“She didn’t really know how to cook!”
“Never kept her house clean”
“Maybe she wasn’t that good of a woman”
“In general, she was quite a useleslady”
Secrets and villages
The false unawareness
Maybe it was all her fault
It was almost palpable
The rejection and dismissal
The objection and removal
A lesson to be learned
A rule not to break
Or else you will be condemned
To live your life in shame
I was meeting with my friend Carol at a pub for some drinks to celebrate the end of the first semester. I was a little bit excited about because we had not seen each other since we came back after the christmas break even though knowing that the night would be part of my MA research was not that fun. Once in, we ordered a single vodka and sat down in one of the few free tables. The pub was packed even though it was a Tuesday night, and I get a bit anxious when I am in crowded spaces.
There were lots of ‘lads’, being really loud and doing drinking competitions, which added to my unwell feeling because I really just wanted to have fun with my friend without having to deal with anyone’s ‘banter’. However, I also wanted something to happen so I could add it to my research, which made me feel… I don’t know, a bit guilty. I wanted to get something out of that night to be able to add it to my analysis I guess. It sounds like I am asking to be harassed, well not necessarily harassed but asking for an encounter with some “lads”. It is a very strange feeling because one part of me finds “lad culture” and everyone involved in it despicable yet at the same time another part of me wants and needs to be close to it for my research. I am confronted with and by myself. My identity is in a constant fight between what I think is right – seeing ‘lad culture’ for what it is, a toxic phenomenon – and what I think is wrong – wanting to be close to it for the sake of my study -. In this regard and in my opinion, ‘the normal’ thing would be to despise ‘laddism’, therefore ‘the other’, that is, the opposite to ‘the normal’, would be to desire to get closer to it. This creates a feeling of otherness (Okolie 2009) that shapes my dualistic identity of researcher/researched object.
As I was reflecting on this while sitting there, the crawling alarm feeling had already started to pound in my chest; I was talking to my friend but half of my brain was focused and aware of everything that was happening surrounding us. I was seated with my back turned to the rest of the bar, which prevented me from seeing the whole picture, therefore increasing my uneasiness. I remember feeling like my back was naked, in the sense of anyone could come and touch me and I wouldn’t be able to react fast because I had not seen them approaching me. I also thought if the fact that not being able to see the bar would affect the research of that night: what if because guys could not see me they would not come, therefore meaning I would get back home without any worthy information? This also lead me to wondering what my friend would think of me if she knew I was going to use this night out for my personal purposes. It is not like I was using her, it was her idea to come to the pub anyway, I did not force a meeting to collect data. However the problem with my research topic is that every social moment (pub, bar, university) is a potential research field, which consequently makes our meetings at the pub dissertation material.
While we were talking, two guys came up to our table and sat down. When I saw them right next to us my body went tense. I felt like I was being attacked, not physically or violently, but understanding attack as an invasion; I felt like they were invading our physical space and our private conversation, and they couldn’t care less by the smug expression on their faces; yet at the same time I was seeing it as research data, which made me feel excited. But mostly I was angry; seeing their complacent faces annoyed me even if they were to be included in my auto ethnography.
They started talking but I was too caught up trying to manage all my feelings to listen. I did not recognise them at first, but after a couple of minutes I remembered them as the guys we once played pool with back in November. They had been nice that day, not trying anything with us or acting creepy, so I gave myself the freedom of calming down my anger. My body got a bit lose and my heart slowed down the beating rhythm. However, this time both of them were very drunk, and they kept on making jokes between them that we could not understand. They talked to us and then literary made jokes only for them, which made it seem like they were laughing at us, right to our faces. I was shocked, I did not know what to do. I started feeling an overwhelming humiliation; it was not just something internal, a feeling only felt from the inside of my body, but also from the outside. It was like my skin was getting impregnated with shame, my body was shrinking by itself.
I looked at my friend trying to know if she knew what was going on, but she looked back at me with the same confused expression. One of the guys then turned to me and asked if it was really hot in Italy at this time of the year while trying to hold back his laugh. I stared at him and said “I don’t have a clue since I am not from there”, which seemed to incentive the fun they both were having. I just sat there, tense as a guitar’s string with my eyes fixated on the table. My brain was rushing and pumping trying to figure out what to do: “do I just sit here quietly and wait for them to go when they are done or I do something about this?”. But I felt powerless, If I had told them to piss off there would have been two options; more laughing at our expense or a negative reaction, and neither of them was a win for me. I was raging, I felt my face and hands getting hot and sweaty; I started playing with my rings just to direct all the energy my body was producing as a consequence of my anger into something.
Meanwhile, my friend was trying to play it cool, laughing along with them asking what was so funny they couldn’t stop their chuckles, something they completely ignored. I was just holding my drink, nervously touching with my rings and staring directly to the table, hoping that my body language would speak for myself. Among all the anger I was feeling, I still had some hope they would notice how uncomfortable I was and decided to leave. But they wanted to humiliate us, they were craving for that sort of power that you can only get when degrading someone,. I could still hear my friend talking to them, or at least trying, which added to my indignation. I was outraged she was trying to pretend everything was fine. At this point I could not decide who I was more angry about: them for humiliating us or her for putting up with it. My foot started moving involuntary out of nervousness; again I needed to move my body to put the energy to work.
A couple of minutes later, they finally decided to leave. I did not feel relaxed straight away, quite the contrary. My indignation and annoyance seemed to increase, this time all directed to me. I blamed me for the entire situation, for not speaking up, for not reacting (and of course, for wanting so desperately the data). I just sat there not doing anything about it, even tolerating it. I was ashamed of myself.
The rest of the night was awkward. I didn’t really want to be there. I was angry at myself and it was affecting behaviour. I wasn’t talking that much, only (barely) listening to Carol and nodding every now and then. Eventually she noticed and became quieter little by little. I felt bad for her, I was being a grumpy git and it wasn’t her fault. But the truth is I couldn’t snap out of my anger and pretend everything was okay when it certainly wasn’t. I was such an idiot. Those boys had ruined my night. Or was I the one letting them ruin it? I couldn’t tell anymore. Probably a combination of both. What I knew for sure is that I did not do anything to stop them making fun of us. But then I wonder, didn’t they start it all? Didn’t they humiliate us? Aren’t they then the ones to blame and not me? It’s funny because one part of me completely agree with this logic, yet the other is fighting it telling me that it was me who allowed that to happen.
I went home and, besides all the frustration I was feeling regarding what had happened, I felt happy it had since my research would benefit from it. This added to my frustration and I started thinking how normal this was: am I supposed to like my interactions with “lad culture” now that I am researching it? Maybe not “like them” but at least wanted to be approached by lads for my research’s benefit? What does this say about me as a person and as a researcher? I hate “laddism” and everything it stands for, however now I find myself in a position where I want to have and experience a close relationship with it in order to investigate it, which confuses me and excites me at the same time. I guess these are the problems of being my own object of analysis, my dualistic role of researcher/researched is not clearly differentiated because it is impossible to do so; I am myself and everything that happens to me, I cannot distance myself from my lived experience, never mind what role I am adopting at a certain moment.
Reading this entry again I find myself fascinated. Fascinated and shocked. It just doesn’t sound like me. All that self-blame, the shame I was feeling, the rope I was holding above my head. It feels surreal because had it happened to one of my friends, I would be telling them how stupid they are for having these thoughts. Yet, it is all me. A self-labelled feminist, wannabe researcher victim-blaming herself. Isn’t it funny?
What does the culture of “victim-blaming” we currently live in (Everyday Victim Blaming n.d.) say about our society? What does it say about society’s attitude – and lack of condemnation – towards violence, gender and sexuality? (Ferreday 2015) Again, I need to turn to Foucault to look for answers.
Foucault was deeply concerned about how we are made into subjects, more specifically, how we turn ourselves into subjects (1982). He argued the human subject was placed in complex power relations and in order to study it, one should take the forms of resistance against the forms of power as a starting point (ibid: 780). In other words, to focus on the “anti-authority struggles” (ibid). These struggles, for Foucault, question the status of the individual: while they assert the right to be different they constrain his/her identity through a heavily individualisation process (ibid: 781). The struggles’ main purpose is not to attack a separated group or institution of power, but rather, a form of power that “categorises the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity and imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognise and which others have to recognise in him” (ibid). This power therefore subjugates but also makes a subject to (ibid); power is thus productive.
Reflecting on this, I wonder, if focusing on the struggle between men and women embodied in “lad culture” practices, could it be said that the “law of truth” forced upon us is the one of the dualistic and oppositional gender identity (men/women), fundamentally existing in an unequal relationship? In this sense, could the patriarchal system we live in represent the “law of truth”? In this sense, it is pertinent to include a very important critique of Foucault’s conceptualisation of “power”. The concept of power as explained by Foucault is neutral and is only exercised over ‘free subjects. MacCannell and MacCannell call this into question (2002) arguing how, within the context of women, “power” has never been impartial nor even freely available but rather aggressively protected by those keeping a grasp on it (ibid:205). The authors go up against Foucault accusing him of never considering the victims’ voice or experiences therefore producing a vision and theory of power “prematurely Utopian” (ibid).
Furthering the question of how power is exercised, Foucault (1982) argues power “brings into play relations between individuals” (ibid: 786) and also involves a question of capacity. By the latter, he means it can be exerted over things giving the ability to modify, consume, use or destroy them (ibid). Foucault is careful to distinguish power relations from relationships of communication (language) and objective capacities, although he also states how closely linked they are to one another in certain moments, often overlapping and even using each other reciprocally.
To illustrate this assemblage of relations, Foucault uses the example of a school (ibid: 787) : the acquisition of aptitudes and learning process is ensured by both an ensemble of regulated communications (exams, questions, lessons); and also by power processes (punishment, surveillance). The school is therefore, in his opinion, a block of “capacity-communication-power”; it is a discipline (ibid: 788).
Following the question I posed earlier on the text, I wonder (again), if patriarchy, as a regulatory framework for gender identity, could be also act as a discipline in itself. I’ll explain: the acquiring of our gender identity would be assured by the regulated communications of gender performance (learning that, as a boy, you are not meant to wear dresses, so you don’t, and also, you are supposed to be assertive); and the power processes of gender performativity (ensuring the recognisability of your gender under constant surveillance of others fearing the punishment if you fall somehow ‘in between’). Maybe we are all in a nation-scale school that comprises the three chores of communication, capacity and power regarding gender expression and identity.
Foucault argues that “the exercise of power consists in guiding the possibility of conduct and putting in order the possible outcome” (ibid: 789). If we take as a starting point patriarchy as a discipline, how can the exercise of power be reinterpreted and what relationship does it have with the victim-blaming culture I talked about earlier on the text?
In the example of the school, if one student accuses a teacher of having slapped him, that is, physically assaulted him, the head master of the school will firstly doubt the kid instead the figure of the authority embodied by the teacher: “is he telling the truth or is he lying just because he doesn’t like the teacher? Fearing that his denunciation may disrupt the internal obedience and status quo, the director may try to delegitimise the student’s version of the incident in order to protect the teacher’s privilege and the school’s hierarchy. Sara Ahmed’s work on “against students” (2015), referring to those University students that become the problem when they speak out against the institutions or want different things that what Academics or the University itself want. She argues these students become “error students”. Within the context of patriarchy, women speaking loudly about violence against women would become the “error citizens”, victim-blamed for their own experiences as they go against what patriarchy wants.
As I am writing this, it is too hard not to see the explicit similitudes it has with the culture of victim-blaming. In the latter, women are the ones who are questioned, distrusted and ultimately delegitimised through a complex process in which their subjective accounts are deprived from cognitive value (Marcus 2002 in Ferreday 2015:25). This skeptical behaviour towards women’s account of harassment, abuse or rape is itself, as Foucault states, a display of power relations that demand the maintenance of the privileges (ibid: 792) of men. This is carried out by the punishment of women, blaming them into victims. Ferreday argues that ‘rape culture’ is the “product of gendered, raced and classed social relations” in which women’s experiences of rape are socially muted and hidden in order not to disrupt privileged male futures (ibid:23).
I hadn’t seen this connection until now, I guess I always knew the current victim-blaming tendencies in society were intended to protect men and never hold them responsible for their actions. In lad culture, one of the excuse mechanism used for these purposes is the so-called “banter”: misogynistic jokes presented as innocent pleasantry. One of the interviewees by the NUS Report (2013: 36) on “laddism” argued that “[it’s a] culture in which misogyny and sexism is seen as cool or masculine. A lot of it revolving around sexist jokes and banter so that the sexism is trivialised so that people who challenge it are make to seem like kill-joys (Ahmed 2004) or people with no sense of humour”, which shows how bad the reputation of feminism. Taking back the concept of “error citizens” that I drew on Ahmed (2015) earlier on the text, these feminist kill-joys would also embody the “error citizens” since they do not share what the patriarchal system wants.
I was seated in my boyfriend’s house living room with him and all his six male housemates. They were talking, but I wasn’t really paying attention. It is hard enough for me to follow a two-people conversation in English so the idea of trying to understand what seven people were saying all at once just made my brain hurt.
They started laughing about something and I noticed my boyfriend – Ian – hadn’t laughed with them. He was sitting right next to me and I felt his body getting a bit tense. I looked up to him to see his expression and saw a very forced and faked smile. “Okay this is weird” I thought. “I need to pay attention to what they are saying”.
I tried to get into the conversation; little by little, the background sounds transformed into words I could recognise. Quickly, I deciphered the main topic of the conversation, “girls, they are talking about girls”. But what was all that laughing about? “They are making jokes – oh”. I understood why my boyfriend had suddenly became a bit nervous. He knew how angry I could get at sexist jokes. They were never funny to me and I truly despised – and still do – the people who made them. But the truth is, I had never been in a situation where I was so outnumbered by boys making these kinds of jokes who were, at the same time, my boyfriend’s friends. I was suddenly feeling very tense too. “This is fucked up, if they are being sexist pricks I just can’t call them out: one, I’m all alone; two, they are his friends, I can’t be that disrespectful, but then, they would be the ones disrespecting me, so where is the line?” My brain was rushing trying to make sense of the entire scene and the possible outcomes.
“She didn’t feel like it yesterday, so disappointing” I heard one of them saying. My heart was beating fast, I really did not want to be a witness of the stupid and laddish banter, particularly when it was coming from my boyfriend’s group of friends. I looked at him again but he had turned his face to the opposite direction in what I believe was him trying to hide his expression from me; he was probably feeling quite embarrassed.
“Yeah man, Gary here almost suggested me going in and raping her” The same guy continued talking. Everyone laughed, except me and Ian.
I felt a wave of anger shaking my entire body. What exactly had I just heard? I counted up to ten seconds to try to calm down. I stopped hearing the conversation; the English words had gone back to be senseless background sounds. I was shocked. I had heard sexist jokes before, but never a rape one. I knew he didn’t mean it, I was dead sure he would never do it, but then, why would he be okay with joking about it? I just couldn’t understand it.
However, what I couldn’t understand either is why one part of me felt a bit guilty for taking it “too seriously”. After all, it was just a joke, right? Deep down I knew I was completely right in being offended by it, in fact, what would be outrageously wrong would be to think it was harmless. Yet I couldn’t help but somehow feel like I was being a bit… maybe too radical.
Anyway, the part of me that knew it was inadmissible won despite my internal contradiction. When my counting finished, I got up and left to my boyfriend’s room.
Isn’t it fascinating how easily sexist attitudes become internalised even by women ourselves? How we participate in a society that holds us responsible for everything that happens to us? That in a way, tells us to “suck it up” and find the humour in jokes that are beyond the threshold of offensive? In the two diary entries I have included in this chapter, I have participated in the victim-blaming culture. In the first one, I held myself responsible for not stopping the boys from annoying me and my friend in the pub; in the second one, for being too ‘uptight’ about a sexist joke. I have tried find an excuse for the inexcusable, even when I was having my internal conflict due to my dual role as both a researcher and researched object: I felt guilty for feeling happy after having something to add to my auto ethnographic diary since it implied an interaction with “lad culture”, something I shouldn’t like. It just seems like I cannot stop blaming myself.
I wonder if other girls are the same. I guess so since the moment we are born we are embedded in the patriarchal society that at the same time we construct and are integrated in with the condition of turning ourselves into subjects, individually shaped and submitted to a set of specific gendered patterns.
Is there a way out of this?
Ahmed, S. (2004). The cultural politics of emotion.
Ahmed, S. (2015). Against Students. [Blog] feministkilljoys. Available at: https://feministkilljoys.com/2015/06/25/against-students/ [Accessed 28 Jul. 2016].
Everyday Victim Blaming. (2016). Everyday Victim Blaming. [online] Available at: http://everydayvictimblaming.com [Accessed 28 Jul. 2016].
Ferreday, D. (2015). Game of Thrones, Rape Culture and Feminist Fandom. Australian Feminist Studies, [online] 30(83), pp.21-36. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08164649.2014.998453.
Foucault, M. (1982). The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry, [online] 8(4), pp.777-795. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1343197?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents [Accessed 28 Jul. 2016].
MacCannell, D. and MacCannell, J. (2002). Violence, Power and Pleasure. A revisionist reading of Foucault from the victim perspective. In: C. Ramazanoglu, ed., Up Against Foucault Explorations of Some Tensions Between Foucault and Feminism, 1st ed. [online] Routledge. Available at: http://site.ebrary.com/lib/coventry/detail.action?docID=10058254 [Accessed 28 Jul. 2016].
Marcus, S. (2002). Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention. In: C. Muli and J. Murphy, ed., Gender Struggles: Practical Approaches to Contemporary Feminism, 1st ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, pp.166-185 in Ferreday, D. (2015). Game of Thrones, Rape Culture and Feminist Fandom. Australian Feminist Studies, [online] 30(83), pp.21-36.
Okolie, A. (2003). Introduction to the Special Issue — Identity: Now You Don’t See It; Now You Do. Identity, [online] 3(1), pp.1-7. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/S1532706XID0301_01?journalCode=hidn20.