Perhaps you've read Rebecca Mead's long article in The New Yorker about British classics professor Mary Beard, who has been dealing with Internet trolls as well as diatribes from mainstream male journalists because she is not afraid to maintain a vivid public presence as an academic expert, even though she is a woman in her sixties who wears no makeup and doesn't dye her hair. The article is both distressing and highly entertaining: Beard's ability to embarrass these men is superseded only by her ability to make them see what idiots they have been. They apologize; they take her out to lunch; they send her supportive emails and ask for job references . . . which she writes for them. (About a university student who sent her a message saying, "You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting," she notes, "Although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don't actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.")
It is uplifting to watch a woman blithely and powerfully negotiate such barbs. At the same time, all I can think about is how exhausting this must be, how much energy she must expend overcoming one onslaught after another. I recall my own dealings with male cruelty (none of them as purely nasty as what Beard has dealt with) and I recognize how often--maybe always?--I have just taken what the man has thrown at me. When a very well known publisher telephoned me about a manuscript, and told me that he liked it a great deal and that it was beautifully written and full of fascinating insights about literature, but "Don't you think you could write something that interested people instead of just homemakers?". . . well, I think I murmured and stumbled and perhaps even apologized instead of saying what I should have said, which was "EXCUSE ME, SIR, ARE YOU DIFFERENTIATING BETWEEN HOMEMAKERS AND PEOPLE?"
Still, I'm not sure I hate that interchange more than I hate the one I had with a reasonably well known feminist poet who was directing an MFA program. I had just published Tracing Paradise, my memoir about copying out Paradise Lost, and she was interested in hiring me to offer a guest workshop for her poetry students. However, in response to my class proposal, she asked if I could send her a revised version: there were just too many male pronouns in my description of Milton and his poem. In this case, I was in fact able to say, "No, I don't think I can delete any male pronouns in my description of a book written by a man." And when she canceled my workshop because, as she told me forthrightly, she had the chance to hire a famous person instead of me, I was able to be both sardonic and relieved.
The sheer stupidity of such so-called feminism does a disservice to everyone. It undercuts what I have said again and again on this blog and in essays published elsewhere: striving female writers--like striving male writers--discover power within themselves when they find a way to engage in collegial conversation with the greatest writers who have ever lived. I can talk to Shakespeare. I can talk to Homer. I need to talk to them. Mary Beard seems to have parallel expectations and curiosities: "as a scholar she does not specialize in writing about women, or about gender in the classical period." This leads me to suspect that she doesn't have a problem with using male pronouns when she discusses Cicero.
Still, in her mission to instruct misguided trolls and journalists, she may also seem to be playing a very familiar role, one that women have taken on again and again throughout history: the instructive mother who lovingly dope-slaps the idiot son--"a Penelope who chastises Telemachus for being rude, then patiently teaches him the error of his ways. 'There is something deeply conservative about that reappropriation of errant teen-ager and long-suffering female parent--it is rewriting the relationship in acceptable form,' she says. 'If I said to my students, "What is going on here?" and they just came out with a happy-ending story, I would be very critical. I would say, "Haven't you thought about how the same sorts of gender hierarchies are written in different forms?"'"
Nonetheless, she recognizes and capitalizes on configurations of kindness and forgiveness. "Some of these adjectives we use, like 'maternal'--try putting 'human' in there instead. . . . If being a decent soul is being maternal, then fine. I'll call it human." I agree with this wholeheartedly, but I cannot forget that she is still, in this situation, negotiating from a position of power and prestige. She is fending attacks because she is a confident public expert. When I sit on my own much smaller and more rickety throne--as a teacher, a conference director, a mentor--I find it much easier to speak firmly but patiently to the people who say dumb shit to me. But in the situation I mentioned earlier--the publisher's telephone call--I was the weaker party. I felt I had no recourse, except to scream or to cave into silence. Because I have good manners, I caved in. I guess what I am saying is that Beard's Internet trolls might be wrestling with the same impulse, which comes down to a homely, debilitating lament: "Why are you someone? Why am I no one?" This doesn't excuse their behavior. But we have all sung that lament, in our own small, cracked voices.