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On claiming an identity and exploring arrogance - "He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt..."

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Previous Entry On claiming an identity and exploring arrogance Aug. 10th, 2010 @ 05:58 pm
So, Alexandra said something interesting the other day, and then again on a recent post of mine.

I was talking about how I feel really embarrassed and inadequate sometimes because I didn't choose to pursue math, engineering, the sciences. I am a feminist; I am supposed to be breaking boundaries and proving girls can do all kinds of manly things too. So, I often feel I ought to be awesome at mechanics, cars, carpentry, street fighting, physics, and computers, and never have to call a man to fix the water heater. Instead, what do I do? I do girly things. I do language (god, please, don't send me an article about how women's brains are designed for language and men's brains are designed for logical thinking). I do literature, art, I do knitting, social sciences. 

I am not doing the valuable or hard things. Obviously, though, the things that I do are valuable, and not everyone is good at them. I have internalized the value system that says, fields with more women in them are silly and easy, and fields with more men in them are important. So when I hang out with this engineer, even though he has not implied any kind of judgment at all I feel this anxiety about finding a way to prove I am smart and do worthwhile things and that I am not just 'another' silly girl just because I don't understand his work. I am a human being worth taking seriously.

Anyway, when I was talking about this anxiety with Alexandra, she said:

I think you should to play up your accomplishments a little when in one of these conversations when you're not feeling valuable, because you know the guys are doing it.

And I thought, you know what, why the hell not? I should.

My modus operandi, when mentioning something I do, is to try and portray it as not a big deal, and as a function of luck and circumstance or something that anyone who was interested could do. Honestly, what I'm then counting on is that the other person will see the value of things I do through my smokescreen of appropriate humbleness--that they will be interested or a bit impressed without me having to try to impress them.

Partially I downplay what I do this way because it is very important to me to be aware of my privilege and the role it has played in my life--my successes are not all because of my skills. But I also do this because, subconsciously, it is more important to me to show that I am a Nice, Humble, Good person than it is to show that I have accomplished things and am an interesting person. On my conscious level I'm not sure I agree with those priorities.

After all, it's probably not even a very effective method: if you aren't telling someone what your accomplishments are worth, then they aren't going to know you're being humble, they'll just think that you actually haven't accomplished much. Plus, if I don't value what I've done, how is anyone else going to know to value them?

I also realized that there's a bit of an assumption that proving myself to be a humble person will also show that I am nice and kind and good, which are the actual valuable traits there--humility can be nice, but it is not nearly as useful as kindness. So asserting the value of my accomplishments would not mean I am choosing that over being a Nice, Good person--those things are compatible. It would be choosing only to value my accomplishments over humility, which doesn't really have much moral value in such a conversation.

So, then, I wondered, what ARE my accomplishments? What is it that I do that's just as worthwhile as math and science careers, anyway? What should I be bragging about? So I sat down and made a list. Then I expanded it to include all the things that are just interesting and round me out as a person, so that next time I'm talking to someone feeling like I don't know how to prove that I'm valuable, I'll remember all the things that I myself am an expert in, and how there are tons of interesting things for me to share with someone. I really suggest you do this, by the way!

In listing my accomplishments, I encountered some trouble with talking about my accomplishments as a writer.

I have long had a policy of saying I DO something, rather than I AM something.

I write, but I won't call myself writer.

I write poems, but I won't call myself poet.
I used to play the cello; I didn't use to be a cellist.
I use French; I am not a French-speaker. 

I always figured--if I made the cello central to my life, I'd be a cellist. If I was still writing poems in 15 years and had proven my devotion to and knowledge of the craft, I could be called a poet. Especially since so many young people dabble in these things, especially since every other person I've ever met has written a poem at some point, I don't just get to claim the title poet so easily.

In writing my list, I especially hesitated to put down that I am a writer because I have written very little in college. There are maybe two poems that I have really tried to work on in the last two years. But somehow I still felt like it was not really accurate to try and list the things that make me who I am without talking about writing.

So I thought about it. I have written articles used by an embassy and one of the biggest international charities in the US, I am essentially ghostwriting parts of a professor's book right now, I still know poetry the way that I know my hometown, I can still edit literature or academic or news writing really damn well. I am not working very well on my own creative output right now, but I am still working on my foreign languages and in general towards preparing for an MFA in translation and creative writing.

And you know what? Maybe even if I am not producing much right now--maybe I do get to call myself a writer. Because when I say to myself, well, you're not a writer, you probably just have to discipline yourself in the way Jesse tells you to in order to even say that you write, and right now you're focusing on work and school instead--then I feel like I'm cheating myself out of a whole part of myself, and I feel a little bit despairing.

This might be a little bit of an aggravating post, because I'm admitting that right now I am writing virtually nothing and I still want to get to call myself a writer. That's pretty damn annoying.

But you know? I've never let myself call myself a writer, not even when I was filling notebooks every month and a half. And why shouldn't I?

I didn't go to undergrad for creative writing because I wanted to explore subjects themselves, rather than the way to write about subjects. And now, if I really think about it, I am in fact developing as writer not just immersed in literature, but as a writer that writes, in many different ways, in the context of justice and democracy and all kinds of political and social problems that matter to me. In the end, I have come back to working on the way that I want to be a writer, by writing my thesis on connections between art and justice. Perhaps I am taking a different path to being a writer that involves a lot more of my life than I ever recognizes was part of being a writer. Because  I don't think I'd be in the place I am right now without the context/influence/force of thinking about writing.

So maybe I should value, audibly, the things that matter to my life and what I do. Maybe I should, for the first time in my life even though I've worked with language forever, call myself a writer.
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Date:August 11th, 2010 12:49 am (UTC)
I love all of this.


As an aside to the first few things you mentioned:

Honestly, I'm guilty of the thinking that more women should be in math, science, and especially engineering. And that's not to say that women who are in other fields are somehow totally worthless or less intelligent--I have no doubts about your intelligence or abilities, for example. Even so, it really bothers me to hear people talk about feminism and breaking boundaries and smashing that the age-old belief that women are somehow intellectually inferior to men... and yet I still find myself as one of the lone girls in my CS classes in 2010. What the hell happened? I consider myself a feminist but it's certainly not easy to fight the established sexist norms when you're alone.

It sounds extremely unfair and biased of me to say this but I sincerely dislike fields like Women's Studies--from my limited exposure through one WS class, it just struck me as a field where people talk about all these nice things but more often than not they're preaching to the choir. My thinking is that you can talk about ideas and concepts all you want all day but what exactly is getting done? What progress is being made? I want people to understand the importance of feminism but I also want it taken outside of WS-focused things into engineering or science classes and especially CS since this is one of the few fields of engineering and technology that is still dramatically lacking in women.

Alright, I think I got a little side-tracked at the end (and I hijacked your original post) but I think I portrayed my viewpoint accurately. Am I holding a valid position here or am I vocalizing an element of sexism in myself that I wasn't even aware of? Hope this didn't sound accusatory or anything--I'd honestly like to engage in a conversation about this kind of thing and accumulate more information about it and ultimately try to find out where exactly I stand on it.
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Date:August 11th, 2010 02:11 am (UTC)
I definitely think more women need to be in math, science, and engineering! I think it's a serious problem, and think you're totally in the right. It's because I think we need more women in these fields that I often feel guilty-- like I'm letting down the team, and like I generally not as badass as I would like to be-- about going into more traditionally female fields. And I feel like not helping prove that women are smart too. But--why do I think that pursuing social sciences and language makes me less smart?

The fact is that I love and excel at languages, and I'd guess that I'd probably feel that way if I were raised in a gender neutral society too (though I'd have gotten a lot more experience than I have now). Frankly, I always did well enough at most fields, so I'd probably have been decent at STEM fields, if not anything special. But I could, maybe, be really great at languages. Isn't that a better use of my energy? So I'm trying to remind myself that this is a still a valuable pursuit, and I think that we undervalue it as a society because it's associated with girls.

So I think this is where I accidentally end up perhaps being a little sexist, and where a lot of the girls I know who are into more traditionally men's pursuits/fashion/whatever sometimes end up being sexist: we build a lot of our self-worth on how much we AREN'T associated with anything to do with girls. We do math just like the boys and play video games just like the boys and don't wear make-up or pink and therefore we are better than other girls--because we are more like men. Why should men be the (only) standard for what's worthwhile? I also see this in a TON of my friends who have told me over the years that they have 'never had close girl friends' (to me, their close girls friend), because they find that whole stereotype of girlhood so unappealling--because we're told girly things are shallow, vain, and stupid.

At risk of repeating myself, what I am trying to say is that to break the belief that women are intellectually inferior to men, we have to stop implying that the things women do are stupid. There has to be a way to break into male-dominated fields without the logic being that the more we're like men, the more worthwhile we are.

In the meantime, you ROCK for being a CS major. Especially since the number of women has actually gone DOWN in the last ten years or so. I think we're never going to mobilize most individual women on the logic of 'do it for the cause!', so breaking the Dude Culture is probably key(seriously, male geeks are some of the most unbreakable misogynists I know). Hooray to you for fucking with it.
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Date:August 11th, 2010 02:21 am (UTC)
we build a lot of our self-worth on how much we AREN'T associated with anything to do with girls.

I wrote something very similar in a goodreads review--I tore this book up that everyone loved, because it had such a "strong" female lead. Except the thing about her was that every strength of hers was traditionally male, and was defined by maleness in the book. She wasn't strong because of her gender, she was strong in spite of it. So I completely agree (and it happens to be my most popular review!) I agree with everything you've said, because we still define strength and self-worth based on how manly we can act, and how un-female we are. It makes me sad to see other girls devaluing traditional "female" things rather than finding the strength and equality in them. Instead, I try my hardest to define my own self-worth and my gender perception of others based on how gender neutral I can appear or they appear. Which is really hard if you think about it.

I think I said this to you before, but honestly, just by valuing yourself and speaking of your accomplishments with the confidence that they're worth (and that you're worth) you're doing the best thing you can do--proving that the "female fields" aren't any lesser than the "male fields"--they aren't easier, they aren't less intellectual, and they matter JUST as much. Sometimes I catch myself defining my self-worth based on the male gender--well I like action movies, not romantic comedies, so I'm more awesome than most people, when in reality I should be thinking that on top of gory action movies, I like Grey's Anatomy, which means nobody can put me in a box or guess what sorts of media I'll like, because I like or dislike indiscriminately and randomly, not because I'm a girly girl or a tomboy. Of which I consider myself both. I like skeletons AND kittens.

And I've had great friendships with female friends. One of the things we talked about in WGS class was that girls are taught to hate other girls as a way of undermining the strength that can be found in a female friendship--if we're at each others' throats, we'll not be able to find solidarity.

Whew, I sound preachy. Sorry 'bout that ;)
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Date:August 23rd, 2010 06:26 am (UTC)
I just realized that lj never sent me notifications for this and I was wondering what the hell was going on... bah, it's too late to think and formulate a reply now. More thoughts on this forthcoming--
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Date:August 11th, 2010 03:52 am (UTC)
I used to feel similarly about WGS. For me, that was largely misdirected bitterness due to having been painfully treated as an object by a male; it seemed to me that if that kind of thing was still happening, then WGS must not have really been accomplishing anything. It also irked me because it seemed that WGS just promoted gender inequality - after all, there's no Men's Studies program, so the presence of a Women's Studies program just added to the idea that women are not like men.

However, I've mellowed out a bit. It still seems to me that if feminism is going to work, then eventually it has to disappear. But I do think that it's important to study things from a female point of view, just like it's important to study things from a male point of view, and a Native American point of view, and an African point of view, and every point of view, because that's how we arrive at the most accurate picture of history. The object of WGS, it seems to me, isn't to advance women in society in a practical sense, e.g. by raising women's job placements in hard sciences. It's a way of studying society - like sociology, like philosophy, and so forth. It says, mainly to the (traditionally male-dominated) academic world, that women are just as intelligent and important as everybody else. And I think that's worthwhile.

Honestly, I don't really label myself as a feminist. I believe in treating all people equally, taking people on an individual by individual basis, and not keeping people from pursuing happiness, so long as they're not hurting anybody else (e.g., gay marriage doesn't hurt anybody else). Of course, that view is totally consistent with feminism, so I also couldn't really deny that I am one.

I do think it's great that you're pursuing CS, but I think it's great because you like it, not because you're a woman. It's great that nobody tells you you shouldn't - or those that do aren't loud enough to stop you. Ultimately, everybody should be allowed to do what they like in peace.
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Date:August 11th, 2010 07:17 pm (UTC)
A very subjective way to look at things, but a cynical person could argue that the regular subjects ARE men's studies, because they usually focus on white males, and when others are added into the canon or academic research or what have you, it is with great effort and with a lot of pointing out: oh, we have a Woman of Color writing this article for us. Lookie here!
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Date:August 11th, 2010 02:12 am (UTC)
Part of the reason I gave you that advice (would I call it that? I don't know) is because I'm also working on that, too.

Yes, you are a writer. You might not be writing creatively every day in terms of producing poetry or short stories or whatever, but look at this post. It's well-written, thought out in a cohesive manner, and it's a form of writing at its most basic. Journaling is the one thing I do almost every day (thanks to livejournal) and it's how I write when I'm having creative trouble or when I'm too busy to write anything of my own. I have a feeling if you looked at your life, you'd see that you do more writing than most people, even during those times when you feel like you're not doing it much.

Just for shits: the creative writing major, I can honestly say, so far has done NOTHING for me. I learn more about writing in my day-to-day life than I do in writing class.
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Date:August 11th, 2010 03:29 am (UTC)
First thought: yes to self-ownership, yes to defining yourself on your own terms, yes to taking pride in your accomplishments, yes to this post.

Second thought: I don't think you should feel guilty for not going into a more traditionally male field. It seems to me that in a truly gender-equal society, fields wouldn't be traditionally assigned to either gender, right? So you'd be free to follow what you love without fear of judgment from others or guilt from yourself. I realize that this is not a gender-equal society, but there's a lot to be said for being the change you wish to see in the world; in this case, I think that being a good feminist means respecting yourself and your right to the pursuit of happiness, without holding yourself up to any arbitrary "norms."

Although you might not expect it in a humanity, the majority of the philosophy department are men, so, while it may not be gender-stratified on a level with CS, I can speak to being one of few women in a program; I'm usually one of maybe two or three women out of ten or twenty students in my classes. I don't think about it terribly often, and I've never really thought about it on a social-consciousness level, though it does occur to me. Usually, if anything, it makes me feel attractive. (That comment is definitely open to discussion.) I must admit, I have noticed that I really like being the only female or one of few females in a given setting. In Japan, I owned that matriarch/empress role. Not sure why; it might have more to do with being seen as special without any real effort on my part (being classified as "American" feels similar), and who doesn't like to be seen as special?
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Date:September 16th, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC)
So I'm waaay late on this, but a few thoughts:

1. I also have never defined myself as a writer, and continue to not do so. This mainly stems from the fact that I don't think I've accomplished enough to feel I have earned the title (kind of like you said). Also, the sentence "I'm a writer" feels very pretentious on my tongue, even though I don't feel it's actually a pretentious thing to say/be. HOWEVER, I think it's great that you feel confidant enough to say you are a writer, and you should be! Hopefully one day I will get there myself. Basically what I mean to say is, I sympathize.

2. Kate kind of already said this I think, but my first thought when you said that you feel like you should maybe be in the hard sciences in order to be a "real" feminist or combat patriarchy was: shouldn't the goal of feminism be that you get to do whatever you WANT to do, not what men tell you to do or what you are expected to do by society? As a woman, you can choose whatever you want, and you happen to choose languages. And to me, that does not make you any less of a feminist. In fact, doing things that aren't your top priority just to combat patriarchy seems stupid to me, and just as unfair.

3. This post is generally full of win.
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