The Man, the Myth, the Legend
I. THE MAN
I am going to start by stating something obvious: the content of my life, like yours, has been determined largely by white men. There is my white father, who taught me about white Jesus; there is Mr. Daubert, who taught me about Shakespeare; there are the boys in middle school who laughed at my boobs; and then there are the first fourteen people I have ever had sex with. When I look back on the milestones of my life, they are either in the shape or shadow of a man, his dusty musk pervasive (old beer, cigarettes) and his hand lingering just above the small of my back. This is not to say that strong and impactful women have been devoid from my life--quite the opposite is true--but it only dawned on me in November of last year that I am still living in a man’s world, despite what I have been told, and what I have told myself, for my entire life.
The trajectory of my feminism could begin any number of ways. It could begin with a dysfunctional, suburban childhood; it could begin with Bill Clinton’s blow job; it could begin with a humiliating era of puberty; it could begin with a well-dressed woman named Barbi in a high school English classroom; or it could begin in my dorm room during Orientation Week while being dry-humped by the only blond guy to have ever said I love you to me.
Dave—I am going to call him Dave—was the second person I ever loved. The first was my high school boyfriend, Ben (his name is actually Ben) and Ben and Dave were friends with one another. They went to the all-boys Catholic high school that sat directly across from the all-girls counterpart, where I would learn my first and sterilized iteration of feminist thought. In both schools, conformity was key and conservatism was dominant. For the girls, deviation from the heteronormative feminine ideal was tolerated to a degree. We were required to wear thick cotton sacs as a uniform, discouraged from wearing makeup, and typically went unshaven throughout the winter. Across the courtyard, however, the boys who strayed from the stringent expectation of machismo were often punished by their peers, called fags and fairies for appearing a certain way, for preferring intellectual conversation over locker room talk. It was as if the the school’s mission centered around preparing male students for fraternity pledging and casual date rape.
The boys that didn’t ascribe to this ideology fell into a waste pile of outcasts, skipping the football games for late-night coffee shops instead, taking salvia, listening to Radiohead. These boys--Dave, Ben, and their friends--would come to greatly shape my view of men as tolerant and sensitive beings, as being able to empathize with my own experience as a girl, as being bold enough to blur out the dominant views of the men around us. And so, when Dave moved away to school, a liberal arts college filled with liberal men and women, I followed him.
II. THE MYTH
After declaring my commitment to Reed College, I received a manila package in the mail with a book in it. It was a paperback of Richmond Lattimore’s translation of Homer’s Iliad and it was meant to serve as a secret handshake, an induction into the place where I would be spending the next four years. I felt stupid sitting at my parents’ dinner table, book in hand, highlighter in tow (who highlights an epic poem?). I felt even worse when it was hard for me to get past the first line that I would later be forced to memorize in Ancient Greek: Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus. Who was Achilleus? How was I supposed to say his name? What the fuck was I reading?
I couldn’t get past the catalogue of ships in Book Two and by the time I arrived in Portland in the fall, I was already flailing. My head was in the clouds, as they say, distracted by the memories of what I had left behind in Denver, the current maneuvering of being brand new to college, and the feelings of guilt and imposture that surrounded my affection for Dave.
But Dave loved me too. Or at least he told me he did when he needed a place to sleep before the dorms opened to sophomores. We fumbled around, drunk in bed and not wanting to wake my roommate, and whispered to one another the things that we had been too shy and ethical to say in a state of sobriety. I came to Reed because that is where he was and I stayed at Reed despite the fact that he left me very quickly.
It only took two romantic encounters for Dave to freeze me out entirely. It started with a lack of returned calls and texts. It continued in his obvious avoidance of me (a task that, on a 1,400-person campus, proves highly difficult). And it ended with him telling me that he didn’t come to Reed “to fuck around with some girl.” He came there to be an academic, to be taken seriously, to be placed undeniably above and without the help of the female sex.
I found it interesting that a person who was forced to the margins of a patriarchal social hierarchy in high school would have the audacity to impose the same sanctions in a place that was ideologically opposite of that where we met. I found it insane that a person would say the words “I love you” to someone that they fully alienated in the span of seventy-two hours. But most of all, I found it heartbreaking that I was forced to slog through The Iliad and its subsequent tenets all because I had a crush on a pale guy with a great last name.
While I will not go as far as to say that the experience was an introduction to the misogyny I would find at Reed, I do look at that moment with fraught speculation. I told everyone around me that I had chosen Reed for the academic rigor, the leftist ideology, and the highly regarded student autonomy. Deep down, however, I knew it was a matter of my loins, and that was a hard pill to swallow. If I really came all this way and with all these tuition checks for a love interest, what was expected of me on an intellectual level was sure to be a swift kick in the ass.
I wasn’t like the other kids at college because our college was filled with people who had already read The Iliad: people who smoked cigarettes, people who had sex, people who knew that Park Slope wasn’t a mountain. I myself was a doe-eyed teen, full of school spirit, Valley Girl intonation, and in love with someone who didn’t like me anymore. I found myself nodding along to conversations in French and referring to books I had never read. I was posing, like most of the students around me, and desperate to fit the mold of a “true” academic.
That mold, it turns out, has the shape and texture of an eighteen-year-old man, as most of those early weeks at Reed came to be dominated by virile male conversation and activity. And though I was still reeling from my experience with Dave, my first few weeks at Reed are reminiscent of an episode of The Bachelor, wherein my beautiful, attractive, hetero female peers subtly competed with one another for attention from the few eligible men on campus. I shared a kiss with a lanky science major from Boulder; I casually flirted with a Minnesotan with an old dad; and I exchanged mailstop letters with a brooding Irishman who proudly declared to me his asexuality despite the fact that his boner took up the space between us in his twin bed. I was (and would continue to be) infatuated with male attention to the point where it was my only source of validation.
I eventually did meet a person who liked me enough to become my boyfriend for most of college. He, like so many of the guys I had grown to love, had been so thoroughly emasculated by bullies in high school that our relationship wasn’t peppered with the chauvinism that I would come to associate with the male species. He was sweet and smart and insecure and we met one sunny afternoon in a style that would prove to be my experience of academia in general. He sat, smoking, amongst a handful of our male peers, while having an extracurricular discussion of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It was made clear almost immediately that I had no part in the conversation. Granted, I had never read the book, but I strongly suspected that most of them hadn’t either, and that’s when I realized that I was chasing male validation in more forms than just the romantic.
Despite my initial intimidation by the humanities curriculum and a rapidly plummeting grade in my required Biology class, I was growing to love my college and the lessons I was being taught there. I had never before heard the word hermeneutics or paradigm; I was daily feeling the pressure and challenges of the curriculum. I was expanding my mind and demonstrating my ability to function beyond the male-female dichotomy that I was still coming to understand and navigate despite having spent the previous four years in classrooms with only women. I was told regularly that I was a leftist, that I was a feminist, that I was a revolutionary--we all were. We devoured communist texts with the voraciousness of newborns, we defied religion with militant bravado, we participated in the ideals of free love without boundaries. In essence, we were being taught at every turn to dismantle the capitalist patriarchy that oppresses all groups of mankind (except the white male ones) and I convinced myself that the theories we absorbed went hand-in-hand with the practicing of them.
That was not the case, however, when it came down to it, as many of my interactions throughout college reek of inequality. Orientation Week and my dry hump with Dave was not my first experience of feeling inferior to a man and it certainly would not be my last. Misogyny was as readily available on campus as hallucinogens, and it spanned from student to teacher. My memories of many seminar classes are marred by feelings of inadequacy, the witnessing of blatant male favoritism, and a general curriculum that centered itself around the opinions of dead white guys. I want to reiterate too that I was a good, or at the very least, slightly above-average Reed College student. I attended every lecture with enthusiastic readiness; I participated in class, often to an annoying degree; and I met every deadline without the aid of an all-nighter or a line of adderall. I grew to love Reed, as it had asked me to do, and I took my position as a student there very seriously. However, my college experience contains, among many happy and enlightening moments, memories of utter humiliation and feelings of imposture. In my first year, while asking questions and preparing for an exam, a male biology professor spoke to me with such vile condescension that I spent the afternoon crying in my room when I should have been studying the textbook. A few semesters later, I was unjustly accused with the vehemence of a witchhunter of cheating on a twenty-page paper for a Russian poetry class that I was forced to rewrite in forty-eight hours. In several of my male-taught classes, I witnessed a gross display of gender nepotism.
Worse yet, I shared the classroom and the rest of the campus with young, impressionable people who absorbed and regurgitated this behavior. Male students often dominated the conversation and spoke with the same self-righteous bombast of the Dos Equis man. Many of these guys brought their chauvinism to parties, talking loudly over women before grinding them on the dance floor. I even had male peers, elected to student government and judiciary bodies, who were known to have committed some degree of sexual assault against female students. Yes, even at our leftist haven, students were still being raped by their peers.
This is not limited to my experience, either. I recently asked friends via social media to discuss their encounters with misogyny in liberal arts settings. Their responses made my eyes sore from rolling them so much. Many of the narratives I read not only reflected my own experience but enhanced it, making me revert back to the nineteen year-old-self who was desperate to prove the worthiness of my mind. I had friends telling me about a history professor who taught only one woman on his syllabus, often referring to her as “beautiful”, as if to insinuate that her physical appearance stood paramount to her ideologies. (This beautiful woman, by the way, was Hannah Arendt.) Another alumna spoke of a male mentor at Reed who often inquired about her love life, never forgetting to mention when his wife and children were out of town. My best friend from college who soared at Reed, graduating in only three-and-a-half years and at the top of our class, was told time and time again by male peers that professors only engaged in dialogue with her because they thought she was attractive--it couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with her perspective and ability.
Friends shared their experiences outside of the Reed community as well, alluding to academic struggles that had nothing to do with their mind and had everything to do with their gender. One film student from Arizona was told by a fellow classmate that she was only “allowed” into the program because the department needed to fill a quota. One queer undergraduate of color at Lewis and Clark was told by an older white male professor that she was “not grad school material”. A male friend of mine even chimed into say that his research job enthusiastically advocated for the advancement of women in STEM fields, but when a female colleague who was the most qualified for a certain position was up for a promotion, the boss said it would be better for a man to fill the void.
I am sure this all sounds familiar and the reality of sexism in academia (and the workplace, the home, the doctor’s office, the ballot box, etc.) is not some idea that came out of nowhere. But I have a problem with institutions that pride themselves on being “open-minded” or “embracing diversity” or vaguely leftist by any definition of the word acting with such inherent hypocrisy and opposition to real-life progress. I have a problem with participating and succeeding in a liberal institution that regularly devalued women’s voices and disregarded women’s contributions. Women at my college and others, despite any semblance of forward-thinking curricula, were regularly objectified and silenced. And when it comes down to it, I had come to Reed because I was in love with a man and I was in love with a man because I was told that men were my only means of success in this life.
Yet, it would be unfair of me to go without acknowledging the many times that I was taught by and about smart women in college. Reed provided me with expertise knowledge and interpretation of Sappho and Mary Wollstonecraft and Judith Butler (though the lack of intersectionality is glaring now). Reed provided me with male and female mentors who not only validated my experience as a woman in academia but inspired me to look past the constructs of gender in order to see a wider, more forgiving depiction of humanity--the reason I had pursued the study of literature in the first place. Reed provided me with some of the best friendships, with men and women both, who enabled me to feel big and boundless when others made me feel small.
Sometimes though, I wonder if my high school experience inside a sterile and puritanical all-girls institution is what most prepared me more for the real world. It was there that I had to articulate my argument for being pro-choice; it was there where I had to learn to embrace and positively interact with other women in an academic environment; and it was there that I came face to face with the future chauvinists of America who were, at that very moment, abusing and shaping the character of the men that I would later love. In essence, I had to learn how to have a dialogue with an institution that was forthright in its patriarchy instead of hiding behind a facade of liberalism. Unfortunately, this dichotomy seems to be at the center of our society: we function in either blatantly misogynist spaces or pseudo-progressive ones --neither actively work to dismantle oppression.
III. THE LEGEND
Reed, however, might be the place where I learned the most about myself. If you were to ask me during and after college how I enjoyed Reed, I would have responded with gloating nostalgia for the happiest time in my life. It was there where I learned how to smoke cigarettes and have sex, and where I met real live Brooklynites. I learned about gender fluidity and sexual orientation and what naked bodies look like. I was exposed to different cultures and traditions and I developed such tenderness for the ritual: a humanities lecture, a sunny day in Portland, a parade twice a year. I miss being in a place where my only responsibility was to read a book and then talk about it with people who challenged me to have a better mind.
It has only been the past few months that I have really started to criticize the institution where I grew into adulthood. I have developed a better understanding of my identity as a woman and have become more aware of the ways in which college failed me. What it comes down to is that I was provided with too much theory and not enough practice of how to realistically apply it. I have cringed when reflecting on how many times I excused myself from true critical thinking by just considering gender and race as social constructs, as if their systematic consequences are, too, imaginary.
The liberal arts need to move farther away from blind praise of the Western Canon and Reed, in particular, needs to develop a curriculum that promotes ideologies both feminist and intersectional. We are simply at a point in time when teaching the opinions of predominantly dead white modernists is no longer productive. In a community of progressive intellectuals, it is time to instill a sense of activism that goes beyond self-congratulatory forward thinking.
I have spent some time lamenting about Reed’s flaws to my best friend from college--you know, the one who was too pretty to actually be smart. I have cried to her about the petty injustice I have felt and argued with her about the intentions of certain male professors. But she reminded me to value the skepticism that was universally taught to us throughout college. She encouraged me to view this moment of regret as just another layer of institutional wisdom. I didn’t need to go to Reed to read The Iliad or to pathologize the patriarchy, but I will need dialectic tools for the rest of my life. My curriculum might have been formed in part by some assholes, but it was a curriculum that mobilized its own power. Above all, I was taught to critique the canon and I now have the perspective to critique the institution that taught me the canon in the first place.
Dave eventually apologized for how he acted when I arrived at Reed. He had felt insecure, territorial, and above all, disillusioned by our friendship. I carried no hard feelings towards him and instead felt grateful for his influence. If it had not been for our dry hump, I would have missed out on college and prioritized sentiment over reason. Dave and I are fine now; we went bowling a few years after college and he called me from a road trip last summer. I don’t know much about his life or who sleeps with. I only know that he is a man with a dog somewhere in California, and that he is going to school to become a professor, a teacher to the young and impressionable mind he once had.