This Game Is Not Zero-Sum

When topics like equality, particularly as it applies to women and LGBTQ people, come up, it’s almost inevitable that someone will blame a lack of “morals and standards” in society for all of the problems we face.

In America, this person usually is referring to some variation of Christian patriarchal “morals and standards”. You know – the same system that perpetrates and perpetuates the very discrimination that keeps all people from being equal here (I’m hardly saying it’s the only one, just the most powerful in this country).

To many of us, this is anything but moral.

When you are talking specifically about female equality, the conversation often turns to things like how competitive women can be with each other, and how it’s women who are keeping women down. There is a point there – women can be extremely destructive towards each other and it’s something we all need to work on. However, there are two reasons this is a symptom, not the root problem:

  1. Men are just as competitive with each other, just more willing to turn around and help each other when the dust settles.
  2. Women have spent eons living under systems where the only power they could hope to gain came from marrying up, and it taught women that life is a zero-sum game.

This behavior is encouraged constantly throughout childhood. Girls are taught, “Stab her in the back before she stabs you,” and to never share their secrets with their friends, lest they become weapons wielded by a clever power-seeker.

Of course, you should be careful with your trust, but what a lonely way to go about life it would be without any trust at all. Vulnerability is one of the keys to any successful relationship. It took me well into adulthood to form true female friendships, because of this fear of vulnerability instilled by not just my school peers, but adults who encouraged the behavior, giving well-meaning but ultimately toxic advice.

“Don’t ever let them know you are a geek.” I can’t remember the first time I heard something along these lines, it was very early on in my socialization, and was said using many different terms and phrases. I do clearly remember the last time I was told precisely these words directly, though – by someone with a lot of power in the music business who was trying to give me the best career advice he could, based on his decades of experience. No one meant simply, “Hide your interests in geeky things.” No. They meant, “Don’t let anyone see how smart you are.”

Choosing to use my brain, since I’m female, meant that I was probably going to wind up single, bitter, and maybe even with a lot of cats. I certainly wasn’t going to attract an audience that way, let alone a husband or friends. The people who told me to hide my brain and curiosity really did want the best for me – but their version.

“That’s just how girls are.” Every time I was upset about being hurt by a female friend, someone would say this in a very kind voice, often with a pat on the shoulder or a hug. It’s sort of a corollary to, “Life isn’t fair,” but with a gendered slant that fed into my nascent dislike of other girls. It suggested that men could be trusted and women can not. I can’t think of anything more untrue.

People can’t always be trusted. People. It’s important to learn that early, but it’s just as important to recognize that this is a human issue, not a gendered one. Looking back, I was hurt almost equally by boys and girls, and I hurt them equally, too (I think, hard to know for sure). Human beings can hurt each other intentionally, unintentionally, and through inaction. That’s just part of life and, as you grow up, you have to learn, through experience, how to protect yourself as well as how to be better at recognizing your own patterns that can hurt others.

So, why did I spend so many years only angry at the girls for these behaviors? Well-meaning advice from adults who cared. “That’s just how girls are.” Pat. Hug.

“Women are manipulative.” They certainly can be. After all, again, women are human. One of the hallmark traits of abusive behavior is manipulation through psychological or physical behavior, though, and when you apply gender to abuse statistics, it becomes pretty clear that it’s a not-so-rare thing for a man to do. As far as I can tell, the main difference is that a man is more likely to get physical while a woman is more likely to keep it psychological.

Note that I say “more likely”. Statistics are what they are, they show patterns, not individual stories.

When your autonomy is largely removed, as is the case for women when patriarchal systems are strong, what else can you do? Manipulation is the only way to gain some power without risking your lifestyle, livelihood, or even your life. Women pass these skills down through the generations, just like any hard-gained knowledge.

Manipulation can be a survival skill. It can also be what causes you to need a certain set of survival skills.

“Women dress for each other, not for men.” Again, there is just enough truth in there to make this dangerous. Ideally, you should dress for yourself. Reality means you often have to “dress a part” – for example, dressing according to your work rules and/or culture. We often hang out with people who dress in a similar manner, birds of a feather. We use fashion to convey all kinds of messages about ourselves, and one of the joys of this era is a lot more freedom to use fashion in this way. In the past, people tended to dress fairly alike (and were sometimes even required to by sumptuary laws), but the end of the 20th century brought a new ethos, one that allows each of us to pick and choose from the past and present as well as from a wide variety of current options to create a personal style.

One of the great moments of The Devil Wears Prada (both book and movie)was when Miranda (the overbearing fashion magazine editor-in-chief) gives Andy (her fashion-unconscious new assistant) a dressing-down over her dismissal of fashion as something that affects her or is worth all the time, energy, and money being spent. Miranda spews a history of the shade of blue Andy is wearing, how it first showed up on a runway and gradually trickled down to, “Some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.” When I read that speech it completely changed how I viewed fashion. I’m a very expressive person who just never cared about my clothes before, suddenly I saw this chore of finding clothes and dressing in a whole new light – my body a canvas for showing off my moods and opinions, using other people’s art to create my own and put it on display.

You know what? I know perfectly well that I will be judged for what I wear – by all sorts of people. The same outfit will garner both praise and disgust. The same mid-thigh-length skirt will be considered both “slutty” and “prudish”. The same jeans will be viewed as too-tight by some and too baggy by others. The same silly T-shirt will elicit giggles and condemnation. Dressing for the public at large is impossible.

You know what my fashion choices never, ever are? An invitation to treat me poorly. They are not a reason to assume I am not competent at something, they definitely do not convey my sexual interest in you (or lack thereof), and most of all, they are not even slightly an excuse for harassment or rape.

It’s unrealistic to think that we will ever truly not care about someone wears unless there comes a day when every human being in the universe wears exactly the same uniform, accessories included. It is not unrealistic to expect that people should be treated equally regardless.

There seems to be a lot of confusion over the term “equality” these days. According to the Oxford American Dictionary, it means: “The state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities.” That’s it.

How could it possibly be moral to be against that?

For every stereotype I have ever encountered, I know of at least one exception. People are deliciously surprising and most of us are eligible for many labels, not just one. Sometimes those labels even look contradictory on paper. Sometimes those labels are completely hidden from view, too, tucked away like a T-shirt tag.

Amongst musicians there is an old piece of wisdom about how music isn’t about the notes you play, it’s about the moments in-between. People are like that, too. It’s the stuff squished between the obvious bits that makes us individuals.

I’d much rather live in a world where people are free to be open about who they are, without fear of discrimination or violence, from the big sweeping labels to the little personal details. Not only would it be a safer and more pleasant way to live for everyone, it makes life more interesting.

If there is anything that ties all people together, it is a desire to find personal fulfillment. Women have more opportunities in more parts of the world than ever before, but in order to fully take advantage of them and spread them to more women, we need to let go of these old well-intentioned arguments that divide us psychically. We need to recognize these double standards that make these behaviors appear gendered for the falsehoods they are. At the very least, we need to make “Mean Girls” a thing we grow out of when we are no longer girls – to recognize that we have the power to check our thoughts and consider whether they are just conditioned responses.

Personal success is no longer a zero-sum game for women, quite the opposite. Studies on gender and politics have shown that the perception of women in power changes dramatically after one woman has a certain position (source: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn). Girls who are interested in math and science often cite a lack of visible female role models as a factor in dropping out of STEM education programs. Companies with women on their boards of directors and in upper management positions are more likely to look for female rising stars and give them the support they need to perform their best.

The success of an individual woman paves the way for those coming up behind her while also inspiring others to even consider such a path. If she reaches down to help pull more women up, there can be more hands reaching down towards the next group. One woman’s success combined with working together with other women has an exponential effect over time. It’s a shame when we allow playground sexism to color our views of working with women as adults. Another woman’s success is more likely to aid your own than be your obstacle.

There certainly can be issues between women. No one will deny that. Is that our biggest collective problem? No. Is it something we can purposefully change? Maybe. We can look at our own thoughts and behaviors and work to modify them, and we can educate the people we encounter. Even if you don’t change minds directly, maybe you can at least get someone thinking from a fresh perspective.

Changing someone else’s mind is hard. Changing your own is hard. While you can’t help what you have been taught by others, especially in childhood, you do have a choice over whether to accept those lessons. When we root out and let go of these ingrained but incorrect notions that are harming both ourselves and others, we can become part of the solution.

Yes, we could use more morals and standards – morals that fit into a modern society, like tolerance and equal opportunity for all, and standards that are not of the double kind.

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