[Content Note: Misogyny.]
On International Women's Day, here is my advice to anyone—man or woman or genderqueer—who wants to do better by women.
Obviously, the starting point is not engaging in misogyny. But beyond that, the place which is a stumbling block for many people, is making a habit of liking women.
What I Don't Mean by Liking Women: Being sexually attracted to women. Liking women monolithically and treating them as above criticism and/or putting them on a pedestal (which is just as dehumanizing as treating them like shit). Liking them with expectations. Liking them with ulterior motives.
What I Do Mean by Liking Women: Regarding women generally with good faith, and not as a collection of grim stereotypes. Treating women as individuals. Respecting diversity in expressions of womanhood. Never obliging a woman to speak for all women, or treating her as an exception to her gender. Building friendships with women.
And primarily: Thinking of women as likable.
We live in a profoundly misogynist culture. Everyone is taught to hate women. Women are socialized to hate each other (and ourselves), to think of ourselves and one another as less than.
Even most feminist women have to make a habit of liking women, of rewriting that entrainment to reflexively see other women in negative terms, and replacing it with a spirit of sisterhood. A lot of women exceptionalize the women in their lives in the same way men do. My group of female friends having fun at this bar is awesome; that other group of female friends having fun at this bar is a bunch of skanks. That is the way we are all socialized to view women—their individual value determined by proximity and affiliation, rather than merit.
The point is: Everyone has to make a habit of liking women.
All kinds of women. Women whose lived experiences may be very different from your own. Women whose bodies may look very different from your own. Women about whom you might hold stereotypes that are centered around different (but inextricably linked) aspects of their identities than their womanhood—stereotypes that may be deeply tied to narratives about their likability, too.
One of the most basic and insidious and intractable pieces of systemic misogyny is that women are simply unlikeable, as a rule. Difficult. Catty. Competitive. Vain. Bitches be crazy.
And the only way to break that down, and to form a new habit, is to think instead about the things you like about women you've known: Maybe it's wisdom, or kindness, or loyalty, or creativity, or competency, or truthfulness, or empathy. Maybe it's being tough. Maybe it's being vulnerable. Maybe both.
It's taking time to explore, consciously and purposefully, what you have liked about women, what you do like about women, what makes women likable.
It's taking time to explore, consciously and purposefully, what it means that we live in a culture in which Good Guys are THE BEST! and even Bad Guys are roguishly likeable, but Good Girls are pathetic and contemptible, indicting everyone else's imperfections with their intolerable mere existence, and Bad Girls are only good for one thing. Most men are axiomatically afforded the assumption of likability; women have to earn it person by person.
It's taking time to explore, consciously and purposefully, what the difference really is between flippantly saying, "Oh, sure, I like women," and really finding women likeable. There are a lot of men, for example, who can respect women, and still cannot bring themselves to like us.
This isn't an easy subject, because it's hard to write and talk about these sorts of nuances, and because everyone except the most shamelessly vile misogynists fancy themselves a person who doesn't hate women. But there is a difference between not hating women and thinking of them as likable.
I have crossed that bridge. And once you are on the other side, you realize how cavernous the space between the shores really is.
I almost can't count the number of ways that jettisoning bullshit notions about being an Exceptional Woman and embracing vast and varied female friendship has changed me for the better. It has made me a better feminist, it has made me a better friend, and it has changed the way I view myself in life-saving ways: My body image, my self-worth, my capacity to draw boundaries and receive love.
A big part of that is because so much of the practice of not liking women is wrapped up in the culture of judgement, and letting go of the culturally-imposed compulsion to judge allowed me to give myself a fucking break, too.
Operating from a position in which I expect to like women (even though I don't end up liking all of them, of course), instead of a position in which I am primed to judge them, has changed my life.
Thinking of women as likeable in a misogynist culture is truly a radical act.
I invite you to be radical, on this day and every day.