On oysters, the patriarchy, and my feminist guilt complex

It’s still a raw oyster, with or without the cracker and sauce. Okay, yeah, and some of them were cooked and smothered in cheese. Whatever.

Somehow, the other day, me blaming my boyfriend for being an oyster elitist (he made fun of me for eating my raw oysters on a cracker with oyster sauce, instead of tongue-shoveling the thing directly from the shell into my mouth) led into a conversation about the patriarchy and whether or not I am a traitor to my sex.

Let me roll that train of thought back a little.

The boyfriend (who shall heretofore be referred to as “Mr. Claire”) was telling me about how a female friend of his once accused him of being a card-holding member of the patriarchy. I gently informed him that yes, actually, he kind of was, but not on purpose. I went on to explain that while I do not believe he is contributing to the patriarchal regime on purpose or with any malicious intent against women, he’s a part of it anyway, just by existing and occupying the place in society that he does. Does unwittingly participating in the patriarchy make it better? Knock it down from 1st degree murder to manslaughter? No, it doesn’t. All it does is expose the fact that we live in such a male dominated society that some of the males don’t even realize how dominant they are–it’s just their natural state of being.  And maybe that’s even worse.

I should clarify here that Mr. Claire isn’t some slick-haired misogynist walking around with a silver spoon in his mouth, thinking about how cute and silly women are when they try to be like men, because actually all that women are really good for is warming his lap. (Why does my mental image of a misogynist have slick hair? I’m sure not all misogynists have slick hair. Am I thinking of Don Draper?)

Who incidentally looks kind of like my Dad. Which incidentally makes me feel really uncomfortable for thinking he’s foxy. (For the record: my dad is a real nice guy, not a misogynist.)

I will admit that, yes, Mr. Claire is a tall, attractive, exceedingly white (we’re talking glow-in-the-dark) male, which automatically earns him a default leather swivel chair around the polished oak conference table in the penthouse suite of the patriarchy of the United States of America. Has he been afforded tons of privileges because of his race and sex? Probably. Does he work in a male-dominated field? Definitely. (It’s construction, though, and you don’t see many women, or men for that matter, pounding down the door for that gig.) Does that mean he should quit his job, donate all his savings to a women’s shelter, and join the Occupy movement? Not necessarily, no, although that would be cool. (Actually no it wouldn’t, as he’s currently subsidizing my survival (to be addressed later) and I really like not living in a park. Call me selfish.)

What it does mean is that he and other men like him could try to use some of their magical inborn white man power for good. Like, say, ensuring that there is no discrimination against or harassment of women at their workplaces. Or, you know, speaking up along with us ladies about some of the numerous other atrocities against women that powerful men are trying to turn into law in this country. (For a great essay on some of those atrocities and how absurdly absurd they are (yes, I used absurd twice because they’re that absurd), take a gander at Roxane Gay’s insightful and moving (to tears and to fisticuffs) response over at The Rumpus.)

(Related tangent, I promise: also check out this one. Yeah, I read The Rumpus a lot.)

FOR THE RECORD: I just want to take opportunity real quick to state that Mr. Claire, while he’s not a super-activist and won’t be chaining himself to fences anytime soon, is a really great guy with a good heart who does his best to do the right thing and not be an asshole to anyone unless they really deserve it. Usually, he succeeds. (I love you, baby.)

But I digress. The point is: there are a lot of men out there who are in positions of power, whether it’s in their office, their community, their presence on the internet, their congressional district, who could take more of a stab at creating equality. Even if they’re not actively participating in the maintenance and reinforcement of the glass ceiling, a lot of them aren’t doing much to try to help break it. But wouldn’t it be cool if they did?


And this now brings us to the part of the conversation where I wonder if I am a disgusting, hypocritical traitor to my sex.

You see, I am currently unemployed. I was employed, have been consistently employed in one way or another since the age of 16, through college and grad school (with the exception of the three months after undergrad it took me to find a Real Job), all the way up until here recently. I left my most recent occupation because I decided to. It was a very difficult decision, and I will speak no ill of my previous employers. The fact is that I would have stuck it out for a while longer, at least until I found something else to pay the bills, but then Mr. Claire came gallantly trotting along and offered to help me out until I found a job that I liked. Or, he said, or! (and here’s one of the infinite reasons I love him), maybe you should just focus on your writing for however long it takes to finish your collection, cause that’s a job.

What? WHAT? Did I hear that correctly? Writing is a job? A for-real, respectable, bona fide occupation?

I have to say that blew my mind a little, for someone else who is not a writer to so easily, without me having to justify it, believe that writing is a job. Even in my own head, I don’t quite believe that. Can sitting around at home, or in the park, or at a coffee shop, engaging in something I enjoy and feel passionate about, actually be a job?

Well, not in the sense that it’s bringing in the bacon, no. Not yet. And it will almost certainly never pay all the bills, that ‘s for sure. But it’s still hard, time-consuming, frustrating, difficult work.

And yet. . . and yet.

I feel somehow guilty for not having a “real” job, for not helping pay the bills, for being able to watch two (or three) hours of House in the middle of the day. And it’s not that I feel guilty for Mr. Claire having to pay for both halves of the electricity bill, or fork over some cash when I need to refill my birth control prescription (why the heck shouldn’t he, in that case?). It’s that I, for some reason, feel like I should have a job, even if I hate it. That by allowing a man to support me, I’m playing right into the patriarchal system of female subjugation, assuming the role of good little housewife (even if that couldn’t be further from the truth), and thus failing women everywhere.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Housewife

Is that not a little insane? That I feel such guilt for temporarily taking advantage of my partner’s ability–and willingness, and enthusiasm–to help me work towards achieving what I really want to do in life? I also aim to teach creative writing, preferably at the college level, and that’s something I’m going to work towards, too. Of course, part of snagging a job at a university is, well, being published. And to be published, I need to write. And now I have the opportunity to focus on doing just that, and I feel like it’s cheating.

Why the hell do I feel like it’s cheating? Is it because I haven’t worked hard for my entire adult life, haven’t busted my ass in school for six years, haven’t been on food stamps, haven’t lived in tiny apartments with four other people packed in them, haven’t taken jobs from waiting tables, to tutoring ESL students, to shelving library books, to cleaning out frozen yogurt machines, to teaching adults how to read–and still somehow found time to create some stories and even get some of them published?

Oh wait! I did all that.

So why do I feel guilty?

Would I feel different if my partner was a woman with a high-paying job? Or if it was a female friend offering to help me out for a few months? Yeah, probably. I would. And that’s kind of fucked up.

Sometimes I wonder if some women, like me, feel the need to overcompensate, to never take a handout from anyone, especially from the opposite sex, because we are still trying to prove something that shouldn’t have to be proven because it’s just a cold, hard fact, goddamnit, that men and women are equals.

So, should I feel guilty? Am I a traitor to the sex? Or should I quit whining about my fortunate circumstances on a blog and get back to writing real stuff, cause yeah, writing is a job?

Probably the latter.


5 thoughts on “On oysters, the patriarchy, and my feminist guilt complex

  1. you and i could have an interesting chat on these matters, as i am a stay at home husband with fewer accomplishments and aspirations who should perhaps, as i’ve been told, be attempting to build a career in (at least modest and non-literary) writing endeavors. similar, but very different. the guilt is interesting; i seem to feel far less than you (though i see you’re exaggerating to a degree in this piece; “over-thinking.”); this must be partly due to the reason i haven’t worked in over 1.5 years (fucking shitty, life-altering though thoroughly nonlethal illness). maybe it’s also because i don’t feel the need to overcompensate to prove my gender through myself, like you do. though everyone does expect me to work…after all, what kind of man let’s his wife win the bread while he idles? or maybe i’m not bothered as much because i’ve never given much credence to superficial distinctions–social, racial or otherwise. or maybe i’m lazier than you by a super-lot. don’t get me wrong: i do feel guilt. i guess i drown out the voices of everyone else by assuring myself that i only owe my wife and myself. not sure if that’s moral. this wasn’t supposed to degrade into rambling…alas. i’ll just stop and say that i identify with you to a degree, at least in that i experience chronic psychological discomfort in my relation to the social matrix. i’m finding my mid-twenties more traumatizing than i thought i would.

    meta: if i feel pressured by myself and others (classic gender roles, patriarchy, etc etc etc) to be the provider because i’m a man, and you feel pressured by yourself and others (feminists, etc) to be the provider because you’re a woman…why are either of us allowing ourselves to be pressured?

    anyways, maybe you’ll only be a traitor if you pursue your goals any less violently because of mr. claire’s support.

    • Nick–I think you are totally right about only owing anything to your wife and your self. As long as your arrangement makes both of you happy, I don’t see anything wrong with it. I also find it really interesting that we both feel pressure to be providers for reasons that essentially boil down to our genders–which, as you point out, shouldn’t matter at all. I would also like to note that that I have had Queen’s “Under Pressure” stuck in my head ever since I read your comment, which is a welcome change to what was in there before, which I shall not name because it’s so shameful. So thank you for that.

      Another thing your comment made me think about: Aside from my feminist guilt and your classic gender role-induced pressure to be the breadwinner, there also seems to be a prevailing idea in our society that if you don’t have a CAREER and MAKE SOMETHING OF YOURSELF, then how can you lead a fulfilling life? The emphasis is put on what we do for a paycheck instead of what we do with the rest of our lives, and shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t we define our lives not by what’s on our W-2s, but by our personal relationships and all the other meaningful and fulfilling things we do over the course of our lives? The measure of a good life shouldn’t be the hours you clock in a cubicle, but the hours you spend with loved ones, or laying in the grass at a park, or making breakfast for you and your partner on a lazy morning, or building model trains, or whatever it is that makes you happy. Maybe it’s a simple as shifting our ideas on what defines us, on what’s important.

      I’m sorry to hear about your (fucking shitty, life-altering though thoroughly non-lethal) illness, Nick, but I’m glad that you seem to be happy in spite of it. And you’re right: as long as we are not traitors to ourselves, gender roles and the rest of society’s pressures can suck it.

  2. Oh, dude! I am living a parallel existence right now. I’m about to let my boyfriend support me for the summer because we are moving temporarily for his job and I have been busting a nut trying to find some thing anything that I can work at there. Even though he doesn’t care and can’t understand why I don’t just stay home and work on my novel. I’ve literally been freaking right out. I’m qualified to do nothing that doesn’t suck.
    I seem to be terrified of being less than independent. But, if the situation were reversed I wouldn’t mind a bit.
    This is turning into a Dear Abbey.
    Great insight. I feel you. Things are good — don’t question it. Right?

    • Right! Oh man, I feel your pain. And about a week ago, actually, the boyfriend and I found out we’re going to be moving to Pittsburgh permanently for his job IN A MONTH. So now there’s really no point to me getting a job until we’re there, but I’m like, “Really? Now I’m moving to a place where I know absolutely no one and have no friends or connections and I’m TOTALLY DEPENDENT on you to not abandon me alone and penniless and helpless in a strange city???” So yeah, major relapse of freaking out due to lack of independence.

      But then, I think the beautiful thing about having a partner is that you don’t *have* to be independent all the time. Sometimes, it’s totally okay (even good) to lean on them, and vice versa. So yeah, exactly–if it’s good, don’t question it. Work on that novel! It’s not often that we get opportunities to focus solely on writing. And we’re probably both very lucky girls that we have partners who support us in that.

      That being said, totally still freaking out some.

  3. Pingback: The Official List of Feminist-Approved Life Decisions! (Because women still can’t be trusted to make their own.) | By Claire Burgess

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