Tag Archives: gender

About a month or two ago, I was surfing the internet while waiting for my mother to get ready to go with me to the gym. During this brief time, following from one link to another, I came across a shampoo ad that was, according to the post in which it was embedded, getting a lot of attention on the internet. The ad showed women in everyday situations offering apologies that the makers of the video deemed unnecessary. The title card which introduces the video asks “Why are women always apologizing,” which implies that they are doing something that men don’t.

Sitting at my computer, whiling fifteen or twenty minutes waiting for my mother, I was not in an especially critical mindset. If that week’s viral videos had been cute puppies I would have watched cute puppies. I nodded in implied agreement while watching. While I don’t think I have heard about that particular habit before, it did not surprise me. In women’s studies classes that I took in college, I read about similar studies that examined seeming trivial differences in male and female behavior. Although the video doesn’t say so in so many words, the clear implication is that apologizing makes one appear weak. The title of the video is “Shine Strong.”

This video was still fresh in my mind when I arrived at the gym.

I walked in, grabbed a towel and headed up the short flight of half a dozen steps to the weight lifting area. A man rounded the corner and came down the stairs rapidly as I was going up. He stepped backwards saying, “Sorry.”

I stepped to my right saying, “Sorry.”

Another step to the right on my part and we were able to pass each other on the stairs without incident. This is the sort of thing I wouldn’t have even noticed if I hadn’t seen that video. No one was at fault. He couldn’t have predicted my arrival and I couldn’t see him approach, yet we both apologized. Thanks to the video, I noted that he was male and I was female. I also noticed that he was African-American. He was probably about ten years my junior.

(Aside: Do you, too, dislike the false intimacy of WordPress telling you to “Keep on goin’!” or is it just me?)

A little while later, I took a barbell off the rack. Carrying the barbell, which is awkward, I weaved between the benches to find a location to do some curls where I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way but I could see my form in the mirror. A man was coming from the opposite direction, also weaving around equipment. He turned around a bench at the same time I did and we came nose to nose. With the barbell, it was a bit awkward for me to get out of his way, yet he made no move to do so. I backed up a few inches saying, “Sorry.” He moved forward without acknowledging my presence. To say that I felt slighted would have overstated the case, still there was a very slight unpleasant feeling left by this encounter. Normally, I would dismiss it and think that he had something else on his mind. However, since I was now attuned to this issue I realized that he was male and white.

Going to put the barbell back, I had a nearly identical run in with another man. This time, the man said, “Sorry,” I said, “Sorry,” and the man rapidly stepped backward to allow me to pass. This time it was a black man near my age. This was starting to look to me like it wasn’t a coincidence.

Over the next few weeks, I observed people’s behavior. The gym struck me as a prime location for this because as gym members we should all be on terms of equality with one another. Furthermore, the gym is large and appears to have equal numbers of black and white members present. There seem to be more men than women, but it doesn’t feel male dominated. There are all age ranges present. There are relative few Asians or people who appear to be Hispanic, but that is unsurprising given the demographics of Baltimore. Of course, this is still anecdotal evidence even if it’s multiple anecdotes. However, over several visits I couldn’t help notice that black men apologized in the same situations in which I did whereas not a single white man apologized during the same period. I did not have any incidents with either black women or white women but Asian women did apologize to me.

According to an article about the video in FastCompany, “Apologizing unnecessarily puts women in a subservient position and makes people lose respect for them.”

I began to see the question in a new light. Instead of wondering, “Why are women always apologizing,” I started to wonder, “Why don’t white men ever apologize?” However, I didn’t feel respect for those men who didn’t apologize. If I felt anything, it was mild irritation. Meanwhile, the men with whom I had done the sorry-sorry tango left me with mild positive feelings towards them. One of them said “Hello” and smiled every time we encountered each other in the gym after that.

Last year, there was an article on Slate that questioned the conventional wisdom about this. Amanda Hess notes that it is not an established fact that women apologize more frequently than men. She also goes on to say that apologizing is not inherently bad.

And treating others with empathy doesn’t equal devaluing ourselves. Yoko Hosoi, a professor at Tokyo University, describes the “apology-forgiveness culture” among men and women in Japan as “an ingrained cultural heritage, which serves to make a harmonious, peace-oriented society”—not to lay blame or establish hierarchies. Saying “I’m sorry” is a cultural thing. Often, it’s a positive one. And yet when we recognize a trend in the culture of women, our impulse is to say, “Women do X. Men do Y. Therefore, women should stop doing X.” Why don’t we instead think: Perhaps men could be a little bit more like women.

My casual observation would indicate that any further studies would have to take characteristics other than gender into account. Furthermore, the assumption that it’s inherently bad needs to be questioned.

Since moving to New York City, I have had several white men apologize for getting in my way on the sidewalk. So, it seems even one more factor would have to be taken into account.


Goody Goody lived a few houses away from us when we were very little. She was my older sister’s age, but she was also a little immature and I was at least as close to her as my sister. Closer, perhaps. Her mother was divorced, with two children, didn’t work and had a live-in maid. She came from a wealthy family. I wouldn’t understand this for many years. She was different from the neighboring adults, but her children didn’t seem any different and I was far too young to see adults the way they saw one another. Why she lived in our lower-middle class neighborhood of small houses, I will never know. She didn’t stay very long. Soon, husband number three came along. This one would last. The first was a handsome, womanizing actor. The second was a mad genius mathematician, and the third was a grumpy accountant, a widower with three children of his own. They married and moved to nearby town where the houses were bigger and which had a reputation for snobbishness, anti-Semetic prejudice and academically excellent schools.

Despite the move, Goody Goody and I remained friends. Since she lived in another town, when we’d go to visit we’d usually stay over night. Her mother was always very welcoming and encouraging. Now, they were a family with five children, all in their teens except for the oldest who was about twenty, living in a sprawling house with many bedrooms and many parties. (Just to be clear, since the parents were welcoming and usually around, although the parties were lively, they weren’t the out-of-control parties some kids have when their parents are away.)

One weekend when we were staying with Goody Goody, she wanted to go see a movie at a theater in a town some distance away, at midnight. Her eldest brother would have to drive us. This struck me as unusual. Being a night owl since the day I was born, I didn’t care about the hour much, but why were we driving so far? She tried to explain to me the plot of the movie.

“These people go to this castle that makes everybody inside it horny!!!!” She balled her little hands up into even littler fists and pulled them into her body, her elbows held close to her side, and shook them excitedly.

“What does ‘horny’ mean?” I asked.

Goody Goody, with her large blue eyes and limp, wavy, dirty blond hair bore a faint resemblance to Susan Sarandon, a coincidence I was about three hours from noticing. “It means you want to have sseeexxxx!!!!!” She waved her hands back and forth even more excitedly, squeezing her tits into surprisingly ample, and quivering, cleavage in the process.

So Goody Goody, Sis and I piled into the back of the car and Goody Goody’s eldest brother, a cutie pie I haven’t yet named, and another person sat in the front as we drove some distance to see this Rocky Horror Picture Show.

How does a person describe a revelation? I wouldn’t have a similar experience watching a movie until I saw Scorpio Rising. (Is there anything hotter than a guy’s denim encased crotch with the song “Blue Velvet” in the background? – But I guess that’s another post.) How do you describe something that isn’t so much a matter of introducing new ideas as taking inchoate ideas that are already in your brain and giving them form?

When worlds collide

How does a person begin to explain living in a small, self-contained, suburban world and suddenly realizing that there is something more out there? “You are not alone.”

There’s a light, a light

In the darkness of everybody’s life

Truthfully, I wasn’t yet old enough to know much about life’s darkness, but if darkness can be a metaphor for ignorance, then certainly The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a light.

The first real jolt in the movie is when Richard O’Brien appears as Riff Raff.

I remember doing the Time Warp
Drinking those moments when
The blackness would hit me
And the void would be calling

This is where the oh-so-famous Time Warp begins. It’s just such a beautiful build up of tension and release.

Next we have what might be one of the most notable performance in film history, Tim Curry as Frankenfurter.

Don’t get strung out by the way I look
Don’t judge a book by its cover
I’m not much of a man by the light of day
But by night I’m one hell of a lover

That is fine advice for any young woman, and probably most young men as well.

Later in the movie, the sweet ingenue, played by Susan Sarandon, is making love to the “creature” created by Frankenfurter. Watching, on close circuit teevee are two female characters, Colombia and Magenta. This is the first that I recall seeing two women in a sexual situation with one another. It put ideas in my head. The ideas didn’t go very far as of yet… yet.

From the day he was born
All he wanted
Was Rock and Roll porn
And a motorbike

Where do I even start. I’ve described elsewhere how during my early adolescence, “serious” popular music had become a narrow genre of stultifying art rock. I’d seen some glimpses of other things around the edges, but they were not yet mainstream by any means. The music in this movie was a breath of fresh air.

The, ahem, if you will pardon me, climax of the film is a sequence called the “floorshow.” Four of the characters perform in corsets and feather boas. Finally, Frankenfurter takes the stage and sings,

Whatever happened to Fay Wray?
That delicate satin draped frame
As it clung to her thigh, how I started to cry
‘Cause I wanted to be dressed just the same

What could be more normal than that?

Give yourself over to absolute pleasure
Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh
Erotic nightmares beyond any measure
And sensual daydreams to treasure forever

Then he jumps into a pool.

Don’t dream it, be it

I may have taken this part a bit too much to heart.

In the end, after the aliens have returned to their home planet, we see our protagonists lying on the ground.

And crawling on the planet’s face
Some insects called the human race
Lost in time, and lost in space
And meaning

That evening, I learned that men could look really hot in women’s clothes.  I learned that women could look hot in women’s clothes. The movie was fascinating for me in that it treated men as sex object. It definitely went a long way to making my sense of sexuality and gender more flexible.

And it would resurface in my life later.

The test had elaborate drawings of wheels, cogs, levers, as if it had emerged from the fevered dreams of basement tinkerer. If one pulled a lever up, would the wheel rotate clockwise or counter-clockwise? There were dozens of questions like this. I finished the test and looked up and glanced about the room. Everyone else still had their head down, shoulders stooped as if this was a heavy burden. The occasional sigh and groan arose from a student. At the end of the test, I asked the teacher if there was any way to get books of puzzles like this because I enjoyed them so much. She looked at me for a moment as if I might be pulling her leg. After convincing herself of my sincerity, she said, “I don’t think so.” She looked at me a little bit strangely. “Why?”

“Because it was fun,” I said matter-of-factly.

She looked at me as if I’d lost my mind and suddenly I felt like a total freak. It was one thing to be enjoying taking a test when everyone else seemed to be agonizing. It was altogether another thing to let people know. No longer a nerdy kid, I had friends, I behaved in a socially appropriate manner, boys seemed to like me, but it came at a price. That price was constantly being misunderstood and underestimated.

The test had been one of about half a dozen that were administered during the course of that week. These weren’t class tests. Although it came in a booklet with a sheet containing dots to be filled in so it could be graded electronically, it was not the usual battery of achievement tests that we took almost every other year. It was a test to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses in preparation for career counseling. Consequently, in addition to the usual tests for reading comprehension and mathematical ability, there were also tests for clerical ability and mechanical ability, which is the one we had just finished.

A few weeks later, we were each called individually down to the guidance counselor’s office. We still didn’t have much of a choice in terms of our education, but as I understood it, choices would be coming. That’s what all of this was about. It was about careers and our educational program in preparation for those careers.

The guidance counselor was a genial older man, a good bit older than my parents and most of the teachers.

Sometimes, when you poke around on individual blogs and the comments sections of news sites, you can come across statements in which people want everyone to note their dramatic lack of sympathy for people who have had x, y or z education and training only to find that they are unemployed. “Well,” such a statement typically reads in response to someone’s child dying for lack of medical treatment, “what did they expect majoring in liberal arts!” What this statement ignores, besides basic human sympathy, is that good advice when one is thirteen may not hold true twenty years later.

One of my closest friends in college majored in physics. As she was finishing her doctorate, the Soviet Union collapsed. There was an influx of scientists from the former Soviet Union and the defense department stopped hiring. She had gone into the field for a love of physics, not for job security, still she was unprepared for the lack of jobs when she graduated. She worked in a dress shop and in a call center until the attacks on 9/11 got the defense department hiring again. Yes, some of those call center workers might have a Ph.D. in physics. “Well! What did they expect majoring in a theoretical field!”

I can console myself with the fact that she once told me that as a teenager she like to do mathematical proofs for fun. After all, there are freaks and there are freaks. What little girls do when no one is looking.

That we actually expect an individual with the ordinary perceptions of a mortal to give guidance is really quite a charade.

So I sat down in the student chair that was next to the guidance counselor’s desk on which sat a folder containing my school records. I never once had a reprimand or a detention, nor would I ever, and the folder was notable only for its thinness. The heavy weight paper containing the results of the skills tests sat on top. On the top of the paper was a graph shaped like a deep V with extended serifs. I saw the results of the mechanical score said 99. I asked the guidance counselor which question I had gotten wrong. He was slightly surprised by my question. I clarified that I was quite sure that I had gotten all the questions on the mechanical section correct. How was it that I didn’t have a 100. He explained to me what a percentile was and I was mollified. He explained that that still didn’t mean that I had gotten everything right, but deep down inside I knew I had. The bottom of the V was the score for clerical ability. As someone who couldn’t spell and couldn’t type, this was no surprise to me. I still can’t type or spell. If it weren’t for spell check, you would peg me as an illiterate.

“Have you given any thought to what you would like to do as a career?” he began by way of introduction.

I nodded. “I would like to be an engineer.”

He pressed his lips together as someone who has heard an incorrect response but wants to be sensitive in the way he corrects it. “I was under the impression that you were something of an artist.” I believe I had seen this man very briefly once about a year earlier. That he would have any impression of me at all came as something of a surprise. Indeed, a few years earlier I might have said “engineer or artist,” however as I was getting older artist was beginning to hold less and less appeal. Certainly, I would not have chosen at that young age an educational path that would deemphasize math and science.

“Art is a much nicer field for women.” There really wasn’t anything subtle about this conversation.

“But it’s very risky. A lot of artists can’t support themselves.” I countered.

“That won’t be a problem for you. You’re very pretty. You will probably get married.”

Years later, I would repeat this conversation to my mother. It’s stayed in my mind because it surprised me at the time. This was the late seventies. Second wave feminism had been well underway for over a decade. My mother worked. Most of my friends’ mothers worked. It would only be much later that I would find out that it wasn’t only feminism, but a changing economy, that would end the short-lived era of lower middle class women staying at home.

My mother said, “But he liked you.” That was exactly what was so insidious about it. He did like me, and not in a creepy, ignoring professional boundaries sort of way. I have met female artists with professional husbands. They have real careers. Their work is exhibited and reviewed. But at the lower level art pays so badly that even with a decent career they would never be able to pay their rent and put food on the table if they were unmarried. It’s not a common situation anymore, but the guidance counselor was older. I understand the life he saw for me. It didn’t occur to him to wonder whether or not I wanted that life for myself. Yes, I was smart and pretty, but it wasn’t in my character to use those characteristics to seek out a young man with good prospects. There have been days in my life when I’ve wondered if that wouldn’t have been the smart thing to do. But I don’t think it could have happened except by accident. As a career plan, it was frankly stupid. Yet this short, superficial conversation would come to symbolize the many ways I was pressured towards interests considered suitable for women. Most of the time, it would be more subtle and hard to be certain why I felt pressure. At least the guidance counselor told me in so many words that engineering wasn’t “nice” for women and art was.