A Scene from the Life of a Feminist Fella

by Shaker BrianWS

Regular readers at Shakesville will all be familiar with the ways that certain words and attributes are coded in different ways depending on the gender of the person to whom they're being attributed to, and I've long known this to be true – but I'd never truly experienced it until this past weekend.

One of the biggest events in the industry in which I work was held this past weekend, and hundreds of media folks gathered for it. One of my goals for the event was to meet a woman who works in my industry in a relatively high-profile position, making her name easily recognizable to those who work in our field. I've seen her speak and engage with others on TV before, and I've always been drawn to her by her confidence, expertise, and assertiveness. While I wouldn't call her my "hero," for the reasons Liss wrote about here, she's certainly one of the people I most admire in my industry, and I wasn't going to pass up a chance to finally speak with her.

Talking excitedly to the guys with whom I traveled to this event about meeting her, I quickly discovered that the ways in which we viewed her couldn't have been more different. I found her to be engaging, intelligent, and strong. They viewed her as high-maintenance, obnoxious, and grating to listen to – and they assured me numerous times throughout the weekend (every hour, on the hour, it seemed) that she would surely be frosty to me when we met. That she would be aloof. That she would be rude. All of these dire warnings, issued with assuredness, came despite the fact that they, too, had never met her, but they had "heard stories" (surprise, surprise!) about what a "bitch" she is.

So after the big event wound down on Saturday evening, we all attended a media/industry party, and I was finally going to get to meet the woman I so admired. I admit that after weeks leading up to this event, and all the jokes and grim predictions about how terribly my finally meeting her would go being made all weekend, I was starting to worry about how it would go.

Nonetheless, once I found her at the event, I walked right up to her, beer in hand, and introduced myself, with two of my main antagonists from the weekend by my side. I explained who I was, who I worked for, and told her that I had always greatly admired her work, her expertise, and in a moment of fan-boy style flailing, I even blurted out, "Basically I just think you're completely awesome. I'm really glad we're friends on Facebook!" Seriously, what the fuck, BrianWS? Right?!

Here's the big reveal: she was everything I imagined she would be and then some. Not only was she kind, friendly, and not "too good" to talk to me – she was warm. She asked about my weekend and the work I had done, thanked me several times for introducing myself and telling her how much her work meant to me, and genuinely explained to me how difficult it could be sometimes and that it was great to get some positive feedback that people out there were enjoying the work she did. Even having been completely disarmed by her in those first minutes of our conversation, I still expected that she might not be willing to indulge my next request.

"Hey, this might sound kind of weird," I plunged in, "but I'm just so excited to have met you – would you maybe take a picture with me?"

She laughed, and said, "Absolutely!" And then she put her arm around me and took what I now consider to be one of my favorite photographs ever.

The entire experience was surreal in one way, because I was finally meeting someone I admired so much within my industry. On the other hand, it was so utterly predictable.

If a man acts confidently, it's because he's knowledgeable and has every right to be. If a woman does, it's because she's a "bitch." If a man acts assertively and doesn't like being interrupted when having a broadcast conversation, it's because he knows what he's talking about and should not be interrupted. If a woman does, it's because she's a "bitch."

Confidence, knowledge, expertise, and assertiveness are all coded in such a way that they're read as positive attributes in men and frosty, bitchy attributes in women, as if even though the woman I looked up to could hang with anyone when discussing our industry, she was a "bitch" because she wouldn't automatically defer to someone else's opinion.

That this woman whose (undeserved) bad reputation preceded her (to put it lightly) not only engaged me when I was probably not at my most eloquent due to my excitement about finally meeting her, but was genuinely warm and kind shouldn't have surprised me, and in a way it didn't. But for days leading up to this meeting, I had been so bombarded with the typical comments we always hear about confident, strong women (WARNING SIREN! BITCH ALERT!), that even I had begun to second-guess myself and wonder if I was wrong.

I wonder how many confident women get bad reputations because of the way people approach them. (My guesstimate: 100%.)

Perhaps if I had bought the line that she was a "bitch," and if I hadn't known any better, I'd have approached her in a different way than I did. Interactions are so colored by how they begin – what you put in is usually what you get back. If I had approached her as though she was going to be the rotten, cold woman I'd been told to expect she would be, I can imagine that she might have (quite understandably) responded in a way that confirmed those very prejudices. Instead, I approached her as a colleague who respected her for her work, and she treated me with great respect and kindness. Funny how that works, sometimes.

I'm thankful for the lessons I learned over the years about the way these things work, because without them, I might have really believed the things these guys were telling me in advance of meeting her and missed out on getting to chat with one of the kindest, smartest, most genuine people I've ever met within my industry. It won't be a conversation I'll soon forget, but it's also a reminder that I need to stay vigilant and remember to not forget the often small, often sneaky, but always insidious ways that misogyny works.

Even after our interaction, it was suggested that I only got along with her and she was only kind to me because I am gay, something she had no way of knowing with any certainty. See how that works? It's not that there are men who reflexively hate her on the basis of ancient narratives about strong women; it's that she irrationally hates men, and only makes special dispensation for the gay ones, who might as well be women.

To make a long story less long, I'll wrap this up with a short open letter:

Dear Misogyny,

You're always out there, and you're always working against us – but this time around, you lost.

Big time.

So fuck off.


Artist's recreation of the author's photograph with his admired colleague, using actual grinny BrainWS face from actual photo of actual awesomeness.

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