One of the byproducts of immersing myself into researching Title IX is an altered personal tolerance for sex discrimination. More and more, I don’t. Tolerate it, that is. And that means letting go of some formerly cherished cultural reference points and practices. In this time of upheaval between the sexes, a lot of people may be experiencing something similar.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. People — and our society — change as we not only get our eyes opened to injustices but begin to empathize with those who suffer under them. The latter is more “woke” than the former. This can happen gradually as we grow and mature, but it’s more noticeable when the mental shifts startle us.
I’ve been a big Shakespeare fan since I was a teenager. I considered writing a senior thesis on Shakespeare in college. I’ve picnicked on the grass at countless summer Shakespeare performances. Recently, though, I said goodbye to Shakespeare after my immersion into sexual assault issues collided with a performance of Romeo and Juliet.
In Act I, Scene IV Romeo’s pals Mercutio and Benvolio sexually bully Juliet’s Nurse, as Romeo and even the Nurse’s servant Peter do nothing or join in on what they see as good-old-boy fun. Mercutio calls her ugly, immediately starts throwing out bawdy “jokes” about pricks, and circles her singing a taunting song repeatedly implying that she’s a cheap whore. In the production I saw, Mercutio and Benvolio grab at her clothes and body and push her around, laughing, making it clear that they could do what they want with her, if they wanted. The Nurse, terrified, cries out for help, pushing them away and yelling for them to “Stop!”
The audience showed no reaction. No one seemed at all disturbed by what they were watching.
Mercutio and Benvolio finally leave, and the distraught Nurse asks Romeo who is this jerk Mercutio. Romeo shrugs off the assault, describing Mercutio as a “gentleman” who just likes the sound of his own voice. No big deal, right? Clearly upset, Nurse rails against Mercutio. “Scurvy knave, I am none of his flirt-gills [loose women],” she protests. Turning to Peter, she blasts him for betraying her. “And thou must stand by too and suffer every knave to use me at his pleasure!”
Peter, unperturbed, just sees this as an opening to join in the sexual double-entendres at Nurse’s expense in a gaslighting response: “I saw no man use you at his pleasure; if I had, my weapon should quickly have been out. I warrant you, I dare draw as soon as another man, if I see occasion in a good quarrel, and the law on my side.”
Nurse tries to convey to them how it feels: “Now, afore God, I am so vex’d that every part about me quivers. Scurvey knave!”
But the show must go on, so Nurse composes herself and everyone else pretends that this was just a little comedic scene in a bigger romantic tragedy.
If you know Shakespeare, you know that scenes like this populate many of his plays. Granted, they reflect the powerless position of women in his time. But after finally seeing how the widespread adulation of his work normalized the behavior for the audience, I’m no longer willing to spend my precious time in uncritical acceptance of the Shakespeare industrial complex. There are better plays to be watched and to build traditions around. There, I said it, heresy or not.
Master of not me
A more recent example: I’ve enjoyed past seasons of Aziz Ansari’s hit comedy series, Master of None. Sure, the whiny pushiness of his character when he showed sexual interest in a woman irritated me, but I let it slide in order to enjoy other parts of the show. After reading the anonymous account by “Grace” of Ansari’s sexist behavior on a real-life date, though, I can’t unsee it as a problem. The tendencies of his sitcom character to normalize this kind of widespread behavior are too obvious now. I wish Ansari well in hopes he grows from all this. Maybe even incorporates that growth into scripts. That may be watched by others. Not me.
Sometimes a bigoted notion
Last year when I traveled to Oregon to study the papers of Title IX’s author, Rep. Edith Green, I re-read a favorite novel from decades ago, Sometimes a Great Notion, by Oregonian Ken Kesey. There was a time when I considered it a masterpiece. Oh, sure, I remember noting the sexist and racist story lines, but mentally I set those aside on first read in order to appreciate the rest of it. Not this time. I’m embarrassed they didn’t bother me more the first time around. They sure do now.
Um, what about Title IX?
Many people who graduate from a high school, college, or university leave with a fondness for that institution and even similar schools and colleges. We like to think that administrators there are doing their best to educate young people. After studying the long history of repeated Title IX violations, I no longer believe athletics directors at many schools and colleges who say they support Title IX and women’s sports but still try to protect the football team by doing less for girls and women. I no longer trust administrators who repeat, “We take this very seriously” after the latest charge of sexual harassment or assault.
When audiences start to “Boo” incidental sexual assaults in Shakespeare’s plays, I’ll consider going back. I’ll be watching TV shows or reading books that more accurately reflect the experiences of women and people of color instead of some supposed masterpieces that may be more popular at present. I’ve tossed my rose-colored glasses in viewing educational institutions.
I’ll miss all of these, on some levels. It’s a loss. But a less sexist future is much more exciting. I’m looking forward to further change, and hoping my book will help that along.