I have this story about myself that I have often shared privately, but never dared to share in public in this way before. I find it embarrassing, but I can’t fully explain why. I do know that it serves as both warning and reminder to me of the high-stakes games that get played sometimes regarding modern discourse on gender issues. More personally, it has served as a reminder that if I’m going to get keel-hauled for something, it’s better to at least get keel-hauled for being who you are honestly.
It’s August of 1997, just about to begin the M.F.A. program at what would shortly be renamed Minnesota State University, Mankato. I’m at a picnic for new teaching assistants, where women outnumber the men in that regard about 6 to 1. I’ve only known the department staff for a week or two, but that was enough to recognize that there was a very strong current of proud and unrepentant feminism amongst the women there. I had made it a point to engage in heightened sensitivity with my choice of words around certain professors.
This really shouldn’t have been difficult. After all, I had just graduated that spring with a minor in Gender Studies. I had been fascinated for years by the corners we paint ourselves into with rigid definitions and constructs, and I believed then as I do now (and always have, really) that the struggles of gender equality were, by their nature, win-win or lose-lose and shouldn’t be directly competitive. Yes, the enclosed spaces set apart or favoring “my side” might have been larger and better furnished, but if the role you want is on the other side of that wall (such as being a stay-at-home parent), then that’s of little comfort.
So here I am, getting chatty with the other students and the English professors and, other than the teaching assistant director getting stung on the inside of his mouth by a wasp that had climbed inside his soda can, things were going pretty well. We were beginning to wind down, distributing the leftovers amongst us budget-conscious grad students, when someone offered up kiwi fruit. I rather enjoy kiwi, but not as much as my absent better half, so raised a hand on her behalf.
But as I opened my mouth to speak up, my speech center froze. The inner editing processes in my subconscious had begun to object, and here is what the thought process inside my over-wary brain to mouth filter looked like:
“Say ‘I’ll take it; Becky really likes kiwi.'”
–but wait, these people have no idea who Becky is.
“OK, then say ‘I’ll take it; my wife really likes kiwi.”
–but WAIT! ‘my’ is a possessive adjective. POSSESSIVE. Like, you possess your wife. Do not imply to these people that you own your wife!
“OK, ok. So here’s what you say…”
“I’ll take it. The wife really likes kiwi.”
I swear to God I heard a record player scratch, and there wasn’t even music being played at the picnic.
“THE WIFE?!” the female department head said, incredulous.
“…has a NAME,” one of the women T.A.s nearby tacked on.
And that was it. So mired was I in the fear of the oppressive power of word choice that I had managed to convince myself that a worse, less natural option was somehow the way to go, and I had dug an instant hole with some people I would be working with that it took me a long time to get out of. In fact, for one or two, I’m not sure I ever expunged myself of that misstep.
I would like to point out that I have both friends and relatives who have used and do use this phrase on a regular basis. They love and respect their wives, and they’re all still married to “the wife.” Just as I am still married to “the wife” I married in 1997, and for whom my 1997 self was beginning to worry that a small cadre within the English department may have been making a mental note to liberate at the earliest possible convenience.
Even now, the very idea of me posting this story–this write-up and minuscule analysis– stirs within me the fear that I will manage to permanently burn bridges with someone, or some sect of people for whom I will have crossed a line I can never come back from. I worry that simply asking the question of whether or not we have culled too much of the language of gender to ever have a meaningful conversation about it with what is left over is enough to get me blacklisted somewhere. And that is not healthy nor promising for going forward.
I have a friend, male–as if that should matter, who is an advocate for men’s rights, specifically in the area of fighting for presumed shared custody in divorce. This is the radical premise that divorcing parents should have an initial legal starting point of 50/50 even custody over their mutual children, unless clear mitigating circumstances can be demonstrated to change that. He suggested to me that if the current arena for gender and social issues was such that I had actually invalidated my own experiences, that maybe there was something wrong about the current state of things. These experiences included such things as my frustration with not being able to find a “MOPS” style group that allowed and welcomed stay-at-home dads, the social onus that comes with BEING a stay-at-home dad, and the ever-present annoyance with the term “Mr. Mom,” a label that just won’t go away. In all of these cases, I had convinced myself that such grievances were small potatoes against the greater sins levied by the inherent patriarchy against womankind, and I should just get over it and move along.
To tell the truth, though, those things kinda sucked, and they still kinda suck, and the next time they happen again for me or someone else it’s still going to kinda suck. I don’t think complaining about them requires me to turn in my card as a feminist or gender equalist or whatever it is it makes me that I think people should be free to be who they are. Likewise, I continue to not believe that preferring cooking and baking in the kitchen to using power tools out in the garage should require one to turn in one’s “man card.” What I think is that we really need to be looking into who’s behind handing out all these cards to begin with and figure out why it’s so important to them that everyone should carry one or more readily identifiable cards.
It’s why the idea of “litmus tests” drives me crazy. How does one break down barriers by using rigid and vigorously enforced tenets to establish what qualifies as a valid or acceptable human experience? So, as I watch people fire off the tired mortars over the GamerGate battlefield once more, in Canada this time, I’m begging people to just take a step back and consider the idea that, even if there is a system in play that unfairly pits one group of people against another, that maybe none of the people you’re squaring off with are particularly happy about it. Maybe we can try harder to see people who aren’t actually out to keep anybody “in their place” but whose different perspective might be useful in figuring the whole thing out.
Perhaps we all could just have a pleasant conversation or debate about it over kiwi. A man can dream, can’t he?