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The Quotidian Miasma of Discrimination: The Case of the Damsel in Distress

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I managed to live through years of torment by self-centered, self-important, yet mediocre senior colleagues who eventually did grant me tenure, on the strength of my credentials, but to this day, old men roaming the halls tell tales of how the dean "saved" my job, or of how some other man was instrumental in my rescue. In the patriarchal grand narrative, I was the damsel in distress.

Ruby Caprio


Aubrey Beardsley illustrationIn the hallowed halls of academia, Sexism doesn't swagger about in a wifebeater with a Camel no-filter hanging from its defiant lip. Indeed, overt displays of machismo are rare, and all of the carefully crafted institutional rhetoric reflects and promotes principles of equality and tolerance, which are fully recognized as shared community values. Our private liberal arts centered university smack in the middle of a down-home red state even has a women's caucus. In a stunning display of sheer determination and astounding courage, one of my untenured colleagues swept together a women's caucus from the decades-old dust left from the dirty dealings of the old boys' club and their classic cronyism. Today I am the head of this caucus, which boasts about eighty members of the faculty and staff.

My most challenging work is finding the language to articulate the workings of an insidious sexism that results in what I like to call the quotidian miasma of discrimination, or the QMD (not to be confused with the chimerical WMD). The QMD is insidious because it is the by-product of a constellation of factors that, when looked at individually, seem not to target women, but which converge on spaces where we are most likely to find women. This more nuanced version of sexism leaves us without a clear enemy, without the swaggering patriarch to flesh out the sinister intentionality behind the discrimination.

I remember as a grad student trying to understand the Matrix-like quality of the "patriarchal order." I always envisioned a bunch of old white men semi-reclined in overstuffed chairs, hands clasped behind heads, cigars in mouths, gathered around a heavy wooden table in a locked room marked "Patriarchs." In the upper echelons of my university administration, there are plenty of Patriarchs who meet behind closed doors around heavy wooden tables, but the room lacks a clear label, although in the hallowed hall outside the university’s presidential suite, photographic portraits of members of the board of trustees fills a wall with mostly male images. At my university, we have a male president and five male vice presidents. Probably they don't overtly plan the continued subjugation of the second sex in their meetings, but regardless of their intentions, the lack of women in the upper administration and in positions of power is a major contributing factor in the QMD. Because it is undetectable by the clumsy, outdated sexism radar we are still lugging around from the 70s, the QMD works stealthily and subtly.

So, if it's not wearing its hatred and fear of woman on its sleeve, what is Sexism wearing these days? On my campus, it sometimes saunters around in Birkenstocks, long hair, and maybe some nerdy glasses. You know these guys. These are the men we went to grad school with, shared apartments with, read Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, and bell hooks with. They eschewed virile formulas of manliness, embraced gender theory and were okay crossing their legs at the knees if it was crowded in the conference room. Now they have grown up and inherited the power positions at universities around the country, and, lacking real world experience as the discriminated, many of them have lost the sense of urgency they once felt about the rights of women and the distrust they once had for the administration. Now they ARE the administration, if in a minor key. On our campus, we call the administration "The Men's Caucus." Upon arrival, Junior men are immediately and seamlessly made members of the Men's Caucus, invited to the all-male circles of power that spin the narratives of our professional lives in the lunch club, the wine club, the tennis group, Friday night basketball, Monday night poker.

To tell the truth, as I struggle through my Survivor-like work environment, male colleagues have often been my biggest supporters. Two years ago I was a junior faculty member in an autocratic and unforgiving departmental environment that was well known as one that destroyed it's own young. I was the oppressed woman confronting my male oppressor, a senior colleague whose behavior and demeanor sent women around him back to the kitchen to make his coffee and fetch his metaphorical pipe. This aging Lothario, let's call him Lord Robespierre, was often seen bopping around in biker shorts, no shirt, and a cap worn backwards (a la hip hop), or swaggering into meetings ten minutes late wearing a huge, black cowboy hat. His self-styling, bespeaking a hyper-masculine posture and a desire for stark gender distinctions, emulated three of our most extreme forms of embodied virility: the jock, the cowboy, and the hip-hop gangster musician. My negotiations with Lord Robespierre were always easier and more successful when I honored his role as mentor, protector, patron, father, leader, and Don Juan. Lord Robespierre liked to make comments about our secretary's weight problem and referred to our retired women colleagues as "dingbats." When one of the junior women got pregnant, he claimed in her written department review that her pregnancy had affected her job performance. At one of my first faculty dinners, he tipped back several glasses of wine and asked if I would be dancing on the table.

Unfortunately, our soft-spoken, measured, diplomatic dean did not take seriously the women who came forward with complaints about life in the kingdom of Lord Robespierre. Instead, the dean, (let's call him Sir So UnJust, just for fun), read women as damsels in distress to be rescued and then sent on their way with promises of inheritance, departmental ownership and pats on the head for good measure. But alas, in the end Sir So UnJust returned the women colleagues to the oppressor's fiefdom, unwilling to betray the code of male privilege and loyalty that works to keep women distressed and in constant competition with each other for validation from the male power structure. Maybe his loyalty to Lord Robespierre is rooted in some repressed nostalgia for the swaggering patriarch, or maybe he is overcompensating for his own imagined inadequacies when measured against the absent, yet longed-for virile authoritarian. Maybe sometimes the Birkenstock liberal yearns for a pair of cowboy boots and a Camel no-filter.

Aubrey Beardsley illustrationI managed to live through years of torment by self-centered, self-important, yet mediocre senior colleagues who eventually did grant me tenure, on the strength of my credentials, but to this day, old men roaming the halls tell tales of how the dean "saved" my job, or of how some other man was instrumental in my rescue. I might as well have been wearing a pointed pink hat and waving a hankie out the window of a medieval stone tower. In the patriarchal grand narrative, I was the damsel in distress. I began to wonder if I could ever emerge from this male tale.

The damsel in distress is a motif in the seventeenth century plays we read in my Golden Age literature class this semester. In these comedies, the women characters must negotiate their positions in an oppressive patriarchy that defines them as objects to be adored, possessed, protected, and rescued by the men, whose honor, virility, and social status derive form the women-objects they control. Wait a minute, I kept thinking . . . I've heard this story before . . .. Woman plays to the men in power by assuming roles that highlight and affirm male strength, and by disavowing the facets of her identity that are deemed threatening, irritating, or downright hysterical by the reigning paradigm. We shape each other's behavior by rewarding and withholding, by subtly voting for the parts of each other we like best. With many male colleagues, my damsel in distress routine is their favorite performance--some wouldn't even call to talk unless there was a crisis on the table. In fact, on only a handful of occasions in a decade did a male colleague sincerely express interest in my scholarship, my intellectual searching, or my teaching.

There is a multifarious and indefatigable pressure to be read as a damsel in distress, and, let's be fair, if women don't recognize our own participation in this system, then we preclude the possibility of creating new roles for ourselves, ones that do not require pointy hats or being tied to railroad tracks. How many of us let our need for substantiation from the powerful (all male, at least in my corner of academia) push us to create problems for our knights to solve? What will my professional future look like if I refuse to play the damsel in distress? I don’t want to play the women's roles we see in the formulaic Hollywood films like Pretty Woman, Maid in Manhattan, or Father of the Bride, but I don't want to end up playing roles like Monster or Thelma and Louise, either. I'm not ready for homicide or jumping off a cliff.

The Women's Caucus is the first step to a future of better roles for women on my campus. Let us build alliances with our women cohorts and reject the paradigm that would have us compete against each other for male approval. We must forge alliances strategically and deliberately and resist the immense pressure to accept prescribed roles that promise us "success" even as we are systematically excluded from the power structure that defines success and failure.



Ruby Caprio is the pseudonym of an ex-damsel and associate professor of Spanish at a midwestern, private university.

Illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley.