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    Thursday, December 15, 2005

    The Pleasures of Being a Token

    The always brilliant Amanda of Pandagon takes on one of those icky issues, how good it feels sometimes to be the "token":

    I think there's even more to it than just the fear of getting some sort of sexist backlash that comes into play for women struggling with choices like the one that Fey alluded to--there's also the ugly reality that there's something appealing about being the token. It's fun to be special, like you're the only person good enough in your group to get into the club, even as you intellectually understand that you're not the beneficiary of sexism so much as the victim of it, since while you're the Good Enough to Be in the Club Girl, you're still just the girl. I've found myself in that position a few times, and while it's sort of satisfying to be basically an honorary man, in the long run, it makes you second guess yourself constantly. Women in power then would do well to imitate our male forebears and see to it that we have a number of people around us that remind us of ourselves. Of course, women with that kind of power shouldn't go so far in imitation as to actually exclude worthy men, but I don't really think there's any kind of danger of female domination looming any time soon.

    The other issue is that being tokenized gives you a foothold that forging your own path doesn't. For example, I wanted so very desperately to be in a band when I was in junior high and high school and I was a better musician than most of the male musicians I knew. I was able to play several instruments, could sightread while also being fairly kickass at learning stuff off the record. Chops-wise, I blew most of the boys I knew out of the water, had great gear (my dad's a professional musician and hooked me way up) and I didn't even want to be the frontperson- I just wanted people to let me stand in the back and rock. But, many guys told me, "It's too bad you're a girl, otherwise I'd love you to play in our band." So, I complained all the time about it and my dad said, "Why don't you start an all-girl band? If you can't find any girls who play, you can help them learn." And I truly had very little interest in that. Because I knew that, even if we were the best band in town, everyone would laugh at us or just stand out there yelling "Show us your tits!" and no one would really believe that what we were doing was making music. They'd think, no matter what we were playing, that we were either Bikini Kill or the Spice Girls and I didn't want to be either.

    It's like the woman columnist thing. Women could all go write their asses off for Marie Claire about whatever they wanted, or they could start their own magazine or newspaper, and many have and do (and look at the blogosphere), but they're never going to be taken seriously as writers and thinkers if they had to go off and make their own thing to get their voices heard.

    The other issue is that you actually get asked your opinion. I think a lot of women (this may or may not be particular to white middle-class gals) have been told to keep their mouths shut and told that we have nothing valuable to say. When I was in a class as an undergrad with all men and the class was a gender studies class, I got asked all the time by the (male) professor and the other (male) students to weigh in on discussions I wouldn't have felt comfortable weighing in on without invitation. Just as often, in all male environments, I got silenced, but there is, when dealing with so-called "sensitive", "liberal" people, that whole, "now, what do you think about that?" phenomenon. Sometimes it's gross and I didn't want to have to weigh in on everything, but it did make me feel important.

    In a culture which devalues women, it makes perfect sense to want to "transcend" being one. I know that I felt that I could somehow transition out of my gender by being surrounded by men (or boys, as a child). I thought that being around women and girls would dangerously rub off on me. I would become more "girly". It translated into a weird pattern, where I identified strongly with my father and profoundly underestimated my more traditionally feminine mother and sister, which is a routine I deeply regret. I am still not traditionally feminine, I am still probably more like my father (no doubt in part from having idolized the guy my entire first 20 years of life) but I have come to appreciate women like my mother and sister, their accomplishments, their skills, and their intelligence. If you hate being a woman, it can often translate to hatred of being around them. Being a token is an effective way of convincing yourself that you are not, indeed, the thing about which you are ashamed of being. Here's the thing: you may be able to forget, for a moment or two, that you are female thinking you're one of the boys, but they never will.

    There's also the appeal of speaking for others of your ilk. I mean, I don't think I'm alone in feeling that other women (especially "mainstream", not feminist-identified women) are sometimes frustrating. While I understand, intellectually, some of their actions, I can't relate to, for example, dating a sexist man who expects me to act out a certain role. I can't relate to women who smile when a strange man on the street tells them to smile (or worse). When I see other women seem to like these things, which is their right but still bothersome to me, I wish I could be the "example", the "model" of what "women" are, despite my hatred of the idea that women "are" any particular thing.

    I wish that, when men asked "What do women want?" I could say,

    "Well, we want not to have our meals paid for or doors opened for us or so-called compliments flung at us on the street, we like to be treated as equals. We care about politics and culture and art and literature and history even more than we care about the 307 things you supposedly like in bed according to some magazine, though we're not afraid of sex and sexuality. We are neither more mature than you are, nor more infant-like, and we wish to be treated as such. We are concerned foremost with justice, less so with comfort. Romance to us is not strategically-placed rose petals and candles, but respect. We like lovers who are turned on by and interested in partnership and the challenges it brings. We like pursuing as much as being pursued. Etc, Etc, Etc."

    And I would like men then to say, "Oh, well, if you say that's what women want and that's what women like, then that's how I'm going to see women and treat women from now on." But I am not all women and I can't possibly stand for any woman but myself, no matter the power thrust upon me when I am the only woman in the room. And that's one major part of the allure of tokenism for the "feminist".

    Hugo Schwyzer:

    This reminds me of some of the discussion we had around my "All of my Best Friends are Guys" post six months ago. I said then, and say again:

    I think the term feminism encompasses many things, but I'm adamant that one can't be a genuine feminist if one doesn't like women! Wanting to advocate for women in general while not forming genuinely close friendships with other individual women isn't, I think, authentic feminism.

    I'm always struck by how many of the young women I know say with pride "You know, I'm not a typical girl." What they mean by "typical girl" is some sort of ultra-feminine stereotype with a passionate interest in the superficial and the exterior. They also, sometimes, seem to associate "typical girl" with weakness, vulnerability, and victimhood.

    I've spent a fair amount of time in nearly all-male settings where one or two "token" women could be found. And over and over again, I've seen (particularly from some of the younger ones) this intense sense of pride at being "one of the boys." When one is the only member of a minority allowed into a club, there's an understandable sense of flattering uniqueness -- "I'm different" can also quickly mean "I'm 'better than'". Sometimes, I've seen young women jealously guard this privileged status against others. After all, if lots of "girls" get into the "boys'" club, then being a girl in the boys' club doesn't seem as special, does it? Is it too much of a stretch to compare this internalized sexism to the oft-noted disdain "house slaves" showed for 'field slaves"?

    I've felt a different allure of tokenism, too. I've often been the only man in the room doing feminist work. Given that we set the bar pretty damn low for guys, wherever I go in the feminist world, I can count on getting tons of praise for the work I do. "We're so excited to see men taking an interest in feminism", I'm told; "We're so glad you're teaching the courses you teach." That has an unfortunate tendency to puff me up a bit. It can also lead me, at my worst, to try and defend my "special status" as the rare pro-feminist man.


    And, Hugo goes on to explain how he tries to circumvent that danger, but I think that he points to a major problem with tokenism in liberal or leftist circles. As a token, we are able, as I pointed to above, take on the speaking-for-everyone-"like-me" mantle, and sharing that is difficult (especially when "people-like-you" disagree with your perspective), as it is also difficult to have the prize of "Most Progressive of the Them All". I've noticed that it is really common for women of some more marginalized groups within feminist organizations to say things like, "Well, I'd love to get more women of faith in an organization like this, but all the religious women I'm friends with are more interested in organizations related to their church," as in, "I'm really the only person of my "type" that "gets it". Or, "you have to understand that the Latino culture is so overrun by machismo that it's hard to get Latina women involved in work on women's issues," as in "I have transcended the problems of my culture of origin." The other way of using the others who are not there is to speak through them, while pretending to represent them. I have done this myself: "Well, I think that to some low-income women that might come across as classist," which allows me to insert a criticism of the group in a way that doesn't implicate me as the critic. When you bring actual low-income women in who may or may not agree with you, you can no longer use them as your back-up.

    I'll let Echidne of the Snakes have the last word:

    "The feeling that they are somehow just better than other women." Yes, this is a neat solution to the problem all women face: how to live in a sexist world. It lets the token woman think that there is nothing wrong with misogyny and such. The other women, the inferior ones, deserve that. The good women get to be taken up to the boys' treehouse.

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