I wasn’t there when it happened. The next morning while we peeled mangoes in our kitchen, C told me how much fun she had in Chinatown with our friend Mike*, how the dumplings were on her breath even this morning and how he matter-of-factly told her that all women over 35 are bitter.
“Get this,” C said to me as she put her knife down to look me in the eyes, “Mike said to me last night, ‘All women over 35 are bitter. Bitter about being married, bitter about not being married or bitter about their career not being where they want it to be.'” C is 25, so with a pit in her stomach and heat rising to her forehead, she said “So what, I’ve got 9 good years left?” Mike replied “Yup, so get your licks while you can!”
I told C that had I been there, I might have simply suggested to Mike that he was full of shit, laughed and told him that he should aspire to [at least] logically sound misogyny. But all day long, inwardly and outwardly, and even now, I am incapable of letting this go so easily. The hatred of women is something you expect to meet in oppressive military regimes, dark alleyways and the occasional comments section of a blog or forum. I never thought that someone who I had judged to be kind, respectable and clearly friendable could be a misogynist, but faced with this situation, I now had to entertain that sticky thought and find a way to address it directly.
And herein lies the problem: Mike didn’t say this about me, or a particular woman. He said it about “women” of a certain age. The nature of the comment suggests that he felt comfortable talking with C about this, even though she was a woman on her way to becoming one of the women he was describing (which, if you missed it, is all women – married or unmarried – dealing with issues that anyone with a job or a relationship might deal with.) The word women, when used by Mike, didn’t actually pertain to any real women. Mike’s comment was about all women (over 35) and no women at all.
The removal of women (real) from women (discussed) is the key to understanding how this comment raises the question of misogyny. A misogynist hates women because they’re women – hates women for being women (thanks, wikipedia). A term defined by such charged words as “hatred” and contingent upon something so vague as what it means to be a woman is difficult to rely on when telling your friend why something they said is so hurtful and problematic. It also doesn’t explain the difference between an action that produces misogyny (hatred of women) and an action that is intentionally misogynistic (hating women). Mike isn’t talking about real women, so C finds it difficult to react appropriately. Her alienation, her inability to say react in a way that satisfies the bubbling indignation she feels in this conversation, might be explained by misogyny’s insufficiency as a practical redress.
What we (C and I) recognize when we hear “women” and are told “not you” is the abject (thanks, Julia Kristeva):
The abject is not an ob-ject facing me, which I name or imagine. Nor is it an ob- ject, an otherness ceaselessly fleeing in a systematic quest of desire. What is abject is not my correlative, which, providing me with someone or something else as support, would allow me to be more or less detached and autonomous. The abject has only one quality of the object – that of being opposed to the I.
You might say that the abject explains what is neither strictly subject nor object. Something that is opposed to the “I” as if an object but uncanny and familiar, so not totally outside of the self. But the “abject” is more than the “familiar stranger.” The abject arises out of fire and dissonance when neither I nor you nor it fits:
Essentially different from “uncanniness,” more violent, too, abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognize its kin; nothing is familiar, not even the shadow of a memory… The phobic has no other object than the abject. But that word, “fear” – a fluid haze, an elusive clamminess – no sooner has it cropped up than it shades off like a mirage and permeates all words of the language with nonexistence, with a hallucinatory ghostly glimmer. Thus, fear having been bracketed, discourse will seem tenable only if it ceaselessly confront that otherness, a burden both repellent and repelled, a deep well of memory that is unapproachable and intimate: the abject.
To fear something is both to have experienced it, either in reality or in thought, and to incorporate it into one’s identity by placing one’s self constantly in opposition and away from (thus in relation to) it. To fear is to visualize something into existence, that a dog will bite, that an ocean will swallow or that a building will crumble, that has yet and may not happen. When one has a fear, one avoids (brackets) that fear and lives alongside it, experiencing it all the time as that which one refuses to experience.
The abject is that sneaky object that is really only an object because one decides to make it so, and in doing this, makes it a subject. Or, it is the cousin once removed of a subject more literally. The abject is achieved by the use of something familiar to achieve something violent and repulsive:
In the dark halls of the museum that is now what remains of Auschwitz, I see a heap of children’s shoes, or something like that, something I have already seen elsewhere, under a Christmas tree for instance, dolls I believe. The abjection of Nazi crime reaches its apex when death, which, in any case, kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death: childhood, science, among other things.
The abject is inescapable familiarity. Mike’s use of the word women when not referring to any specific women constitutes abjection. Mike confronts us women listening to him with what we understand ourselves to be and with something radically different from us. We are not bitter, we are not 35, we are not married and we are not the women (object) about whom he speaks, but we are sometimes bitter, we will become 35, we are not married and we may become married and we are the women (object) to whom he speaks. Abjection pulverizes the “I” that I understood myself to be because it forces me to locate within myself that which I understood to be outside of me. Mike tells us about something that we are not in the only way he can: invoking familiar words and hopelessly relatable scenarios. Confusion is abjection and abjection becomes misogyny as we wonder if the disdain Mike uses when speaking of those other women is a disdain for us, or perhaps a threat of disdain promised in the future.
Either way, I have to ask Mike and anyone else who would indirectly express dislike for women: Are you a misogynist? Your comment is confusing, and makes me feel like the object, or soon-to-be object, of some nascent dislike or phobia. What I experience when you talk about women like that is painful. If those women, who you describe as bitter, are pained as well, then the infliction of pain on what would seem to be all women constitutes, by virtue of its unlimited and inexplicable scope, extreme dislike, or hatred [misogyny]. (Bracketed to show fear, and abjection.)
*Mike is not really a Mike, but someone whose identity I want to protect. And I am grateful to C for helping me find these words, which are mine, not hers.