Returning from the ragged edge — where people become few and trees many — to the urbanscape — where people are many and trees are few — has been a tad jarring.
Various good, bad, scary, wonderful, interesting things happen in two months of cruising. I don’t have time even to summarise them right now. What I do want to write about is the strange, clever ugliness of urban culture as I saw it (with eyes rendered wider-open than usual from so much time in the quiet places) afresh on arrival.
Working on a nasty little conspicuous-fuel-consumer power boat in the marina was an ordinary middle-aged man. The ordinary man’s ordinary brown T-shirt had an extraordinarily unpleasant graphic on the back. Off-white lettering in two rows read:
and between the two rows of lettering was a line of silhouette illustrations of women stripping and pole dancing.
I felt that little shiver that you feel when you smell a whiff of genuine nastiness (if I call it “evil” it sounds so dramatic, so let’s settle for more mundane language: just plain nasty).
I’ve been trying ever since then to unpack that glimpse of unpleasantness. First off, the graphic acknowledges a fundamental truth of our good ol’ patriarchal culture. Single mothers are at a pretty serious disadvantage economically and socially. It is (even in these allegedly enlightened times) harder for a woman than for a man to find and keep a job that offers a steady living; and a woman with a child is particularly challenged by the need to perform wage labour to support herself and the child, conflicting with the child’s need for maternal care and presence.
In such a rigged system, a certain number of single mums do in fact turn to prostitution or “escort” work as a way to make money at a higher hourly wage than flipping burgers or running a cash register, and with more flexible hours. Similarly a certain number of poverty-class men (and some but fewer women) find that the military is the employer of last resort. Neither reality is something to be particularly proud of: the prostitution industry and the military both recruit via the poverty draft. That’s called “oppression” actually, and reams have been written about it: the poor get to do the dirty work, work that most people with wider choices choose not to do.
So what our “amusing” tee shirt in part says is that the wearer is at some level aware of this dynamic, knows that single mothers are economically vulnerable and may be coerced into prostitution by the structures of a patriarchal culture. In addition, he implicitly represents himself as a customer of the prostitution industry, “supporting” single mums by renting prostitutes or purchasing tickets for voyeurism events (i.e. opportunistically trading on the women’s social and financial predicament for his own sexual convenience).
There is a cruel sarcasm to the use of “support” in this context, in the deliberate imitation of a liberal or progressive political slogan (I Support Fair Trade, etc.) based on goodwill, empathy, trying to do the right thing. But there is more, I think. Does anyone but me sense an implicit warning to partnered and married women contemplating motherhood or already there: This is what could happen to you if you break up with your male protector. You could become the vulnerable prey of men like me. You might have to turn tricks to feed your kid. So… better not piss off your man.
And lastly there is, as in all misogynist (and many other forms of “istic”) humour, a public display of Empathy Deficit Disorder (another candidate for my very own DSM-V). The wearer openly identifies himself as one who capitalises on, rather than sympathises with (as in the more sincere or conventional meaning of “support”), the economic and social disadvantages of single motherhood; he labels himself as unempathic, opportunistic or predatory in his attitude rather than genuinely supportive, helpful, or caring. Effectively, he brags about it.
This public rejection of caring or sympathy in favour of flaunting an empathy deficit is itself highly gendered: a man who would wear this shirt most likely believes that caring, sympathy and empathy are “sissy” and that “real men” are tough and have no time for losers; that vulnerability equals provocation or culpability; that the weak deserve to be exploited… and that the public profession of these attitudes identifies him as culturally male — a Real Man — and hence safe from brutality, contempt, and opportunistic predation at the hands of other men.
His t-shirt might as well read
I AM A REAL MAN
WOMEN ARE LOSERS
WORKS FOR ME
I never cease to be amazed by the way that genuine, rather shocking hatefulness and spite can be made socially acceptable by a thin mask of wit (wordplay, pun, mockery, etc). Particularly I never cease to be amazed by the way that this lipstick continues to work so well on the pig of sexism, even when most people nowadays are (somewhat) less fooled by it on the pig of racism. Trying to come up with an equally offensive and structurally similar T-shirt that would express race hatred, the best I could do was
I SUPPORT SCHOLARSHIPS
FOR FIRST NATIONS YOUTH
with the two rows of lettering separated by a canonical sketch of a Residential School.
I have a feeling that wearing that slogan in public, even among the fairly peaceful Salish of our area, might have got him beaten up; he probably wouldn’t take the risk. Insulting women, however — abrasively celebrating male power over women — is generally safe.
I’m not saying that up the coast, out on the edge, there are no patriarchal dickwits, that sailors and homesteaders never tell a scurrilous misogynist joke, that women are treated with respect and equality as soon as you get away from town. But I am saying that I don’t see that kind of shirt on the backs of the locals up the coast, and this is an aspect of “sophisticated urban culture” that I’m definitely not going to miss when we leave Nanaimo…
And while I’m on the subject: on my return, feminist friends drew my attention to the German business executive’s corporate-sponsored sex-party (held in Budapest, not in Germany) at which prostituted women were colour-coded by market value and stamped like library cards after each use, and a Toronto pub where the owner has installed urinals in the form of pouty, parted, red-lipsticked lips.
The pub owner said the urinals were intended to “spark laughter”. The official Munich Re newsletter described the prostitution party as “killer fun.” Well, ha bloody ha.
I know all the primatologists and neuroscientists will at this point nod sagely and point out that humour amongst us not-very-nice monkeys is merely suppressed or redirected hostility, that the majority of all recorded humour through the ages rests on elements of insult or schadenfreude, etc. — and therefore that humour is a predictable mode of expression for bigotry, xenophobia, paranoia, etc. But ya know what, even with my awareness of all that jazz… it still bothers me that bigotry mechanically, repetitively, tediously, smirkingly pretends it’s “just joking”; it still bothers me that this “jokeyness” is just one more infuriating aspect of not taking the humanity of the insulted persons seriously; and it still bothers me that even where we have — at great cost, with great and often heroic effort, and with limited success — made it uncool to flaunt one’s bigotry against the racially-defined Other, it’s still so completely acceptable to flaunt it against the sexually-defined Other.
Harumph. Welcome back to Civilisation.