Tuesday, December 26, 2017

My Brush With The Implict Threat Model Of Guy-Guy Interactions

One day I was walking along in Buffalo, New York and I had an interestingly gendered interaction with some strangers.

It was winter, and everyone was really bundled up: I was wearing jeans, and boots, an old coat an old boyfriend had kindly given me because I liked it so much, a hat, a scarf, and, I think, sunglasses. I was walking on a major street, but since the sidewalks were imperfectly shoveled, and it was icy and snowy, there was a bit of a narrowness to the path ahead.

I saw two guys coming toward me, walking along the sidewalk together. I didn't think anything of it. As we got close to each other, and I started to step slightly aside to let them pass, the guys crashed into me -- deliberately. Not quite hard enough to knock me over, but almost. I looked up at them, like WTF? And then I heard one of the guys say to the other, "Hey, it's a girl! Stop, stop, it's a girl!"

I understood immediately what had happened. Thinking I was a guy, they had a guy-guy interaction with me. I don't know if they were trying to start something, or if something about my clothing -- girlish, if you thought I was a guy -- struck them as a problem, or whether they were just crabby and wanted to take it out on someone. On realizing I was a woman, their whole way of relating to me changed. I was no longer a stranger with whom being physically combative would seem like the thing to do.

I am not sure whether the guys were white guys, or black guys, or guys of some other race. Maybe I didn't notice at the time or maybe I forgot. I am white; I wonder, if I actually were a guy, whether the racial aspect of the situation would have struck me as more salient, as an insight into the kind of aggression being put out there. I don't know.

Anyway, I was disturbed enough to want to put some distance between us, so I just turned away and went on my way. And they went on theirs, past me in the opposite direction.

It was just a few seconds, but I have thought about this interaction so many times since then. I have always known, intellectually, that the way guys relate to one another often has an implicit-threat aspect to it -- whether that's a physical threat or one involving subtler forms of social power. But experiencing it first-hand made me appreciate this fact in a deeper and more visceral way.

The fact that guy-guy interactions often have this implicit-threat aspect to them seems to me relevant not only to understanding masculinity and guy-guy relations, but also to understanding feminism and any-gender relations. One reason is that there's a certain kind of guy who always takes feminism to be asking for "special" or "favorable" treatment for women. To which feminists have -- correctly -- pointed out that feminism isn't about special or favorable treatment, but rather about equality, respect, and dismantling sexist gender norms. But there's no question that feminism does not seek to replace other-gender relations with the "implicit threat" model of guy-guy interactions. It's not: "please treat me the way you would treat some guy." So, in some sense, the matter is a bit complex.

I was talking this over with my friend, and he pointed out that while guy-guy interactions do often carry an aspect of aggression, he also thought that the kind of aggression guys often show toward women has a distinct aspect, so that misogyny involves a special kind of motivated anger and ill-will. I think that's true, and so it would be too simple to conclude that if men treated other men with more respect they might, in the name of equality, treat women with more respect.

But it does suggest that, in some sense, a call to "equality" is insufficient for bringing about the gender-happy utopia. Because nobody wants the implicit threat model of guy-guy interactions to become the more widespread model of person-person interactions.

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