He meant no harm…

I slipped on a slab of wet wood in the dog park the other day and landed on my backside.

I was unhurt. I knew as soon I stood to brush myself off, but a few bystanders came to my rescue.

‘I’m all right,’ I said sweeping twigs and leaves from my clothes. ‘Only I’ve bruised my bum.’

‘I’d offer to rub it for you, but…’ from an older man among the three who came to help.

I laughed it off, but in my mind an instant discomfort.

He meant no harm, but I wanted to tell him it was an unnecessary comment, especially in the light of the current conversations in parliament and throughout the zeitgeist. No more gratuitous sexual references from men towards women however seemingly harmless. 

Was it demeaning? 

If I’d been a younger woman, it might have come across as sleezy. To me it was just inane. As if I’d accept such an offer from a complete stranger.

Did he really want to pat my bum or was it the so-called manly thing to say, to throw in a touch of sexual inuendo to re-settle the situation?  

It can’t be easy being a man these days. Not that it’s ever been easy to be a woman or any person on this earth, but some are more privileged than others, the so-called middle class dead white males and those who are soon to join them, seem to be at the top of the tree. But their hegemony is no longer guaranteed.

What a word, ‘hegemony’. I first heard it when I was at university and it took me an age to get my mind around it. Simply put, it means dominance, but it seems to hold more than power at its base.

As Jess Hill puts it: 

Capitalism with all its problems is rooted in centuries of patriarchy. Patriarchy positions all people on a scale of entitlement to power and control: men have power over women, some men have power over other men, white people have power over people of colour, heterosexuals have power over LGBTQI, rich have power over poor, adults have power over children, all people have power over nature, and so on. Within this system, it is not individual men who have the most value, but men (and some women) who embody patriarchal traits of maleness: control, logic, strength, competitiveness, decisiveness, rationality, autonomy, self-sufficiency, heterosexuality (and – critically – whiteness). Men who don’t embody these traits are assigned less value, and may be persecuted, attacked and shamed. That is how patriarchy polices men’s allegiance: through shame, violence and fear.

Folks might be sick of hearing the term ‘patriarchy’. As much as I might once have resented the notion that a woman’s place is in the home.

Where do we get these ideas and why do they hold so fast?

Power, I suspect. A wish to hold onto it and thereby not have to endure the discomfort of our vulnerability. That awful feeling we have when we fall, when we’re hurt or someone hurts us. When we can no longer stand tall, when our dignity fails us and we’re left feeling powerless or helpless.

Though not everyone becomes powerful or arrogant, at least not towards others.

Some people take it out against themselves. They become self-loathers ready to criticize their every move. Every step they take that is not in the realms of what the higher order critic calls ‘perfection’ is to be condemned.

I remember many years ago the words of Emily Dickinson’s poem, I’m nobody who are you. Are you nobody, too? Then there’s a pair of us. Don’t tell. How dreary to be somebody…

Dickinson goes on to sing the praises of being nobody. Little did she know fame would come her way after death. Huge fame as poet. A quirky and memorable one at that. I could not quite join her praise for the nobody state. I wanted to be somebody. 

As a fourteen-year-old when I pinned clothes to the Hills Hoist from a basket overladen with underpants and socks and shirts from my many sisters and brothers, my parents, I liked to sing full throttle.

I had the fantasy that some famous gentleman walked past our house on busy Warrigal Road in Cheltenham and heard my voice rise above the roof tops.

This gentleman could not then resist making his way down the side path of our house to offer me the opportunity to star in his latest musical.

I sang all the louder in the hope of a discovery that never happened. 

It’s a pleasure to be hidden, writes Donald Winnicott, about the fun for babies and small children with the game peek a boo. A pleasure to be hidden as in hide and seek, but devastation, never to be found. And the trouble with so many of our discoveries as we grow, so many of those hopes to be found especially when you’re a young woman wanting recognition, that it often takes the form of a sexualised recognition, not you the person, but your body that is wanted to give some gratification to the other.

So deeply rooted in the male gaze. So deeply rooted in women’s place in the world as the inferior group there for the gratification of the superior group. 

Sorry to go on about this, but I find myself thinking about war. The stupidity of war. The way young men become cannon fodder. Young men die, but the women get raped as a sign of the opposition’s power. As if women are the chattels of the men. it’s not enough to kill men. The women have to be defiled too. To make the point someone else holds the power.

A rant if ever there was one, this little paean to pain but I can’t stop my angry fingers racing across the keyboard in despair at how subtle and deep-set these notions are.

The man in the dog park, who meant no harm to me, still participated in a centuries old tradition of objectifying and sexualising a woman’s body, as if there is nothing more to her than a bruised bum, that needs his soothing hand. 

3 thoughts on “He meant no harm…”

  1. I don’t know why you have to call this a “rant,” as it’s quite powerful in its own right. I am rather obsessed these days with “patriarchy” — mainly as a result of a hideous post-divorce case that my ex-husband dragged me through. Patriarchy was at its most glorious and powerful, and I couldn’t exactly articulate the inchoate thoughts I had, the near desperation and despair I felt as everything I was and have done as a mother and part-time teacher and writer and baker was reduced, reduced, dismissed, etc. I am stewing all of these things, percolating for something to make itself known to me. This post — your clear words, your “rant” bring me a little closer. Thank you.

    1. Every time I slip into my rage about inequality I get into rants, Elizabeth. I’m glad this one resonated with you. It means a lot to me. Thanks.

  2. I used to be a flirt. And I was good at it. But you need to know who it is you’re flirting with, that it’s a game and not to be taken seriously. We Scots love banter, like the Irish with their craic and my general view of Australians is that you do too. I never thought of flirting as a bad thing because there were no bad intentions. You flirt with the girls and are sarcastic with the men. If you’d ever heard old Robert Young and me you’d’ve thought we hated each other’s guts but the opposite was actually the case and the same with Morag and I. You would’ve sworn we were lusting after each other but we both knew there was a line there and it was never crossed. I don’t know when I stopped flirting or why. I just lost interest probaby in my late thirties. About the only thing I still do is call women “pet” which is a habit I picked up from my second wife. Only one woman has ever objected to that and I apologised and did my damndest not to do it again but we didn’t fall out over it. I am, I have to say, not a big fan of political correctness. People need to grow thicker skins and stop taking themselves so seriously. There are the things people say and the things they mean. It’s like body language. You learn to pick up on subtleties. As you said about the old man, he didn’t mean any harm but what did he mean? Probably not anything. It’s just something you say like, “Would you like me to kiss it better?” So many ways to field that one and diffuse the situation. It’s embarrassing falling down. Nice of the old guy to make light of it with a bit of harmless flirting.

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