Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Claws and Fangs - An Allegory Of Privilege

A few years ago, a comedy movie called Swingers told the story of a group of men who went to bars and picked up chicks.  This clip is SFW, though with some use of the F-bomb:

Please set aside all nuances of sexism that may or may not be in this scene or in my extrapolation.  Do not be distracted by my overuse of the term "bunny".  Because that's not the point.  As Dr. Horrible said, "It's not a perfect analogy."

All men are money.  All men are big bears with claws and fangs.  Some of them are batting bunnies around not knowing how to kill them, or even if they should.  Some are gently frolicking alongside the bunnies, having a great time.  Some are working with the bunnies, finding common causes, building upon each other's strengths and weaknesses to accomplish big-forest-things. (Stay with me here.)

A few bad bears know perfectly well that they have those claws and they go for the kill every time.

Bears have strengths that bunnies clearly do not.  Bunnies are small and weak and their claws are more like long toenails and their teeth are good for eating vegetables.  

The bear is privileged.  The bunny is not.  Whether the bear knows it or not does not change the fact that the bear is massive and strong and has claws and fangs.  Even nice bears still have those claws and fangs, and no matter how nice they are, they will not turn into a bunny.  If the bunny says to the bear, "My, what big fangs you have," she is not actually saying, "You're a stupid jerk evil bear who wants to kill me."  She is merely pointing out something the bear has that she does not.

In real life, most bears are actually more interested in eating berries than bunnies.  (The Black Bear here in Washington State is 85% vegetarian.)  So let's lie with statistics, and assume in this corny analogy that 85% of bears aren't at all interested in bunny-flesh.  15% of the bears will, like Mikey the Swinger in the above clip, learn to use those claws and fangs to intentionally kill every bunny they see.  
Mr. McNiceBear is representative of the majority of bears.  He is so money, and he doesn't even know it.  One day, he is rummaging around in the woods, minding his own business, looking for tasty roots.  

And then it happens -- he steps on a bunny.

And the bunny is squealing like a banshee and in pain and bleeding from huge claw marks all down her side.

Mr. McNiceBear says, "What's the matter?  I didn't do anything.  You should have gotten out of my way.  That doesn't hurt.  Stop whining."  

The bear is so money, and he doesn't even know it.

It's not the bear's fault that he has claws and fangs.  It's just how things are.  Only the most Radical Anti-Bear Bunnies blame the bear for being who he is.  Nevertheless, it is dangerous to be a bunny in a bear world, so the bunnies keep trying to explain.  They would really appreciate it if the nice bears would try to be more careful.  They only want the nice bears to realize just how money they really are.  

When Mr. McNiceBear accidentally steps on a bunny, instead of blaming the bunny, she wants him to apologize and ask if she's okay.  If the bear is confused, which is understandable, she wants him to ask, politely, for details.  She wants a chance to explain why the trampling hurt and where he should avoid stepping next time.  

And when the bunny points out she is tiny and has no claws and fangs, she would really love it if the nice bear would just believe her.

Sometimes the mean bears come.  They're the ones who know they're money.  They're going for the kill...   Sometimes they're not quite even mean... they're potentially-nice bears who are poking at the bunny.  

This is Mr. McNiceBear's time to shine.  If he's been paying attention to the bear-bunny dynamic, he can step in and tell the mean bears to lay off.  He can tell the potentially-nice-batting-bunnies-around-bears to lay off.  He could explain to the other bears, whether nice or mean or in-between, that the bunnies don't have claws and fangs.  

But all too often, Mr. McNiceBear doesn't know what's going on, because he hasn't been listening to the bunnies.  He doesn't see all the claws and fangs swinging about, like the bunny does.  And all too often, Mr. McNiceBear wants to impress the other bears.

So he stays silent.

Some of the bunnies are sick of it, and they talk amongst themselves and try to make changes, and all the bears, even the nice ones, fight them tooth and nail.  Yet in spite of this, over time, the bunnies finally manage to make a few things better.  They got some rules passed a while back to force bears to be more careful while walking on trails, and they bring about some awareness of non-consensual bunny killings.  

And the bears say to the bunnies, even the nice bears, say, "You got what you wanted.  You should have claws and fangs now.  You can finally stop complaining." 

And the bunnies look at their paws and think, "No... no, these are still just glorified toenails."  Things have changed, but they have only changed a little bit.

If it's not clear, the bears represent men, and the bunnies are women.

Privilege is naturally ignorant of itself.  It's only human, to take for granted all the cool things we have.  We take it so for granted, that we assume everyone has the same things we have.  And if they don't have it, it must be their fault.  Or they must be lying.  Or overreacting.  We fear that to accept our own privilege is to accept some kind of guilt.  No one wants to be a bad person.

Privileged people aren't evil.  I have plenty of privileges as a woman that, say, a black man does not.  It doesn't make me a bad person.  I was born this way, into a system I did not consent to.  No amount of guilt or gnashing of my teeth will change that.  But I do have power over one thing in this screwed up world:  I do not have to remain ignorant of that privilege.  I do not have to deny it.  To do so means I continue to unintentionally harm to fellow human beings.

There are certainly men who know they are privileged over women and they use it as a weapon.  But most men do not know they are privileged.  They are nice men, good people.  Or they try to be.  But now and then, they accidentally hurt women without knowing why.  

A nice man in this position may get defensive.  It is understandable, if he can't see the privilege he has.  It feels to him as if he is being attacked for no reason.  He doesn't think he's a bad person, but suddenly, here is someone who seems to be saying he is a bad person.

But really, the woman isn't saying he's bad.  Just that he needs to notice some of the advantages she doesn't have, and that he needs to be more careful.  His continual missteps are very painful, and his denial of the female experience is even worse.  

Like most men, he doesn't mean to harm women.  But he does.  He is so money, and he doesn't even know it.

There is a third kind of man.  A rare kind of man that I appreciate so much.  He is aware of his privilege and is willing to pay real attention to the experiences of women and acknowledge that it is quite different from that of men.  He realizes that women are experts on women, and that if he really wants to what women are so upset about, maybe he can go to the experts and learn.

He's learned many of the ways that women get trampled, oppressed, abused, bullied, belittled, gaslit, demeaned, paid unfairly, harassed, and ignored.  He has empathized.  He's on our side, not just in intention, but in action.  

These men sometimes still make mistakes.  And the women around them appreciate that they acknowledge their mistakes rather than deny them.  We appreciate that they defend us to other men who are ignorant, and especially to the men who are just plain mean.

That's what most feminists really want.  We want the well-intentioned men to stop getting so defensive.  We will think more highly of you if you learn how to stop trampling on bunnies by accident.  And when you do misstep, to just say, "I'm sorry," and "Please help me understand why that was painful."

You're like a big bear, man.  We know you're a nice bear.  Just watch how you're using those claws.


  1. this is fantastic. Thank you, dealing with a well intentioned ignorant guy who rushes to defend so quickly, and I'm trying to help him understand a portion of the female experience.

  2. That's my gibberish top up for the day. Was running low. Thankyou.