Two weeks ago, someone who I considered a good friend suddenly let it be known that a comedy project I had worked on, had put time, money, and effort into, was not, in his words, “any good.” He berated me further, “C’mon Kim, you can’t possible have thought you were funny. It just wasn’t good.” He implied I was an idiot for being proud of my accomplishment and that he was being a good friend by telling me years later exactly what he thinks of my work. To be clear, I’m perfectly at ease knowing not everyone is going enjoy my comedy. That’s not how art works and everyone is entitled to their opinion. But it was his tone that hit me hardest. He spoke with authority as if I should be grateful for his bequeathing a years-long held belief that I simply didn’t make good art.
Now, I’m not the chick who gets shell-shocked by criticism. You tell me something constructive and I’ll listen and try to grow; you come at me with abrasive words and I’m going to throw them right back at you. It’s a perk of being a native New Yorker. So I told him he was being condescending, hurtful, a jerk to put it lightly. He then told me to “calm down.”
And that tiny little phrase is what I want to discuss.
I am sick and tired of being told to calm down. Passionate men are called “fighters,” “fiery,” “smart.” Passionate women are told to “calm down.” We’re “hysterical” and need to “take it down a notch.” We’re told that we’re being “crazy” and “making a mountain out of a molehill” that we “don’t know what we’re talking about” cause he’s “just being honest” and we need “to learn how to take a joke.”
Now here’s the tricky part. I know it’s coded sexist language. If you’re a chick reading this, you know it’s coded sexist language. But how do you explain coded language to other half of the population? Like so many things in a woman’s life, the definition of what something is keeps changing. And how we can/should/want to talk about sexism keep shifting too. I can’t keep up.
I think the majority of women would agree that when speaking to another man, be it in an upset or debating fashion, a man’s first instinct would not be to tell him to “calm down.” Every woman I spoke to about this situation made a sort of animalistic grunt in reaction to those words. We know it’s belittling and that it’s an intangible, constant reminder that our emotions are thought of as less than or simply unequal to the passions of a man. Worst yet, any display of emotion is seen as being wild and out of control instead of simply human.
I tried; I really did. I told him about his condescending tone. I reminded him that I was allowed to be upset because he had said hurtful things. I even spoke about the historic sexist context of his wording. But he told me I was a bully for trying to make him feel wrong. A bully. For having a valid emotional response to something hurtful. I lost a friend that day and I realize that you’re reading this article thinking “he sounds terrible, good riddance” but one moment, one mistake doesn’t make a human being good or bad. He was a close friend. And I miss him. And I don’t think he even realized how anti-feminist he was being.
I don’t know if I handled it correctly. I wish there was a check list for “how to deal with hidden sexism” but there isn’t and initially, I had wanted to write one out for you so that maybe future you could benefit from sad past me but it’s not that simple. There is no single way to deal with sexism. There isn’t even one way to define sexism. It’s a personal line.
So, no, lovely readers, I’m not going to tell you how to deal with coded language. And may I say, any article that pretends to have the golden ticket of responses is suffering from a major bout of chutzpah. We’re all still trying to figure out how to adequately and “calmly” talk about feminist issues. I don’t have the answers and I won’t pretend to. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this presidential election cycle, it’s that complexity and nuance should not be feared; simplicity and know-it-alls should.
But let me end with this: Be strong in your convictions but also patient and kind to those trying to learn. Above all else, never second guess your intuition. The moment you do, is the moment coded language comes out of the shadows and takes your friend away.