Friday, March 11, 2016

One of the good ones

Over the past few months we've gotten on the cultural bandwagon and started watching Mad Men.

So, as we make our way through earlier seasons, we've come to the final few episodes of Season 5. (No spoilers, I promise). In one of those episodes, Don tries to convince Joan not to do something. There's a lot of meta-commentary here about ingrained misogyny and the objectification of women and how Don doesn't want to be a party to that (although in so many other ways he already is), but the point I want to get to is where Joan says to Don, "you're one of the good ones".

Christina Hendricks delivers the line perfectly - it's part sympathetic, intoning, "I know you're not going to be one of the ones who intentionally screws me over, that you will do your best to be decent to me", and part disappointment, implying, "I know you don't want to be one of those guys, but one of the reasons I made my choice is that I know, despite others' protestations, that I have no real support, no real assurance that my career is safe, no real back-up giving me the full and protected right to say no. Nobody really has my back, no matter how much they say they do, or want to. And you might not want to be one of those guys, but you're here right now because you didn't try hard enough to put a stop to it. You didn't create the situation, you spoke out against it, but you didn't throw the full weight of your support behind your dissent. I still got screwed. They let it happen through inaction, you let it happen because you didn't realize that huffing and puffing about it wasn't enough."

Basically, she was saying 'your support isn't full-throated enough to be helpful, so it doesn't matter that your heart is in the right place.'

And, although I didn't want to, after watching that scene my mind wandered back to conversations I've had not only in Taiwan but in the USA (although I will take a Taiwan perspective in this, just because this blog is about Taiwan).

Take one person I know, for example. Let's call him A.  A's a good guy. He works hard, he's highly educated and smart as hell, and has close family ties and a fundamental belief in the importance of self-sufficiency (although not to the point that he blames poor or unemployed people for their situations). His family is important to him; he loves his wife and kids. He isn't controlling; he doesn't make decisions that impact his wife without her input. Everything they have in life, she's had an equal part in choosing, more or less.

A is one of the good ones.

I'm not sure, culturally speaking, however, that it is enough.

He was recently telling me about a situation in which his mother wanted to adopt some child-rearing technique, and for his wife to follow suit, but his wife had other ideas and wanted to raise the child a different way. I'm not specifying what the two views are because it doesn't matter. A mentioned this to me, and I asked what his position was and what he was going to do about it.

"Nothing," he said. "That's for the two women to work out. I'm staying out of it."
"Who do you think is right?"
"My wife, probably."
"But you don't support her?"
"I can't argue with my mother like that."
"So you're not supporting your wife, you're letting her fend for herself in dealing with your mom, over your own son, even when you agree with her, because you can't bring yourself to tell your mother she's wrong?"

Which is of course exactly what he was doing. He and his wife agreed on a child-rearing strategy which his mother was pushing them to change, and he was letting his wife do all of the heavy lifting in dealing with her.

Because we are friends and I can be honest with A, I asked him how his wife felt about the lack of support she was receiving from him. He gave something of a non-answer, indicating that he didn't seem to know, or he felt deep down that his avoiding conflict with his mother was more important than how his wife felt about the whole thing.

I pointed out that while I wasn't going to tell him how to run his life or how he conducted his marriage, that he had asked me once why I thought it was so rare that foreign women and Taiwanese men seem to end up together (I had mentioned at one point before that that of the marriages I knew of, almost all had ended in divorce).

"This is why," I said. "Well not this exactly, but that attitude is why. Our cultures are different and that's all fine, I try not to judge, there're usually upsides and downsides to both. But, as an American woman, I expect my husband to have my back. I expect him to support me. You know I don't have kids, and my mother-in-law is awesome - I don't think we'd ever have such a disagreement. But if we did, I would take it as a given that my husband would support me, even if it meant standing up to his family. In fact, it would be a dealbreaker. I expect my spouse to put me first, as I put him first. Not to decide that his parents' feelings are more important than mine, or more important than supporting me. I am completely serious when I say that sort of attitude would land us in counseling."

"Oh. But what if he disagreed with you and agreed with his mother?"

"I'd still expect support - we'd have that discussion behind closed doors and then, after a resolution had been reached, approach his family as as united front. No matter what, we come first. And that's just it - I could see a Western woman finding that attitude of 'you come first unless my family disagrees, in which case their feelings come first and you come second if you rate at all' to be totally unacceptable. I know I would. I hope you don't take this as me judging you or telling you what to do - I'm giving you a clear example of where these intercultural problems arise."


Let me reiterate. A is one of the good ones. He works his ass off to support his family and would do anything for them. He doesn't have any crazy notions that women belong in the home or make childrearing their primary responsibility (his wife does stay home, but I believe him when he says this was her choice), should earn less than men, should be submissive or take a secondary role. He places a lot of value on women being educated and smart. He does not try to excuse sexual harassment or assault or domestic violence as many men do. He is in no way a bad person.

And yet here he is not having his wife's back - he certainly never intended consciously to let her deal with his contrarian mother, and he probably thinks he does support her - in fact, in many other ways, he surely does. He probably thinks that being a breadwinner for his family, being devoted to his kids and being generally kind to his wife while filial to his parents is enough. I doubt it had occurred to him that it is not in fact enough, and refusing to back his wife in a disagreement with his mother is one of many ways in which he is letting emotional labor fall on his wife, and in which he is reinforcing gender roles and norms that hurt both men and women.

He did nothing wrong in his actions, but his inaction has consequences I'm not sure he has seen. I have no idea if my brutally honest viewpoint made an impact on him - we didn't talk about it again, and anyway it's his life and really for his wife to speak up if she feels unsupported.

His way of being 'one of the good ones' - someone whose conduct in most ways is unimpeachable, which makes it that much harder to criticize something that shouldn't be as important as it is, but who nevertheless doesn't act or give sufficient support at critical moments - allows sexist norms in society to continue. It allows mothers-in-law in Taiwan to, even if they don't use it, retain the privilege of treating daughters-in-law badly (I certainly don't mean to imply that all Taiwanese mothers in law do this). It allows the burden of dealing with problematic family and making childrearing decisions to fall, as always, on the wife while the husband makes himself absent. It leaves women with little choice, just as Joan felt she didn't have adequate support to make a different choice.

I'd also like to tell a story about my friend, B. B, like A, does not believe women ought to earn less than men. As it should, such a viewpoint strikes B as completely absurd. He'd laugh in agreement at a joke like "mo' penis, mo' money" (a joke that, knowing me, I have probably made). B is totally supportive of women being successful financially and career-wise.

That said, B has admitted he'd feel uncomfortable if his wife earned more than him. He doesn't know why. I'm not sure he could come up with a good reason even if he had time to think about it. Some horrible inculcation of social norms when he was growing up in a Taiwan - although this could well have been the USA or almost any other country - left him with an inexplicable, subconscious expectation that while women could earn lots of money, and while it was perfectly fine for some other woman to earn more than her husband, that his own wife should not earn more than him. Sort of like the women-and-salary version of the "I think it's fine if people are gay but NOT MY SON" nonsense so many people believe.

B is one of the good ones - once again he's devoted to family, loving to his wife and kids, generous, kind, mature, smart, hardworking and honest. He in no way intends to oppress women or imply they should curtail their career goals so as to always be one rung below men. He would never think of himself as supporting, consciously or not, a system that keeps women down.

And yet, here he is expecting that he should be the primary breadwinner and his wife should earn less than he does. Because...why exactly? No reason. Makes him feel like less of a man? I don't know - I don't think he'd say that (if he did, being my friend I'd probably say 'what, you'd be afraid your wife's penis was bigger than yours?' Because I like to joke about penises. They are inherently hilarious-looking.) Since when is being a great man tied to making more money than a woman, and what does it say about any man who, consciously or not, thinks it is?

So, being me and B being my friend with whom I can be brutally honest, I point out that it may seem like a personal attitude, but there is a saying in feminism that 'the personal is the political' - an aggregate of people's personal views, all lumped together like so many drops of water in a tidal wave, turns into something greater than any one person's personal views. At least that's how I interpret it, and I'm not really the biggest Dworkin fan. That if he feels that way but he's the only one, that says something about him but doesn't really impact society. However, if a lot of men, even most men, feel the way he does, that's actually a huge problem. It does keep women down - it basically forces them to assess to what degree they want a successful career and to what degree they want to find a life partner. It forces them worry, in a way that a man doesn't, that if they reach a certain level of financial success that it will be harder to find a life partner. A  student of mine - a female doctor - has already pointed out that male doctors have no trouble getting married and often marry nurses at the hospitals where they work, but female doctors, if they are not married to another doctor or married before they begin the profession, often remain single. Basically, by feeling this way you are pushing women to consider whether to curb their ambitions if they are high-flown enough to drive away men like him...and there are a LOT of men like him.

And I asked, "how would you feel if you found out your wife had curtailed her own career because she knew that out-earning you would make you uncomfortable? How would you feel if, when you were single, you'd fallen in love with a woman who then became nervous that you'd feel 'threatened' by her earning potential? Knowing that you never have to worry in this way?"

He admitted, unlike A, that this was deeply unfair. Has he examined his own beliefs? Knowing him, probably.

I pointed out again that this would be another dealbreaker for me, though perhaps not for every Western woman - I've met plenty of Western women who still ascribe to the idea that men need to feel like 'men' by being 'providers', which of course just allows men to continue living unexamined lives and doing subtle things to keep women from gaining true equality. I don't really care if my husband earns more than me - we've both earned more at one point or another - but I DO care what his attitude is about that. I would marry a man who made more than me, but not a man who thought he had a divine right to do so. I would not stay with a man who'd make it an issue if I earned more than him.

But the point remains - B is one of the good ones, yet through inaction, unquestioned assumptions and prejudices, unexamined privilege and lack of support still did not support women's equality quite as much as he thought he did.

I see this so often in Taiwan...and globally, but I am writing from Taiwan so this is from a Taiwan perspective. And until we can properly pin down, address and eradicate this issue, until we can bring ourselves to call out the anti-equality, anti-woman sentiments of otherwise good men, as subtle and hard to root out as they may be, and push them to be more supportive and to back up their otherwise feminist rhetoric of equality and respect with action and change, even just of the self, we're not going to have the sort of progress for women that Taiwan and many other countries need.

We need to wake up a lot of people and get them to stop being 'one of the good ones' and start being straight-up GOOD.


Unknown said...

How to publicly confront a male colleague who postures as progressive -- but won't say how much he's making because it's a lot more than a woman with better qualifications gets?

Our employer of course discourages this discussion, but it's big enough that it should follow good practice and be transparent, or at least not punish those who are candid.

I can imagine he too doesn't want to "make mom mad" by supporting a specific woman with a clearly actionable injustice -- is fairness optional here? Is being timid a good excuse?


Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Wish I knew how to effectively confront such a person. I feel comfortable being honest with friends - they are my friends for that reason - but a colleague who is not my friend would also be difficult for me to confront. I agree that fairness and the call to speak out are not optional here. I'd probably say something like "it's easy not to speak out, but a good measure of a person's character is whether and when he or she does the right thing even when it makes people uncomfortable. You can do what you want, but whatever you do, it is a reflection of your character. Who do you want to be? The one who spoke out or the one who let an injustice continue because it was easier not to? Which do you think makes you a better person?

The woman could speak out too - "I know ______ makes more than me, and I'd like to talk about that considering my qualifications", but she faces a massive uphill battle without his support.

He probably thinks he's 'one of the good ones' too.