By Tatyana Brown
“So, I just have to tell you, your boobs have been the topic of much conversation tonight. I’m sure you knew that already. I mean, everyone is talking about them. And I was just sitting three feet away a little while ago, and I heard you saying something about a person sticking their face in your cleavage, and how you didn’t want them to or something like that, and I just have to ask you, in a dress like that, how do you expect people to help themselves? I mean, look at you. If you don’t want people to treat you like that, maybe you should wear a sign or something like that to let everybody know.” — Anonymous WoWPS 2011 Competitor
That is a paraphrased version of something that was said to me without provocation at the 2011 Women of the World Poetry Slam afterparty. It was relatively early in the evening, and a female acquaintance (I’d bouted with her once) approached my table, politely interrupted the conversation, and held forth with her opinions about my body and my dress. I actually ended up writing the statement down and checking in with two of the women present to make sure I wasn’t making up what I’d heard. I wasn’t.
This interaction might seem negligible to some in the grand scheme of socialized misogyny, as I wasn’t in any way directly physically assaulted or endangered. But I believe it’s worth examination, because moments like this one, and the language used, are the foundation upon which larger, more dangerous and violent acts are built every single day. And in terms of a purely poetry slam context, I’ve become convinced that similar conversations are often key factors in women leaving the poetry slam community. I’m taking the time here to tell you about my experience of this particular incident because I believe that we, as a community, need to address our misogynistic trends and tendencies for the sake of our health and growth, both within the context of the slam community and in a broader cultural reading.
I want to be clear that I am keeping the woman who said that to me anonymous. There are a few reasons for this choice, but the most important one is that I feel this incident is just an example of a much larger problem, and I’m not interested in having this become a witch hunt. With problems this pervasive, we can’t blame one person and then act as though everything in the world is right again. So if you know who I’m referring to here, or even if you just think you know, please keep it to yourself. This is not about one woman’s words. This is about the environment we live in, and how it shapes the way women are treated.
As far as the scope of this particular essay, I’m going to limit my exploration of misogyny in slam to our interactions offstage. Addressing misogyny becomes a much more complicated topic once we bring the chaotic element of audience into the equation. But I believe we have a shot at actually making progress in ameliorating harmful language and treatment within our community, and that that process will have strong social reverberations that may one day impact the quality of our audiences. To my mind, that’s a lofty but reachable goal.
When the woman in question said that to me (and I do feel it is relevant and useful to note that it was a woman who said it), she was laughing, smiling, and expressing a great deal of affection towards me and everyone at the table. She was at least a little drunk, which is understandable, considering we were at the afterparty for a national festival. But she was in no way angry or violent in her demeanor. And though we’re not close friends by any stretch, she’s a good-hearted, generous, sweet lady who is well-loved by our community. I firmly believe she thought she was paying me a compliment, and that she was being funny about it.
The impetus for this quote was my outfit. That night, I wore a dress to Finals that showed off quite a bit of cleavage. I have worn this dress to host shows before, albeit pinned shut so as to be less distracting. But on Saturday, my roommates encouraged me to wear it without pinning it purely on the basis that fuck it, the whole thing looked good. They were trying to support me in feeling confident and good about my body. And I wasn’t about to be on stage that evening, so why not?
If I could reduce the quote at the beginning of this essay to “You look really nice in that dress, and everybody’s been talking about it.” (which, I’m pretty sure, is actually what the speaker meant) I wouldn’t be writing this essay. I would have just been flattered, if a little uncomfortable (that kind of compliment is unfamiliar territory to me). But the quote itself is highly problematic on a couple different levels, which I’m going to break out piece by piece here.
First of all, there’s a certain amount of uninvited objectification, insofar as the speaker singled out a specific part of my body instead of addressing me as an entire human being. Objectification is a tricky issue — one that deserves much more exploration than this essay can allow. And the nature in which it was presented in this particular quote wasn’t sufficient to cause real difficulty for me on its own. But there was a common link of uninvited objectification between this quote and the rest of my night, which I will get to later. For now, suffice it to say that people deserve to be people at all times, and that objectification is one fashion in which misogynistic scripts demean and silence women, so it deserves exploration and notice when instances of objectification arise.
The real meat of my difficulty with the quote lies in its reliance on what is often referred to as “the short skirt argument”. The speaker told me that, based on what I was wearing, I should expect people to touch my body — particularly in a sexualized fashion, like sticking their face in my cleavage — without my consent. Whether or not it was meant to be a compliment, the message here is that if I dress in a provocative fashion, I am no longer allowed a choice in how I am received — and not only in abstract terms of judgment regarding my character. My clothing, according to this argument, removed my right to control who touches my body and how. I cannot stress enough how harmful and terrifying this line of reasoning is to me as a woman. And it was being presented to me here as a playful and necessary reality of owning the body that I did in the dress I was wearing. It was both an accusation and the declaration that I deserved whatever I would get for being who I am.
When she was done speaking, I realized her words contained an element of violence that shook me pretty hard. So I took a deep breath and told her that, although it was clear she didn’t intend to be hurtful, she’d actually triggered me considerably and that I didn’t feel good about what she’d said. She immediately looked mortified, apologized, and excused herself. Before she left, I told her I accepted her apology (which I accept still), and that I didn’t hold this interaction against her.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about her words — and, more horribly, the feeling of inevitability I had about them. I’m writing this for the same reason it was so easy to forgive her for essentially telling me that I was “asking for it” by wearing a low cut dress when it came to negative and uninvited attention: When I examined what she said to me, I knew that if she hadn’t said it, someone else would have (or something even worse) before the night was up.
Now, outside of slam, I very rarely dress in a particularly femme fashion. I don’t even own lipstick. Learning to express femininity wasn’t ever really part of my upbringing, so the obstacles related to being seen as “femme” in public are mostly unfamiliar to me. I think part of my ability to notice and react to the shift in treatment I experienced that night was largely due to the newness of it all. Based on conversations I’ve had, it seems most women who typically dress femme have come to see these negative experiences as a given, which is honestly even more troubling.
It’s also worth noting that my exploration of femme presentation was largely inspired by the bravery of some exceptional women in slam. I found myself particularly moved by the bravery and brilliance of Rachel McKibbens and Tara Hardy’s writing (amongst others) on the subject of femininity — specifically the realization that not wanting to be seen as at all affiliated with femininity can sometimes be a way women beat themselves up for being women in a culture that’s dangerous for and to us.
After listening to them, I recognized those feelings in myself — specifically that I was scared of identifying with obviously “feminine” modes of expression because I didn’t want to be seen as weak, stupid, or superficial. All of those ideas about femininity, I realized, were ways I’d been taught to hate myself for being born a woman. None of them actually have anything to do with my experience of being one. So I made a conscious decision to explore all of the things that I was scared of based on bullshit I’d been taught. Dressing up is a part of that. I have the awesome women of slam to thank in so many ways for that realization, and the subsequent journey upon which I’ve found myself, and I am deeply grateful.
I was certainly treated differently based on my appearance on Saturday night. It should be noted that the difference was largely positive. People went out of their way to say nice things and be generally friendly and sweet. And at the same time, there was a trend in behavior directed at me that mimicked the positive stuff but actually sucked. The quote above is just the most extreme example that I was exposed to before I changed into other clothes (and I was really lucky that the afterparty was so close to the host hotel).
A lot of this negative attention and behavior was cleavage-related. For example, on more than one occasion, someone I knew called me over to his/her table just to tell me that my “boobs looked great in that dress” or that I “have a great rack” and then had absolutely nothing else to say to me and expected me to walk away. People were calling out their opinions about my boobs as I walked past, without provocation or invitation, or really any intent to talk to me as a person. It felt, at times, like my cleavage was the only thing anyone wanted to talk to me about. This, in case you were at all curious or unsure, is an incredibly boring conversation to be stuck having for more than thirty seconds. It was also exceptionally frustrating. I’m pretty sure the whole reason I was told I “should maybe wear a sign” to help people figure out how to treat me was because, a few minutes beforehand, I announced to my table that I was officially done talking with everyone about my breasts. My exasperation was fairly loud, and it likely drew more attention.
Things being what they are, I suppose now is the right time to acknowledge the fact that I’m a fairly bawdy person who has actively cultivated a sense of openness and shamelessness about sexuality and the human body. I’m also queer and unwilling to censor that aspect of my personality. I got into writing dirty haiku purely because the pastime amused me. I post status updates about motoroboating (and being motorboated by) people I love on Facebook, because I think it’s hilarious. And I didn’t mind recognizing my own cleavage in a photo printed in the underground gossip rag at WoWPS known as The Tittler that was taken with my knowing consent. So, if it seems weird that I’m disturbed by being treated the way I was on Saturday night, let me clarify: There is a difference between choosing to do something and having something done to you without permission.
The ability to be honest about who I am, and to express myself playfully, has taken years of hard work to garner. It’s also something I believe every human has a right to experience, and being able to be at choice when it comes to my body and how I use it is an integral component of this experience. True autonomy eliminates much of the fear I might have of unwanted retaliation from others based on my self-expression. So, my openness is in no way an invitation for folks to do whatever they want with and to me. It is rather an invitation for everyone to do what they want to and with themselves.
In part, my assumption that it wouldn’t be dangerous or too off-putting to test the waters with femme presentation at Women of the World was based on the fact that many of these female role models were in attendance. I now realize that this assumption was ill-founded because I failed to take some crucial details into account: Namely, that the women I admire have fought for years to both own their appearances and be taken seriously. Femme presentation, or even a lack of outright misogynistic behavior, has cost them dearly, and their refusal to compromise on the subject is a product of sheer tenacity. While that speaks highly of the strength of many of these women, it’s also an unnecessarily prohibitive barrier to inclusion in our community for a large and valuable demographic.
I spent a fair amount of time over the course of WoWPS talking with Cheryl Maddalena (the slammaster of Boise, and one of my roommates) about the ways the ladies of Boise have been treated based on their appearance. “Boise Hot” is a common enough term in slam that they actually sell t-shirts. (Seriously. Google the sentence “I am Boise Hot.” You’ll find them.) Boise is known for looking good, and for being a breath of fresh air in terms of the poetry they perform in competition. But the negative attention that Cheryl told me about has become off-putting to levels that feel too extreme to reasonably go unchecked (to my mind, at least).
According to Cheryl, women have come up to Boise poets at bouts and social functions and said things as callous as “So, I hear your team sleeps with everybody.” without any provocation. Other Boise poets have since chimed in and said that, “…we’ve also had plenty of people (men and women) comment on how surprised they are that we can write decent poems, have an intelligent conversation, or hold down real-life jobs. “These interactions are a major part of why one female poet from Boise decided not to go to NPS this past summer — despite making the team. Since a rough draft of this essay appeared on Facebook, I have actually lost track of the number of messages I’ve received from poets who hate the misogynistic undertones of their nationals experiences, but who also don’t think there’s a way to improve the situation. Many of their stories sound like mine, but some are darker. And a lot of these women told me they are nervous or unwilling to return to national slam events based on the way they’ve been treated. I think that’s a major loss for our community, both artistically and socially. And I’m fairly certain that if you just try, you’ll be able to think of examples that fit the category I’m describing all on your own. I’m speaking up precisely because my experience here is flat-out common, and I think that’s unacceptable.
Here’s what I’m getting at: Based on my experiences, and the experiences others have shared with me, I do not believe the national slam community is yet, on the whole, a space where women aren’t punished for being women. I think it could be, and I recognize that we are a community in progress that constantly re-evaluates itself to try and become more progressive. And just to reiterate, this isn’t about the poems we slam or the art we produce. I am not interested in censorship, or in sterilizing slam itself. But I also think the negative attention being put on women (even at WoWPS) gets amplified heavily by the fact that we’re a performance-based community, and that this is a major reason female poets get burned out and leave. I know we can do better than this.
I am not writing this solely as a complaint, but rather as part of what I hope will be a longer conversation. We can do a great deal of good by addressing the issue of misogyny as a community, and I firmly believe we have the capacity to take on this problem. For a group with one shared interest (competitive performance poetry), we are absurdly diverse. We’re also highly communicative (if a little defensive and hot-headed, at times), passionate, and interested in being understood. And, based on stories I’ve heard from folks who’ve been around way longer (as well as a few of my own experiences), we create lasting, devoted relationships. Many of these relationships, in my life, are with people I literally wouldn’t hang out with at all if it weren’t for slam — but the community surrounding this art gave us the opportunity to fall in love. (Of course, our contact with one another can also be superficial, petty, and transient. That happens, too. But I am actually impressed by the prevalence of love in this community.) When you mix these characteristics with earnest dialogue (the kind that gives people space to feel heard and build trust), I think magical things can happen. I believe we have at our disposal all of the necessary ingredients for change.
I want new ways for us to relate to one another to arise from our discussions. I think, with a little effort and the proper framework, we can come up with ways to cut through our cultural training and create something new and more empowering together.
As I said before, the insidious, pervasive nature of this reaction to femininity is part of what makes grosser transgressions against women possible — everything from the glass ceiling to sexual assault. When this essay was first posted as a note on Facebook, I was surprised by the number of emails I got from people (from within the slam community and without alike) thanking me for addressing the short skirt argument, because its prevalence in society is a major reason they didn’t report an incident of sexualized violence in their own lives. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. As poets, our passion requires us to understand the close link between language and action. Misogynistic language is no exception. Taking the time to shift our treatment of women will have a profound impact for more than just the slam community.
It seems reasonable to say that misogyny exists so pervasively in slam because it exists just as intensely (if not more so) in many of the larger cultures where we all live. As such, our ability to deal with this issue together can relate to all the other cultures and communities in which we participate. And taking up a clean and open dialogue on the subject of misogyny/sexism has broader implications when we begin to consider all the other forms of violence and oppression in culture — those related to race, class, sexual orientation, and varying forms of disability, to name a few.
While this essay has been entirely dedicated to my understanding of certain experiences around gender, I am sincerely committed to examining ALL systemic forms of oppression — including the ones where I’m a privileged party. I believe that many of the tools we can use to dismantle one form of oppression (if oppressive systems can truly be separated at all) can also be used to dismantle many others. There are nuances and tweaks that need to be put in place, and lots of conversation to be had, but I want to make it clear that much of what I want from talking about this is larger than how women are treated. I think this could be about all of us.
Tatyana Brown is a writer, educator, and community organizer based in San Francisco. She is a cohost on The Oversocial Mofo Revue, along with Mike McGee and David Perez, and a member of the 2010 San Francisco City Slam Team.