My Boobs Can Too Run with the Big Dogs

In the discussion on Hacker News that I referenced in yesterday's blogpost, I ended up saying to a new-ish female member:

HN used to be a lot rougher. I probably have the second highest karma of any openly female member. I used to get badly raked over the coals. I think a) yeah, there is room for improvement on HN b) I have been in even worse sexist business/professional situations, so it took me a while to connect the dots and realize it was a sexism thing. So I think you probably do need a thick skin and more savvy about how to deal with such things if you are going to make it in business. This is really not that horrible, in the grand scheme of things.

Mz on HN

With writing that, it occurred to me I have been pretty openly critical of Hacker News of late and I have probably hurt a lot of feelings and male egos with my comments about how badly I was once treated when the reality is that I have always had a fairly high opinion of Hacker News. I decided I would like to write a bit about some of my worse experiences elsewhere. Then I realized I had already written about the first story that came to mind, about a time when, slightly emulating Lady Godiva, I bared a bit in the name of righteousness.  Below is an edited excerpt from a piece originally posted elsewhere under the title Shoving Matches on 2011/11/30.

In the movie Remember The Titans, there is a shoving match between the white team captain and one of the black team members. This is the point at which this interracial football team becomes a cohesive team and race stops mattering to the members. The white team captain initiates the shoving match in a friendly team-spirit fashion and, with body language, invites him to push back. The black player momentarily hesitates because the context is a very racially tense time in the U.S., a time when a young black man could have potentially been literally lynched for something like that. But, after initially hesitating, he then does push back and a friendly shoving match ensues. Shoving back is an indicator of equality.

My oldest son and I have discussed this "pushing back" paradigm in terms of gender relations. My oldest son is a rather aspie-ish, literal-minded sort. In online forums, he often asks socially unacceptable "dumb" questions because he genuinely wants to understand why people do the things they do or why they think the things they think. If he asks a girl some question, sometimes people try to tell him to get off her back and try to tell him it's not appropriate (because she's a girl, though they then get stymied if he inadvertently points out their sexist reasoning). Often, the girl initially tries to avoid him and ignore him.

His response is typically to politely hound her until he gets a reply, ignoring all attempts by the group to try to tell him in essence "You can't do that. She's just a girl." Usually, she figures he is essentially attacking her and implying she shouldn't hold the position she holds. But that is not the case. He just honestly wants to understand. So once he has his answer, his response is to thank her for finally replying and get off her back, whether he "agrees" or not. He has found that often other people then argue with her because other people will take issue with her reasoning. But by the time she is ready to publicly answer him, she is ready to publicly defend herself and her position. She is ready to push back and often answers in a shoving back kind of manner, which does not provoke him because he doesn't work that way but often does provoke reactions from other members.

We talked about this in light of the idea that men seem to routinely think that it is on women to stand up for themselves and pursue a feminist agenda and there isn't really anything a man can do to help with it. If a man is not an idiot, he will realize that trying to be "helpful" can be a big problem that just keeps women disempowered -- that you can't give a woman equality by opening doors for her and being deferentially polite and helpful. Such actions only reinforce the "helpless woman" paradigm. But he has found that politely pushing a woman until she pushes back does something for the individual girl and gender equality in the forum as a whole similar to the racial leveling effect in the above scene in Remember The Titans.

This wasn't anything he was looking to accomplish. He simply doesn't ascribe to a lot of unstated social assumptions and he has inadvertently stumbled across an answer that does work: That men can promote female equality by giving women the opportunity to push back. They can politely wrestle with women -- challenge them, inquire what they think and why and so on and invite them to respond, invite them to stand up for their views and express their opinions. In short, they can invite them to push back. My son simply ignores the fact that they are female and ignores the way his actions weird out an entire forum and just persists with his queries until he has his answer because a reply was all he wanted.

Pushing back is a much more civilized means to promote gender equality (or racial equality) than a lot of the openly hostile, angry even violent feminazi type attempts to "fight the man"/"fight the power". A lot of other approaches are really quite weak in that they come from a fundamentally one-down position and tend to reinforce the one-up/one-down paradigm of inequality. A shoving match is one that takes place between people who are fundamentally equal in power. It is psychologically rooted in an assumption of equality, which makes it a superior paradigm for promoting actual equality than starting from an assumption of being The Oppressed party in need of fighting back.

I've had a few shoving matches of my own, usually initiated unintentionally by men (who were sometimes mortified that they had inadvertently given me such an opening). Some years ago, I was in a forum and two of the top (male) members both responded to me in a manner that I took as a statement of "You can't run with the big dogs. You're just a girl." It was a "put up or shut up" type challenge only it was diabolically designed to be a lose-lose proposition for me. They responded to something I said with a "god, you talk a lot of shit" type attitude. The outcome was they both basically challenged me to post a nude photo of myself.

My view was that if I didn't post it, it would amount to backing down and admitting I couldn't run with the big dogs but if I did post it, it would amount to announcing "You are right. I can't go toe to toe with the boys as I am only a boy-toy." I was still on a fair amount of medication and in a lot of pain. The challenge seemed like a good way to entertain myself and make a political point in the forum. So I spent some time carefully photoshopping a nude selfie of my own breasts into a black-and-white silhouette with the nipples air-brushed out and I posted it as my avatar. It ended up being an elegant response to a challenge that, in some sense, was designed to make me lose no matter what I did.

When I first joined the forum in question, most of the female members had "slutty"/sexy avatars and did a lot of batting their eyelashes and cooing at the men to the effect of "gee golly whiz that's such a brilliant idea" and agreeing with things the men said and otherwise behaving vacuously. After my boobs had been on display for about six weeks, most of the slutty avatars disappeared and were replaced with avatars with more personality. The women mostly stopped batting their eyelashes and cooing agreement at the men and began expressing actual opinions of their own. At that point, I figured I had made my point and it was time for my boobs to be taken off the internet. I am no longer doped to the gills, so I would probably be disinclined to ever again post a picture of my breasts as a political statement. But I have no regrets.

When I wrote the original piece, I chose to not name the forum or the two men in question (in part for reasons outlined yesterday). It was a professional forum and they were both professionals. They were, in fact, two of the more competent people in the forum and, in some ways, two of the better behaved men in terms of treating women like they had brains. I never felt that either one of them was intentionally trying to shut me out of the boys club. I never felt this was intended as malicious. But it is far more problematic and sexist behavior than anything I ever ran into on Hacker News.

In spite of my frustrations with not being taken very seriously on Hacker News, it took a good long time for me to get fed up and take a long break from the forum because, really, in the grand scheme of things, Hacker News is a relative oasis of civilized behavior. There is still room for improvement but there are much, much worse things out there (even from men honestly not trying to be awful). This is part of why I stuck around so long and later was glad to come back.


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