I feel compelled to comment on this series of tweets from Kate Beaton (utterly fantastic webcomic artist and one of my favorite tweeters), and on this tumbld response from a reader,1 because I think I feel like the latter is missing a key point about feminism that is worth elaborating on. It’s something that’s easy to forget when thinking about feminism, and even when thinking as an aspiring feminist: even if men and women are equal in every form of capability, men and women are not the same, because they have different histories.
To save you the trouble of parsing 140 characters of sentiment at a time, here’s what Beaton said:
when you tell a female creator you like her work so much you want to marry her and have her babies, you’re not doing anyone any favors
first of all, as cute as it sounds in your head, it’s a shitty, disrespectful ‘compliment.’ No one makes comics looking for sexual attention
secondly, by doing so you invite others to critique that person’s works based on their looks, which is uncomfortable, sexist and unfair.
When I first read the response over at Regret Everything, I was empathetic to the writer’s position, because it’s something I might have thought myself not too long ago. The blogger, who identifies himself elsewhere as Anthony, writes that a comment like that “is not being made based on the person’s appearance,” but is “a message of appreciation and adoration” made “regardless of age or gender.” This last, I think, is exactly the point. Anthony goes on to say that he might say the same thing to a man, and obviously that would be okay, and so asks, “Is it only offensive if the recipient of the statement is a woman?”
To which question the answer is yes.
Because here’s what Anthony is missing: Kate Beaton has a gender.2 Kate Beaton is a woman. And, in terms of history and background, there’s a significant difference between men and women, and that difference affects what things mean, even if we don’t want it to.
Most folks who know me have probably encountered the fact that I am more or less giddy in love with Nathan Fillion. (Nathan Fillion @nathanfillion NATHAN FILLION.) As with most geeks of my type, I have similar feelings—though perhaps lesser in degree—for his Dr. Horrible costar Felicia Day (Felicia Day @feliciaday3). In fact, I will go so far as to say that one of the most fulfilling parts of my life in the last week has been watching Veronica, her character in Fallout: New Vegas, punch things. (VERONICA PUNCH!) Let’s imagine that I met each of them, one day, and offered to marry them and have their babies.4
Anthony is probably right: Fillion would probably take the comment in stride, and be dashing and charming about it, as he is dashing and charming about everything. He may or may not perceive the comment as sexual in nature; if so, he would probably perceive it as mock-sexual. This is probably the first significant flaw in Anthony’s argument. Sex is a feature of marriage, and so a marriage proposal is intrinsically a sexual advance, even if it is not based on physical attractiveness. Whether he perceived the advance as representative of genuine sexual attraction, or as a joke, it wouldn’t much matter, for a few reasons. Fillion belongs to a group with a long history of sexual agency, who for hundreds of years have been allowed to choose their own mates, and who for hundreds of years have been perceived as valuable as members of society, rather than as sexual objects. This group is called “men.”
I imagine Day would respond in much the same way, laughing it off and making a joke, but Day would have good reason to be made uncomfortable by the comment. Women have a different history than men. Historically and culturally, women in the States have not had the same degree of freedom that men have. Women have not always been, and are not always now, seen as sexual agents. (In fact, 80% of victims of rape and sexual assault in the US in 2009 were women.5) Women have not always been able to choose their mates, and women for hundreds of years were perceived as valuable primarily as objects of sexual (and nuptial) desire. Which is to say, telling Felicia Day I want to marry her means something different than telling Nathan Fillion I want to marry him.
To use a different example: what if I said to each of them, “You should get back in the kitchen where you belong?” I’m saying the same thing, right? Shouldn’t it therefore mean the same thing? Of course it doesn’t, and neither does “I want to have your babies.”
In the end, it’s not about Beaton’s insecurities, as Anthony suggests. It’s about a cultural history of discrimination and unequal treatment that means that half of our population has both reason and right to assume that comments about marriage are connected to sex, physical attractiveness, and objectification, and that the other half doesn’t. Just because you could say it to a man, doesn’t mean you can say it to a woman. And probably you shouldn’t say it to either.