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Episodes: Stay woke


Emily VanDerWerff

May 12 2016

8 min read



I didn't realize I was a feminist; I just was one. Of course, getting to the point where I would say so took some doing.

I spent a lot of my life not wanting to be described by the term. Of course I thought men and women were equal, but feminists were... you know.

I grew up in a community where the idea that Bill Clinton might consult his wife on matters of policy was a shocking heresy, where as a child, I was told that if a woman was ever president, it would go against the explicit desires of God. So you can imagine what I thought feminists were for a lot of my life, including well into my 20s, after I'd moved away. Sure, I was cool with the idea of a woman president, and I valued my equal partnership with my wife. But I didn't, like, want to strap men to Roman candles and send them into the sky where they would explode. (Now, I'd totally be into that, but it has next to nothing to do with my feminism.)

But I didn't start this newsletter to Matt McGorry about my feminism; I started it to brag about my mom.

I doubt my mom would describe herself as a feminist either. She's against abortion rights (understandable for a woman who adopted two children and is a devout Christian), and I suspect that right there would be a deal breaker for her to label herself as one. But she taught me the single most important lesson men have to learn in order to make the journey toward understanding what it is to be a woman in America/this world.

In the sixth grade, school dances were these hugely anticipated events on the calendar. There were but four, and every single one of them was this thing that took up massive space in the imagination, every thought turning toward it when it was a week or so away. We were too young to have dates, so the dances tended to consist of the girls sitting on one side of the lunch room, and the guys sitting on the other, while kids from the high school played music on whichever stereo system one of them had been convinced to lug over. The only song guaranteed to get most of us out on the floor was AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." It was a weird school.

Anyway, the night of the winter dance that year was particularly fraught because my friend Aaron (as always, not his real name) was going to tell his next-door neighbor and life-long crush Whitney (same) that he was in love with her and always would be, and that was that. Aaron had the kind of personality where all of the boys in my class (of which there were nine) would get sucked into his pursuit, because he had this way of making you think you were the supporting player in his story, even if you suspected otherwise.

The night of the dance arrived, and Aaron dressed his spiffiest. He put on his dad's cologne. He strode up to the school with the rest of us, a gaggle of gangly awkwardness. It was, we all thought, a foolproof plan. I, at the time, flitted between crushes for a few weeks or even a few days at a time. They were ephemeral things, and most of my deepest ones (on sweet-natured geeky girls who made me laugh a lot) were ones I chased away because I thought I wasn't supposed to have crushes on them. But Aaron's crush on Whitney was different. He had had it since he was seven or eight. Surely, she would see the depth of his feeling.

Whitney didn't. In retrospect, the attractiveness disparity was too much, and Whitney was surprisingly mature, emotionally speaking, while Aaron was stuck back toward boyhood (the eternal peril of the 12-year-old guy), and she just didn't see him like that. That's what she said at least, when she rejected him the four times she rejected him that night. She valued their friendship. She thought he was really nice and really funny. But she liked somebody else. He would have to understand that.

He didn't. We had several long conversations about this, about a new strategy he could use to make her see that this was meant to be. None of those strategies worked. By the end of the night, she was avoiding him.

I was emotionally distraught. Even then, the thing I had the most faith in was narrative (though I would have called it God, whom I assumed was basically a gigantic movie director, putting all of humanity in position for the most effective story), and the narrative didn't end with the girl saying, "No thanks." When I got home, my mother was still up, doing her Bible study, in the soft glow of the lamp she kept by her chair. As is always true of mothers, she could tell I was upset, and she asked me about it.

I intended to keep my cool, but it tumbled out. Why didn't Whitney like Aaron? He liked her so much. It wasn't fair. If he liked her, she should like him back.

And she said all the usual things you say in that situation. That's not how it works. Sometimes, people just have disparate crushes, and that's too bad. There are other fish in the sea. That sort of thing. But as I kept pressing the point, she finally stopped me short, and I still remember her words exactly.

"No, Todd," she said. "Just because Aaron really likes Whitney doesn't mean she has to be with him. She gets to make her own choices. He doesn't get to make them for her."

It rocked me back on my heels a little bit. I'd like to say I learned the lesson in that instant, but it took many, many years to fully get it. Just because you viewed somebody as an important player in your story didn't mean they were obligated to become one. Everybody else has their own agency and desires.

As lessons in feminism go, this is not, like, learning about the systemic oppressions of the patriarchy. But I would argue it's the most important thing young boys (particularly young, white, straight boys) have to learn living in an America that constantly situates them at the center of all sorts of narratives. It's also one of the most difficult things to learn. You spend your entire life from birth forward being placed at the center of the story, and it's easy to just assume everybody looks at you that way when they see you. You might cede control to a close peer for a little while, but for the most part, you assume you're doing the driving.

And this is a lesson I still learn every day. Just a few weeks ago, my wife, amused, looked at me when I was talking about some sort of nonsense in our lives. "You think you're the protagonist, don't you?" she said, before adding with a satisfied grin, "You'd be a boring protagonist. I'm the protagonist." And you know what? She's right.

I doubt my mom thinks she was imparting a deep lesson in feminism to me, but it was a seed that eventually grew into something else entirely. What she said was rooted in her deep faith, in the idea that people deserve to be treated as autonomous beings, who are either siblings in Christ or potential siblings in Christ, who are worthy of our compassion and empathy, even when they hurt us. She was, gently, trying to help me understand that Whitney had a perspective on this story, too, and if I were somehow her friend, I might be saying very different things.

I think, sometimes, about the performative aspects of our current social media political culture, of the way that so much of it equals posturing, attempting to seem the most "woke," if you will. I think about how much ostracism I've seen this primary season, even within my own party, and how much is sure to come. I think about all of those jokes I've seen comparing Trump voters to the film Idiocracy. And I worry that, sometimes, we lose sight of the idea that the most powerful political force we have is the relationship, the conversation, the story. I worry about what some of these people might make of my friends back home, of my family, of my mom.

We are, none of us, idiots who need to be made to see straight. We are, all of us, searching for the lightswitch in the dark as best we can. It's easy to pretend to have the answers, to stay woke on Twitter, but if there's one thing my mother taught me that I still believe, it's that we are, all of us, sinners, and we are, none of us, without hope. There's a beauty and a terror in that, so long as we keep one eye on it.


Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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