I had half a draft of a blog post about Red written, but I don’t want to write it anymore. In light of today’s discussion of Oleanna, and an exchange I just had, I need to write about something else.
I’m sitting in the GSU right now, and I just got up to get some water. The main water machine is broken, so I filled a cup with ice and then hot water. As I was doing so, a male employee came up to me and said “What do you need, dearie?” “Just water,” I said, clearly doing just fine getting it on my own. “Okay, dearie,” he replied.
Okay. So. First of all, why the need to approach me at all? Maybe just a desire to be helpful, true, maybe I looked lost…but I don’t think I did. Secondly, and more infuriatingly, why the term of endearment? He doesn’t know me–there was absolutely no basis for any sort of relationship, or even interaction, between us. So why the need to address me that way?
Now, I don’t think that was sexual harassment. I’m not gonna pull a Carol and try to get him fired. BUT I don’t think it’s ridiculous of me to question and take issue with this interaction. Referring to me, a young woman, by a term of endearment implies a level of intimacy that I in no way invited or desired. Furthermore, “dearie” specifically is a diminutive term. This is just an example of the way in which our society infantilizes women. Carol takes issue with John calling his wife “baby.” It is none of her business, and possibly an overreaction, but her point remains valid. When men refer to women as babies, either directly or through other terms that imply a childlike dependency (“sweetie,” “honey”–words that could be used interchangeably for a lover or a child) it is negating our womanhood and putting the man in a position of power over us.
This is also not to say that women don’t refer to their male partners using this same language. In intimate relationships, this absolutely occurs. However, I have a hard time imagining a situation in which an adult woman would refer to a younger male stranger, or an older male stranger for that matter, as “sweetie,” or “dearie.” Whereas for some reason, it is still borderline acceptable for men to refer to women in this way. Carol calls John out for calling a student “Dear,” calling it flirting. And it is. It’s forcing an intimacy that the woman is not welcoming. Once we start allowing men to dictate the level of intimacy in a relationship, whether it is one that is already fraught with power dynamics like a professor-student relationship, or a fleeting one like an exchange by the water fountain, it is a dangerous slope. If men can dictate the level of intimacy in some ways, why not in other, more serious ones?
Some people might read this and think I’m overreacting. Some would probably tell me to calm down. But this issue goes so far beyond a few words exchanged between two people. At its heart, it’s an issue about the fact that our culture continuously places women in passive, childlike roles while men are put in positions of power. And if we don’t draw attention to the tiny day-to-day incidents where this happens, nothing will ever change.