These sections were full of comments proclaiming what an excellent idea it would be to stop hiring women as a solution to the problem. One comment went as far as to suggest that the problem would cease if employers were to just stop hiring “entitled bitches,” as if a woman not wanting to encounter sexual harassment/assault in her place of work automatically marked her as a self-entitled elitist.
In all of the pernicious attacks meant to malign these alleged victims, the underlying intimation was very clear: the women themselves are directly to blame for what has befallen them because they failed to remain inconspicuous, invisible, and powerless, in accordance with society’s expectations. This past week, an experiment was conducted by Divided States of Women (Twitter: @DSoWomen ), a media organization that explores a myriad of controversial issues that women are currently facing. In this social experiment, Liz Plank, the Executive Producer of Divided States of Women, walks a crowded city street claiming that she had discovered a product that will end all sexual harassment. She then presents a number of strangers with a large tarp, claiming that if women would only cover themselves with the tarp while in the workplace, thus rendering themselves invisible, the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace would be solved. Of course, the strangers she encountered on the street found this solution to be ludicrous, and rightfully so, as the experiment was obviously meant to be a satirical demonstration of the senselessness of punishing women for men’s transgressions. However, after viewing the video, I couldn’t help but ask myself whether or not covering women with a tarp to avoid sexual harassment is any more asinine than not hiring them at all for the same motive.
Although in these last few months, many such instances of blatant misogyny have been pervading our society, I believe that the most prominent example of this heinous disregard for women would be the sequence of events that have surrounded the special election for the Senate seat in Alabama, on December 12, 2017. This past November, I listened as at least nine women came forward to accuse Republican candidate, Roy Moore, of various counts of sexual misconduct, most of which took place in the late 1970s when Moore was in his thirties, and most of the women were in their teens, the youngest being only fourteen-years-old. I listened as many members of the GOP tried to defend Moore’s alleged targeting of young girls, even going as far as to cite the age difference between Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus Christ, in an attempt to justify this behavior. I listened as right-wing media outlets, as well as Moore himself, used every opportunity to silence these women by trying to discredit their allegations through attacking their appearance, their integrity, their intelligence, and their mental stability in the pettiest, most malicious of ways. I listened as several polls suggested that a very substantial percentage of conservatives were even more likely to vote for Moore after the accusations, for they doubted the stories of the women. I listened as excerpts of a textbook that was co-written by Moore in 2011, which blatantly stated that women should not be permitted to vote or run for office, were made public, and this still didn’t sway his most fervid supporters, men and women alike. In short, I was horrified. On December 12, when Moore lost the election by a small margin to the Democrat Doug Jones, I felt a plethora of mixed emotions. On one hand, I was, of course, relieved and happily surprised, as I did not expect these results at all. At the same time, however, I was heart-sick and utterly crestfallen that even after the level of palpable misogyny displayed by this man, at least 650,436 individuals would have still rather seen him in this position of power than a respectable Democrat.
As I ruminate on all of these recent events, I must admit that it’s difficult not to feel disillusionment. While the problem is abundantly simple to define, the solution is a bit harder to exact. In my living memory, there has never been a time where resisting society’s expectations of women to be unobtrusive, inconspicuous, frail, invisible, and powerless has been so crucial. In my opinion, the most efficient method of accomplishing this is by using our voices, for language is the most powerful tool that we have at our disposal. Melinda Gates once said, "A woman with a voice is, by definition, a strong woman." I agree, and in recent days, I’ve learned that in order to be strong, it is of paramount importance that we speak out in the face of injustice, and regardless of what the old adage says, when we are trying to make ourselves heard, less isn’t always more.
Contributing Editor: Daniella Rossi
Daniella Rossi (@Nottestellata10) was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, where she currently teaches English at the college level. Although she greatly enjoys teaching, her first passion has always been writing, for she is a firm believer of Stephen King’s notion that “Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.” She has recently renewed her passion for the written word and has begun writing a blog: musingsfromableedingheart.blogspot.com.