My Default Person
“Privilege” might be the wrong word for it, and so might “perk,” but “blessing” feels right. As a queer woman, as a woman whose life is happily oriented towards other women by virtue of biology and environment and choice, my default human being is a woman.
If I imagine an example of a coworker or romantic partner or friend, I picture a woman first. I imagine happiness and a woman laughs or listens to a beautiful song or eats yogurt. I think of sadness and there’s a woman crying or lying quietly in her bed or eating yogurt. For better or worse, my image of poverty is a struggling woman, and my image of excess is a woman who lives in luxury. There are life experiences I’ve never had: a thousand-mile hike, a brain surgery, a gondola ride. But there’s a woman in my mind (she isn’t me, and that’s important): she’s lacing up her hiking boots, wielding surgical instruments with confidence, thinking how surreal it is to have been in Boise yesterday and Venice today.
I certainly don’t claim to speak for all women, or for all queer women, or for all the other 30-year-old white middle-class lesbian writers who were raised in the Midwest but moved to North Carolina for school and never left. And you could test this blessing of mine, and I’d fail sometimes. We could play a word association game — think of a lawyer, a firefighter, an alligator, a tiger, a cop, a GI Joe, a football — and my mind would fill with men and males. But I have trained myself to think beyond men as quickly as I possibly can, to place women and non-binary people in every context that seems “naturally” male.
I haven’t done so out of a humorless obligation to political correctness. I haven’t done so in an attempt to rise above the angst of a complicated personal perspective on men: men can be great, and many are. On the whole, I’m not that worried about them. I’ve done so because feminism means fighting not only for women’s equality, but for the recognition of women’s complexities. I’ve done so because I’m enthusiastic about women and non-binary folks, because I love them, because this utterly depressing world would be so much safer and so much more fun if their pasts were infinite and their futures were itchy and mysterious and their every trait was seen as intricate and nuanced and worth exploration.
Think of the President of the United States.
I have trained myself. I am thinking of a woman right now.
Earlier this week I read a Caroline Siede piece for Boingboing: “To find Hillary Clinton likable, we must learn to view women as complex beings.” I nodded along as I went, nearly every word resonating. I recognized Siede’s interpretation of Clinton’s likability problem as truth. I appreciated her acknowledgment of the cognitive dissonance required to admire a prominent politician despite their flaws (flaws being related to the violence of the job, not perceived shrillness or an unwillingness to smile). And above all else, I felt the chill of remembering for the millionth time this election season that a really large number of people look at a woman, could be anyone, and imagine a certain type of woman and don’t move past that surface-level analysis. It’s a chill I feel over and over, as I hear other young people wonder if Hillary Clinton even understood the humorous premise of “Between Two Ferns” when she agreed to the Galifianakis interview, as I come across sexist media analyses in the lead-up to the presidential debate, as every glimmer of weakness becomes a malicious conspiracy instead of a glimpse into the challenges of a real person’s life.
By “certain type of woman” I don’t just mean the boring old epithets. Harpy, bitch, slut, frump. I mean that you could look at a man, gather your first impression, and later that day keep thinking of him as a novelist might, filling in an imagined childhood and a cast of characters and a fatal flaw and a very strong opinion about pineapple on pizza that’s caused a strain at several parties. It might not occur to you to do the same thing for a woman; even if you yourself are one, the world might have cheated you out of the pleasure of knowing (or imagining) the fullness of who, beyond your initial passing thought, another woman might actually be.
I’m at this point in the endless election cycle: my stomach hurts, and I’m sick of everything but nevertheless refreshing the FiveThirtyEight forecasts a dozen times a day, and I can’t decide if I’m more appalled by Trump’s flippant racism or by people’s eagerness to embrace it or by people’s willingness to forgive it and vote for him anyway. I know which Clinton policies I agree with (many) and which I don’t (some), and I’m more than willing to vote for her, and I feel nearly desperate to convince other people to do the same.
But what I really want to do right now is to ask anyone reading this to imagine how uncomfortable it would be to have a meta-conversation — or even a conversation-conversation — about your personality nearly every time you were the topic of discussion. To be in an extraordinarily public situation in which it would really behoove you to act natural yet eloquent yet down-to-earth yet composed, and to simultaneously feel compelled to acknowledge your stiffness or your distance or your facial expressions. Think of how truly weird it would be to say, day after day and night after night: here is part of me, and if that isn’t enough, here also is my perception of your perception of my delivery of that part of myself, and here is a sliver of social commentary that might provide some additional context, but not so much social commentary that you get the idea that I consider myself a victim of any kind.
It is absurd. It is awkward. But it’s so clear to my woman-defaulting self that there is a Hillary Clinton behind the person on that social tightrope who is real and warm. I don’t need to know all of her to feel certain that she exists. And even if there wasn’t warmth there, the intelligence it requires to navigate the lava pit of media scrutiny and self-scrutiny is more of a presidential qualification anyway. This is a person whose speech accepting the presidential nomination, one of her only uncomplicated and triumphant moments in this election, included the line, “Some people just don’t know what to make of me.”
Months ago, Hillary Clinton did not eat any cheesecake when she made a campaign stop at Junior’s Cheesecake in Brooklyn. Later, in what was one of my few actual favorite moments of this miserable election year, Stephen Colbert demonstrated for her a “humanizing” cheesecake-eating technique. Colbert shaved off a dainty bite with his fork, then set the bite aside and shoved the slice into his mouth with his hand. Clinton laughed, and it was lovely in the way all genuine laughter is.
It’s not magical, this ability to empathize with a woman so public the world doesn’t know what to do with itself. My ability to see women, Hillary Clinton included, as whole humans isn’t innate to my status as a queer woman. It takes work. And I have more work ahead of me: to keep putting women in every context they deserve, to keep working to overcome racial and class biases, to communicate, to listen. Every one of us can do this work and be the happier for it.
I’ll be doing so without a poker face; I don’t have one. Every woman I know over the age of fifty does. My freedom to emote has come at a cost to the women who came before — or maybe it is their gift to me. The gift I give back: I’ll repeat, as many times as it takes, that no one greets the world with their only expression.