Inspired by I Love Dick
“Hold yourself lightly, on your toes, and bend your arms slightly. You want to look like ballerinas, not a bunch of awkward ladies.
Thursday, 10pm, overheated church basement. I sit, covered in sparkles, hair spray, and stage makeup, listening to the director’s notes after the dress rehearsal for a community theatre show. A man, well into his eighties, the former director of the group, stands up in front of everyone, and starts to demonstrate how to be a female chorister. I laugh, internally- there is something inherently comical about an elderly man demonstrating, with complete seriousness, how to behave like a young woman. But this statement and his actions have stuck with me, and now I am angry, for reasons I cannot seem to articulate.
It isn’t that I have a problem with being told how to behave onstage- sometimes it is a lot more comfortable to lean in to being uncharacteristically feminine and flirty in front of an audience than to walk down the street in front of strangers inhabiting my everyday, awkward (“A bunch of awkward ladies”) and painfully clumsy persona. And it wasn’t that it came from a bad place- it was clearly a sincere gesture, intended to make us look good on stage.
My personal experience of reading I Love Dick was surprisingly helpful in understanding this anger, though reading it backstage also earned me a few infuriating comments. The earlier sections of the book are dominated by Sylvere’s mediation of Dick and Chris’s relationship. Their meeting comes by means of Sylvere’s contact, and Sylvere is the one who faxes Dick after they begin their project (44) and who calls Dick to tell him about it (45-47), ensuring that Chris and Dick will see each other again. Though it is not mediation of the same kind, that this man thought he would know better than the entire female chorus, not to mention the female production staff, how to behave like a ballerina, seems to me to be an intense kind of male mediation- an attempt to mediate the audience’s response to this large group of women.
But thinking about male mediation made me angry about a number of other little interactions. The figure of the male defender, someone who will step in on behalf of women, has been bouncing around in my head a lot lately. Last week, I stopped a well intentioned friend from fighting, on behalf of a group of women, to stop his friend’s rudeness and inappropriate conduct, for the (perhaps misguided) reason that I thought I could teach this rude friend, through harsh female words, to respect all women. I also, though, secretly wished that he would step in, just as I have, on many occasions, tried to get my boyfriend to stand up to his friend’s homophobia and non-so-subtle sexism, so that I wouldn’t have to come off as adversarial on a first or second or third encounter with someone new. But I can’t allow those sorts of interventions- even the thought makes me angry at myself. They would compromise my self-perception, my conviction that I always stand up for myself, that I am the person who lost a friend in High School because she thought my intelligence and assertiveness made me too manly, unattractive to the people she really wanted to associate with (not a grave loss for me, in retrospect).
The word mediation has, in general, positive connotations. It implies a move towards resolution, and the end of conflict. I very often act as a mediator, between friends, colleagues, and often people who frighten me beyond belief. There is nothing wrong with bringing on someone from the outside to solve a problem. So it must be the gendered aspect of these mediations that I find infuriating. Are they really, though, even gendered? Or am I being oversensitive and projecting my reading of I Love Dick on to my life? Would those attempted or desired mediations have been so annoying coming from a female friend? Or would a female friend have even tried to intercede?
I’m pretty sure that my reaction to the description of how to behave like a woman (“A bunch of awkward ladies”) was gendered. I’m not so sure, though, if it was the mediation that bothered me, or the fact that he was disparaging awkward ladies… “a bunch of awkward ladies” is, after all, the phrase that really stuck with me, and that keeps refracting through my brain every time I see this man. I find great comfort in being an awkward lady, and I think that it is that unpracticed awkwardness that shapes the way I see the world, so maybe it was just a personal response that to silly little comment.
So now I’m sitting here, trying to decide whether to hit submit on my jumble of thoughts, whether my mess of unanswered questions, oversharing, and messy self-analysis is interesting or, really, relevant. A more apt title would probably be “Confusion”.
-Emily (my apologies for the puntastic old internet handle)