12 July 2018
Never in my life did I think I’d find myself ideologically allied with Barbie. When I was kid Barbie was the painful reminder of the eurocetric beauty standards that I’d never meet. Barbie was force-fed to young brown girls as the model for well… What exactly? I’m not entirely sure. In all fairness my mother refused to buy barbie and instead bought me the only fashionable brown Barbie on the market ; my homegirl Madison from MyScene.
As you can see- Madison didn’t come to play. While Madison may have inspired my bad bad ways – I do distinctly remember my childhood friends mother combing ceaselessly through the stores to try find a black doll. The only one she found was a break-dancer doll with bendy arms and legs. Yes; that was the level of representation available when I was a child. So I suppose this feminist version of Barbie subverting the original purpose of Barbara Millicent Roberts thrilled me. It thrilled my feminist sensibilities and spoke truthfully to the state of girls and womxn alike; the leanred ‘I’m sorry’. In the beginning of writing this post I was tempted to apologize for racially framing my encounters with Barbie when I realized that :
I’m not sorry at all.
I don’t live in a world which gives me a day off from being black. I’ve never had the luxury of walking through the world blithely unaware of my blackness – a reality that informs even my childhood memories and so it would be disingenuous to pretend like my memories of Barbie were ones of pure joy.
And there it was – the habitual apology for simply being.
I couldn’t help but to relate to Barbie’s vlog post because it is the truth. Learning to be unapologetic is perhaps a battle for girls because it demands :
Constructing a different idea about self-awareness and the ways that this manifests in our lives. ‘I’m Sorry’ is suddenly relegated useless in situations it would have previously ticked the box for “common decency”. The Re-introduction to the words “I’m Sorry”inevitably forces womxn to interrogate their unwitting complacency with respectability politics and the ways in which we are conditioned to socialize. A perhaps superficial alteration of our respectability politics invariably places us in a position to reconstruct our immediate environment. What am I saying? When we habitually apologize make habit out of taking accountability for fault – fault that is often not very serious and accountability that is fraudulent. When we say “I’m sorry” it is frequently in disservice of self and service of others- particularly men. Let me give you an example – I used to habitually apologize when men would interrupt me mid-conversation and start talking over me. I figured that perhaps I was being a conversation hog. Perhaps it was true – I just talked too much. Perhaps he didn’t hear me but then during second year something changed. I was at an orientation with other student leader; during a routine exercise with a table predominantly full of womxn a guy started interrupting my response to why socials at stellenbosch are problematic. I was mid-scentence when this Musi Maimane-esque guy disagreed and began speaking directly over me. For once – I was so disgusted that I continued speaking. If anything, I raised my voice – which was matched by his. The conversation split along gender lines and the womxn started listening to me and the only other guy at the table listened to him. I spoke until I was out of breath. I could see the rage in his face which was outmatched only by my sheer disdain. I remember how my heart assaulted my rib-cage and how my anxiety spiked but I can also remember a feeling of quiet accomplishment. At the end of this civil engagement he had the audacity to ask a question intended to undermine me. To which I responded saying “Had you bothered to listen to me instead of interrupting me- you would have an answer to your question.” The table fell quiet – as did my self-doubt regaurding apologizing instead of speaking. In that moment I realized this; womxn are often spoken over or interrupted by men for two reasons :
This person may not respect you or your opinion as a womxn. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid.It also doesn’t mean you should stop speaking.
Interrupting womxn has always worked before you. Sometimes, you’re going to be a misoginsts first encounter with mutual respect. Well it’s not nessecarily mutual because,by continuting speaking, you’re demaning it. You’re demanding it as you should – as a man would. Demanding respect should become habitual. Demanding to be heard because here’s what we do when we allow men to speak over us; we’re allowing blatant disrespect to become part and parcel of ‘respectability politics’. What does that mean? Well socially we’re demarcating space for our invalidation to become normalized. We’re inadvertently saying “Hey you, you disrespectful poes here is a space for you to bully me socially. Here, here is your free pass. Here is space for your ego- don’t worry I’ll pay for it with my humanity.” That’s what we end up saying. And what do we end up saying to girls? “You occupy too much space.Don’t you know how much more important what he has to say is? That’s obviously why he’s interrupting you because what he has to say is more important.”
2. Learning to be apologetic is a challenge to our understanding of the ways we occupy space in a capitalist system. Socially we’re producers right? Like the perfect role envisioned by patriarchy for us is that of obedient daughter who gives her parents help in the domestic space. She gives attention to her school work and is incredible but also humble enough for her intelligence not to be a threat. She gives the boys attention but not too much and never gives away her modesty. She gives of her time to lady like extra murals and never raises her voice, swears or fundamentally disagrees with anyone. She goes off to university to study… well whatever it is that her father wants her to or is willing to pay for. There she gives attention to a mediocre fuckboy who is studying a STEM degree which somehow compensates for his lack of a personality. She’ll give him space to interrupt her and eventually to get down on one knee. Then she’ll give him babies because she obviously spent four years studying to be a stay at mom. Stereotypically, we’re emphatically producers in the cis-patriarchal narrative of the perfect capitalist society. When womxn refuse to be interrupted- we consume space. We consume time. We consume resources. We become contributors and consumers simultaneously. We close the divide that dictates that our sole function is production. Consumption by femmes is a violent threat to the power allocations central to the survival of patriarchy.
To stop apologizing is to reconceptualize our understanding of politeness and we’re raised to be polite the inverse of which is impolite and crude. Two descriptors avoided by most womxn at all costs but what is the cost? Being “polite” cannot be a fundamental stepping stone to being heard. We cannot allow our power to be sequestered into check-boxes as it directly negates agency. We cannot have agency when we’re inadvertently asking for a basic right.
We use our “sorry’s” like a passive aggressive co-worker’s email – it’s direct enough to prompt a response but veiled in enough politeness to be palatable. For example: You’re in the club and someones dusty child has had one too many and has routinely spilled a drink on you for the entirety of the last song. In all likelihood you’ll say ” Sorry, I think maybe you’re spilling your drink.” instead of how you really feel which is something like “My guy?! Are you dizzy? Do you mind?” and while clubs are a particularly hair-raising environment for most with various mitigating factors – you get my point. We use sorry inappropriately.
And while I was raised to be a friendly, kind human being I have also grown to understand that that is not the same as being a doormat. I am wonderful company – that’s not me being egotistical that’s facts right? But I’ve also come to understand that my company and my power is worthy and precious. My energy comes with T’s and C’s – one such term is that I will not be interrupted mid-conversation. I will not be undermined. Setting boundaries as a womxn is not and should not be equated to being unreasonable or impolite as it currently is in “The mandate for bending overbackwards – a ladies guide to being respectable. Published annually by Cisheteropatriarch Publications.”
During some of my pscyhological research on this I found an article which read as follows:
“As girls grow up, the messages they receive about what “good” behavior looks like get more and more complicated and confusing. In his book The Triple Bind, Dr. Stephen Hinshaw explains that as they reach adolescence, girls are increasingly asked to conform to what he views as “an impossible set of standards.”
One of the key tasks of adolescence is what’s called “individuation,” or the process of becoming a unique individual, explains Dr. Hinshaw, who is a clinical psychologist. Boys, he says, “are traditionally seen as having more of the skills that lead to individuation: assertiveness, self-confidence, expressiveness, and commitment to one’s own agenda.”
From a young age boys are praised and encouraged when they show direct, confident behaviors—winning a game or climbing to the highest branch.
Girls, Dr. Hinshaw explains, are also told to be ambitious, smart, and successful. But for them the directive comes with conditions that hamper individuation.
Be confident, but not conceited
Be smart, but no one likes a know-it-all
Ambition is good, but trying too hard is bad
Be assertive, but only if it doesn’t upset anyone else
The focus on empathy
These confusing messages reflect the fact that girls are often expected to be empathetic and hyper-aware of how their actions affect others. In fact, one study of college age men and women claimed that both sexes apologized in equal proportion for what they considered to be offensive behavior, but women reported committing more offenses than men, indicating that their threshold for perceiving offense was much lower.
This could be because girls and women are conditioned to be more attuned to—and responsible for—how their behavior affects others. This empathetic awareness complicates behaviors associated with success: winning, drive, and competition.”
And there it was – evidence by trained professionals. The reality that being assertive isn’t award-worthy as it stands but perhaps the reward in it is this ; consistently apologizing is an easy way to seem uncertain of yourself. I would not trust a sky-diving instructor who said “Uh, I’m sorry. We need to jump now.” while being assertive is often equated to bossiness it’s not. Being assertive is an indicator of self-awareness, self-confidence and more importantly competence. You can be bossy when you’re competent. That isn’t to say you should be – but there is nothing wrong with knowing your strengths and harnessing them to be successful.
There are few things in this life more exhausting than tip-toeing around the sound of your own voice, stumbling over your words and becoming tounge-tied trying to make your words palatable to someone who probably wasn’t listening in the first place.
Perhaps it’s time to preoccupy yourself with being happily exhausted from unapologetically being yourself and occupying space as you should.
I once told someone I loved that my word was all I had. Our words are our first point of call in establishing change – willing a new life into existence and if your words are drenched in “I’m sorry’s” you’re going to will a life that renders you at fault for simply exhausting.
Sorry, not sorry.
P.S. This is a wonderfully eloquent “Sorry not sorry” song if ever you needed one.