My friend and fellow academic Jenni Lieberman wrote this response to yesterday’s post on #LochteGate and agreed to let me publish it here. Enjoy!
(Acknowledgment of my own position: I am a white woman academic. In this piece I use “us”/ “them” language to describe women and men. I am talking about the way our genders are socialized rather than binarized/essentialized gender.)
In the wake of #LochteGate, several articles have compared the swimmer to the gymnast Gabby Douglas in order to illuminate white, male privilege — the very privilege that men’s rights organizations and the like fail to see. While privilege is certainly a factor, I want to step back and ask: why are we contrasting such disparate events in the first place? Certainly, Douglas’ refusal to put her hand on her heart for the pledge of allegiance and her barely grumpy face does not rise to the level of vandalism or of faking a police report. How did these behaviors (or, more accurately, the public response to them) come to seem comparable? To answer that question, I will discuss another facet of this story that has yet to receive much attention. It is related to privilege but also distinct from it: the expectation of female perfection and of male idiocy.
First, allow me to make my own disproportionate comparison. When Mario Andara, spokesperson for Rio 2016, proposes to “give these kids a break,” feminist readers hear chilling echoes of Brock Turner’s sentence. For readers and survivors who were expecting a harsher sentence for that odious crime, Judge Aaron Persky’s decision simultaneously overvalued Turner’s future and devalued the trauma experienced by his victim—and by the others who might be victimized in the future by the people who followed the case only to learn that rape is a barely punishable crime.
Our societal tendency to give white men like Turner and Lochte a pass reveals more than just privilege: it reveals the low bar that we set for white men’s behavior. In every case like Brock Turner’s, the courtroom drama insists that white men are so imperfect that they can only be held accountable for rape in cases where the victim was a perfect woman by 19th century standards: chaste, virtuous, modestly dressed. Every time we hold public figures like Lochte and Douglas to wildly different standards, we see the same logic at work: men are expected to act as fools, while women whose behavior, body language, or facial expression deviates from perfection in public will be subject to ridicule or worse. There is a reason why we use the term Resting Bitch Face but we have no male equivalent. We do not expect men to always look contented, calm, and attentive.
Millions of words have been written about the damage that these high expectations do to women. Earlier this year, Reshma Saujani even gave a TED talk on the subject: “Teach girls bravery, not perfection.” I like that TED talk, but I dislike the premise of talks like these in general. Although I strive to create a world in which men and women can be treated equally, my first reaction to speeches like this one is: why should women learn from the way that we teach men? Why can’t men learn from the way we teach women?
Clearly, the perfection that we demand of women like Gabby Douglas is too much of a burden for any person to bear. Think about it. The American public wanted her to be more than an amazing Olympian whose life’s work demonstrates the amazing possibilities of the human body; we also wanted her to do all of that while also demonstrating unflappable patriotism and joy. But when the dust from the Twitterstorm settles, we expect Gabby Douglas to apologize, to explain to the world her emotional state. Here, I agree with USA Today writer Charlotte Wilder, that Douglas has no reason to apologize. But at the same time, I also think that Douglas’ capacity for doing so is something that Lochte and his cohorts could learn from.
White, male privilege comes with dire consequences for women—especially women of color. Women can be chastised, threatened, arrested, or accosted for deviating from perfection. In less severe cases, when we are disciplined to behave within the parameters of a gender norm, we are simultaneously and unintentionally given a chance to decide if we want to conform or rebel. Rebelling can lead to some of those severe consequences that I just mentioned, but I also think this process has a silver lining when it isn’t physically harmful. Our culture socializes women in a way that fosters reflection and analytical thinking: women are encouraged to discuss with friends things (such as interpersonal relationships or emotionality) that men are often discouraged from discussing. In short, women are given the opportunity to transform disciplinary moments into self-definition. And men should be afforded the same opportunity.
Of course, no one should be disciplined in the way that Gabby Douglas has been. No one should live in a state of constant policing: those moments of reflection come with an emotional toll that I do not intend to dismiss. Women could be socialized to be reflective without the harassment that forces us to strive for perfection or explain (in a dozen think pieces every day) why we have chosen not to strive for perfection. Rather than decry that violence, as many before me have eloquently done, I am writing to propose that we align the way that we socialize men and women—drawing on the example set by strong, self-possessed women rather than the example set by ambitious or successful men.
Men certainly have the capacity for reflection and personal growth. If white men demonstrate that ability less often than women, it is precisely because our culture consistently tells them that we expect very little of them. We do not expect them to hold back their urges (exemplified by this tweet). We do not expect them to analyze erratic behavior. We simply code those urges and behaviors as masculine. In moments like this one, when gendered debates take a national stage because of an event like the Olympics, we have the opportunity to think about our social contract. We can choose to lower the bar for women, from perfection to something more humanly attainable. We can also choose to raise the bar for men. I believe most men could rise to the challenge if only we, as a culture, asked them to do so.